December 04, 2023
- This article is featured in the East edition of the December/January issue of Game & Fish Magazine. Click here to subscribe.
I've hunted with the same buddy for about 20 years, and thought I knew him pretty well, so it came as a surprise when he told me over coffee how he hated hunting the late deer season.
"Well, ‘hate’ is probably too strong of a word. It’s just not my favorite time," he said. "It’s cold and wet, there are fewer hunters in the woods to help keep deer moving, the rut is long over and after two months of hunting it’s tough to find deer. It’s like they simply disappear."
I took a sip of coffee and replied, “I like tagging out early, too, but those are exactly the reasons I don’t mind hunting the late season at all.”
I didn’t feel I had to explain things further. Hunting the late season can be tough on several fronts, and finding deer can be challenging, but I learned long ago that keying on certain things and changing tactics a bit can tilt the scales enough to make a difference between ending the season with an unpunched tag and meat in the freezer.
FIND THE FOOD
Following the primary rut, and with winter coming on, the main objective for both bucks and does is to find high-calorie foods to rebuild body strength and reserves. The colder it gets, the more it snows or the harsher the weather conditions, the more the deer will be out searching. From a hunting perspective, there are several advantages. For one, food supplies are extremely limited and in short supply. Where food is available, there’s an excellent chance that deer are relatively close to it and will continue to take advantage of it for as long as it lasts. This makes knowing what those foods are and where they are a key factor to finding late-season deer.
Late-season foods vary from region to region, but availability can depend on weather conditions. Fat- and carbohydrate-rich mast crop areas are always worth investigating. As a rule, oaks start dropping nuts by September or October but can continue well into November and December. Beechnut, chestnut and other nuts also hit the ground during this general time frame. On more than one occasion, I have heard acorns as they bounce from limb-to-limb and thud to the ground during the late season. Deer can hear them, too. They will also scrounge around for any leftover nuts that dropped earlier in the fall, pawing through snow to reach them. There may not be lots of them, but the deer will find them if they are present.
Leftover and over-wintering agricultural crops—corn, soybeans, alfalfa and milo to name a few—are another good late-season bet. The same is true of lingering soft mast such as apples, persimmons, pawpaw and dogwood cherries. Most have been hit by frost and are gone by late hunting season, but not everywhere and not every year.
WATCH THE WEATHER
Periods of light snow or rain have little influence on deer activity. Whitetails live in it every day, and hunting during those times can be quite productive. But when the barometer drops precipitously, indicating the approach of a more severe, long-lasting stormy period, feeding activity often increases. The same is true as the storm departs. The first two to three hours before and after a major storm can be especially productive. Deer will be looking to load up for the duration and replenish afterwards.
TARGET THE DOES
Not all does are bred during the primary rut period, and bucks will still be interested in servicing those that come into cycle later. Bucks often travel outside their home range and cover lots of territory to find does in late estrous, and you never know when a cruiser might pass by your stand. If you still have an antlerless tag, and a buck doesn’t show, the venison from a doe is a fine consolation prize.
HUNT TRAVEL CORRIDORS
Hunting too close to bedding areas is tricky since whitetails typically bed in spots that give them a strategic advantage and they are always on alert when bedded. But deer generally have a pattern during the late season, and once hunting pressure has eased, they leave their beds for nighttime feeding shortly before dark and return around dawn. These are great times to hunt natural funnels and other corridors between bedding areas and known food sources. Once snow hits the ground, these travel routes are easy to find. The key is to get in without being detected and early enough in the morning or afternoon to get setup so you can catch them as they move through. Playing the wind and minding the thermals in hilly or ridge country is important, too.
Like my hunting buddy, some hunters like when the woods are loaded with hunters, believing it keeps deer edgy and moving. I tend to lean the other way and prefer to have the deer woods to myself unless a strategic plan calls for a partner. After a couple months of heavy hunting pressure, deer are edgy enough and remain that way for a week or more after most of the hunters have left the woods. My experience has been that late-season deer are much easier to find and hunt once hunting pressure has eased and they have settled into a more normal routine.
But deer can feel pressured even during the late season, especially on weekends. It’s why hunting mid-week can often be most productive. Once weekend hunters go back to work, deer have a couple days to return to normalcy and get back to their regular routine. This does not mean that hunting early or late in the week is a waste of time. It’s just that mid-week is generally more productive.
The trouble with the late season is the tree cover above ground is rather limited, especially in hardwood areas where trees drop their leaves. A hunter in a treestand can stick out like a sore thumb, and movement is more easily detected. Low-lying cover close to the ground, such as dense evergreen shrubs, deadfalls, ledges, large stumps and brush offer much better concealment. It is also typically warmer closer to the ground than it is 15 feet in the air, making it more comfortable and easier to hunt longer.
SPEND THE DAY
Although late-season deer tend to stick to a daily routine, that doesn’t mean they always do. Because food sources are scarce, does and especially mature bucks will not always keep to their nocturnal tendencies, breaking them more frequently as temps get colder and weather conditions worsen. It’s important that pregnant does feed as much as possible not only to rebuild weight lost from being chased during the rut, but to put in as many reserves for the coming winter and to ensure healthy birthing come spring. Does can be out and about any time of day when hunger strikes. The same is true of bucks, especially until the secondary rut period is fully over. For that reason, hunting all day whenever possible is advisable. I killed one of my best bucks just after noon as it walked along the edge of a corn field.
DRESS FOR SUCCESS
One of things I enjoy about the early hunting season is that I don’t have to dress like an Eskimo to enjoy my time in the deer woods. Weather conditions in December and January can range from brutally cold to bone-chillingly wet—sometimes in the same day. When aided by wind or a strong breeze, it doesn’t take long for the body to feel the effects. Dress for the occasion. To prevent working up a sweat on the way to your hunting area, dress light and wait to layer up until you reach the spot. Wear boots with enough insulation and the warmest gloves or mittens you can find. A hand muff can work wonders. On bitterly cold days, a face mark or balaclava can be worth its weight in gold. Something comfortable and waterproof to sit on and support the back will prove beneficial. Rain gear should be stowed in your pack in case of precipitation. I also make a point to have some air-activated hand and foot warmers just in case.