Photo by Jim Casada.
It’s unfortunately the case for too many deer hunters that, deep in December, it’s opening weekend they want to remember. To be sure, the glory days of the opener — its hunter’s moon waxing and waning, velvety dawn fogs giving way to mornings cold with a million frost diamonds sparkling in the early sun — is a glorious time in the world of the whitetail hunter.
Yet those with the right sort of mindset, patience and persistence can find that December as well can be a delightful time to hunt. Here are five tips, each linked to specific types of hunting techniques, that should help you extend your whitetail season, increase your likelihood of late-season success, and, we hope, put venison on your family’s table.
LATE-SEASON FOOD SOURCES
Their hormone-fueled mating-season behaviors being a noteworthy exception, deer are essentially what they eat. Most hunters recognize this to some degree, and you’ll hear plenty of pre-season discussion about oak mast, the odd year when there’s cause for celebration thanks to beechnuts “making,” and mention of the more prominent types of “deer candy” (soft mast) such as persimmons and muscadines. By December, though, you can pretty well count on every acorn adorning the forest floor having long since been eaten, wild grapes having come and gone, and deer turning of necessity to different foodstuffs. Knowledge of these late-season delicacies and their availability can make a real difference in your hunting.
A good starting point would be two fairly widespread types of soft mast that are certainly appealing to whitetails. Deer absolutely love the pods of honey locust trees, and munch daintily on both the seeds and the sweet “meat” found in these long, crescent-shaped fruits.
Unlike nut trees and most types of soft-mast sources, which tend to drop their fruits in late September or October, honey locusts hold on to their pods long after the first frosts. It’s common to see outlined against the winter sky a thorn-laden tree whose limbs are totally bare of fronds but festooned with thousands of hanging pods clinging on tenaciously. All it takes to send them tumbling to the ground, however, is a good December nor’easter, and if you can be suitably situated near a honey locust tree after the wind-loosened bonanza tumbles to the ground, you’ll be in great shape.
Interestingly, you can often find other types of soft mast, albeit not in the same quantities as honey locust pods, this late in the year. Persimmons, for example, can cling to trees with surprising stubbornness, and fall sporadically from mid-October right into December. Find trees still holding some of the sticky-sweet orange globes, and chances are mighty good that deer will check them out.
Precisely the same holds true for what old-timers used to call “winter apples,” those species such as Staymans and Winesaps that keep well and sometimes hold on trees quite late. If you’re fortunate enough to have access to an old homeplace where some apple trees still stand, a commercial orchard, in which some fruit is invariably overlooked by pickers, or maybe just a tree or two out in a pasture somewhere, be sure to check them out. If fruit’s in the neighborhood, deer will find it.
Then there’s the matter of browse. Deer seem to turn to certain types of browse only after a number of frosts have occurred. Anyone who’s experimented with planting brassicas in food plots soon learns that those varieties don’t have much appeal for deer until cold weather enhances their sweetness; similarly, whitetails love honeysuckle that has been touched by frost.
If large patches of this invasive import from the Orient grow on the land you hunt, give some thought to doing some “stealth” management on it in late summer. You can carry a bag or two of fertilizer into the fields and woods and do a bit of highly specialized “farming” by scattering it around honeysuckle without anyone else knowing. The additional nutrition and succulence will appeal to deer — and give you a great place to locate a stand late in the season.
Speaking of farming: Don’t overlook the magnetic appeal of fields of standing corn. Deer may pay them relatively little attention while white oak acorns and persimmons are plentiful on the ground and lush food plots fertilized into verdant visions beckon them, but once the acorns are gone and your quarry has developed a healthy dose of fear of heavily hunted food plots, look to those cornfields.
Agricultural food sources in general merit your attention; farmers may not intend to raise crops for deer, but whitetails benefit from them all the same, and the hunter can thus benefit from them, too. In particular, be alert to the fact that deer — bucks especially — tend to be far more nocturnal in their habits now than a few weeks earlier, and can be caught easing into such feeding spots at dusk and out of them at first light.
WORKING WITH THE WEATHER
With days whose portions of sunlight are the shortest of the year, December is notorious for unpredictable weather. The month frequently brings prolonged rainfall, and often sees the first heavy snows. The gloom so often associated with the month’s lean, mean times frequently offers a hunter all the excuse needed to stay home curled up in a favorite chair close to a comforting fire — and that’s understandable: The leap from a comfy recliner to a tiny seat atop a wind-blistered lock-on stand is a big one.
Yet it only takes one glorious opportunity, a momentary squeeze of the trigger followed by an overwhelming sense of triumph, to convince you that the latter place is precisely where you want to be.
You can profit from adverse weather in several ways. For starters, make every effort to hunt during periods of bitter cold. The colder it is, the more the deer have to move and feed. Fortunately, modern hunter attire is designed to enable you to stay in the deer’s element at such times without being uncomfortable.
Another example of weather’s potential to be your ally is revealed when a prolonged spell of driving rain finally breaks. If deer have been bedded down and enduring the wet misery as well as possible, you can count on them to be up and moving once a strong front drives the clouds away and high skies and sunshine take over. Deer need to feed, certainly, but it’s also as if, like humans, they want to celebrate the return of good weather. Study weather systems, and don rain gear if nece
ssary — but be there when skies turn fair.
HELP FROM OTHER HUNTERS
Late in the season, you generally face less competition from other hunters than is the case in the weeks immediately following opening day. But it’s worth remembering that those hardy souls who do persist can actually be your unwitting allies. Typically, those who do venture into the field at this point in the season do so only for a couple of hours in the morning or late in the afternoon. Yet their movements — leaving stands at midmorning or moving to them in midafternoon — can work to your advantage. When doing this, hunters often spook deer, and if you have sufficient gumption to stay in place later in the morning or get there earlier in the afternoon, others may move a buck your way.
Better still (although it may seem to be asking a lot), give some thought to spending all day in a stand. If careful scouting tells you that a fine buck uses a given area on a regular basis, your single best bet for coming to grips with the animal is to outplay it at the waiting game. Make sure that you have a comfortable stand, suitable clothing, plenty of food and water, and a position in which the wind’s right; then, just settle into place and do your level best to stay alert. Sooner or later, what veterans describe as “building time” will pay handsome dividends.
This may come about simply because you played the waiting game well, but there’s also the quite real possibility of other hunters serving, in effect, as “drivers” who spook a deer and move it your way. The disturbance might involve driving an ATV to cover part of the distance to a stand or to retrieve a downed whitetail, or nothing more than walking to or from a hunting spot, or engaging in some other type of human business. Whatever the case may be — and this is especially true if you belong to a club or hunt on public land where there is considerable pressure — make a point of studying how the activities of others can give you an advantage.
THE VANISHING ART OF STILL-HUNTING
Although we commonly describe climbers, lock-ons, ladder stands, and even shooting houses with the catchall term “stands,” the truth of the matter is that a more accurate word would be “sits” — because, with the exception of archers, sitting is the normal posture for those aloft or in blinds. Few of us stop to consider that hunting from an elevated position is pretty much a development associated with the last couple of generations; up to then, almost all hunting was done afoot, and was described as “still-hunting.”
The approach still has considerable appeal. For starters, it’s a proactive approach, in that the hunter doesn’t wait for the deer to come to him but rather takes the action to the deer. Mind you, successful still-hunting puts emphasis on a set of skills that are by no means essential to hunting in a fixed position, most of which revolve around woodscraft. It’s important to look and listen much more than you move; silence is truly golden. Factors such as working against the wind and using natural cover to good advantage are also part of the equation.
In some cases, fitness may enter the picture as well. For example, a highly skilled hunter acquaintance of mine, Joe Scarborough, thinks nothing of covering eight or 10 miles in a day of hunting, and if he finds promising sign in an area, he’ll sometimes stay overnight, using a couple of MPI space blankets, high-energy food, and water he carries with him in a day pack to tide him over. He’s masterful in the woods, as you might expect from a fellow who did three tours of duty in Vietnam as a sniper. However, most of us can’t hope to match his stealth and overall level of woodsmanship.
Nonetheless, going it on foot deserves some special caution, especially where you aren’t likely to interfere with other hunters, or where getting “back of beyond” makes toting a climbing stand a virtual impossibility. Still-hunting is also a smart way to ease into bedding areas or places where hard-pressed deer seek refuge, or even through vast fields of standing corn. It’s different, and done right, it’s demanding, but it can be a pure delight.
SPECIAL TACTICS FOR NOCTURNAL DEER
As has already been noted, whitetails in general and big bucks in particular show a pronounced tendency to do most of their feeding at night in the latter portions of the season. Yet you can take a number of steps to help you get around this behavioral pattern.
One involves what a longtime hunting buddy of mine calls “getting up close and personal.” He studiously avoids bedding areas until the last week or so of the season, not wanting to disturb the deer that he knows are using them. As December’s days dwindle, he eases into these spots in an effort, as he put it “to get right amongst them.”
Basically, he slips into thickets, finds a place from which he can see a trail for 40 or 50 yards, and checks the wind; then he just sits down and waits. Deer in the area that he hunts almost always bed down in thickets affording no place in which to position an elevated stand. Besides, he noted, “They are sure to hear you shinnying up a tree.”
Another possibility lies in a technique that I’ve found quite rewarding over the years: Hunt approaches to food plots rather than the actual food plots themselves. Often, December deer are en route to these whitetail restaurants well before last light — they just don’t venture out into the open until the light is gone. Your challenge is to identify their travel routes and intercept them while there is still shooting light.
This tactic requires considerable local knowledge: bedding areas, travel corridors, prevailing wind direction, and the like. It also put a premium on getting stands suitably situated without being intrusive. But if deer are obviously still using a given food plot and aren’t there in daylight hours, moving to a position enabling you to cut ‘em off at the pass makes perfectly good sense.
Finally, don’t overlook trying a variation on the traditional man-drive. You work with a buddy, one of you getting into a strategic position while the other glides slowly through prime cover. The idea here is to push deer into leaving their beds rather than to spook them into a dead run, thus getting shot opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t present themselves.
The downside to this approach is that you can’t employ the method more than once or twice in a given location before deer decide they have urgent business elsewhere. Yet in the depths of December, with the days you can hunt dwindling down to a precious few, it deserves consideration.
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And there you have it: a bevy of late-season pointers that you might want to add to your bag of deer-hunting tricks. Plainly, none are applicable for all situations, but chances are good that some of them have the potential to work for you no matter where you enjoy the wonders of the whitetail quest.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer who firmly believes in being a hunter for all seasons. For information on his books relating to deer hunting and venison cookery, or for a free subscription to his monthly e-newsletter, visit his Web site, www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.