December 27, 2019
The big 9 stepped into the cornfield at about 2 p.m. I gently slid the safety forward, and the crack of my muzzleloader shattered the silence. And just that quickly, it was all worth it. The sub-zero temps, biting wind, wind-chapped cheeks and my unstoppable runny nose meant nothing.
It was mid-December, the rut was over, and all the other hunters were on the couch watching football, or so it seemed. Like many times before, I’d found better hunting in bitter post-rut weather than during the rut itself.
As the mercury plummets in late season, deer often become more patternable. This, thanks to a combination of the drive to feed, food availability, harsh weather and little or no hunting pressure. While there’s no guarantee the early to mid-December time frame will produce hot deer activity each year, excellent action is often missed by those who choose to remain home. Several factors contribute to a deer’s patternability late in the season. These include:
- Hard-to-find eats. In Northern regions, most crops have been harvested, and acorns and nutritious leaves have been eaten or buried under early snowfalls. Deer congregate on remaining foods and deplete them further.
- The need to feed. A deer’s metabolism has not yet reached its full-on winter slowdown, meaning hunger can be relentless as the deer struggle to maintain energy reserves in increasingly bitter weather. When they find what they want, they’ll stay close to the food as long as it lasts.
- Rut recovery. In addition to the increased energy demands all whitetails face, bucks must recover from the rut. All they can do is regain energy and stamina, because it is almost impossible to gain weight now.
- Relating to fields. Large agricultural fields generally offer the most abundant and accessible foods, so that’s where deer usually head. Also, the combination of hunger and bitter temperatures encourage deer to make daylight appearances, when it’s warmer and they expend less energy obtaining calories.
- Hunter-free zones. Generally speaking, hunting pressure tails off after the rut, making deer feel more secure when moving at dawn and twilight.
IT’S RELATIVELY EASY
Unless an unexpected heat wave, extended rain or a gradual cooling trend that eases deer into winter comes, the arrival of snow makes it easier to scout for feeding areas and all-important travel routes from afar. I’ve often done it from my truck with a binocular or spotting scope, looking for beaten-down trails through leafless trees bordering crops.
Which crops are key? Soybeans, corn or brassicas will draw deer like a kid to a candy store. So, too, do alfalfa and winter wheat that remain upright, their leaves and stems accessible beneath light snow. Deer will hit these fields if food is accessible. Also, remember that deer prefer corn, soybeans or cowpeas lying on top of the ground or snow. Though they will, they do not like to pluck food from standing stalks. In fact, they’ll walk past row after row of standing crops and scavenge for hours on harvested fields.
There is a lot of debate among food plotters as to whether corn, soybeans or brassicas work best for late-season forage. If you have enough ground, planting varieties of all three, with planting times and locations staggered, as both disperse feeding activity and increase the time window in which late-season deer visit these sites.
Late-season hunting techniques are simple. Watch the wind and set up along a field edge, preferably in the afternoon. Why afternoon and not morning? I’ve found that in truly bitter weather, the deer remain bedded on east- and south-facing hillsides. Here, the sun warms the ground first thing, and deer usually don’t get up and moving until the air has warmed up. Also, the snow can be super crunchy before sunup, making sneaking into a stand virtually impossible.
This tactic can be adapted if it turns unseasonably warm and rain appears. Now, few mature deer will appear on feeding grounds until last light, or later. Hunting bedding area edges makes more sense than waiting along a field edge. Your hope is to see deer head for their feeding grounds when it’s still light. If you must hunt mornings, your best bet is to set up along a trail between the food source and bedding area. Remaining undetected is everything, so remember that sound travels far and fast on a calm, cold morning.
Lastly, keep in mind when it turns cold, deer prefer bedding as near to food sources as possible. This will reduce energy demands when they move to feed. As such, look for dense bedding cover near food. Deer retreat to these thick sanctuaries to avoid human activity and/or to escape energy-robbing wind chills. In super-bitter weather, the deer will often bed on south- and east-facing slopes that warm up first.
WHAT ABOUT BIG TIMBER?
Hunting big timber during the intense cold can be challenging, to say the least. That’s because, while farmland deer head for crops, big timber deer exist largely on woody browse, which means their food supply is more varied and spread over large areas.
Remember that a whitetail’s basic energy needs often exceed the fuel it extracts from woody browse such as the twigs and buds of ash, hemlock, aspen, maple, hazelwood and red osier dogwood. Even with a low metabolism and an inactive lifestyle that comes later in winter, the only woody browse that can sustain deer through 100 days in a deeryard is white cedar, but whitetails require 3 to 6 pounds of it daily, a major undertaking in heavily-browsed deeryards.
Big timber whitetails also seek out “Old Man’s Beard,” a gray arboreal lichen resembling Spanish moss. These lichens grow on dead or dying spruce and balsam trees. If you find deer tracks converging on a long-dead tree that toppled recently, look for lichen “beards” on branches beyond the deer’s reach. Lichens are part algae and part fungus, and are rich in nutrition, especially the “micro-nutrients” that help deer survive harsh winters.
YARDING UP AND RUBS
If you know where the deer yard up in winter and can find their traditional trails to yarding areas, setting up here with loads of patience can pay big dividends. Studies have revealed that the triggering mechanism for deer yard migrations is generally temperatures of 19 degrees or less for at least five consecutive days. Of course, big timber deer don’t move as one—some leave early, some much later, with young deer and does usually going first and mature bucks trailing the pack.
Also, don’t disregard rub lines from earlier in the year. If a rub line leads between a buck’s bedding and feeding areas, and you find signs that a buck is back on that route, hunt it. Start near the food and try it for a couple of days. Move steadily closer toward his daytime sanctuary if you don’t find better options.
HUNT WEATHER FRONTS
Once you locate a food source peppered with deer sign, monitor the forecast closely for sudden weather changes. Scientific research tells us both warm and cold fronts motivate deer to move. Smartphone apps make it possible to stay in-tune with the impending weather 24/7. Both weather.com and wunderground.com are reliable weather resources.
Keep in mind, deer generally fall into nocturnal feeding patterns during lengthy periods of warmer temperatures. But when a cold snap is on the way, deer sense the barometric change, and get on their feet earlier than usual. Likewise, deer move really well when a lengthy cold spell with wicked winds and pulverizing snow reduces to calm and moderate conditions. When fronts are approaching, remember, they greatly increase your chances of a daylight encounter.