Going Out On Top

Going Out On Top

The deer season might be winding down in the Dakotas, but there are still some definite advantages to hunting the late segment. Let us suggest just a few of them.

By Curt Wells

Ever notice how many successful hunting stories end with something like "And it was the last day of the season... " or "I killed that buck in the last hour of the last day of my hunt"?

How many times has it happened to you? You hunt hard all season long, and then, in the last moments of the season, it all comes together, and your freezer gets an infusion of venison.

For some Dakota bowhunters, that's a preferable scenario, because it allows them to enjoy hunting all season long, rather than fill the tag in the first week and then suddenly see the end of their deer hunting for the year.

Whenever you embark on a guided deer hunt, you usually have five to seven days to get your deer. Even then, it's common to put an animal down on the last day. Yes, that is often a result of lowering your standards and taking a younger animal or a doe, but taking a long-sought trophy buck can, and does, happen on the last day - maybe even in the last hour - of a hunt.

Such things often occur because we're learning the patterns of the deer and we know exactly where to hunt by late in the trip. We may also be putting in more time trying to get a shot. Our intensity level increases when time is running out.

Sadly, that's not always the case with our hometown hunting seasons. Instead of stepping up efforts toward the end of the season, some Dakota bowhunters wind down and spend less time in the field with their bows.

Of course, here in the Dakotas, that is partially due to the late-season weather we must endure. It's far less inviting to crawl out of a warm bed and into a wind-blown tree on a cold morning in December than it is in October.

However, late-season bowhunting can be a ton of fun and very productive. If you're interested in closing your Dakota bowhunting season with a filled tag, read on.

Since we're talking late-season deer hunting, the firearms season is over, which has a couple of implications. One is that the deer, particularly the bucks with a few years of experience, will be very difficult to come by because they're still keeping their heads down. Nothing makes a buck go underground like the sound of gunfire.

The second factor is that a whitetail buck's forage choices will be less diverse than earlier in the season, which goes against the fact that he needs more of that forage now than at any other time of the year. Generally, they'll focus on a singular food source to compliment their normal browsing. That food source is often a picked or standing cornfield, or some volunteer grain that defies nature and sprouts as a lush green field, despite cold weather and even snow. Such fields are deer magnets and should be scouted thoroughly.

And that's your key to late-season bowhunting - scouting. Put some time in behind the glass. It's often easy to find trails in the snow, even from a distance, with binoculars or a spotting scope. Remember, we are talking about the prairie where in some places you can virtually watch your dog run away for three days!

Finding bedding areas, feeding areas and the arterial trails that link the two is your goal. I prefer to hunt somewhere along those linking trails because of my fear of spooking deer off feeding areas in the morning, or out of their bed in the afternoon.

Fortunately, those trails are typically quite long in the winter months as the deer are often traveling farther to their food supply. That can increase the possibility that you will find a suitable ambush point. Look for one you can get to both early and late in the day without exposing yourself to the ultra-sharp senses of a late-season whitetail.

It's typically very difficult to approach bedding areas during the late-season because there isn't much cover once leaves have fallen and row crops have been harvested. Large cattail sloughs are excellent bedding areas for Dakota deer and you can get close to those while deer are bedded - if you're careful. The problem is that you may not find much for trees to put a stand in and you'll need to hunt from a ground blind. That sounds like an intimidating proposition but it can be done, especially if you can brush in a pop-up blind such as a Double Bull.

Dakota whitetails also love to bed in the expansive fields of Conservation Reserve Program acres, at least until the snow fills those fields in. They will also bed in the thicker shelterbelts, abandoned farmsteads or even those not abandoned. Anywhere a whitetail can get out of the elements, look for signs of bedding.

It's seldom difficult to find winter feeding areas in the Dakotas. Just a few hours spent driving around early and late in the day will help you discover what the deer are feeding on. You'll either spot the deer or see the trails crossing roads and leading across open fields. Snow helps a great deal, but you can still locate the places you're looking for without snow. Of course, local landowners can be a big help when it comes to locating deer in December. That's because wintering areas are usually consistent from year to year.

Late-season whitetail hunting is quite simple. Find the food, the beds and an intercept point. Then put in your time in a stand while battling the elements, which is no small task in the Dakotas. Here's a look at the opportunities in each state.

Not all late-season bucks taken in the Dakotas are giants, but they're certainly trophies. At the eleventh hour of a hard-hunted season, the author arrowed this North Dakota buck. Photo by Curt Wells


The deer population in North Dakota is getting out of control. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department is resorting to increasingly strong measures to increase the harvest and bring deer numbers under control. Several changes have occurred in recent years, the most significant of which is a steady increase in the number of deer licenses. Records have been set in consecutive years, and in 2004, a new high was reached in number of licenses issued to firearm hunters. A total of 145,250 licenses were available for the fall season. That's an increase of 21,775 licenses over and above 2003 figures!

The aggressive approach was needed this year, and will possibly recur the next, to reduce deer numbers to unit management goals, said Randy Kreil, chief of wildlife for the NDGFD.

"Several mild winters and the resulting increase in reproductive success have raised the state's white-tailed deer population above management obje

ctives in many units in eastern and northern North Dakota," he said.

Obviously, the bulk of the increased licenses were for antlerless deer, and through some changes in the licensing format, that translates into increased opportunity for bowhunters. Would you believe an unlimited number of doe tags?

Here's the way the licensing system works in North Dakota: Resident bowhunters can purchase a license at any time prior to or during the season. That license is good for a deer of either species (whitetail or mule deer) or either sex. Bowhunters may also apply for a firearms license and if they choose, they can bowhunt during the 16 1/2-day gun season and put their gun tag on a bow-killed deer.

In addition, deer licenses remaining after the first three lotteries can be purchased much earlier than in previous years, when those tags weren't awarded until late October. Now, bowhunters can get those extra antlerless tags in September. That allows the bowhunter to fill those tags at any time during the regular bow season, which opens on Sept. 3. The primary licenses awarded in the firearms lottery can only be filled during the firearms season, which opens on Nov. 5.

And that's not all! In specific units where antlerless tags are undersubscribed, hunters will be allowed to purchase as many leftover antlerless tags as they want. Previously, the limit was a maximum of four deer licenses.

You can see where there will be plenty of chances to let arrows fly during a late-season bowhunt.

Non-residents can purchase a bow license valid for a white-tailed deer of either sex for the cost of $200. Those are available over-the-counter. If you're from out of state and plan to hunt mule deer, you must apply in a lottery in March for a limited number of "any-deer" bow licenses. The number of those licenses is tied to the number of resident firearm mule deer licenses sold the previous fall. In 2004, there were 783 "any-deer" bow licenses available.

The best place to hunt late-season whitetails in North Dakota is just about everywhere, except for the far southwest where the herd has been affected by occasional outbreaks of epizootic hemorrhagic disease. The rest of the state has been brimming with deer and it isn't likely the gun season hurt the late-season bowhunter's opportunities.

The areas east and north of the Missouri River have the highest deer densities. Good late-season locales include any river or creek bottom, or around major wildlife refuges or large wetland complexes. As mentioned, cornfields are gold mines, but you'll find them mostly in the eastern part of the state and especially in the southeast in Dickey, Ransom, Sargent, LaMoure, Richland, Logan and McIntosh counties. There is also some huntable public land in the Missouri River bottoms near Bismarck and Mandan. Most private land in that area is difficult to access.

It's also possible to get into some late-season bowhunting for mule deer in North Dakota. If you like the challenge of spot-and-stalk hunting in the wide-open spaces, or trying to determine a pattern of movement in a deer species that avoids consistency, mule deer are your game. Mix in a little crunch snow and you'll have the ultimate challenge.

The bulk of the mule deer population resides in the counties that border Montana and South Dakota, such as Bowman, Slope, Golden Valley, Billings and McKenzie. There is considerable public land in those areas, in the form of National Grasslands.

Most deer, however, live on private land in North Dakota and you'll have to get permission to hunt unless the land is not posted. Posted land can be accessed quite easily during the late season, especially if the landowner is done with his own hunting and he has lots of deer on his property. Most landowners are growing weary of the high deer populations and will gladly let you take a crack at managing the deer herd. You may have problems getting onto land that is leased by an outfitter, but otherwise you'll find landowners in North Dakota to be quite hospitable to late-season bowhunters.

To obtain more information about bowhunting in North Dakota, visit the NDGFD Web site at www.state.nd. us/gnf/, or call (701) 328-6300.


The state of South Dakota is also working to lower its deer populations, in part to make life easier for the car insurance agents, who are dealing with clients and their vehicles damaged by collisions with deer. Deer/car collisions are a growing problem in both states.

"We have been putting an increased emphasis on increasing our doe harvest," said Ron Fowler, Wildlife Program Administrator for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. "We also have a new opportunity for bowhunters to help us harvest a few more does during January."

Fowler is referring to a new law that allows South Dakota bowhunters who have not filled their tags by the end of the year to continue to hunt through the entire month of January! But there's a catch: While an archery license is good for either sex of deer during the traditional season, it will only be valid for antlerless deer during the month of January. So, if you hunt all fall and through December and don't get your buck, you can change the game by hunting antlerless deer for another 31 days.

South Dakota sold 12,995 archery licenses in 2003 and of that total 11,628 were resident archers and 1,367 were non-residents who paid $155 each for their licenses. Residents pay $30 for their licenses ($20 for an antlerless tag).

Three options are available to all bowhunters. You can purchase a statewide archery license (700A), which means you can take a deer of either sex or species, anywhere in the state. Or you can purchase a West River archery license (700C), which is good for either species or sex west of the Missouri River. You could also purchase an East River license (700B), good for any deer east of the Missouri River.

In summary, you can have one license statewide or get West River and East River licenses. All of those licenses are unlimited but are not available over the counter. You must purchase them through the Pierre office of the SDDGFP.

The highest harvest of whitetails occurred last season in Pennington (Rapid City area), Minnehaha (Sioux Falls area), and Brown (Aberdeen area) counties. You'll notice those are major population centers, which skews the harvest statistics and in no way tells you where the best hunting is located.

A total of 3,540 deer were killed by bowhunters last year. Of that number, 2,352 were whitetail bucks, 625 were whitetail does, and 198 juveniles. Mule deer made up the remainder - 266 bucks, 80 does and 19 juveniles. The success rate for bowhunters is 27 percent.

The statistical summary of harvest dates is also interesting. During the period of September and October, bowhunters tallied 28.2 percent of the total archery kill. The month of November was responsible for 52.9 percent of the harvest and December accounted for 18.9 percent of the deer killed by bowhunter

s. Considering the fact that many bowhunters either are done hunting or choose not to tangle with the elements toward the end of the season, that's a significant kill in December.

Mule deer are also an option in South Dakota. Contrary to popular belief the mulie population is stronger in the prairie counties than in the Black Hills where whitetails dominate. The counties with the highest archery harvest of mule deer are Pennington, Meade, Lawrence, Custer, Fall River and Harding, all in the west and close to the Wyoming border. There are scattered populations of mule deer to the east of there and even a few on the east side of the Missouri River.

To obtain a license to bowhunt in South Dakota, you can visit the game department's Web site and download an application form. Just go to www.sdgfp.info/index.htm and click on "Licenses and Reservations." Or you can call (605) 773-3485.

* * *

It's already been a banner year for bowhunters in the Dakotas. Seeing deer from your stand hasn't been a problem and that won't likely change in the last weeks of the season. All you have to do is figure out where all those deer are and then grab your bow and go hunting.

Wildlife managers need to know they can count on bowhunters to contribute to the control of deer herds, so get out there and do some "lethal managing."

Hey - it's your civic duty!

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