3 Late-Season Whitetail Guidelines

3 Late-Season Whitetail Guidelines

Don’t wimp out on winter weather. The three critical factors to late-season success are food, endurance and patience. (Photo by T.A. Harrison)

Can you handle the cold? Are you willing to battle the elements in order to get even with the deer that have stomped your ego into the dirt for the last two months? The time to put it all on the line is now, and after the unfair advantage whitetails seem to have, you can close your season out with a bang — and a big buck.

I know the rut is very exciting, and when you think about a classic successful hunt, crisp November days in Midwestern hardwoods typically come to mind first.

And there’s no doubt that the peak of the rut is magical.

But, when breeding is no longer the central focus, mature bucks — and all deer for that matter — focus on rut recovery and food. They become slaves to their stomachs. There really isn’t a better time to kill a giant than in the heart of winter.

The Midwestern winter landscape is gorgeous, and can offer some of the finest whitetail hunting of the season. But don’t mistake it for a comfortable environment. If you’re to hunt and kill a big buck during the final days of the season, you will be tested. (Photo by T.A. Harrison)

Hunters who understand this occurring transition can put themselves into position to kill the best deer in the area.

The three critical factors to late-season success are food, endurance and patience. If you can understand how and when to hunt while considering these three factors, you might be in the chips.

The Reality

Here’s a quick story to illustrate.

Being a native Iowan, I will always love the late muzzleloader season. Most of my largest deer fell when the temp hovered around 10 degrees or colder. And following hunt was nothing short of epic.

A large snowstorm was forecasted, and I already had my eye on a standing cornfield towards the backend of a 1,000-acre public property, but access was difficult. Ideally, I’d have permission from a neighboring landowner to get in without having to cut through mature timber and bedding areas.

But after several attempts, I wasn’t able to garner permission. I was going to hunt that spot, even if I had to hike into it.

Hunting on the edge of security cover that borders a hot destination food source is a great place to be. Determine where you need to be well in advance of actually moving in, be patient and wait for ideal conditions. Chances are you’ll kill on your first sit if everything is perfect. (Photo by T.A. Harrison)

The snow fell creating a deep 18-inch blanket followed by frigid cold. Knowing the weather event was coming, a great friend from North Dakota sent me his snow shoes so I could make the 1 1/2-mile hike into the nearly inaccessible cornfield.

I was ready.

  • 12 p.m. — I left the truck as the mercury measured -16 degrees. I dressed down into heavy-duty thermal socks, and two layers of polypropylene long underwear. Yes, I wore only long underwear during my walk in — and surprisingly, it was just enough to keep me from freezing and not sweating too much. I had replacement socks and long underwear and all my outer layers packed in my Badlands 2200, with intentions to change out of sweaty clothes when I got to where I wanted to hunt.
  • 1 p.m. — The walk took an hour, and when I got there 10 does were already out feeding, and I’d guess, they hadn’t left the field in several days. They saw me arrive, and ran off the field.
  • 2 p.m. — By the time I was set up and ready to hunt, those original 10 does and 10 more were already out feeding.
  • 3:30 p.m. — There were 50 deer in the 30-acre standing cornfield with more coming out in a nose-to-tail fashion. Among them several bucks that I’d consider shooting, but I was looking for one in particular that hadn’t arrived yet: A beautiful 160-inch 10 pointer.
  • 4:15 p.m. — He stepped out as if on cue.
  • 4:30 p.m. — My .50 caliber Thompson/Center Encore barked and sent a 250 gr. sabot 65 yards into his chest ending a season-long game of cat and mouse.

I won. (A seldom occurrence in this game.)

The night ended at a balmy -24 degrees. It was perfect.

Walking up on a buck the author had been hunting for the entire season was a feeling that he’ll never forget. Hunting and killing a particular animal is a very difficult way to hunt deer, but there’s not a more rewarding way to do it. (Photo by T.A. Harrison)
The 160-inch, four-year-old buck is a product of the author’s drive to hunt and kill an individual buck. He used the late season to take advantage of the buck’s need to feed. The result is a trophy that represents a hunt that he’ll never forget. (Photo by T.A. Harrison)

Well, getting that giant deer out of there was a laughable scenario in itself, but that’s an entirely different story.

All the effort leading up to that hunt made it happen the way it did. I literally knew I was going to kill that buck that day. I knew he was there; I waited until everything was absolutely perfect and executed the plan to the T.

It was far from easy, and it tested me.

Want to accomplish the same thing? Here’s what you’ve got to do.

1. Long Distance Scouting

Invest in a quality set of glass, including both binoculars and a spotting scope. I prefer Burris Droptine 10x42s and a Burris Signature HD Spotting Scope. Don’t skimp on lesser quality; spend the money if killing big deer late season is a priority.

And it should be.

Quality glass is critical to effective long-range scouting and hunting. The author prefers Burris binoculars and spotting scopes. (Photo by T.A. Harrison)

Your late-season scouting efforts need to be minimally invasive. Think about it, those wise old bucks have been pursued for two to three months at this point, the last thing you want is for them to feel uncomfortable on their favorite destination food source.

The long-distance scouting approach won’t work everywhere, but under most agricultural scenarios, information can be gathered from afar. That is a huge advantage you should be taking advantage of.

Under ideal conditions, much like what I had back on that bitter-cold Iowa winter day, you can do all your homework from a warm driver’s seat. Watch where the majority of the deer are entering the field, cross-reference with aerial photos and build your plan of attack to accommodate the necessary wind direction.

Remember, late season deer tend to herd up and bed very near to, if not on the edge of the preferred food source. That means you need to be careful accessing your spot. Lots of skeptical eyeballs will likely be very near.

Keep your distance, gather as much information as possible and wait until perfect conditions persist. Then move in and kill him.

2. Find The Food

There are quite a few excellent late-season food choices, if you’re fortunate enough to actually choose. However, for the agricultural focus of this piece, let’s keep the selection to likely ag products: Corn, soybeans and alfalfa.

If snow is a factor, and it usually is, the deer may need to dig to access the food they are after. Deer are very willing to travel to access easier-to-consume sustenance. If you can find standing crops near a primary bedding area, you will be in the chips.

Greens — In snowy situations and, as long as there isn’t a crust of ice at the bottom, deer will absolutely hammer greens. If you have a food plot on your property, or can find an alfalfa field that might have missed a final cutting early in the fall, give it some attention. I find greens to be excellent when snow is at a minimum.

Greens are a very productive late season, whether that's BioLogic Deer Radish or agricultural alfalfa. When it’s cold and snow isn’t too abundant, greens get the nod. (Photo by T.A. Harrison)

Corn — Cut cornfields that hasn’t been mowed and bailed for stalk bales can be feast or famine. If the farmer has an older combine, you can bet there is plenty of waste corn on the ground that the deer will love. But not every field is created equal. Your scouting efforts will tell you where the deer prefer to be.

Deer can quickly feed out a field, and migrate to the next food source full of nutritional, heat-generating food. Keep that in mind. A dedicated late-season whitetail fanatic will follow that migration as it occurs.

Deer love corn, and in corn country they will travel great distances to get to it. Standing corn offers both food and cover and the resident deer will often bed in the corn and only leave when the food is no longer available. The author suggests scouting ag fields from a distance to determine which are most likely to hold numbers of late-season deer. (Photo by T.A. Harrison)

Again, rely on your long-distance scouting to make those adjustments.

Anytime you can find standing corn, spend some time watching it closely. Often, this is the best kind of late-season food available.

Soybeans — After 25 years of bow hunting whitetails, with over 20 of those years in Iowa, I’ve found standing soybeans to be one of the very best late-season food sources you’ll find. Of course the deer will pick standing beans clean very quickly, so if you find that type of spot, get on it.

Soybeans provide tremendous amounts of protein that the deer require to stay warm during winter’s bitter cold. Cut beanfields that are productive are harder to find, but standing beans in the right spot will provide some of the best hunting of the year. (Photo by T.A. Harrison)

Picked soybeans will hold promise as well, but let the deer indicate their interest and invest your focus accordingly. If they are spending a great deal of time on it each day, then move in and hunt it.

3. Tough It Out

Chasing big whitetails during the late season is no joke. It will test your fortitude, it will test your endurance and it will test your desire to succeed. It can be bitter cold — the colder the better — yet if you dress for the occasion and mentally prep to overcome the conditions, the reward of a late-season giant will be worth it.

With less than an hour to go in Iowa’s late muzzleloader in 2011, the author located a cut cornfield that was attracting big numbers of deer, including this nice buck. A perfectly placed shot at 125 yards ended his season in style, but the abundant corn was the key to being in the right spot when time was short. (Photo by T.A. Harrison)

Consider how far you have to walk, and don’t hesitate to take replacement clothing with you if you expect to battle the cold for several hours. Quality boots, hand warmers, the right kind of base layers combined with insulating outer layers will hold an impact on how long you last.

Spend the money on quality base layers, including thermal underwear, heavy-duty socks — even electric socks — and perhaps heated insoles. Then move to your median layers, they need to act as a secondary level of insulation on top of the base layers, and they will augment the heavy outer layers you’ll cover up with.

Keep your neck and head warm, along with wrist, hands and fingers and of course angles feet and toes. If you can manage those parts, the rest of your body will take care of itself.

So be strong, and don’t let Mother Nature get the better of you. You’ll warm up once you get home.

This is your very best shot at a giant. Make the most of it.

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