Late-Season Muzzleloading In Virginia

Late-Season Muzzleloading In Virginia

No doubt about it: deer hunting is tough during the late season. But you should do a late muzzleloader hunt anyway -- here's why. (December 2006)

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The last day of Virginia's late muzzleloader as well as deer season had come and was about to go as I pondered my options on where to hunt the first Saturday of January 2006. Finally, I decided to go afield behind my family's Botetourt County home on the 29 acres we own. Several times in recent years, including the final day of the 2001 season, I had killed deer that were moving through a thicket that lies on a ridge.

And so it was that I eased my way to a Virginia pine where I always take a stand when hunting the copse. At 4:15 p.m., I heard the sounds of some animal moving toward me -- but not in front of me as I had planned. Rather, whatever was approaching was coming from directly behind me. I slowly turned my head and began to mount the smokepole when the whitetail, which was just 10 yards behind me, snorted, ran, stomped and snorted several more times. That response set off a chain reaction among other deer in the area, as they, too, snorted and fled. All in all, a rather pathetic display of hunting prowess on my part.

I have diligently hunted the Old Dominion's late muzzleloader season since 1993 and have long found it the most difficult and challenging time to kill a whitetail. Yet, this time of year remains one of my favorite times to pursue deer -- precisely because of those reasons. I asked Dave Steffen, forest wildlife program manager for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), about the major decisions concerning tactics sportsmen will have to make now -- the most obvious being should strategies be based on a deer's food needs or reproductive drive.


"Food, no question," Steffen said. "You sometimes hear hunters talk about a secondary rut in Virginia. Nobody has shown that a secondary rut routinely exists, but what appears to be a secondary rut may be the result of very synchronous (occurring at the same time) breeding in does or just the tail end of a bell curve of the rut as a whole.

"There's no question that some reproductive activity does go on during the late muzzleloader season, but that activity largely has concluded by Christmastime. The timing and duration of the rut depend on many factors, including deer condition, sex ratios and age structure. Although all does don't usually come into heat at the same time, the peak of the rut typically takes place the week before regular gun season.

"But some does will cycle in before that time in October and some after that time. And some healthy doe fawns -- in Virginia about 20 percent of 6-month-old females will come into estrus on average in any given year -- will breed for the first time, often in December, after the peak. The presence of these late breeders is what prolongs the rutting activity in bucks."

Interestingly, the biologist noted that VDGIF staff and hunters do see very late born fawns and those were probably conceived in December or perhaps even later.

"Once while I was manning a check station in Fincastle, someone brought in a live spotted fawn on the opening day of the regular gun season," Steffen recalled. "Happenings such as this are more common in states to the south of us."

Steffen explained that does recycle about every 28 days until they are bred; bucks in the population continue to exhibit rutting behavior as long as receptive does are available. As an aside, the biologist noted that this is one undesirable outcome of deer birth control programs that use immuno-contraception techniques -- the does just keep recycling -- meanwhile keeping every buck in the area on edge for extended periods.

Given the spotty nature of rutting activity late in the season, food is likely to occupy more and more of a buck's time. However, hunting around food sources shouldn't be viewed as a sure thing either. As an adaptation for winter survival, deer actually reduce their metabolic rate, activity and food consumption as the season grows colder. Less deer movement makes it more difficult for hunters to find deer, even at food sources. Deer also begin to shift their food items from acorns to grasses and browse during the early winter.


Steffen also offers his perspective on when to hunt during the late muzzleloader season.

"My experience is that late afternoon is the best time to hunt, but that happens to be the time when I have hunted the most now," he said. "Studies on deer movements indicate that most daylight feeding occurs late in the afternoon with another activity peak early in the morning. However, we also know that midday can be an activity period."

My unscientific thoughts are that I prefer the time between 10:45 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. at this time of year with the period between 3:30 p.m. and dark ranked second. I have largely given up hunting in the morning because of the cold and the lack of deer sightings. Yet, I have several friends who have smoked early-morning bucks and does.

The exception to the rule is when a major cold front is about to come through western Virginia. If, for example, the forecast is for snow or much colder temperatures, I will head for the woods, no matter what time of day it is. The biggest buck I have ever seen during this period -- a massive 12-pointer -- was moving across a Botetourt County pasture at 4 p.m., a few hours before a major winter snow storm was to smash into the area. The buck was one of a dozen whitetails that I saw crowd into the pasture that evening.



Should Old Dominion late-season smokepolers take a doe or hope for a buck to show up later?

"Help us out -- be a deer manager and kill a doe," responded Steffen. "Our management goal in much of the state is to kill more does and control deer population growth. We need more hunters to embrace the philosophy that harvesting does is good for the deer population, other citizens, and the habitat as a whole.

"As deer hunter numbers are decreasing, deer damage issues have increased. These factors make it even more important for hunters to be deer managers, so that the game department, in turn, can more effectively manage the state's deer herd on behalf of all of Virginia's citizens."



One of my biggest sources of indecision now is where to take a stand. Steffen provided insight on this question.

"Because deer are shifting to grass and browse, fields and edges are often where the food is at this time of

year," he offered. "This is especially true if acorn production has been poor or spotty. But if the acorn crop has been good, many deer will still be in the woods now. On the other hand, if an area has a lot of row crops or waste grain still on the ground, the deer may be feeding in the open."

Last year, Steffen and I had the opportunity to go afield the last week of the late muzzleloader season in Franklin County. The attraction -- a farmer had just bush-hogged a field of standing corn, and kernels were scattered about. We arrived early in the afternoon and patiently waited until dark on our stands that were 100 yards or so apart. Yet, neither of us ever glimpsed a whitetail come to the corn. Even what sometimes appears to be a sure thing at this time of year, often is anything but. Again, the late muzzleloading season is a difficult time to place a tag on a Virginia whitetail of either sex.


Steffen related that in general, private land usually hosts more deer than the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, state wildlife management areas and state forests.

"But if the acorn crop has been good, hunters can still experience good late-season hunting on public land," he said. "But in the absence of acorns, deer will be much harder to come by in the national forest or any forest."


Deer biologists have known for years that whitetails, especially those dwelling in the northern United States, particularly from northern Pennsylvania on into Canada, yard. Yarding is the phenomenon where deer gather in great numbers during the winter, specifically in areas where good thermal cover exists. Yarding enables deer to reduce their energy expenditure because they are more protected from the cold. Ideally, yarding areas also should possess a reliable wintertime food source nearby. Places where Northern deer typically yard include stands where conifers such as spruce, hemlock, and northern white cedar flourish. Deer from miles away will venture to these locales and often spend several months there or until the spring thaw.

Steffen said, however, that Old Dominion whitetails do not yard.

"Our winters lack the cold and snow typically to cause deer to yard," the biologist explained. "We don't have the type of vegetation either that produces a classic deer yard. But at this time of year, where hunters do often find Virginia deer is in an area with very thick cover. And often our deer do seem to gather in fairly large numbers in very specific places.

"Now (this time of year), deer move less so as to reduce their energy output. There is not an abundance of food out in the woods and fields, nor is the food of the high quality that it was earlier, so it does not pay for the deer to move a great deal in search of that scarce food. So the metabolic rate of deer reduces and they need less food to survive, which, of course, cuts down on deer movement. Our deer are definitely less active now."

I asked if this lower metabolic rate is one of the reasons that many hunters, including this writer, observe far fewer deer now, and Steffen said yes. Because deer do gravitate toward very dense cover (which is often lacking and progressively decreasing as the winter progresses), that is the reason that when we do glimpse whitetails, many times it is five or six, the biologist continued.

Of course, he said, Virginia can also have 70-degree days at this time of year -- another reason why our whitetails don't typically yard in the textbook sense.

Steffen also pointed out that certain places will attract more deer during inclement weather conditions. These places usually fall into a few categories:

1) Sunny slopes. Look for the sides of mountains and hills that receive goodly amounts of the sun's rays. Also, many days, deer will move to where they can receive the fullest benefits of those warming rays. For example, on my little parcel of Botetourt County land, only one ridge receives much deer traffic during the late muzzleloader season. And that ridge has the afternoon sun beaming down on it.

2) Lee sides of slopes. When brisk and particularly fierce winds slam an area, look for the whitetails to be in sheltered hollows or coves. If dense cover exists within those features, expect for the deer to be there.

3) Quality food source abutting cover. This food source might be a honeysuckle thicket near a white pine grove, a series of blowdowns next to a green field, or a smattering of red oak acorns in a protected hollow.

4) Quality cover. In Virginia, that might mean hemlock, white pine, or Virginia pine groves or great rhododendron or mountain laurel copses.

Interestingly, the biologist said that according to some research that noted biologist John Ozoga conducted, Northern whitetails reduced their food intake by about 30 percent and their metabolic rate by about 50 percent during harsh conditions or periods. Both these reductions were how they coped with the rigors of winter and the scarcity of nourishment. Steffen also suggested that Virginia late-season smokepolers ask themselves a few simple questions: Where would you go on the particular property you are hunting if you wanted to be as warm as possible? Could you find a place on that property where you could warm up?

"The bottom line is that deer often will be moving less in February and early March than they are now," Steffen said.

If a hunter can't answer those questions about a certain parcel, perhaps he does not know it well enough. Or he knows it so well that it is likely not a good place to hunt during late December and early January.

"Whitetails survive so well because they are very adaptable," concluded Steffen. "They will consume a large variety of foods, and obviously here in Virginia, they can live in a wide diversity of places. And in North America, they do well from Canada to the Florida Keys."



This year, the late muzzleloader season will run from Dec. 16 through Jan. 6. In many west of the Blue Ridge counties, the antlerless season will run Jan. 1-6, while many east of the Blue Ridge counties, where the season is open, will have antlerless days throughout. Be sure to check the Web site of the VDGIF for more information at

Matt Knox, deer program supervisor for the VDGIF, said that the top 10 counties were as follows (with harvest in parentheses): Bedford (699), Shenandoah (391), Franklin (326), Augusta (324), Rockingham (318), Scott (304), Giles (285), Rockbridge (255), Grayson (236), and Wythe (219).

Overall, 7,888 whitetails were taken, with 2,360 of them being bucks, 4,681 does and 847 button bucks. The total antlerless harvest was 5,528, which was 70 percent of the total. Interestingly, the last week of the season during which antlerless deer are legal in many places where the season is open, at least 80 percent of the whitetails checked in every day were antlerless.

"To my knowledge, we have only made two changes to this season in the last decade," Knox said. "First, we made it full season either sex in selected counties (private land in Bedford, Amherst, Franklin, Floyd and Roanoke, for example). It has always been the last six days either sex in most areas, and during the last regulation cycle we made a change that will always make the late muzzleloading season three weeks with an opening Saturday.

"In the past, depending on the calendar and the way the regulation was written, the season used to be two weeks every couple of years instead of the 'normal' three weeks. From now on, it will always be the three weeks prior to the first Saturday in January with a Saturday opening."

Killing a deer is rarely easy during the late muzzleloading season. But that is part of the challenge -- and joy -- of hunting now. I failed to kill a deer this past muzzleloader season, even though I went afield 11 times. But as always, I eagerly anticipate this season, and once again will try to figure out what the whitetails of western Virginia are eating and where they are bedding. And if I should smoke a doe, doing so will be a real cause for celebration.

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