Bowhunting Extra Innings For Whitetails

The rut is over, but your archery tag isn't filled yet. Now what? Here's some worthy advice for late-season bowhunting.

Minus-5 degrees would not have been terribly bad, but the wind-chill factor dropped the count by another 20 degrees.

The end of the season was near, so whatever conditions Mother Nature dished out, it was time for Andy Newton and his 13-year-old son, Adam, to get serious. This particular winter was making up for previous mild ones. The rural landscape was covered with knee-deep snow, and drifts in many farm fields were waist-deep.

For the Newtons, however, the stage was set. Andy had left a couple acres of standing soybeans and plowed tractor-width paths through the snow to field-edge tree stands. These cleared trails looked like deer highways in the soybeans.

The Newtons climbed their stands about a half-hour before does and fawns would start parading from a nearby bedding area. Layered thick with inner clothing, father and son wore insulated canvas Carharts to cut the wind's penetrating bite.

Adam's stand was close to where deer exited the timber. Andy was only 150 yards across a field corner from his son. He hoped this was the afternoon Adam would tag his first trophy bow buck. By the time deer showed up, Adam was already feeling winter's unforgiving wrath. There were more than a dozen does and fawns in front of Adam before bucks began entering the food plot.

Even at age 13, Adam knew within inches what each buck scored as they stepped into the field. Five bucks in all, two were less than Pope and Young, one was borderline, one would score about 130 inches, and the fifth was a no-brainer -- scoring at least 30 inches more than low-book. Andy could feel Adam's anxiety as the bigger buck inched toward the fledgling bowhunter.

There was only 20 minutes of legal shooting time when the typical 8-pointer fed within 50 yards of Adam. He needed the buck 30 yards closer. Shaking profusely from cold and nerves, the young archer knew he couldn't make the shot even if this great deer closed the gap. It also didn't seem possible the buck would reach his dad before quitting time. He elected to exit the stand in the hope the 8-pointer would spook and head across the field corner.

The execution went as planned. Noise from Adam's descent caused instant alert and panic of the deer. Tails high, brown forms bound down the plowed trail straight for Andy. The path of least resistance led directly to a waiting broadhead for the bigger buck. Andy drew, slightly led the buck's shoulder area and let fly when the buck slowed at 15 feet. A double-lung shot dropped the grand whitetail within sight. Jubilant beyond description, bitter cold was no longer an issue for father and son. They trudged a 100-yard path through the snow-covered oak timber to the fallen trophy. The buck netted 163 typical inches and change.

Were the Newtons lucky? Maybe a little. Was this a well-planned late-season hunt by this father and son? No doubt about it!

The annual continental odds of an archer killing a Pope and Young deer are about 15,000-to-1. A bowhunter will increase those odds to less than 1,000-to-1 by hunting in a well-managed region. Hunting hard during the rut on quality deer management (QDM) property will lower odds to 100-to-1. Those who fall in the 10-to-1 fraternity do not rely on the rut and pre-plan a late-season assault.

Preparation and persistence is the difference between an average and better than average trophy-deer hunter -- with bow or gun. This feature article will focus on two categories of bowhunters: those having control of their hunting property, and those who hunt public areas.

PRIVATE PROPERTY

You already should know that a good food source is the best place to take a mature buck in the late season. The true key is not just the food plot, but also its proximity to an unmolested bedding area. In the case of the Newtons, their soybean plot was less than 200 yards from bedded does and about 400 yards from thicker cover where bucks spent the day. Thus, landowners and those who lease hunting rights on private property have best control over their success.

Deer movement becomes very tough after the rut, especially when weather turns brutal. Studies have shown that bucks and does rarely move out of a 50-acre area during the year. Their main food source will be within that small perimeter. The exception, of course, is where the area around their food source is severely pressured by hunters or other predators. In this situation, smart hunters need to connect the dots. More on that later.

Planning a late-season assault on private property starts in the spring by assessing potential food-plot locations. It's always best to situate plots near the core of a property in close proximity to thick bedding. Otherwise, a neighbor could benefit from the fruits of your labor.

If there is a high density of whitetails where you hunt, small soybean or corn plots are often destroyed before they can attract deer in the late season. If this is the case, plant milo or grain sorghum. These Old World cereal grasses are less attractive to deer before cold weather. Milo and sorghum can be over-sown with clover, alfalfa or one of the many legume mixes. The waist-high cereal grain plant will protect legumes from early frost. This combination is a double-barreled magnet for attracting deer early and late in the season.

Herbicides like Aatrex and Atrazine for killing weeds and grasses cannot be used on cereal grains if over-sown with a legume. Instead, burn off the area with Roundup before planting. Have the soil PH-tested and fertilize accordingly for whatever you plant, or your efforts will be wasted.

Another hard-grain double whammy for small plots is sunflowers over-sown with cow peas. The sunflower canopy stagnates cow pea growth until late summer when the sunflowers mature and die. Cow pea growth will then explode, providing green forage until frost occurs. Deer devour the protein-rich pods and peas. Sunflowers also provide oil-rich seeds for deer and game birds.

If there isn't a suitable bedding area near the property's core, it's an easy task to create one. Most timbers with mature trees or ones that have been grazed by cattle rarely offer dense winter bedding. A landowner can eliminate a thick forest canopy by select logging. Those who lease property should contact the landowner about dropping or ringing unwanted trees of no value. This greatly benefits the remaining hardwoods and the landowner's future timber value. Sunlight reaching the forest floor will start instant growth of saplings, forest bushes and other ground forages for deer food and for bedding.

You've set the stage with food plots near a good bedding area, and now

the season is drawing to a close. Now what?

Late season is a time to slow down, be less aggressive and more tactical. Pressuring deer only makes them nocturnal, and bucks become more reclusive. It only takes one after-hours exit from the close proximity of a food plot to wise up deer to your presence.

Instead, set up an observation stand within binocular distance of the food plot and watch exactly where deer make their entrance to it. Mature bucks may enter on doe trails or come from a completely different direction. Only when you've established a kill strategy should you slip in during the midday and set up an ambush site. Stands pre-placed in early season are best, but this is only possible after consecutive years of hunting the same area.

PUBLIC PROPERTY

As a whitetail archer with more than 40 years of experience, I have the ultimate respect for successful bowhunters who hunt nothing but public land. These sportsmen and sportswomen are the best of the best because they are the most calculated. They not only pattern deer, but they also pattern other hunters who share the same woods. These individuals possess a special fondness for the late season when bucks are more predictable and weather discourages other hunters.

Connecting the dots is what it's all about for late-season hunters on public property. Scouting usually starts for them after the season is over and a snow cover provides the sign of deer whereabouts and travel. Shed-antler hunting is also one of their favorite pastimes. There's better than a 50-50 chance that good sheds found near a food source indicate where that buck will be the next year during the late season.

Since deer on and around public property have been pressured more, they respond to that annoyance by bedding in unbothered places farther from a food source. In two scenarios in my past, I had found a large herd of deer traveling almost a half-mile from "closed for the season" campgrounds to agricultural fields on private property. The campgrounds were off-limits to hunters in both cases. Since these deer were not making it to the picked corn field before dark, it required cutting them off somewhere in the middle.

Most successful late-season archers love snow. It's the best sign for finding mature bucks. Heavy, larger tracks on beaten snow trails tell the hunter where to set up for interception of possible "shooters." But it's important for you not to use these same trails to enter and exit your ambush site. Boot scent is a whitetail's best telltale sign of your intrusion into their world.

Snow also provides the knowledge of where other late-season hunters are trekking the woods on public property. It's a good bet that consecutive days of entering and exiting a wood lot by another hunter has pushed mature bucks from that area. A smart hunter will spend more time finding a buck's new lair than actually hunting him. Sometimes even the best of the best only get one chance to get the ambush right. It's often forgotten that mature whitetail bucks reached that status by outwitting and outplaying many above-average hunters. This animal is a true survivor.

NURTURE NOT NATURE

It's a rare hunter who is born with the innate ability to consistently read mature bucks. Personally, I've never met one. Those who find regular success have made many mistakes over the years and began nurturing the patience to hunt smarter. An aggressive style is great for the rut, but it will cost you accomplishment in the pre-rut or in the late season.

Whether hunting private or public property in the late season, there's sameness in preparation. These are things you either have to learn through mistakes or be taught through listening and reading. Here are a few tips for those who have hunted very little during the late season.

Your stand cannot "creak" when temperatures fall below freezing. Aluminum stands are the worst offenders. Steel stands without Teflon grommets and washers are also bad news when weight is shifted for the shot. Most hardware stores carry vinyl, Teflon or plastic grommets. Refitting your tree stands with these noise inhibitors will greatly improve your stealth.

If you've correctly scouted and know within an hour when deer move toward a food source, it's wise not to climb aboard a tree stand too early during cold weather. Tense, cold muscles completely change the performance of your shooting.

Layered clothing, of course, is best for retaining body heat. The outer or subsequent garment, however, should block wind passage. Many of the scent-blocking products do not qualify for this. Some of these are "breathable" and do not prevent wind from draining your body heat. Carrying in your outer clothing will prevent sweating. The best, cheapest and quietest option for this is the backpack bags sold for carrying out a dead turkey.

The "newest" and most technical piece of equipment for the late-season bowhunter is the trail camera. This device helps determine deer movement so a strategic and timely ambush can be planned. They can be overused, so make sure you're checking it during periods of non-movement and do not touch it with a bare hand. Also, the night-vision infrared cameras do not flash during dark hours and offer the most secrecy for your woodland photo studio.

By using a trail camera, you may discover that a mature buck is avoiding human contact by feeding midday in the late season. Deer often conserve energy by feeding in the middle of the day. It might require a sick day at work to hunt them, so save some of those paid hours for the late season.

The worst possible scenario for late-season hunting is warmer than average weather. This is especially true during full-moon periods. Archers who beat up the woods during these conditions are doing themselves an injustice. Instead, chill out at home, watch the weather forecast for changes and enjoy your family. Only when weather makes a change is it time to follow up on the goal of making yourself a smarter and more successful late-season bowhunter!

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.