The Deer Of December

If you've still got a North Dakota deer permit in your pocket, this veteran of late-season bowhunting has some tips to help you fill it. (December 2005)

The author poses with just one of the rewards of his late-December bowhunting. Bragging-grade bucks can be taken in North Dakota this month, but special stealth tactics will be required.
Photo by Curt Wells

Dakota bowhunters experienced in their sport know that there are essentially three distinct deer seasons during any one fall: the early season, from September to mid-October; the pre-rut and rut, from mid-October to mid or late November; and the late season, comprising mostly December and/or early January.

If I were to rank them by degree of difficulty associated with tagging a good buck in each, the late season would be the hardest, followed by the early season; for obvious reasons, the rut would be the easiest.

What makes the late season so trying, particularly in North Dakota, is what precedes it: all the other seasons. For three months from the end of August through November, someone is pursuing deer pretty much all the time. Bowhunters, riflemen and those who enjoy hunting with a muzzleloader are all out there working to get a shot, so by December, those deer are hunt-weary, and more than wise to the game.

The bucks with a few years under their belts are especially affected by this prolonged hunting pressure. If one pokes his head out of heavy cover during daylight, it's because he either has been kicked out or is taking a chance in trying to rebuild fat reserves lost to the rutting season. He must pack on some calories if he hopes to get through the North Dakota winter.

But fear is stronger than hunger. And December deer are scared! Nothing's more nervous or jumpier than a late-season whitetail doe. (With the possible exception of a kudu cow in Africa -- but the kudu has to worry about assorted fangs and claws!)

That intense nervousness in late-season deer accordingly obliges you to hunt mistake-free. Blunder into their bedding area, or spook them off their feeding grounds, and chances are good that the deer will disappear. By the time you locate them again and discover their patterns of movement, the season could be over. It's imperative that you hunt carefully, not forcing the action, unless you get real aggressive. More on that later.

First, let's look at some of the conditions we face when bowhunting late-season deer in North Dakota

WINTER CONDITIONS

Sometimes winter arrives on the northern Great Plains in late October; sometimes it doesn't show up until after the archery deer season. And in this case, "winter" means "snow cover," the presence or absence of which will be crucial to your hunting strategy. In 2004, for instance, we didn't have much winter during the archery season, and that made the hunting more difficult than usual.

During open winters, North Dakota's deer don't "yard up." There's no need: Food and cover are everywhere. Deer tend to hang out wherever they were when the gun season ended, and that could be anywhere from large cattail sloughs to massive Conservation Reserve Program fields. Their movement patterns inconsistent, they go where they please, often traveling long distances between bedding and feeding areas.

Because they're traveling at will, and have no reason to seek heavy cover, you'll have to work harder at getting in front of them. No snow usually also signals a milder winter, so deer require fewer calories to stay alive, and thus spend less time up moving about and feeding.

Snow cover changes all that. The degree of "yarding" is directly proportional to the amount of snow. When the snow is deep and the temperature frigid, deer tend to congregate into denser concentrations, gathering from miles around into well-known wintering areas. They'll be much easier to locate, because they leave obvious evidence of the whereabouts of their bedding and feeding areas, and of the routes they take to get from one place to another. You might not find a single deer for many miles, but a few hours spent driving around or talking to landowners will help you find those wintering areas. Snow makes a tough hunt a bit easier.

No matter the winter conditions you're faced with, you'll still have to follow a strategy of locating feeding and bedding areas and the trails that connect the two. Food sources will be the easiest to find, so let's start there.

FOOD SOURCES

North Dakota is primarily an agricultural state. Some heavily wooded areas are found in the north, but the life of both deer and bowhunter, from the start of the season to the end, revolves around crops.

By December, the harvest is only a memory, but the waste left over from the process is a gold mine. In areas in which a lot of fall tillage occurs, leftover crop residue can be decidedly scarce -- and that can be both good and bad. If most fields in your area have been worked, the few that haven't will be major attractants to deer. That helps to concentrate the deer, making them easier to find.

On the other hand, if the entire area is devoid of food, the deer won't be there at all. In the Red River Valley, where I live, large expanses of plowed fields and river bottom are empty of deer in December. The deer there in November abandon the barren terrain in search of reliable food sources.

The No. 1 late-season food source I look for is corn. Occasionally, some fields don't get harvested, and that standing corn will invariably attract hungry late-season deer. Naturally, most cornfields will have been harvested by December. Those that are chopped for silage will probably have been turned over and are useless. The cornfields that are picked always have some waste corn, which deer gobble up as if it were candy. If winter started in November, as it often does in North Dakota, some cornfields may be stripped of waste corn by late December, and the deer will likely head elsewhere. Keep in mind, not all cornfields are created equal.

Winter wheat fields, and the volunteer grain that will grow in some fields, are almost as good as a cornfield when it comes to holding deer. The animals love the succulent plants that stay green through Christmas or even later. Snow may cover the grain, but deer will paw through it if necessary to get at the goodies.

Of course, wherever there's a stand of trees, whether it's a shelterbelt or the trees around a farmstead, deer will find browse, an important part of their winter diet.

Baiting deer is legal in North Dakota. However, because this bowhunter is vehemently opposed to baiting, and the problems it causes, I won't address that su

bject here.

The point here is that large expanses of CRP or open prairie won't hold deer unless there is a major food source nearby. Even just a few minutes spent talking to local farmers or ranchers, or rural mail carriers, should provide you with some tips on the location of the deer's feeding areas. Concentrate on locating those areas, and half the battle is won.

BEDDING AREAS

Locating bedding areas is a bit more difficult. You can't go wandering around at midday looking for those areas on foot, or you'll just blow the deer out of their beds -- and they may never come back. This is generally best done as a long-distance operation performed with optical equipment. Scout the feeding areas at dawn and watch the deer to determine the direction in which they're headed. If the bedding area is obvious, you're in good shape; if the deer disappear into the prairie or river bottom, you still have work to do.

The deer's selection of bedding areas will depend on the amount of snow cover. If there's no snow, you'll find cattail sloughs to be favored bedding grounds. Whitetails tend to bed in very thick cover, and cattails qualify; a deer can slip into the middle of 100 acres of cattails and curl up into a little ball so that the wind can't get to him, but the sunshine can! More important, predators, including humans, can't get close to the deer without alerting it. It's tremendous security, and whenever a big buck is located, you can almost bet that a big cattail slough is somewhere nearby.

If the snow cover's heavy, however, cattail sloughs, especially the smaller ones, will be drifted in by the prairie winds, thus providing little refuge for deer. When that happens, the animals move to the trees.

Shelterbelts will provide some bedding cover, but usually only the larger, wider belts will make a deer feel safe and comfortable. River and creek bottoms are generally the optimum bedding areas. The tree cover tends to be thicker, and seems to the deer to offer better escape cover than that offered by a shelterbelt in a wide-open field.

Other places to investigate are national grasslands, where rolling hills covered with scrub oak and poplar offer great winter bedding. Think like a deer: Ask yourself where the thickest, nastiest habitat is. If you were a buck, where would you spend the day snoozing without a care in the world?

Obviously, if you have snow to work with, the trails left by the traveling deer will tell the truest story. Once you can tell where the trails are leading, don't get too close to the bedding areas -- for reasons I've already mentioned.


I love morning hunting, because I usually have the woods to myself. It's not easy -- but then, if I were looking for easy, I dang sure wouldn't be a bowhunter!
 

CONNECTING TRAILS

The real key to late-season whitetail hunting in North Dakota: the connecting trails that link the feeding and bedding areas. You really can't hunt the feeding areas effectively at either end of the day: In the morning, you'll spook the deer off the corn or grain fields as you walk in; in the evenings, it may take the deer too long to get to the fields, and you won't get a shot before dark -- or, if they do show up, or are in the area by the time you have to get down from your tree stand, you'll spook them and change their pattern of movement.

It's virtually the same scenario for the bedding areas: If you hunt too close to the bedding areas in the morning you'll spook the deer when you quit hunting; in the evening, you'll spook them on the way in.

That leaves the connecting trails --specifically, the midpoints of those trails. Fortunately, late-season deer tend to travel a fair distance from one destination to the other, which gives you more options than you have during the early season, when the two sites may be virtually the same.

Choosing an ambush point along the trail is a critical decision based on your scouting efforts, the terrain, cover and your "angle of approach." By that I mean you have to hunt a place enabling you to get to your tree or ground blind, morning or evening, without being detected. The deer should be away feeding or bedding when you arrive and when you leave.

Of course, if you plan to hunt from a tree stand in North Dakota, the presence or absence of trees will also be a factor, and may force you to hunt a less-than-ideal spot. It's always a good idea not to set up too close to the trail, but it's especially important during the winter months, as the trees are barren of leaves, and it seems that every little noise is amplified in cold weather. You won't get away with any mistakes with late-season deer.

One solution is to use a ground blind. A pop-up blind like a Double Bull that's been brushed in well can fool a late-season deer. It's not easy, but if the blind isn't too close to the trail and you use shoot-through netting on the blind openings, you can take your late-season buck from ground level. That is very exciting and puts you into places that you can't hunt from a tree stand. Another benefit of a ground blind is that it gets you out of the cold wind so that you can do some moving around to keep warm without fear of spooking deer.

WHEN YOU CAN

For most of us, bowhunting in December is restricted to weekends or days off. We can't always hunt when the weather is right, so we just have to hunt when we can. I know it's tough getting out of bed on a cold December morning and climbing into a tree in the dark, but once you're in the tree, you'll be glad that your alarm didn't fail you.

The best time to hunt in the late season is: whenever you can. Daylight is short at that time of year, so you can't afford to be fussy about when you get out. I love morning hunting, because I usually have the woods to myself. It's not easy -- but then, if I were looking for easy, I dang sure wouldn't be a bowhunter!

DRIVES

Sometimes a late-season bowhunter just has to take things into his own hands. Years ago, we used to get together with some bowhunters in the Bismarck/Mandan area and make drives in the Missouri River bottoms south of Mandan. Some would set up in tree stands while others did the walking. It didn't always work, but occasionally someone would get a shot. Size and gender weren't issues for most bowhunters in the group. Some were holding out to the last day for a good buck, but the rest were content to get some venison before the season ended.

It's possible for a small number of hunters (as few as two) to push deer to waiting bowhunters. The drivers should go slowly and quietly to allow the deer to move out in the belief that they're slipping away undetected. Push too hard, and they'll run like the wind, offering no shots. You'll likely have to make several drives until something good happens, but don't get discouraged. Just keep trying.

SPECIAL HUNTS

Another late-season option comes in the form of special herd reduction bowhunts. One is held in Bismarck, another in

Mandan; these usually run all the way through January. A fixed number of special permits for antlerless whitetails are issued for these hunts, which are great for putting venison in your freezer. Be sure to check current deer hunting regulations before hunting by visiting

www.discovernd.com/gnf.

REGULATIONS

North Dakota's bow season starts in early September and runs through the end of the year. Residents pay $20 for an either species/either sex license, and can buy it at any time during the season. The same goes for non-residents who pay $200 for a license to hunt whitetails statewide. "Any-deer" tags, which allow the non-resident to hunt mule deer as well, must be applied for in March.

Bowhunting late-season deer presents many challenges. We haven't even discussed battling the cold. Locating deer, discerning their pattern and putting yourself within bow range add up to one monumental task set in December. Maybe that's why it's so sweet when, with runny nose, cold feet and wind-burned cheeks, we make a good shot on some last-minute venison. That deer, regardless of size or gender, is a hard-earned prize to be proud of. They're all trophies in December.

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