Last Call for Your Show Me Trophy

If you've got a bow and know how to use it, you're well on your way to taking the biggest buck of the season! Just check out our expert's insights into late-season bowhunting.

No matter where I go to talk about deer hunting, the proverbial guy in the back of the room raises his hand and poses some deceptively complex question. "Is bowhunting after the November firearms season worth the effort?" asked one such fellow. "And if you think it is, why do so few people do it?"

As far as I'm concerned, being outdoors interacting with wild whitetails is always worth the effort. I "hunt" deer the year around, regardless of whether I'm carrying a bow or a rifle. Therefore, I speak from personal experience when I assert, in answering the first part of that query, that no bowhunter who's even semiserious about the sport should spend the second half of Missouri's split archery season indoors.

As for the second part of the question: Given the additional demands the holiday season places on all of us, some bowhunters find it easy to convince themselves that the firearms hunters have killed most of the deer. Not so. While firearms hunting pressure does vary from place to place, not quite 20 percent of the deer herd will fall prey to the firestick crowd on a statewide basis. In other words: If 10 deer are hanging around the vicinity of your favorite stand in October, eight of them will still be alive in December. What's more, the odds are good that the two deer missing from the group will be either does or 18-month-old bucks.

Blow away all the smoke, and the real reason behind most archers' hanging up their gear prior to the end of November is that they're either unwilling or unable to adjust their hunting strategies and tactics and, in some cases, their criteria for selecting locations - so if you're disinclined to adapt to the late season's particular demands, staying home probably is your best option. If, on the other hand, you'd like to learn how to expand your horizons beyond the early season, I'll do my best to give you a leg up.

Long-term climate conditions in the Show Me State certainly seem to favor the early archery season. Despite an occasional tendency to whine (my wife's term, not mine) when it gets too warm for my meat cooler (a.k.a. my garage) to work properly, I readily admit that it's hard not to like October's monthly average 69-degree highs and 48-degree lows.

Let me amend that last statement. Temperatures above 60 degrees are great if you're a nearly hairless human, but they're miserably hot if you're a deer wrapped inside a non-removable winter coat. The deer react in the only way they can - by shifting most (but not all) of their activities to the period between a half-hour before sunset to an hour or so after sunrise. While this behavior pattern isn't a response to human activity (as some believe), it nevertheless greatly reduces the number of daylight hours during which a bowhunter has a reasonable chance of having a deer pass beneath his stand.

A dedicated meat hunter might well point out that October's deer are in prime physical condition, and that's certainly true - at least of dry does and young to middle-aged bucks. Further, a hope-oriented trophy hunter could add that the rut begins during the first half of the season, and, as "everybody" knows, big bucks get careless then. What about these arguments?

Photo by Ken Thommes

Well, venison accounts for well over 90 percent of the red meat that my family eats, so I understand meat hunting. Believe me: If at any time between daylight on Oct. 1 and dark on Nov. 15 I get a chance to arrow a fat doe, I'm going to do it. Then I'll purchase one of the new statewide antlerless-only archery permits to replace the tag I used, thus keeping one any-deer tag in reserve for a trophy buck.

But be that as it may, our topic today is hunting, not freezer-filling. Early-season deer are so fat because all they have to do to get something to eat is to open their mouths. Put that easy feeding together with limited daytime movement and you've got a tough patterning job. Sure, we've all seen individual deer that passed the same spot at the same time day after day - you gotta love an animal like that - but, in early fall, most deer simply amble randomly through food-rich habitat.

It's true that buck movement - especially daylight movement - increases dramatically with the onset of the rut in early November. If you're an archer who'd rather be lucky than good, this is the time to be in the timber. Why do I say such a thing? After all, the rut truly is a great time to be on a ridge in open timber with a rifle in your hands. Alas, the bowhunter must devise a way to get within approximately 30 yards of the target - a feat almost impossible to perform without knowing where that target will be at a given time. And since a rutting buck has no idea where he'll go next, "outsmarting" him is far more art than science.

Don't misunderstand me: I thoroughly enjoy early-season bowhunting, and - like you, I hope - I've tagged some fine deer while the leaves were still on the trees. My comments are intended only to help you appreciate more exactly why almost all bowhunting takes place during the early season - and why only a fourth of the state's archers end even one day per season with a visit to a wildlife check station. (And perhaps I've made you feel a little better about the fact that one of those hunters was that obnoxious next-door neighbor who bears an uncanny resemblance to Elmer Fudd.)

Now let's ask why December and the first half of January are the heart and soul of the archery season.

Being able to predict with a reasonably high degree of accuracy where the deer in your hunting area will be throughout the daylight hours is by far the most important - make that the most absolutely vital - ingredient in consistently successful bowhunting. To say that patterning deer movements during the late season is "easy" would be a wild exaggeration. However, it's certainly a lot less difficult at this time of the year, because the onset of winter focuses the attention of every deer in the herd on a single theme: finding food.

Meanwhile, farmers' combines and nature's frost have stripped away October's infinite feast, forcing the deer to seek the bulk of their food in a few specific places within their home ranges. In northern Missouri, and in much of the central part of the state as well, row-crop stubble, orchards and alfalfa or clover hay fields serve as the primary source of high-energy winter food, although acorns and woody browse are also consumed whenever they can be found in sufficient quantity. In the forested portions of southern Missouri, acorns form the basis of the whitetail's winter diet.

That the deer are limited to a few obvious feeding sites at this time is the best news a bowhunter could hear. For one thing, identifying a crop field that's being used by deer is - or should be - a snap even for a novice hunter, and pawed-back leaves and deer droppings make sources of acorns almost as easy to detect at a glance. In addition, when the need for food brings the entire herd together, it's possible to hunt "meat" deer and trophy bucks from the same stand.

About now the guy in the back says, "Hunting food sources doesn't work. I tried setting up on the edges of crop fields in October. I saw lots of tracks but none with deer standing in them."

We'll get to the specifics of how to key a bowhunt on food sources shortly, but first allow me to remind my questioner that October and December are anything but identical twins. In my part of central Missouri, Dec. 1 sees a normal high of 45 degrees and a low of 27 degrees. By Jan. 15, the norms have fallen to 34 and 16; the record low for that date was a nippy 20 degrees below zero. "Normal" temperatures like these are nearly ideal for daytime deer movement - and the farther the mercury drops below normal, the more active deer become during legal hunting hours.

I've never hunted deer when the air temperature was 20 below, but I've been on their trail when the wind chill was down in that range, and the experience left me convinced that one of the most important elements of late-season hunting is keeping warm. For advice on how to do that, I turned to my good friend Wayne, who lives within 30 miles of the Canadian border in North Dakota - a place where wind chills of "only" 20 below signal a warming trend.

"Being able to stay on a deer stand in cold weather starts with keeping your feet warm," Wayne counseled. "Go to a farm supply store and buy a pair of rubber-bottom pac boots, the kind with thick felt inserts. These boots should be two full sizes larger than your normal shoe size. The extra room will allow you to wear two pairs of wool socks - or one pair of poly socks and one pair of wool, if you prefer - and still have room to wiggle your toes. That setup will keep your toes toasty in any weather you have any business being outdoors in, but even in less extreme temperatures, remember that tight boots equal cold feet."

Like most experts, Wayne's a firm believer in layering cold-weather clothing. He makes use of some of the modern synthetic fibers, but he insists that there's no substitute for wool when the bottom drops out of the thermometer. "To tell the truth," he observed, "today's cold-weather hunter can choose from among several good fabrics, both natural and manmade. However, the tight-equals-cold rule remains in effect: Your clothing must fit loosely enough to allow room for trapped air and - even more important - unimpeded blood circulation to your legs and arms."

Wool gloves and a wool hat or balaclava round out Wayne's cold weather outfit. He left me with one final word of caution. "Up here we say: 'If you're wet, you're dead.' Even down there in the sunny south, if you work up a sweat rushing to your stand, you're going to get cold no matter what you're wearing. Either carry your outer layer from the truck to the stand or arrive early enough to walk to your stand at a snail's pace."

During the late season, my favorite type of site for a morning stand is the head of a timbered or brushy draw, the mouth of which opens into cultivated creek bottomland. Draws within forests are worth checking out, but, given the choice, I prefer draws that head in open ground.

Pardon the unavoidable pun, but deer are drawn to the heads of draws like iron filings to a magnet. And for good reason. Owing to a scientific phenomenon called the "Venturi effect," daytime air movement at ground (i.e., deer-nose) level in a steep-sided draw always flows upgrade from its mouth to its head. Therefore, a deer opting to spend the midday hours near the head of a draw can use its eyes and ears to detect danger approaching the draw from the outside and its nose to detect danger following its trail up the draw.

It's a good plan - unless the predator (that would be you) gets there first. That sounds easy, because late-season deer often dally over breakfast. In fact, deer usually don't begin arriving at the head of my favorite draw until after 9. Note, however, the emphasis on "often" and "usually." Experience has taught me that it's worth the effort to be in position by first light.

Evening stands can be set close to the food source during the late season, because it's not uncommon at this time of year for deer to be feeding actively in crop fields a full hour prior to sunset; they may begin feeding on acorns even earlier in the afternoon. Setting up over a trail 50 yards or so back from the edge of a crop field is a bowhunting cliché, but on cold December evenings, it actually works.

Or, at least, it can work. Never forget that in December you're hunting a "breed" of whitetail different from the one that was your quarry in October. Back when the archery season first opened, deer/human interaction had been benign for more than eight months. Most deer - cocksure bucks most of all - would ignore the low-level ground scent left by passing hunters, and might even be curious enough to try to find out why a human would allow a fox to pee on his boots. By December, however, deer will have learned that curiosity can kill things other than cats. The survivors avoid anything that doesn't look, sound or smell exactly like it should.

The should-be-obvious solution to this problem is to leave your calls and scent bottles at home and to make sure - as in absolutely sure - that you account for the direction in which the air currents are flowing at both ground and stand level. Most bowhunters dedicated enough to brave the cold know how to check the "wind" - but the real trick is using what you find out. Believe me - I know from personal experience how easy it is to say to yourself: I know this stand isn't quite right, but I'm going to hunt it anyway. Somehow, watching deer detour around your stand and then stroll into the field to feed isn't much fun.

Being able to test your skills as a hunter by figuring out where the deer in your area are spending their daytime hours and then working out a plan to intercept them is reason enough to hunt during the late season. But be that as it may, the best reason to brave December's chill is that you can hunt without interference from other hunters - even on public land.

If you'll promise not to tell anyone who doesn't read Missouri Game & Fish, I'll let you in on one of the public-land archer's most closely guarded secrets: Missouri is dotted with small (80- to 300-acre) Conservation Areas. In most cases, firearms deer hunting isn't allowed at these CAs, and many of them see only light pressure during the early archery season. In contrast, the private land around these CAs may see heavy use during firearms season.

Research has proved that even heavy hunting pressure is seldom able to drive a whitetail off its home range. On the other hand, if part of that home range (i.e., the CA) has more cover, more food and almost no human presence, it's logical to

assume that a substantial percentage of the deer in the vicinity will have gathered there by December.

Public land with lots of deer and bowhunters. That has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? With so many CAs to choose from, the odds on our meeting in the woods are long. But if we do? I'll help you drag your buck out if you'll help me with mine!

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