There's still plenty of time for you to hang a tag on a buck before the North Dakota archery season comes to an end.
By Curt Wells
If you're from North Dakota, you take a lot of grief about how cold the winters are. It's just a fact of life.
It's also a fact that many of us like the cold weather, or more accurately, the change of seasons. But the cold weather does a couple of other things, too: It makes our deer grow big, and the cold winters ensure that we remain a relatively rural state with lots of hunting opportunities and not a lot of concrete.
But it's during our late-season deer hunting that we bowhunters pay the price for our North Dakota winters. The bowhunting in December and the first week of January can be excellent, but it'll probably take lots of layers of clothing to keep you in that tree stand or ground blind. We'll look at staying warm later. For now, let's consider hunting late-season whitetails in North Dakota.
WHEN TO HUNT A common question among bowhunters at any time of the season is when to hunt. The only acceptable answer is: whenever you can. That's especially true during the late bow season; by then most of us have probably used up all of our vacation time and are relegated to hunting only on our days off or on holidays. And it gets dark too early to hunt after work at this time of year, unless you're one of those fortunate ones who gets off early in the day. So the only alternative is to get out in that tree stand at every opportunity - and that includes mornings when the temperature may be difficult to tolerate.
Late in the season, especially in a state like North Dakota, it usually doesn't pay to sit in a tree stand during midday. Deer waste little time getting to their bedding areas in the morning, and you usually won't have to sit much past an hour after sunrise. By then most deer, most of all the bucks, will be tucked safely in their beds. They don't tend to do too much wandering around during the day.
The same goes for the evenings. If you head for your tree stand too early in the day, you will, most likely, simply be spending your time getting cold. "Prime time" comes later in the day as the season grows old.
The exception to this rule - there are always exceptions - is seen when a storm's in progress or on its way. If you're deep enough in the woods on a stormy, snowy day, you might be surprised at how many deer you see wandering around. However, you'll have to be protected from any strong wind, or you'll be freezing your hindquarters off for no reason. In summary, if you have yet to fill your deer tag, bowhunt every chance you get this month.
The author killed this late-season 10-pointer the same way most North Dakota whitetail hunters take their bucks: by placing a tree stand near a heavily traveled deer trail between bedding and feeding areas. It was the waiting that was the hard part. Photo by Curt Wells
WHERE TO HUNT Knowing where to hunt at this time of year is the easy part, especially if there is snow cover. A couple of hours spent driving around in prime whitetail country will reward you with all kinds of places to hunt. North Dakota's deer population is at an all-time high right now, so you'll have no trouble finding deer during December and January.
What isn't a sure thing is getting access to those deer. North Dakota is made up of about 93 percent private land, and you'll have to seek permission from landowners to hunt deer. That said, you should have almost no trouble getting permission during the last month of the season. Landowners will be done with their hunting, and most are more than willing to allow access. They really want to see a reduction in the deer herd this year, so permission for late-season bowhunters shouldn't be a problem.
River and creek bottoms are probably No. 1 on the list of places to find late-season whitetails. The Red River along the Minnesota border always holds large numbers of deer toward the later part of the season. Access isn't quite as forthcoming along the Red, because that deer habitat is in the heart of the population centers, and some places are leased up or being saved for others. The same goes along the Missouri River, both north and south of Bismarck, and along the Yellowstone and Little Missouri Rivers in the west. Access to those whitetails can be difficult, even during December, because of people buying land strictly for hunting - a practice that is growing in North Dakota.
However, that doesn't mean there is nowhere to hunt. Some public land exists along the Missouri River south of Bismarck and Mandan. And there are many smaller rivers and creeks providing whitetail cover that can be accessed just by locating gracious landowners.
There also are several large tracts of Forest Service-managed national grassland that provide the bowhunter with some acreage for pursuing deer. Some of that land can be found near Leonard and Kindred in the east and in the far west.
Besides, in river-bottom land you'll find whitetails holed up in large, thick shelterbelts, out in huge fields of Conservation Reserve Program land (if it's not filled in with snow). But the sure thing is usually a big cattail slough. Whitetails love to slip into a stand of cattails and snuggle up in the nearly impenetrable safety they provide.
Another key thing to look for, as always, is the food source. Corn is king, followed by volunteer winter wheat (nice, green fields that deer love to feed in) and then sugar beets. I always look for corn and focus on that. Food plots are fine, but if they're small, they were probably stripped of their cobs long before late bow season arrived. Large cornfields that have been picked and hold lots of waste corn will do the trick nicely. Deer will travel for a long way to get to corn, and to other food sources for that matter.
The next key is to figure out where the deer are bedding. Late-season whitetails have recently been hunted hard during the firearm season and are extremely spooky. They don't like exposing themselves during the day, and open cornfields give them more exposure than they care for, so they'll bed down in heavy cover nearby and wait until the last minutes of daylight before getting up and making their move to feed. Don't underestimate how far a deer will walk from bedding to feeding grounds - a mile or even two is nothing to them.
If you still can't find late-season deer, stop and talk to landowners, call a game warden or just ask around town. The locals know where the deer are wintering, but I have a hunch finding deer will be the least of your problems this fall.
THE HOW OF THE HUNT Here's how I hunt late-season whitetails in North D
akota. By the time December arrives I usually know where to find the all-important bedding grounds. I don't hunt the food sources themselves much, because it takes too long for the deer to get there in the evening, and the older bucks usually leave before daylight in the mornings.
I much prefer bedding areas, or somewhere along the trail that leads to where the deer are feeding. In the mornings I like to slip in close to where the deer are bedding. That's an effort to get ahead of both the deer and daylight. Does and fawns will lollygag around for a while in the morning, but bucks waste no time getting to bed. Last fall, on the second to the last day of the season, I finally had a good buck come down the trail heading for bed. He stood broadside to me at only 7 yards, but it was too early to shoot! Letting him walk away really stung.
During December I like to have my tree stands a bit higher than usual because of the lack of cover. At 6 feet, 5 inches I stick out like a giant squirrel. Skittish bucks tend to notice me if I'm not up in the air. I try to hunt the hottest trails, but it's often a game of chess trying to predict which trail the deer will take on any particular morning. I avoid setting up too close to a trail, because on the cold, quiet mornings, the slightest sound can make a whitetail buck explode into flight.
My strategy doesn't change much for evening hunts. I still like to be closer to the bedding areas than the feeding areas. That puts me in a better position to intercept a buck that is taking his sweet time getting out of bed and heading to dinner.
If there is snow on the ground, you may have to hang back a bit from the bedding areas, as snow is just too noisy to allow you to get to your stand undetected. If a buck hears something ominous, he may not bolt, but he might stay in bed until dark.
If I'm hunting a cattail slough, a suitable tree isn't always available, so I resort to a ground blind. In some cases, a ground blind is deadlier than a tree stand. If you can get set up along a major trail, some of which prairie whitetails will purposely use to avoid trees, you can set up a pop-up ground blind and surprise them. I have a Double Bull blind that is made with a camouflage pattern called "Fall Flight." It resembles cattails, corn or prairie grass and can be hidden very well in tall cane.
During the latter part of the season I don't use a decoy, rattling antlers or any kind of a call. Oh, I'll still have a grunt and a bleat call in my pocket, just in case, but most of the deer are so touchy at that time of year that such tactics only seem to alarm them.
Whatever strategy I use to hunt late-season whitetails, I make sure I go every chance I get, find the deer and spend as much time as possible in their travel path waiting for something good to happen.
WARMTH AS A WEAPON Probably your deadliest late-season weapon is warmth. The ability to stay warm will go a long way toward helping you get out of bed and into the woods on a cold morning. Here's what works for me.
It doesn't work to just wear one thick, heavy pair of coveralls with light clothes underneath; as you've read for years, you have to dress in layers. I start off with silk or polypropylene long underwear and then layer according to the temperature. Wool is excellent, because it traps air. Fleece is also very effective. Last fall I wore up to three fleece pullovers underneath my coveralls, and they kept me toasty-warm. It's also important to have at least one layer that will stop the wind from penetrating through to your skin.
It's on the extremities that you really need to focus. On my feet I wear polypropylene socks under wool; then I put on pac-style boots with liners that are absolutely dry because I keep them on one of those boot dryers overnight. If it's really cold I take a pair of chemical toe-warmers with the adhesive backing and stick them on the bottom of my toes before slipping them in the boot. Since I've started doing that, cold feet have become a thing of the past for me.
For my hands, I like to wear a wool military glove underneath a fleece glove like the kind you can buy at a clothing store. That combination is extremely quiet, and that's important. I've yet to find a decent pair of camouflage hunting gloves that'll keep me warm but aren't noisy. However, I don't depend on the wool/fleece combination to keep my hands warm. I keep them in the insulated pockets of my jacket, or I strap an insulated muff around my waist and keep my hands in that. Again, cold hands are a thing of the past.
For my head, where most of my body heat can be lost, I wear a knit facemask with an insulated ball cap underneath. I like to have the visor over my eyes when looking into the sun. If it's seriously frigid I'll wear two knit facemasks. Another option is one of those pullover neck-warmer/ head-cover combinations. They are fleece, camouflage, adjustable and very warm.
If that's still not enough armor against the cold, I take my Heater Body Suit up in the tree with me. It's like a sleeping bag with an interior harness. I can enclose my arms inside and, when a deer comes, quietly pull the zipper down, as the harness keeps the suit up while I slip my arms out and grab my bow. It looks cumbersome, but it works.
If all that is not keeping me warm, I go home and wait for nicer weather with warmer temperatures.
FORCING THE ISSUE Sometimes when a bowhunter has an empty tag in his pocket and not a lot of time left to hunt, he resorts to trying to make something happen. That usually means getting together with other bowhunters and making a few drives. We used to do that years ago in the public river bottoms south of Mandan. The local bowhunters had the deer figured out and knew about where they would go when pushed. Some hunters would carry tree stands in and set up on escape trails; the rest would line up and drive large expanses of trees and brush.
Moving the deer slowly is the trick to this technique. The drivers need to slip along quietly, zigzag a bit, and generally make bedded whitetails nervous by penetrating their sanctuaries. Done correctly, this type of hunt will keep the deer trotting ahead of the drivers, stopping occasionally to make sure the threat is still coming.
Once in a while, a stander would have a deer, whether it was a good buck or a fat doe, come sneaking along and stop right by his stand, presenting a shot. Enough tags got filled by means of those tactics that it kept everyone doing it.
Unfortunately, it also irritated other bowhunters who were on stand and waiting for the deer to move in their natural patterns, so if you and your buddies decide to try a deer drive or two, consider other archers who might be affected. But if the situation is right, driving deer just might produce a shot at anything from a juicy yearling to the biggest buck in the county.
MULE DEER Now, if you're interested in bowhunting for mule deer, you'll have to concentrate on the areas south and west of the Missouri River System
. A considerable amount of public land lies in that region and late-season mule deer hunting can be an exciting challenge. If, however, you're a non-resident, you'll need an "any-deer" license, which entitles you to hunt either species/either sex. Those licenses are limited and a lottery is held early in the year. Licenses to bowhunt whitetails are available over the counter
Most hunting for mule deer is spot-and-stalk, but with a little scouting you might be able to determine a pattern of movement and set up in an intercept position. It won't be easy to locate and arrow a good mulie buck toward the end of the year, but if you do it, you'll know you've done something special.
And that goes for any late-season deer hunt. It's a special challenge to conquer both the elements and ultra-wary winter whitetails, the spookiest of which are often the does, and do it with a primitive weapon. Bowhunting North Dakota's deer in December and early January isn't for the timid or weak. But it is for the bowhunter who still has a tag and a strong desire to drop the string on a deer before the season passes him by.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Great Plains Game & Fish