All of the good-sized bucks in your woods have probably already been shot. If they haven’t, they’re so spooked by months of deer hunting pressure that they’re not getting on their feet until well after dark. It’s the holidays. There’s NFL playoff football to be watched. There’s a good college game on TV. You’ve hunted for months and not scored on a whitetail buck, so what are the chances you will now?
Go ahead and stay home, but if you do, you might just miss your best chance to score a mature buck. Hunting late-season deer is about one thing—food. It’s my favorite time of year. The woods are empty, tags are filled and guys give up. The more I’ve learned about late-season buck hunting, the more comfortable I am having a tag in my pocket as the rut goes by.
Those two factors—deer focused on food and lack of hunting pressure—lead to the most predictable deer of the year. And, the colder and snowier it is, the better. But to consistently score, you need to think like a deer. Use your woodsmanship to determine the best food sources and the best bedding areas. The action will keep you warm.
Like every living thing, deer are programmed to survive. They’ll take advantage of every opportunity nature provides them. To get in on the hot action, you need to see those opportunities, too. Sometimes, they’re obvious like the only standing cornfield for miles around. In the absence of pressure, deer will flock there, especially in deep snow.
Usually the opportunities are more subtle. That’s where your knowledge of your deer woods is essential. I make it a practice to never sit in a deer stand without a good reason for being there—one based on the conditions, not simple history. “I saw a nice buck here last year” is not good enough. Why was that deer there? Where was it coming from? Where was it going?Think Like A Deer
Ask yourself those questions in the context of bitter-weather hunting with deer focused on pure survival. Think like a deer that NEEDS to maximize its chances for survival. The two greatest challenges for deer in the late season are staying warm and keeping fed. Trouble with one makes the other worse. Extreme cold requires more energy to maintain body temperature. An absence of nutrition lowers body temperature.
Deer will use the resources that Mother Nature provides to stay warm. In the winter, the sun passes through the sky from SE to SW. This creates more direct sunlight hitting the ground on the southern exposures of hills. Dense stands of pines retain heat from the sun. Watch for the places where the snow melts first because those areas are obviously warmer. A deer saves energy by bedding there. They will lay on a sun-soaked hillside, even if it’s open, to enjoy the few extra degrees of warmth. Subtle humps on a flat might expose the deer to a bit more sunshine and warmth. Through good scouting, a knowledge of your woods and excellent woodsmanship, you can very precisely identify the most likely bedding areas.
Don’t forget about the wind; it robs deer of their protection from the cold the same as it does hunters. If the breeze picks up, try to identify sheltered areas. You can turn this obstacle into an advantage. Now you’re looking for areas where the deer can take advantage of the natural warmth available AND stay out of the wind. If you know your woods, you can answer the question “where are the deer now?” almost exactly.
The preferred feed for deer varies by region and time of year. Hungry deer will eat just about anything. Keep in mind that deer survival is all about efficiency. Digging for nuts uses energy. The deeper the snow, the more energy the deer use. A deer digging for an acorn in 2 feet of snow could use more energy digging than it gains by eating. You’re looking for the greatest gain with the least effort.
If deep snow is present, it’s definitely a factor. Rather than forage, the deer are more likely to browse. They will browse in the areas with the greatest concentration of browse. Look for sunny pricker thickets and brushy fields where the deer can take several bites without taking a step. Areas that have been recently timbered are also good choices.
Even when the temperatures are cold, if the sun exposes some grass, especially after a lengthy period of snow cover, pay close attention. Many times deer will flock there in order to take advantage of the abundant mouthfuls of nutrition.
Deer behavior itself is also affected by extreme cold. A deer laying in a ball on 32 degree ground uses less energy to keep warm than a deer standing on all fours surrounded by 5 degree air. Deer seem to get out of their beds earlier in extreme cold rather than wait for darkness and a drop in temperature. They’ll also bed closer to their food source if possible. Again, it’s all about conserving energy and efficiency for deer that have to do the right things to survive.Mistaken Identity
The days leading up to Ohio’s late muzzleloader season were very cold and snowy. The second day, a brief warm spell, before an expected plummet in temperatures, exposed patches of alfalfa. I took a stand on a hillside just below the field expecting deer, a mature 7-pointer in particular (trail cam pic below), to make their way from the sunny ridgetops nearby to the partially exposed grass. As the does filtered past, browsing along the way, a mature buck with a lopsided rack appeared behind them. The 7-pointer had arrived.
There were lots of eyes around, so I stayed motionless as the does were under my treestand. I kept the buck in view out of the corner of my eye, focusing instead on trying to find the right time to raise my gun. I finally got it shouldered, and as luck would have it, the buck was in perfect position. He was broadside at 40 yards, shoulder exposed through the otherwise dense brush. The crosshairs found him immediately and I squeezed the trigger.
After a very short bloodtrail, I walked up on my buck. However, he wasn’t the 7-pointer. Instead, he was a gorgeous 12-pointer that I had only two pictures of in 3 years (trail cam pic below). No doubt the buck made his mistake because of the demands of the cold winter weather. I’m just glad I wasn’t home watching football.