December 20, 2017
There are still good opportunities available for Indiana deer hunters trying to fill a tag.
Deer hunters have their own brand of lingo for certain aspects of the hunt, and we also have lots of catch phrases to describe certain segments of the hunting season.
Opening day, the early season, the October lull, pre-rut, peak of the rut, late season, the eleventh hour and the closing bell all relate to individual portions of the deer season. Some of those periods have obviously already passed for this season, but we are a long way from the final curtain.
The numbers of deer hunters still out in the stand or blind at this time of year are greatly diminished from the weeks previous. There are lots of reasons for the lower numbers.
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Some people have filled tags, stocked their freezers and moved on to other pursuits. Some have simply deer hunted as much as they want this season, while others may only hunt a certain season each year.
Others choose not to hunt the latter parts of the season due to the weather, and some have just simply given up. However, for those still willing to stay in the game, there is a lot of season left and a plethora of opportunity still to come.
Archery hunters still have a lot of days left to hunt, even though it may be a little tough this time of year. Bow season began back on Oct. 1, but it does not end until Jan. 7, 2018, so there is plenty of time left to get out and make it happen.
The firearm season, which began Nov. 18, ended Dec. 3, 2017. However, gun hunters have almost the entire month of December in which to hunt if they want to use muzzleloaders. That season runs Dec. 9-24.
The deer reduction zone season began way back on Sept. 15, 2017, but lasts through Jan. 31, 2018. This season was originally known as urban deer hunting, but has since changed to deer reduction zone hunting. Basically, it remains the same: an effort to trim down deer numbers near populated areas and places with lots of highway traffic. This is an outstanding opportunity to put a lot of venison in the freezer. And it also may provide a great opportunity to harvest an additional antlered deer.
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Primarily the goal is to reduce the number of female deer, but hunters who first harvest a female deer in a reduction zone may then take an antlered deer in the reduction zone and it does not count against the statewide limit. This concept is to encourage hunters to hunt for does in these areas. It is known as earn-a-buck.
The one downside to hunting in the deer reduction zones is it does not apply to properties owned or managed by the Division of Fish and Wildlife, even though some or all of the property may fall within the zone boundaries.
The good news is that getting permission to hunt on some of the private lands in these zones is not quite as difficult to obtain as it is in some of the prime deer hunting areas throughout the state. Even so, a hunter who has property within one of these zones or personally knows someone who does definitely has a leg up on the competition.
Bonus antlerless tags are yet another great opportunity for putting a late-season deer or two in the freezer. Every year, the Division of Fish and Wildlife assesses deer densities in each county throughout the state. Then they allot a certain number of bonus antlerless deer that hunters may take within that county.
Some counties have as high as eight additional antlerless deer tags available to hunters. Unfortunately, as with deer reduction zones, the bonus antlerless tags are not valid on most DNR and Fish and Wildlife properties, although they are valid on some Healthy Rivers INitiative sites.
There is great hunting throughout much of the Hoosier State, and hunters recorded great harvest numbers in many counties last season. In fact, more than 2,000 deer were harvested in 14 different counties. Harrison County led the way with a harvest of 2,948 deer. Placing second and third, respectively, were Noble (2,714) and Franklin (2,709). The remaining counties making up the top ten for harvest numbers last season were Washington (2,609), Steuben (2,454), Parke (2,438), Dearborn (2,365), Lawrence (2,357), Switzerland (2,336) and Greene (2,291).
Although a lot of the best hunting opportunities occur on private lands, Hoosiers are blessed to have plenty of public lands offering decent opportunities to tag deer. Obviously one of the largest is the Hoosier National Forest. This property offers thousands of acres and very good numbers of deer. Some of our state forests, although not quite as large, provide great hunting opportunities. Deer hunters do well at the Jackson-Washington, Morgan-Monroe and Greene-Sullivan state forests, among others.
Our reservoir properties are not just for anglers and campers. They are also great for deer hunters. Patoka Lake, Brookville Lake and the J. E. Roush Lake properties all provide ample land for deer hunting.
As with the lake properties, there is very good deer hunting on most of the properties owned or managed by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Pigeon River Fish and Wildlife Area and Tri-County FWA are a couple that post good harvests each year, but many others are great as well. Hillenbrand FWA, Goose Pond FWA and Kingsbury FWA are but a few others to consider. Just remember to check regulations before hunting any public property as the season dates and regulations may differ from statewide guidelines.
THE CATCH 22
Going back to thoughts on lingo, there are some phrases particularly fitting for the late season. Catch 22 and several others perfectly describe a conundrum faced by deer hunters late in the year. There simply is not as much food as there was earlier in the year.
When the hunting season first began, deer had an almost limitless supply of food sources. There were still lush grasses and vegetation, standing and leftover grain crops as well as persimmons and other soft and hard mast. Then, when the acorns started dropping, the real buffet was on. However, at this time of year, a lot of those food sources are gone or depleted.
That is good and bad for hunters. On the positive side, it means that deer congregate near any available food sources. The bad part is that, if there are limited food sources on the property being hunted, the numbers of deer on that property may be greatly diminished as the season and winter progresses.
LATE SEASON TACTICS
Deer habits and travel patterns have changed a lot by this time of the season. Although in some areas there might be a significant second breeding period, for the most part, hunting tactics need to be adapted to fit the time of year.
A bowhunter may have had lots of deer activity sitting a stand overlooking a hot trail into a corn or soybean field early in the season. Later in the season, a stand near where there is a lot of doe activity may have produced numerous buck sightings. A sit in either of those stands right now may or may not result in seeing deer. Hunters must re-evaluate their hunting locations and be willing to accept that "old reliable" may not be the best stand choice for this late in the season.
Aside from the aforementioned second breeding period, deer at this time of year are primarily concerned with food and shelter. Water sometimes factors in, but most times it is not of such significance that hunters can rely on it to pattern deer. However, if it is determined where the deer are feeding and where they are bedding, this is a huge step toward filling a tag. Feeding and bedding are of even more importance now than early in the season.
As mentioned earlier, food sources are somewhat depleted now. And they continue to diminish throughout winter. If hunters find the new sources of food the whitetails are utilizing now, there is an excellent possibility there are very good numbers of deer congregated in the vicinity of the food source. Winter food sources consist of any remaining waste grains, acorns, honeysuckle stands and quality browse, the latter being a major staple in the winter diet. Consider also that deer may venture into urban areas to forage on plants in yards.
The other major factor, shelter, is a tricky one in the late season. Deer have been pressured by hunters for several weeks now, so they look for bedding locations affording some reasonable amount of relief from humans. However, deer are also concerned with thermal relief from the elements, so they might pick spots providing shelter from a strong northwest wind or one that affords some direct sunlight.
Scouting and being familiar with the hunting area obviously is very important at this time of year, perhaps even more so than in the early season. If hunters know where the deer are eating and where they are bedding, it swings the odds a little more in their favor. A stand site near the food source or bedding location or along a trail between the two is the most used tactic for late season.
Another very important factor for this time of year is stealth and concealment. The leaves and much of the other foliage that provided a certain amount of concealment earlier in the season are now gone. That lets hunters see farther into the woods, but deer can see better. A deer may see the hunter and vacate the area without the hunter even knowing it was around. And it is not just deer with which a hunter must be concerned. Turkeys form large flocks in the winter months, and a hunter who is not still and very well concealed cannot even begin to hope to escape all those high-powered sets of eyes. The commotion of spooking a large flock of turkeys puts every deer in the area on high alert.
Stand sites must be chosen with concealment in mind. Stands in evergreen trees, or at least a tree with a lot of branches, helps break up the hunter's silhouette somewhat. Camouflage should be matched to the surroundings as much as possible. Movement needs to be kept to an absolute minimum. And when movement is necessary, it should be very slow and deliberate.
Warmth and staying dry are very important factors, too. A hunter who is cold or wet is a hunter who fidgets and is forced to move around more in the stand to produce warmth or get comfortable. Getting wet or cold not only increases the risk of illness, but it often forces the hunter out of the stand much earlier and thus ruins the chance of success or the enjoyment of the hunt. One of the best investments a late-season hunter can make is in quality boots and clothing.
The late season is not without its challenges, but there are also many rewards. Now it's time for you to hit the woods at one of the locations we've discussed here or another great hunting spot near you.