By Travis Faulkner
The month of December marks a very special time of the year when thoughts of family gatherings, mistletoe, fruitcake and brilliantly decorated Christmas trees float through our minds.
On the other hand, phrases like “closeout prices,” “blue-light specials” and “extended shopping hours” are continuously being broadcast over the airways. This is the time of year that some people enter a mesmerized trance, similar to a buck in full rut, that is completely fueled by a burning desire to shop.
However, I personally prefer seeing a quiet mountain sunrise on a frosty winter morning from the scenic heights of a tree stand. It beats the heck out of the pressured-filled atmosphere generated by crowded shopping malls, filled parking lots, long lines and heavy traffic.
I have also found that hitting the deer woods of East Tennessee during the month of December can potentially generate some phenomenal hunting opportunities. A combination of perseverance and having the right game plan in place is sometimes all it takes to fill a remaining deer tag and your freezer for the holidays.
Over the past few seasons, hunting during the late season has enabled me to harvest several quality deer. I have also noticed a significant decline in hunting pressure in areas that generally receive a great deal of attention throughout most of the earlier part of the deer season. In many cases, the deer enter a more relaxed state from the overall decline of hunting participation and can be significantly easier to pattern.
So, how exactly do you score during the remaining days of the late season?
Understanding the general habits of whitetails during the winter months is a key component to generating a successful hunt. Increasingly shorter days, colder weather, diminishing food sources and the terrain are all factors that directly dictate the overall behavior and daily patterns of deer during the post-rut. Failure to recognize changes in deer behavior that occur during the late season can potentially lead to unproductive outings and unfilled tags.
East Tennessee encompasses various forms of terrain and whitetail habitat that range from river valley farmland to steep and rugged mountainous country. Terrain can dramatically influence the general habits and seasonal patterns of deer in the area that you are hunting. This is due to the variation of food sources and cover that are available in these contrasting areas. An integral step in filling a tag is the ability to customize your hunting techniques to meet the various challenges posed by the particular terrain you are hunting.
In my opinion, hunting white-tailed deer in mountain terrain can be extremely demanding and can seriously test a hunter’s ability in the deer woods, especially in areas that lack agricultural crops and receive a substantial amount of hunting pressure. Successfully patterning and harvesting a deer under these conditions is significantly different from a lot of the deer hunting that we watch on television. The absence of food plots, winter wheat fields and other late-season food sources can leave many hunters scratching their heads.
The first step involved in formulating a productive game plan during the post-rut in mountain country involves understanding where deer travel.
Steep mountain terrain dictates how whitetails move from point A to point B. In most cases, a straight line of travel from bedding areas to feeding areas is simply not available. Unfortunately, hanging a tree stand that overlooks a fenceline that leads from a field of winter wheat to a flat wood lot where the deer are bedding is not an option in the mountains of East Tennessee.
So exactly how can a hunter find travel routes and corridors on vast tracts of mountain country?
The short answer is that you simply use the steep terrain to your advantage. White-tailed deer generally choose the easiest route of travel. This rule is especially true during the winter months when deer make every attempt to conserve energy. Locating old logging roads, benches and ridgelines in the area that you are hunting will typically expose how the deer in the area are traveling. Now, you can piece together this sign to pinpoint the available late-season food source and preferred bedding areas.
This information is crucial when considering exactly where to place a stand for a December hunt. In my experience with hunting mountain country, I have noticed that these travel routes are used every season by the deer and have been for years. Hunters can exploit late-season bucks by taking advantage of travel habits and patterns such as these. The geographical features of the mountain terrain significantly controls how the deer will travel. Over the course of several seasons, it’s not uncommon for a hunter to harvest multiple bucks from the same travel routes in these mountainous areas.
In the winter months, finding areas that have experienced abundant acorn yields can be crucial during the late season. Acorns are very high in protein and serve as an important food source for whitetails. Bucks can potentially lose a great deal of body weight during the rut and will gorge on acorns when available. Without a doubt, acorns are the most important woodland food source and finding isolated pockets that still hold these whitetail delicacies can produce some phenomenal late-season hunts.
However, during some seasons it can be difficult to find acorns due to poor mast yields. In addition, competition among squirrels, growing numbers of turkeys and other woodland animals that feast on acorns can create a shortage toward the end of the season.
That is why it is extremely important to locate other winter food sources while hunting mountainous terrain. For example, smilax (such as greenbriers), rhododendron, honeysuckle and other plants that are still green are food sources that can be a magnet for deer during the cold winter months. The consumption of such foods becomes the single most important part of a whitetail’s daily habits during the winter.
During the early segments of the season, a whitetail deer has an abundance of food, which can make figuring out where to hang a stand more difficult. However, diminishing late-season food sources p
lace limits and restrictions on exactly where a deer can feed. This can be a huge advantage for the late-season hunter who pursues winter whitetails in areas that lack agricultural crops and other alternate food sources. With limited food options, whitetails must travel from bedding areas to the relatively few remaining sources of quality food, which in turn makes patterning deer on vast acres of mountain land less of a headache.
Another benefit of hunting whitetails during the post-rut would have to be the overwhelming influence that winter weather can have on the daily routines of deer. For example, monitoring the local forecast for warnings about approaching fronts and winter storms can provide good news for a hunter. You can bet your bottom dollar that deer will be on the move during pre-front conditions. Whitetails will feed heavily before adverse weather approaches and these periods are prime times to be in a stand.
In fact, I have observed more overall deer activity while hunting before an approaching winter front than any other time of the season. Large groups of does and even mature bucks will often reveal themselves from secluded sanctuaries during the daylight hours to fill their stomachs under these unique circumstances. Some of my most enjoyable and memorable deer hunts have occurred on late December and early January days when a winter storm was on the way.
A winter storm that places a fresh coat of snow on the ground can also provide some excellent hunting opportunities for the late-season hunter. This is one of my favorite times to strap on my binoculars and hit the mountains of East Tennessee to stalk unsuspecting whitetails. The combination of white snow and the absence of foliage place deer in a very vulnerable situation. A brown-bodied deer stands out like a sore thumb in the snow and is now much easier to spot in wooded areas.
As a late-season hunter, you really need a light blanket of snow on the ground to create ideal stalking conditions in the mountain country. If the snow is too heavy and comes with severe cold temperatures, deer will be forced to take refuge in evergreen thickets and aged clearcuts that provide dense cover and browse. Such thick entanglements can be difficult to walk through without alerting the deer of your presence. In most cases, a whitetail’s keen senses will allow it to slip out of the thicket unnoticed – providing you with no shot opportunity.
However, waiting to enter the woods a few days after a heavy snow can be very productive during these situations. I have found that deer, which have been held up in thick cover during adverse winter weather, will generally stage during the mid-day hours when the snow is beginning to melt. Rising temperatures and melting snow on a sunny afternoon can be magical during the winter months. There is still enough white on the ground to make the deer visible and stalking can be extremely effective.
As mentioned earlier, East Tennessee encompasses a wide range of whitetail habitat and terrain. Moving away from the steep and rugged mountains down to the flat river valley farm country changes the techniques you will use to hunt whitetails during the late season.
Overall, the habits and patterns of deer in this region are somewhat different from the whitetails that call the mountains home. Once again, differences in terrain, habitat and food can dramatically alter a deer’s general behavior.
The presence of agricultural crops is really what distinguishes the lower river valley land from the mountains in regard to patterning whitetails. Winter wheat, green fields and picked corn fields are excellent winter food sources for the deer. These areas will attract large numbers of deer during the post-rut and will be hotspots for the late-season hunter.
It is important to note when choosing a stand location that whitetails will, in order to conserve energy late in the season, generally bed close to the available food sources when at all possible.
An effective technique during this time of year is to implement a pre-rut strategy and position stands for evening hunts in staging areas bordering the food source. Does and some young bucks will sometimes enter open areas and feed during the late season just before nightfall. However, in most cases, a mature buck will wait for the cover of darkness to enter the fields. Bucks will often get off the bed to stretch their legs and will hold inside of the cover until it’s safe. Hunters should not overlook these holding or staging areas in December.
The river valley farm country of East Tennessee does share a common weather trend with the mountainous lands. Winter storms and fronts can generate a flurry of deer activity during the daylight hours. Whitetails will move and feed heavily before an approaching winter storm creating first-class hunting opportunities. Positioning a stand near an available food source prior to a front can pay huge dividends during the late season.
In addition, harsh winter weather usually drives many of your fellow hunters out of the woods and into the comforts of a warm and cozy home. This is a perfect opportunity to take advantage of prime whitetail locations that receive heavy hunting pressure during the earlier segments of the season. Hunter participation during December is minimal compared to October and November. Limited hunting pressure due to late-season burnout and cold weather allows the deer to enter a more relaxed state. Whitetails can potentially become more active during the daylight hours creating a window of opportunity for die-hard deer hunters.
Last year, there were approximately 600 deer harvested over the course of the December muzzle-loading season and a total of 2,600 whitetails were dropped during the December gun season in Unit B, according to Dan Gibbs, the big-game regional wildlife biologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA). With time off for the holidays, the late season can be a perfect opportunity to fill that last tag and your freezer with venison.
“December is when we have our antlerless quota hunts for Tennessee deer hunters. Therefore, participation is important for meeting overall doe harvest goals. Ironically, reduced hunter participation is why we have these hunts in December. Since we know that participation is lower during December, we can issue more permits giving more hunters the opportunity to take advantage of these hunts. The primary factor in this is the landowner harvest that allows landowners to take one deer on a quota hunt. By having the hunt later, fewer landowners participate, which allows us to have more permits in order to reach the harvest objectives,” Gibbs explained.
Several East Tennessee counties have built a solid reputation as being at the top of the heap in total deer harvest.
Last year, the top five harvest counties were Hawkins (2,653), Claiborne (1,754), Johnson (1,388), Sullivan (1,226) and Carter (1
,088). These counties are at the top because of habitat. Basically, all of Hawkins provides good deer habitat.
“A county like Sullivan may surprise many of our hunters,” Gibbs noted. “There are two large cities, Bristol and Kingsport, as well as some national forest land within Sullivan County. While these areas don’t have a great number of deer, there is some excellent habitat with a lot of agriculture in the center of the county.”
Hunters can also take advantage of numerous tracts of public land in East Tennessee during the month of December.
“All of the Cherokee National Forest is available for hunters looking to fill a tag during the late season. However, hunters are not allowed to use the antlerless permits on the Cherokee. The deer population in these counties is not a problem in the national forest,” Gibbs said.
However, crop depredation has become a problem in other areas of the county. Therefore, wildlife managers want to concentrate the doe harvest in the areas where the problems are. There are many other wildlife management areas (WMAs) in East Tennessee. Hunters can simply refer to the annual Tennessee Hunting & Trapping Guide for further information concerning locations and dates.
“In addition, there will also be a couple of new quota hunts offered in Knox and Blount counties. It may surprise hunters that these hunts will occur in two of the lowest harvest counties. However, Knox is pretty easy to explain, it’s mostly urban and no more growth is wanted in the county. Blount is a different story, the Rockford area currently has a high number of deer and depredation is a problem, and the quota hunts are limited to this area only. Lastly, hunters need to make a note that only two antlered bucks can be harvested this year from Unit B,” Gibbs commented.
With this in mind, remember not to allow late-season burnout and cold winter weather to deter you from filling that last tag this December. Now’s the time to hit the deer woods of East Tennessee hard and take advantage of the hunting opportunities that are readily available. Planning a December deer hunt could potentially allow you to escape that last-minute holiday shopping and fighting all the crowds at the mall. Leave the holiday chaos behind, utilize the right game plan, dress warm and prepare to drop an East Tennessee winter whitetail. Good luck and good hunting!
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