December 06, 2021
Note: This article was featured in the December/January issue of Game & Fish Magazine (Midwest edition). How to subscribe
A couple years ago I spent the entire season thinking about a deer called “Buckets.” A homebody on our 80-acre Ohio lease, "Buckets" was a lucky rascal. He moved like crazy in daylight but never when my hunting buddy or I were present to capitalize on it.
This deer not only had my number, he also captivated my thoughts. His overlapping tips—a negative 1 1/2-inch tip-to-tip spread—haunted my dreams and I had difficulty thinking about much else.
Despite my persistence, he ate up almost all of my 2019–2020 deer season. He survived the early season, pre-rut, rut and most of the late season. Then, during the late muzzleloader season in early January, after months of obsessive effort, I finally came face-to-face with Buckets. In the end, the deciding factor had been determining where the buck was bedding.
I had realized Buckets was bedding on our property part of the time, but that he usually came from our neighbor’s land to the south. Using HuntStand, I saw a southerly slope that stretched along that property, as well as a bench.
I deduced that Buckets was likely bedding there often. Luckily, we had the food that he wanted, and I set up in a staging area along a heavily used trail on our side of the property line.
After three days of hunting, I got my shot and made it count. So can you if you learn where bucks are bedding, and hunt wisely based on this information.
It’s always key to know where bucks are bedding, no matter the time of season. However, it becomes increasingly crucial as the season progresses, and especially during the late season. At this point, some bucks have been killed, and those that remain are holed up in the best, most fortified bedding areas they can find.
Of course, there are different types of bedding areas, and other factors determine whether bucks use them during the late season. One such factor is hunting pressure. Areas with heavy human intrusion earlier in the year are less likely to hold deer during the late season.
Food is also essential. Sources deplete as fall yields to winter. In some areas, deer willingly travel great distances between bedding areas and food sources. However, if they can find a good bedding area with necessary security from the cold, hunters and predators, and it’s close to food, they’re even more likely to use it. And when food is found in close proximity to solar, thermal and other types of bedding, you just might be on a late-season hot spot.
SOLAR BEDDING COVER
Perhaps the most crucial location to consider in the late season is solar bedding cover. Varying topography defines it, and the best areas are often south- and southeast-facing hillsides. Deer like bedding on these due to the increased direct sunlight they receive throughout the day.
In winter, deer are running on fewer calories while burning many to stay warm. More sunlight helps conserve energy, and since these southern-facing slopes receive sunlight first each morning, deer that use them warm up quicker. This is also why deer commonly return to bedding areas before sunrise on colder days. They want to be there to catch those rays of warmth peeking over the horizon. When you battle severe cold and starvation for months on end, every little bit counts in the battle for survival.
Often, deer in solar bedding areas are situated along a bench somewhere between halfway and three-quarters of the way up the hillside. They might also be just below the ridge line. Rarely are they all the way at the bottom.
Because deer often occupy solar bedding areas in the morning, it’s usually difficult to hunt them then. However, it’s certainly possible to do so in the afternoon. Deer will rise from their beds and head toward food sources later in the day. Remaining acorns, crop fields, food plots, concentrations of forbs and highly digestible browse are all attractive.
If you’ve found these potential bedding areas and know where food sources are still present, hang cameras to see which trails deer are taking from point A to B. If trail cams aren’t an option or you don’t have time to wait on such intel, hunt from an observation position that offers the best vantage point. Then, once you know what the deer are doing, move in and intercept them during daylight hours.
This time of year, though, that’s easier said than done. When the foliage is off and the woods are loud, it isn’t easy to walk through the timber undetected, especially near bedding areas. This makes finding good entry and exit routes crucial. Use the terrain to your advantage. Creeks, ditches, ridge lines, hills, benches and other varying topography can help conceal your approach and departure.
Wind is always a concern, and hunting around solar bedding is no different. In the afternoon, thermals should carry scent downhill. Because you’re starting out below the deer, you should be in the clear, as long as the wind doesn’t swirl, bounce or do something funky.
THERMAL BEDDING COVER
Unlike solar bedding, thermal bedding cover has nothing to do with topography. Instead, it’s easiest to picture as dense, expansive areas of coniferous trees. This includes red cedars, white cedars, spruces and pines among others.
Deer like these areas for several reasons. First, the trees hold their foliage, which shields deer from rain, snow and wind. This alone helps them conserve energy. Conifers—sometimes referred to as evergreens—also retain heat, keeping it closer to ground level.
Essentially, these trees serve as two-way shields. They keep some heat from escaping into the atmosphere and they help prevent some precipitation and wind from reaching the forest floor. Sometimes, this can increase the temperature by as much as several degrees.
This type of bedding doesn’t directly benefit from the sun, nor does it necessarily rely on terrain, which provides visual, audible and winding advantages (although some thermal bedding will be on hillsides). Due to the heavy foliage in and around dense stands of conifers, hunters may find it a little easier to slip into position. You’re still pretty vulnerable in terms of producing unintended noise, but visually you have much more cover. It remains key to map out viable entry and exit routes, though.
As before, picking where to set up demands more than knowing a deer is there. Know where food sources, water sources, staging areas and connective trails are found. Then, piece it all together.
With the wind in your face—or at least a crosswind—it’s time to do your thing. Slowly ease into position along a safe entry route. With ample evergreens on the landscape, you might have enough concealment to get there. Also pay attention to the weather report. On windy days, your steps usually aren’t as audible.
Regardless, spend extra time and energy approaching quietly. Step on exposed soil rather than leafy mounds. Avoid stepping on rocks, sticks and limbs, too.
OTHER BEDDING COVER
Solar and thermal aren’t the only two types of bedding cover; other areas sometimes enter the mix. Often, these aren’t as attractive as solar and thermal options, but under the right circumstances, they can still hold deer. This is especially true if there is really good food nearby, the spot is hard for humans to infiltrate and/or it hasn’t received much pressure throughout the season. Let’s look at some of these.
A thicket with really small trees and saplings spaced tightly together can be productive. Here, the stem count is high, which minimizes visibility and makes it hard for hunters to enter. If it’s so thick that you can’t access it, or if there aren’t trees big enough to hang stands in, try setting up along the perimeter between the beds and destination food sources. More times than not, a mature buck will position itself at the highest point of elevation within a thicket.
Deer prefer bedding in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fields because these areas do a good job of hiding them and offer them a good deal of security. Hunting in grasslands isn’t easy, though, which is another reason deer like them.
Try finding isolated trees offering a good vantage point. If that doesn’t work, set up elevated blinds. Whatever you do, get high enough to see and shoot down into the CRP. In most cases, if these fields are quite large, setting up on the perimeter likely won’t put you in position to capture these bucks moving during daylight.
Marshy and swampy areas are also really good. If there are pockets of dry, high ground, or maybe even islands, deer will certainly bed on these. Whitetails aren’t dumb, and they know water gives them an edge.
If water levels are low and safe enough, wade out to these spots with the wind in your favor. Move slowly enough that sound is minimized. Use cattails and other foliage to conceal your approach.
In hilly country, other bedding areas to consider—regardless of whether they offer solar or thermal advantages—are leeward (downwind side) ridges, benches, ridge endings and more. In flatter terrain, don’t overlook islands of trees, big woods, low flats, oxbows, standing crops, cutover timber, suburban areas and more. Each of these offers visual, audible and winding advantages to deer, too, and by the late season, bucks and does alike take every edge they can get.
Some late-season spots are much better than others and seem to hog all of the deer. There’s a reason for this, and it essentially comes down to compounding factors.
If you’ve ever shopped around for a house, you know the most desirable have features that check lots of boxes. This is exactly the case with quality bedding areas that offer several of the advantages outlined above.
For example, a south-facing slope along a ridge with plenty of tightly packed conifers offers both solar and thermal cover. With a northerly wind, it also becomes the leeward side, which makes it even more attractive. Say there is an oak flat with acorns down below, maybe a standing crop field or even a brassicas food plot. Now the stage is set for a dynamite late-season hunt.
Bottom line this time of year: If you can find some of the best, most desirable bedding areas, you’ve got a good shot at success.