Hunting Clearcuts For Late-Season Deer

Think like a big buck and the two of you may cross paths using this clearcut strategy.

The late December sun had risen slowly behind my back as I sat there in that cold metal ladder stand. The temperatures during the latter part of deer season had plummeted and I found myself having to gently shuffle my boots or they'd freeze to the floor of the stand. Two and a half hours sitting stock still in the stand were taking their toll on my blood circulation. A slow and methodic twist to look back behind me revealed that the sun's rays were still a good foot and a half from filtering through the barren tree limbs above my head and hitting my back. Adding to my misery was that I hadn't seen a sign of any living creature moving along the hardwood ridge I was sitting on. Cold and miserable, I stared at the ground beneath the stand wondering if something desperate enough to eat some of the half-rotten, half-frozen acorns I had seen when doing my pre-hunt scouting might wander up the hill.

That's when I heard the one, single gunshot some quarter mile to the south of my location. It came from the direction of the old clearcut -- more specifically from the area my hunting buddy had chosen to hunt this morning. Now, not only was I cold and miserable, apparently I had also just lost the argument on where the best place to hunt would be.

There are several basic truths to late season deer hunting that had been overlooked on the morning hunt in question. The first was that just because a stand was good back during the fall doesn't mean that it would remain a good stand throughout the season. Hunting pressure has a way of relocating deer, especially shooter bucks, to other parts of the county.

The second truth is that deer have windows of opportunity for their favorite foods. A fresh crop of acorns may produce loads of deer when the mast is fresh but after it's been on the ground awhile, it tends to lose its appeal to deer. When that happens, the deer will move on if they have any better choices.

The third and maybe most important truth was I was hunting in a place I wanted to hunt, regardless of the season, the reason, or other thought as to what deer might find attractive.

Scott Emery is a lifelong die-hard whitetail deer hunter and travels all over the country in search of his favorite big game animal. One of his most enviable traits is no matter where he's, he has an innate ability to look at an area and know whether it will be holding deer. Some refer to that as "deer sense." It was Emery's deer that I was going to have to help drag out of the clearcut on that cold morning.

"Once the nighttime temperatures consistently stay below freezing, you won't find me hunting deep in the woods where it stays dark most of the morning," said Emery. "For one thing it's cold, and I figure if I'm cold, the deer are cold so they're going to go somewhere they can get warm. But they're not stupid; they're not going to stand out in the open. So if we're talking about a place that deer can warm in the sun and still stay hidden-we're talking about a clearcut."

As fall transitions to winter, bucks gravitate toward clearcut areas to take advantage of the combination of thermal gain, browse and cover these areas provide. â–ª Photo by Phillip Gentry.

Across many parts of the country, forested areas that used to hold stands of hardwood trees have been harvested and given over to growths of re-planted pines. Pine grows faster so it can be harvested more quickly than hardwoods and it's usage in lumber, pulp, and paper makes pine a highly marketable commodity. Once planted pines reach maturity, they are in turn harvested, resulting in a clearcut or cutover area. Now it's ready to be planted with the next crop. The slower growth cycle of tree crops means clearcut areas take time to mature and in the interim provide beneficial ground cover until re-planted trees grow up. This cycle provides a 2- to 5-year window when clearcuts provide ample cover for deer yet can still be hunted from above by hunters.

"Naturally a clearcut that has some elevation to it works out better than one that's completely flat," said Emery. "A hillside provides a good wind break, plus the southern side is usually facing the sun in the morning so it will warm faster. It's also easier to see deer on a hillside clearcut than one on a long flat area. That doesn't mean you can't hunt a flat area, it just means you can't cover as much ground so you're hunting closer and, if you're within 100 to 150 yards, you'll have to pay more attention to the wind."

He suggests that hunters prepare to be mobile when hunting clearcuts. He prefers a climbing stand or portable ladder stand to erect on the downwind edge of a clearcut and doesn't mind climbing as high as he needs to in order to have good visibility of the area. He also doesn't become such a slave to the wind if he's 50 feet high and shooting 200 yards away.

"If a good deer gets by me without presenting a good shot or I see a bunch of does using the other end of the clearcut I'm on, I'll relocate my stand during midday or after dark and be ready for them on the next hunt," he said. "A clearcut is not just a random parking lot, there are certain trails and paths that deer take going in and out of the clearcut and to move through the area itself."

While setting up anywhere along the edges of a clearcut may sound easy, there are a number of considerations to be made to get the full benefits of hunting there. Deer use clearcuts as both feeding and bedding areas. There's also the position of the sun and being able to locate a deer after the shot has been made.

"I like to position myself where the deer can take advantage of the sun but you have to be careful that you don't end up looking right into the sun when it comes time to shoot. If you've ever picked up a scope and tried to look through it in the direction of the sun, it's like somebody's shining a bright light in your face. You also want to be as quiet as possible getting into the stand before the hunt because there may be deer bedded right under you."

Emery suggests that the late season clearcut strategy might be a good time to skip getting into the stand before daylight. He says tht this time of year he rarely sees deer in the first hour of daylight as they seem to prefer to linger in the bedding areas until the sun rises a little and warms things up.

"Another important thing is when you finally do get a shot at a deer; make a mental note of a specific landmark -- a tree, bush or rock -- something that you can use to locate the spot where the deer was standing when you shot. Everything loo

ks different when you climb down and walk out there a couple hundred yards and you can barely see where you shot from up in the tree. Mentally mark the spot where he was standing so you'll know where to start looking for blood."

Another big believer in using winter clearcuts to his advantage is hunter and master taxidermist Jody Shults. He's the owner of Whitetail Classics Taxidermy (662-526-9111) and has been a taxidermist, guide, and experienced hunter for over 25 years and has traveled all over the country chasing whitetails. Shults prefers clearcuts for cold-weather, late-season hunting because they provide the three things deer need: food, concealment, and shelter. And they provide all three in close proximity.

"When you hit a clearcut in its early stages, there's a lot of evergreen browse to be found," said Shults. "Plants like honeysuckle, green briar, and wild grasses outlast planted crops and acorns, so towards the end of the season, that's what deer are going to feed on. I believe deer show a special preference for green briar after the weather turns cold because I've seen them flock to it."

Clearcut areas with almost head-high growth attract deer because such areas provides cover and protection. Shults indicates that he will scout the perimeter of a clearcut, walking its circumference (the height and thickness of the cover that protects the deer also protects him from being seen byt he deer). As he scouts, he finds the game trails in and out of the area and then use a pair of binoculars to scan the interior regions from a higher vantage point.

"I don't go into the interior unless I'm trying to recover a deer," he said. "There's usually a lot of tops and downed trees that deer will lay behind in the grass to bed. You don't want to bump them or make them suspicious. They will hold tight in a good clearcut because it has everything they need and they don't have to expend a lot of energy to get it. They can feed and bed in the same spot and don't have to move much, thereby conserving energy to combat the cold with."

Ideally, Shults will go to the highest point of a clearcut and try to figure out a movement pattern by lining up where the deer are entering the clearcut, what foods are available for them, and which locations might make for good bedding in proximity to the two. He understands that deer aren't going to move much if they don't have to but he hedges his bets by a time honored strategy that he refers to as the "6 hour rule."

"Deer are ruminants, or cud chewers, and they have a four chambered stomach," he said. "What this means is that they have to get up and move around as part of their digestive system. That occurs on average about every 6 hours. If I can determine when deer are moving, even if it's just deer that are in the area and not specific deer that I am hunting, I can add 6 hours to when deer moved last and I can approximate when that deer will get up and move again. If I'm trying to kill a deer that's tucked in to a clearcut, I can use this strategy to get there an hour or so before the next movement period and be ready. If I'm watching that clearcut, the deer doesn't have to move much, just enough that I can spot him and decide if he's one I'm going to shoot.

"The 6 hour rule has worked for me regardless of moon phases, weather, or any other naturally occurring condition," said Shults. "So long as that deer doesn't get bumped or spooked, they'll hold to that cycle. Every year, I can show you several big deer that are brought in to my taxidermy shop that fell to this strategy."

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