It was minus 8 degrees air temperature and only God knows what for windchill, but my common sense wasn’t compelling enough for me to stay home for the post-rut hunt. A blizzard had blanketed the area the day before, although conditions were improving. The main clue was an Army of deer stripping a standing corn field upwind of my position. The breaking weather was fortunate for me as the deer boldly revealed their position. The landowner likely wouldn’t have the same inspiration, especially if he happened by to catch the gluttonous whitetails turning his corn commodity into neat, round deer droppings.
The majority of whitetails hit the brakes in December and January like a motorist trying to avoid a roadcrossing deer. The rut is over, and whitetails have slimmed to “Biggest Loser” proportions and survival takes precedence. And remember that a large portion of the deer herd is now entrees stacked in a freezer, plus any remaining survivors are extremely wary. Yes, it’s the late season, but despite the poor odds you can find success if you forecast the weather like a pro and match a strategy for the conditions.
After the rut concludes you better hope for bad weather. Why? Despite the fact that whitetails dwindle by more than 20 percent in body mass due to the rut, they don’t need to expose themselves unnecessarily save for one condition: bad weather. Deer are forced to react when blizzards, subzero and gusty conditions swoop into a region. By understanding their reaction, you’re one step closer to success.
First, stay abreast of changing weather. Now isn’t the time to be lackadaisical on forecasts. Tune in to regional forecasts. Listen to the National Weather Service. Monitor your smartphone and online resources.
Plan your hunt just prior to an incoming winter storm. Depending on the storm’s ferocity, you’ll want to hunt ahead of the storm hours and up to a day or more in advance. Big storms spur big pre-storm feeding frenzies. Keep in mind that during the storm you might have to hole up like the deer. Don’t risk life or limb if travel advisories are in effect. If you can get out, consider hunting inside thick cover to possibly meet up with a buck browsing near protective bedrooms. Lastly, plan to be out the minute the storm breaks to ambush deer anxious to put more fuel in their furnace through eating.
IT’S ALL ABOUT FOOD
Pinpointing food location is as vital as knowing the forecast. Deer will flock to the best food sources, and carbohydrates have the greatest appeal because they create the most energy. Think corn, but don’t overlook soybeans, brassicas, grains and even leftover mast sources, also a strong carbohydrate favorite.
Look at fields both large and small, but keep a focus on where the greatest numbers of deer are congregating. Occasionally a buck might sidestep the crowds, but with the main rut in the rear view mirror, bucks tend to stay close in case the action heats up via the secondary rut.
Because food preferences change throughout the season, it might be difficult if not impossible to put stands and ground blinds out before late-season hunts. Tread lightly. Late season is characterized by congregating deer, and that means more surveillance. Don’t rock the boat. Carelessness while setting up your ambush site or accessing it can trip alarms and cause a ripple effect through the herd. Bumping one deer could lead to blowing an entire herd from a field and alerting nearby bucks of your presence.
You have several options to sidestep whitetail security systems. First, slip in only when deer have retired. Although most late-season whitetails bed close to food sources, hopefully they’ll move off far enough to give you an invisible entrance opportunity. There is one exception: standing corn. Whitetails can live in a standing corn field, and your only hope is they exit to feed or bed elsewhere for a change of pace.
Your second security dodge is to set up early. Morning hunts can be nearly impossible unless you find a backdoor ambush site that cuts off exit routes whitetails use to return to bedding cover. That leaves you with a heavy emphasis on afternoon hunts, and with shorter winter days you must go early. Be in place several hours prior to anticipated buck arrival time, and tough it out using the best in outerwear, air-activated hand warmers, heated clothes and even sleeping bags, or the popular Heater Body Suit. Be patient. If winter storm warnings blare, deer will move.
BE THE SNOWMAN
If your pre-storm ambush strategy fails, you might be able to recoup your efforts during the storm. Don’t tempt fate, but if conditions allow, hunt during the storm. Deer might not flock to open fields, but native browse in dense cover provides calories to tide deer over until the storm lifts. Slide into a buck’s homeland and use low visibility, gusty winds and terrain to slip in on a deer stoking the fire. I’ve used frozen creek-beds to disappear and maneuver in close for a chance at storm-trapped deer.
When the storm lifts you can once again put your food-source strategy into play. I did. I knew with the onset of chattering teeth my shot accuracy would quickly fade if the deer didn’t move my way soon. Thankfully, a line of does filed past me to raid a better section of corn and they were followed by a mature buck. I shifted in the snow bank to line up on the buck busting through drifts nearly 2 feet deep. At 75 yards the buck paused to reassess for danger, but it was too late. Muzzleloader smoke followed by a solid Hornady thump signaled success on another brutal, yet rewarding late-season hunt.