Whitetail Tactics Of Last Resort

It's still possible to fill your unused deer tags this month. A change of tactics is in order -- as our expert explains.

In many states, January is a deer hunter's last-ditch, 11th-hour, bottom-of-the-ninth-with-two-outs chance to fill his tags until next fall.

Hunting the late, late season requires steely determination because the odds are mostly in the whitetail's favor.

After three or four months of hunting, deer numbers are just about as low as they'll get all year. Deer that are still standing have learned how, when and where to avoid hunters.

And for us humans, the weather can be downright miserable.

Now, you'll notice I said the odds are mostly in the deer's favor, not that they are all in the deer's favor. Food is scarce, but deer need it more now than ever. The trees are bare, which makes their hiding places fewer and farther between.

The scarcity of both food and cover forces deer to bunch up in the few areas where conditions are optimum for them.

In January, hunters must be prepared to go the extra mile to score venison for the freezer. You may have to literally go a mile to get some!

Find places where deer are bedding and feeding, and then hunt those areas from stands and/or ground blinds. Still-hunt through them.

If none of those tactics works, get together with some friends and put on drives. If the deer are there, they can be fooled. All you have to do is figure out how to do it!

STAND/BLIND HUNTING
In January, figuring out where to hunt from a tree stand or ground blind is usually the easy part. Find the deer's preferred bedding and feeding areas and set up nearby. Because both are in short supply this time of year, they should be easy to locate.

In my opinion, heading for the woods before daylight in January is a waste of time. At this time of day, deer don't seem to move the way they did back in October and November -- probably because in winter, dawn is one of the coldest times of day. The deer prefer to sit tight until the sun has warmed up the woods by a few degrees. (

I can recall one cold January morning back in my formative years when I liked to be up in my stand a good hour before daylight. By 10 a.m., my toes were numb. I hadn't seen a single deer. I climbed out of the tree stand and on the walk back to my truck, ran into six deer headed toward my stand. That day, I'd have been better off waiting until after the sun came up to head to the woods.

I now prefer hunting from 9 a.m. to noon on morning jaunts. But for me in January, the most productive time of day to hunt from a stand or blind is from 1 p.m. until dark. You can usually count on deer moving from their bedding to feeding areas in the afternoon and early evening.

BEATING THE COLD
In hunting deer from a fixed position in January, the greatest challenge is surviving the cold. It takes a special kind of dedication to sit in a tree stand or ground blind. Your fingers and toes are going to sting. Your face is going to go numb. You're going to get the shivers. Your muscles are going to lock in place. Unfortunately, the deer seem to move more often after the mercury drops, long after you've turned into a hypothermic lump of coal!

The first step in sitting through a couple of hours in the frigid woods is accepting the fact that you're going to get cold and stay cold. If all you think about is being warm, then you won't last two hours.

There may be snow on the ground.

The air is cold.

You're going to feel the cold.

Deal with it!

To keep out as much cold air as possible without impacting your ability to draw your bow, dress in several thin layers rather than one or two bulky layers. Hunting from a stand in January, I protect my feet with a pair of sock liners topped by a pair of wool socks, followed by boots containing at least 1,500 grams of Thinsulate.


In January, hunters must be prepared to go the extra mile to score venison for the freezer. You may have to literally go a mile to get some!
 

On my lower body, I wear two thin sets of thermal underwear, a pair of wool pants and then a pair of insulated bib overalls. On my upper body, I'll wear a moisture-wicking T-shirt, followed by a long-sleeved silk shirt and then a fleece-lined long-sleeved undershirt. Next, I'll put on a fleece sweatshirt, followed by a fleece vest and a thin fleece jacket.

On my head, I wear a fleece stocking hat and I keep my hands warm with a pair of fleece gloves. If it's particularly frigid, I'll stuff a few chemical hand warmers into my shirt, pants, boots and gloves. These packets, inexpensive but effective, have shored up my determination on more than one frosty day.

Sit in the same position for four hours on a day when the mercury is in the single digits, and your toes are bound to tingle.

To get your circulation going again and help keep the blood moving to your extremities, alternate standing up and sitting down. I like to stand for 20 minutes and then sit for 20 minutes.

Or you can try "marching in place" to a count of 300 paces or so. This is no problem for hunters in tree stands, but many ground blinds don't allow you to stand upright. If you have to stand up, bend over at the waist. It's better than not standing at all.

STILL-HUNTING
If there's a better way to spend a crisp, cold day in January than still-hunting through a stand of timber with a couple of inches of snow on the ground, I haven't found it.

Deer hunters who like to still-hunt at this time of year have the advantage of maximum visibility -- especially if there's snow on the ground. With all the foliage down off the trees, deer are easier to spot now than at any other time of year.

Of course, that visibility works both ways. You are also easier for a deer to spot. But with a good set of optics, I believe hunters have the upper hand in the January woods. With binoculars, you should be able to pick apart a section of woods and spot deer at long range. And as long as you move slowly and deliberately, you should be able to pick out a deer long before it sees you.

The best vantage point is from the highest ground. And once you've found your quarry, you should be able to study the landscape and map out a route to sneak within range of the deer from downwind.

For bowhunters, their best bet is to try to sneak ahead of a deer and wait for it to walk into their effective shooting range. Because of the superb visibility in the winter woods, it's very difficult to stalk to within 20 or 30 yards of a deer and then actually shoot it with a bow and arrow. Therefore, come up with a strategy that allows you to get ahead of the deer and let it come to you.

Muzzleloader and gun hunters should have an easier time of it because their effective range is much greater than that of a bowhunter.

Because deer congregate in and around the thickest cover available at this time of year, a dense swamp or a brush thicket might be where you have to go to get your quarry. Still-hunters working in this cover would do well to wear fleece, to minimize any sounds of clothing rubbing against brush.

And because this is the very end of the season, you'll presumably be still-hunting through country that has become quite familiar to you by now.

Also, you should know how and where the deer like to move in this area. On late-season still-hunts, use that knowledge to your advantage to pick apart the best country.

On a still-hunt, the wind is naturally the most important factor. You never want to still-hunt with the wind at your back. That's a waste of time.

When you're moving through the woods, don't look for only deer that are on their feet. Also dissect the woods with your binoculars, searching for bedded deer as well. Look for an ear, an antler gleaming in the sun, the rounded hump of a deer's rump. These are the portions of a bedded deer that are likely to be exposed for you to spot.

Also check out anything that just seems out of place to you. At this time of year, the woods are barren. Walking through them, you'll become skilled at determining how things should look.

Fallen trees, boulders, brush and saplings all have a general appearance that you'll recognize as "normal." But when you see something that looks out of place -- that you can't quite identify with the naked eye -- stop and check it out. For example, every now and then you'll encounter a stump with a white spot on it. You'll swear it's a deer until you focus your binoculars on it.

One winter, I was sneaking slowly through a pine thicket when I spotted a downed tree about 70 yards away. This tree had two odd protrusions that didn't look like anything I'd seen sticking out of a fallen pine tree before.

I pulled out my binoculars and inspected the tree. As it turned out, those two protrusions were the ears of a bedded doe!

I got down on one knee, pulled my muzzleloader to my shoulder and whistled softly. The doe stood to inspect the noise, and I pulled the trigger.

After a short tracking job, I was filling out my tag.

DRIVE TACTICS
For the most part, hunting in January is a bowhunter's game. Some states have a late muzzleloader season, and some even offer limited late firearms hunting -- usually with a shotgun.

If your state offers either a muzzleloader or shotgun hunt in January, that's the best time to put on drives. I'm not saying it's impossible to drive deer to bowhunters; my friends and I have done it successfully a few times. But hunting with firearms, even if they're muzzleloaders, is far better suited for deer drives, mainly because of the increased range of the weapons.

If you want to put on a drive and can hunt with bows and arrows only, just remember to have your drivers move at a snail's pace. In bow season, a running deer is a safe deer!

Driving deer is a controversial tactic in many areas. Some hunters feel that driving is bad because you might run the resident deer off of your particular hunting grounds. Well, back in October or November, when there's still plenty of hunting to be done, I might agree with them. But this is January!

Once this season ends, there's no more hunting to be done until the following fall. If you have good deer habitat, any animals you spook out of the area on a drive are probably going to come back, once the season ends and the hunting pressure is gone.

If you've hunted an area for a while, odds are you know the lay of the land. You know the funnels and the deer's preferred escape routes. As a result, you now know where to place your standers to get a shot at driven deer.

If you don't yet know an area well, study topographic maps to figure out how and where you want to move the deer. Pushing deer into a funnel -- a peninsula of woods that enters a field, or a thicket that necks down until it peters out in open timber -- is your goal. Place a stander at the pinch point to watch for deer.

As I said earlier, deer in January tend to bunch up, due to the lack of suitable security cover and food. In those areas that have both, count on finding deer -- lots of deer.

A few years ago, three buddies and I got together for a day of deer drives during my state's late, late muzzleloader season. We moved deer all day -- and we even managed to kill two -- before we headed for a large swamp surrounded by farm fields.

I drew the coveted long straw and got my choice of places to set up as a stander. And I knew exactly where I wanted to go.

The swamp was almost a perfect square. But within that square, most of the area was dominated by tall grasses. Back in fall, when the reeds were still standing, they had offered deer loads of cover. By January, however, those tall grasses usually get matted down due to the incessant pounding of wind, snow and ice. That wilted grass now afforded minimal cover.

I expected that this time of year, the deer would stick to the L-shaped line of timber. I knew my buddies would start at one end of the timber, so I opted to stand at the other. There was no doubt the deer were between us.

I could see my partners' orange coats off in the distance as they started into the woods. Barely a minute later, the deer started coming my way. One by one, 25 deer hustled past my post through the thin stand of trees.

When a nice fat doe stopped briefly to check her backtrail, I leveled my muzzleloader and squeezed the trigger. My rifle belched a thick cloud of smoke as the bullet struck home.

That winter, there was no shortage of backstraps and steaks!

For deer hunters, January is the end of the line until next fall. Don't let those tags go to waste. Get out there. Be aggressive. Leave no

trick in the bag and you just might find a way to punch one of those tags!

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