The holiday season hits around the same time many a sportsman starts thinking about drilling holes in the ice for giant pike and walleyes. This is also the time of a year that a few deer hunters have probably vowed to sell all their gear due to the frustration of a busted bow season. Don't deny it; we know you've thought it. Of course, when the frustration dies down, there will be plenty of good arguments for keeping that equipment.
I'm not here to tell you that late season hunting is easy. But if you've had a rough deer season, maybe you're even eating tag soup; late season deer hunting is a good way to get back to the woods and have some fun!
Rethinking the Zone
Did the gun season kill your hot spots? There are a handful of hidden gems throughout the country, but few rocks are left unturned when the smoke poles hit the woods. That isn't to say a hot spot is dead, but often, it means rethinking how deer use it.
Let's say a mature buck frequently traveled the lip of a steep draw. You caught him doing it many times on trail cam, but couldn't seem to connect before the end of bow season. The gun season arrives, and now there is no sign of that buck.
After the gun season, you cross that draw to pull your trail cam. When you look below, there is a small section of underbrush, and the hill is just steep enough to block your view below for about fifty yards. That short distance leads to cover too thick to see into. Upon review, there are large tracks and the makings of a faint trail. If you were to mark the spot and climb back up the hill, you'd likely find that you can't see that trail.
People pressure doesn't make deer change zip codes. Deer adapt, and they find ways to live in a comfortable environment. A rethinking approach to your favorite spots in late season is the best strategy for dialing yourself back in.
Snow, Snow, and more Snow
Do you have a friend who enjoys scraping ice off their car and shoveling their driveway? Me neither! There are snow enthusiasts, like people who ski, snowboard, or ice climb. But deer hunters shouldn't be too hasty to be grumpy about snowfall.
Snow in the late season shows a far better picture of what is happening in the woods. Guessing the age of deer beds is much more accurate. Beds found in the snow could even tell a story of what happened in the last hour or two.
The fresher the snow, the better, but even old snow can give you good clues. Is there freshly dug snow around the tracks and beds? Have the edges of hoove prints melted and become ice, indicating an older track? Did new snow covering old sign give you clues? What about food sources? Rooting areas that show old, newer, and latest sign could mean deer are in that zone daily.
Willy-Nilly Food Sources
Speaking of food sources, how do deer feed in the winter? Food sources can be tough to hone down this time of year, but when you've got a grasp on concentrations of browse it becomes much easier. A good strategy is to pick three browse sources to learn and concentrate your effort. On a good acorn year, red oak acorns shine. Sans acorns, green briar, beech nuts, field waste soybeans, waste corn, and fern bulbs are some great staples, to name a few.
Use a cell cam, live observation, or investigate sign to tell you if you're on the right track. During the late season, deer often stick to the same food source until it's gone. Remember that fluctuating weather patterns (warm one day, cold the next) can make them shift what they might prefer, maybe even the time of day they move. Don't get stuck in a rut! Think outside the box daily.
Ten to two! Seem like a theme? Deer use midday hours for different reasons. In the rut, bucks cruise all day looking for love. In gun season, midday movement helps deer avoid pressure because most hunters are back at camp eating lunch. In the late season, midday movement is tied to metabolism. Deer burn fewer calories feeding during the warmest time of day. Plus, their metabolism is slowing down to adapt to harsh conditions. Plenty of awesome hunts occur during this time frame.
Of course, it never hurts to start early and end late. But a little extra sleep and a filled tag can be the experience that keeps gear from being sold at the end of the season.
Specific Deer Habits
We can't talk about hunting a late season buck without talking about historical data. If a mature buck's habits are well known, this is a good time of year to chase him down! Bucks are shifting back to home ranges, but their core area may shift slightly to compensate for cold weather and proximity to food.
Consider the cover in a buck's home turf. What terrain features will help block the wind but give him more manageable access to food? Remember, a smart buck will still bed further from food than does do, but he will probably be comfortable closer than expected.
The late season isn't for the faint of heart. It's freezing; it still takes patience and a lot of determination. But if you're not ready to trade in your empty tags for winter sports, ice, fishing, or the snowmobile, get out there and enjoy the woods and less pressure. Take the time to hone your skills and learn more about the animals you're hunting. There's a little twinkle about late season hunting that gets us back to the basics. Sometimes, that's just what the doctor ordered.
(cover photo credit, Rich Yoder IG: @bo_yoder)
Author: Aaron Hepler, Exodus Black hats team member.