Late-Season Deer Hotspots

Late-Season Deer Hotspots

Deer hunters who don't take advantage of the post-firearms season are definitely missing out. Luckily, there's still time to try your hand at late-season whitetail hunting. (December 2008)

It's that time of the deer season when the last day of the season is closer than the first. Whether you are a muzzleloader or bowhunter, whatever tags unfilled are going to have to be filled quickly before another season passes.

The author (left) and friend Pete Alfano pose with a nice buck taken with a muzzleloader.

Photo by Ron Hustvedt Jr.

The rut can be unpredictable at times, but for the most part, it is over and the bucks are getting busy with their delayed winter preparations. Does are busy themselves grouping up with each other and getting into their winter family groups. It's the grand reunion after the hectic action of the fall mating season.

Another thing about this time of the year is that the woods are quiet for a wide variety of reasons. One of those reasons is there are fewer people in the woods. All those firearms-only hunters are long gone, sitting in their easy chairs instead of heading out to the woods each morning. Another reason is that the leaves are mostly gone from the trees and brush and any snow that has fallen has quieted the ground significantly.

Taken as a whole, it's a very different scenario than it was at the beginning of the season or even a few weeks ago. Deer hunters that have never taken advantage of post-firearms season hunting are definitely missing out. Luckily, there's every opportunity to still get out and try your hand at late-season whitetail hunting.

CALMER, QUIETER WOODS

Mark Cook is always busy during the open-water fishing and fall hunting season as the owner of Bluewater Bait and Sports in Bemidji. As luck would have it, things seem to settle down just in time for the muzzleloader season. It's after the busy rifle and waterfowling seasons and most anglers are waiting for the lakes to freeze over.

"Muzzleloader season is my preferred time of the year because I like to have the woods to myself and there is a total lack of hunting pressure meaning you have to go and find them rather than sit there waiting for them to come to you," Cook said.

His passion for muzzleloading is apparent in his bait shop that features an extensive supply of muzzleloading equipment. He has participated in the Minnesota muzzleloader season since it first began and still prefers to shoot traditional smoothbore muskets.

That's one of the unique features of the late-season hunt. While the firearms season has hunters selecting a shotgun or rifle depending on the part of the state they are hunting, the late season's archers and muzzleloaders are engaging in debates about what's better -- traditional or modern equipment.

For archers, the discussion centers on traditional longbows versus modern compound bows. For muzzleloaders, the argument is about traditional smoothbore muskets versus modern inline rifles. It is definitely not a season for the light-hearted with the colder weather, and great debates are what keep the mind busy while trying to stay warm during the hunt.

While the woods are quieter to the advantage of deer hunters, it's also much more of an advantage to deer, which already have better hearing than any of us. The sound from the branch you snapped in October was muffled by the leaves and would sound like a cymbal crash on a cold December morning.

With such potentially challenging conditions, where can a hunter go to find deer this time of the year?

LATE-SEASON LOCATIONS

Finding food sources is the key to hunting the late season, no matter where in the state you are hunting. Areas near fields are easier to read than forests, but a little scouting often reveals everything a hunter needs to know in order to be successful.

By early December, deer have already developed their winter patterns and it's fairly predictable, especially for does.

"The rut is basically over, but bucks will still hang on the does," said Mike Antonson, a whitetail deer hunting expert and avid late-season bowhunter.

He said there's nothing wrong with cold weather rattling because the bucks have been in a dominant mode through the fall and if they hear rattling they are going to come and see what it's all about.

Stand placement, concealment and scouting is always critical but even more so during the late season.

"You have to know the movement of the deer and pick up on their feeding patterns without putting too much human traffic in the area so you don't telegraph that you are also around," Antonson said.

Some of his favorite locations are areas adjacent to bedding areas that feature hillsides lush with oak trees. Even though acorns are all on the ground, bucks will still search for them before the snow cover gets too thick.

Timing is everything and Antonson believes countless hunters miss the boat in the late season. While many people focus on the early morning and late afternoon time frame, he said deer move a lot from noon to 2 p.m. as they pick up their feeding patterns.

"They are also prone to feeding when the weather is less than what you'd like for being out there yourself," he said. "Those bucks are down to almost nothing for reserves after an active rut and they have to keep moving and feeding."

Hunters should take advantage of that fact and put themselves in areas where those deer are moving through. Woods stands are the best locations for midday hunting because deer feel more secure in the woods than in the field.

Cook sometimes hunts from a stand in the late season but said he prefers more mobility than a deer stand typically provides.

"You have to go to the deer and you can't rely on other hunters to push them around," he said. "If you are hunting a spot when there's snow on the ground and you don't see any tracks, there aren't any deer around, so get up and move."

After a fresh snowfall, don't expect to be able to walk into the woods immediately and locate major deer highways. It can take two to three days for deer to fully utilize their trails and giving them time can help eliminate plenty of areas deer never travel.

"I like to still-hunt them late in the year when there's a little wind blowing," Antonson said. "It's amazing how close you can get to them, but you still have to see them before they see you or it's all over. Still-hunting in a snowstorm is a real hoot and when I say that people look at me like I'm nuts, but you can do quite well under those conditions."

Caution must be taken not to make too much movement because a few hunters working an area can pressure the deer out with the added noise, scent and physical signs.

Much like Cook, Tony Roach contends with crowds of anglers on Mille Lacs most of the year but enjoys getting into the woods to both muzzleloader and bowhunt the last month of the season.

"I'll target them in more dense forest areas and bottlenecks in those areas where the deer travel and around bedding areas," he said.

Roach also emphasized that scent is even more of a contributing factor in the late season.

"Deer are so much wiser, so it's important that you do all you can to stay invisible from their eyes and noses alike," he said.

Food sources include acorns and cropland, but the mainstay of a deer's winter diet is typically browse and their favorite browse are shoots of next year's growth. Clearcuts are tough to hunt during the firearms season because they are dotted with orange, but with fewer hunters in the woods, even the most pressured clearcuts have enough room to host several muzzleloader hunters. The chances are still very good that you'll be the only hunter in the entire area.

In areas where there aren't any clearcuts, hunt along the edges of timber stands, since new growth tends to favor areas that get more sun. Speaking of more sun, the south-facing slopes of areas with extensive hills are a great place to find concentrated deer. It's warmer, which benefits the deer, but also the new growth provides a critical food source.

As far as determining where to hunt across this great state of ours, the situation is a bit trickier and largely based on personal opinion. Perhaps the easiest place to hunt is a public or private parcel close to home. Hunting near your home is great because you can finish work and go directly to your hunting grounds for a few hours. To hunters who hate that concept and prefer to move around, the best places to hunt are the southeastern corner and almost anywhere in central Minnesota.

Both feature plenty of public land hunting where you can just drive up and select your hunting grounds. The large amount of private land may be a deterrent to some folks, but it can also be a great way to search for big bucks. If you glass a field and find a respectable buck, go and gain permission to hunt. Doing it the other way may result in lost hunting time.

Make use of online resources, such as the DNR's recreation compass and aerial photos on Mapquest, Google and Yahoo. The DNR Web site has listings of all wildlife management areas in the state complete with information on plant life found in each area. You can scout an area without ever setting foot on it, pinpointing ideal hunting spots in a location you've never hunted.

NUMBER CRUNCHING

Last year, an estimated 36,000 muzzleloader hunters took 12,138 deer in the regular muzzleloader, youth, all-season and bonus permit hunts. It's a marked improvement from the first muzzleloader season in 1977 when only 32 deer were taken. However, last year's success rate was 28.2 percent, a significant decrease from almost 40 percent in 2006.

Of the more than 12,000 deer taken, 3,500 were bucks and the rest were antlerless. It's a number half that of the number of deer taken by archers and only 5 percent of the overall statewide harvest.

Permit areas where hunters have success during the archery and firearms seasons also tend to do well in the muzzleloader season. In Zone 1, the permit areas with the highest harvest numbers were 172, 184, 170, 157 and 115. In Zone 2, the permit areas with the highest harvest numbers were 213, 240, 342, 244 and 245. In Zone 3, the top permit areas were 346, 347, 348 and 349, while in Zone 4, it was permit areas 416, 442, 454 462 and 466.

Those are definitely tremendous permit areas to hunt, but just because some permit areas have low numbers doesn't mean they lack some tremendous hunting. Many hunters tend to hunt where they have easy access to a hunting ground whether it is public or private.

The best way to decide where to hunt is not to study the numbers from the permit area by permit area statistics, but to go out to the fields that you wish to hunt. Work to gain permission and figure out a way to thank that landowner.

LICENSING CHANGES

However you feel about the changed deer regulations, there's good news for late-season deer hunters. For the first time, all firearms deer hunters may now buy a muzzleloader license (even those who hunted the 3B season). If you didn't purchase an archery license but want to make a go at it this final month of the season, there's nothing preventing you.

Even if you already took a buck in a lottery permit area, you can still hunt in a managed permit area or intensive harvest provided you have bonus tags. Hunters that shot a doe already can go after that elusive buck that's been taunting them in their dreams at night (in a managed or intensive harvest permit area). Hunters who were skunked can go anywhere in the state and end the nighttime cold sweats! While you are at it, bring along that responsible 10- or 11-year-old because he or she can deer hunt as well provided the child is in your direct supervision.

Lou Cornicelli, the DNR's big-game program coordinator, has been busy fielding calls from hunters, ELS agents and the media throughout the fall about the updated regulations. One of the questions he's frequently asked is why muzzleloader hunters are treated differently in lottery areas.

"There are two groups of muzzleloader hunters, those who buy only the muzzleloader license and those who hunt both the firearms and muzzleloader seasons," he said. "As the number of 'traditional' muzzleloader hunters is small in comparison to total hunters, we felt it was not necessary to make them apply in the lottery."

The numbers of "traditional" muzzleloaders are small; they hunt last and harvest comparatively few deer. On the other hand, people who hunt both seasons tend to take the vast majority of antlerless deer and must apply for the either-sex permit.

"People who buy only a muzzleloader license will not have to apply and can take an either-sex deer statewide," Cornicelli added.

CLARIFICATION FOR ZONE 3

Cornicelli said there has been some confusion among archers and muzzleloader hunters regarding bag limits for hunters in deer areas 338 through 349. The zone designations technically apply to the firearms season.

"Therefore, statewide 344A for gun hunters is simply 344 for archery and muzzleloader hunters as they don't have an A or B season," he said.

With respect to bag limits, archer

y and muzzleloader hunters must comply with the most liberal regulations.

"For example, both 344A and 344B are lottery, so the bag limit for archers and muzzleloader hunters is one deer. Conversely, 342A is lottery and 342B is intensive, so the archery/muzzleloader bag limit is five deer," Cornicelli added.

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