Hunting at or near any agricultural field or food plot is a terrific way to collect venison during the big chill, but it's tough to beat cornfields, either those that remain standing or were recently cut, for late-season success. That's what Jeff Noble found out during a late hunt one year. He was set up in a hay bale blind in a cut cornfield, but there was uncut corn nearby.
As light was fading for the day, a monster buck appeared about 60 yards away and he dropped it with a single shot. The 12-pointer had short drop tines off of both beams and a gross score of 170 5/8. After many days and weeks spent hunting, most late-season deer hunters are happy with any buck, much less one of trophy caliber. And there's no shortage of hunters who venture forth late in the hunting season who are content to claim a doe.
Quality food is the key to success at this time of year wherever you are hunting. Most of the does have been bred and the bucks that lost lots of weight while pursuing does are ready to return to a regular feeding schedule. The cold weather that commonly coincides with the end days of the hunting seasons increases the incentive for all whitetails to eat as much as possible. As temperatures drop, energy demands to stay warm go up. Deer need more food to fuel their bodies. Adult bucks also will be trying to regain part of the weight they lost during the rut in preparation for winter. That increases the chances they will start feeding during legal hunting hours.
During late seasons, however, after months of hunting pressure, bucks that survived may not reach their preferred food source until after legal shooting time ends. The odds of intercepting antlered whitetails under these cicumstances goes up when hunters try to ambush them somewhere between bedding and feeding areas. I often backtrack heavily used trails from the food source toward bedding areas anywhere from 50 to 200 yards — or more — until I find a spot that looks promising. A location where I can watch intersecting trails from downwind is ideal.
That strategy produced a 7-pointer for me one year during a late hunt. I was in woods about 150 yards from a cornfield where I could watch a pair of runways leading to the corn. I got into position in a tree stand about 3 p.m. and watched seven does and fawns walk by before the buck appeared.
If you prefer to still-hunt rather than sit in a stand, that's an ideal way to hunt cornfields that still are standing. Windy days are best so that the sound of windblown corn stalks will cover any sounds you might make. Sneak along between rows, going into or across the wind, looking for deer that are bedded or feeding. Before stepping into a row, look both ways to see if any deer are present. If there's snow on the ground, deer will be easier to spot.
Even if still-hunting isn't your preferred method of late-season deer hunting with gun or bow and arrow, it may be the best option on extremely cold, windy days when it can be miserable trying to sit still in a tree stand or in an unheated ground blind. I found myself in such a situation one time. I planned to hunt from a tree stand on the edge of a cornfield that was on top of a hill. Even though I wore a number of heavy layers, my clothes were no match for that biting-cold wind.
After 30 minutes in the tree stand, I climbed down and did some still-hunting through the cornfield and managed to get surprisingly close to a number of antlerless deer. I was looking for a buck though, so I didn't take a shot. Nonetheless, I remained more comfortable than I would have been while sitting, which made for an enjoyable morning hunt.
In wooded habitat where there are no food plots, hunting mast crops or feral apple trees that still have fruit can be the keys to late-season success. Acorns, beechnuts and other types of hard mast tend to concentrate whitetails when temperatures plunge. Set up an ambush where the most signs of feeding show, or along trails leading to those feeding locations.
Where deer are dispersed throughout a stand of nut-bearing trees, still-hunting may be the key to getting a shot by slowly sneaking into or across the wind. The same tactic can produce in an apple orchard or patch of woods where feral apple trees are spread out.
Logging operations also can be late-season whitetail magnets in big-woods country. Deer will come from miles around to browse on the tops of felled trees. I've experienced excellent late-season hunting success by situating in and around logging operations. Due to safety concerns, it may not be possible to hunt in cuttings while loggers are working, but trails leading to and from those prime deer-feeding grounds can be productive. Once workers are done for the day, deer often come pouring out into the cuttings.
I've tagged plenty of late-season does while hunting in the vicinity of cuttings, but I've also scored on some bucks, including a fine 11-pointer the antlers of which grossed in the 130s.
Although most does have been bred by the time late hunting seasons begin, there always is at least some breeding activity during December into January. In some areas, a portion of doe fawns reach maturity during those months. Where most does don't breed until they are 1 1/2 years old, some yearlings may come into estrus in late December or January. Even though young does are responsible for most of the late-season breeding activity, older does that did not conceive earlier will recycle 28 days later, which often falls during December.
So if you see any fresh scrapes during late seasons, or old ones that have been freshened, it's a sure sign that one or more does in the area are either in estrus or soon will be. Those late breeders can attract the attention of a number of bucks. Scrape hun-ting can be productive during late seasons, if you find a concentration of them or an active scrape line.
Activity levels of late-season whitetails often are even more in tune with storms than during the fall, due to the approach of winter. If a storm is predicted, try to concentrate hunting effort both before it arrives and after it breaks. That's when deer movement should be at a peak.
Keep in mind that the warmest part of the day during cold weather can be around midday to early afternoon. To conserve energy when temperatures are extremely cold, deer may be active during the warmest time of the day instead of early and late. You may have to adjust your hunting schedule accordingly to fill tags late in the season.
During cold weather, it usually is more comfortable hunting from an enclosed blind, whether it's on the ground
or elevated, than an uncovered tree stand. A blind with some sort of heater is the most comfortable of all. Some hunters use propane heaters, with a tank
mounted outside the blind and a line running to the heater inside. Plenty of hunters also use portable heaters. When using a heater, it's important to have ventilation in a blind to avoid asphyxiation.
The presence of snow coupled with cold temperatures can really tip the odds in favor of late-season deer hunters for a number of reasons. The white background makes deer more visible in their surroundings and the sign whitetails leave behind makes it possible for hunters to determine where deer were most active most recently. Because whitetails sense that they are more visible in open habitat once snow is on the ground, they tend to gravitate toward thick cover that's present in such places as river bottoms, swamps, evergreen thickets and similar habitat. The end result can be higher concentrations of deer in small areas where they are more vulnerable to hunters.
In some areas, whitetails have distinct fall and winter ranges, and when 6 inches or more of snow cover
the ground, the conditions trigger migrations of deer from locations where they've spent the summer and fall to their winter quarters. Hunters in the know can cash in on this tendency by hunting along migration routes when the shift is under way.
I've been fortunate enough to hunt migrating deer during late bow and muzzleloader seasons and have been successful in collecting plenty of whitetails by using that tactic. Based on my experience, whitetails are most active on migration trails during late morning and into the afternoon, but they can and do move on the trails at any time. Unless forced to migrate due to heavy snowfall, many whitetail use migration trails under the cover of darkness.
DRESSING FOR THE CHILL
Dressing in layers is the best way to prepare for hunting whitetail or other species during the big chill. I have a large collection of long underwear made of capilene and polypropylene in light, medium and heavy weights that I rely on to keep me warm when temperatures are cold. During the coldest conditions, I often wear no less than three layers of long johns, one medium and two in heavy weight.
The materials my long johns are made of wick moisture away from the skin to help keep the body warm. Other modern types of fabrics accomplish the same thing. At least one of the layers of long underwear is a ScentLok Base Layer to reduce the chances of being smelled by whitetails. My outer layers are heavy ScentLok clothing that are large enough to accommodate inner layers, complete with a hooded hat and gloves.
I wear LaCrosse boots made for cold weather to keep my feet warm. Heavy boot blankets are available to wear over boots for added warmth. ThermaCell makes heating pads that can be put in any type of boot to help keep feet warm. Chemically charged heating pads also can be put in boots, pockets and various parts of the anatomy to help beat the chill. If you have a Heater Body Suit to wear over normal outer layers, you won't need to wear as many long johns. And the same is true if you will be hunting from a heated blind.