COL Late-season deer: A whole new game
When the crowds leave the woods, it's time for a change in tactics
The sun, officially risen for the day but hidden from my sight behind the mighty bluffs guarding the Mississippi River, was bathing the drab early December woods in that soft, yellow light you see at no other time and under no other circumstances. Like so many of the most beautiful events in nature, this bathing of the land in yellow gold lasts only minutes on those rare perfect mornings when it occurs at all, and I was taking it all in when a flicker of movement on the ridge above me caught my eye.
At first, even with the binoculars trained on the spot where I had seen the movement, I saw nothing. I was about to write it off as a squirrel or a bird, when I saw the deer, or more accurately, part of the deer. What I saw was the white throat patch.
No snow had fallen yet that season and the throat patch was so out of place, so vivid in contrast to the bleak, dark surroundings, that I was surprised I hadn't seen it sooner.
The deer took a step, revealing a pair of legs, the horizontal plane of its back and the curve of its rump. Then another step, and I had a glimpse of antler. I was not hunting specifically for a buck. My muzzleloader tag was good for either sex, and a fat doe would have done just fine, but I'll admit that the glimpse of that antler sent my heart rate up a beat or two.
It went up another notch or two when, moments later, the buck took another step and I got my first good look at a mature buck, long and lean from the rigors of the rut, his neck still showing the remnants of the swelling that had been so prominent only a few weeks earlier. I shifted the big Thompson/Center Hawken on my lap, my thumb on the hammer of the .50 caliber muzzleloader.
The buck was nervous --you would be too if people had been hunting you nearly every day for a month, longer if you count the bow season. Any deer that hasn't been rendered into sausage and chops by this time of the year is a real basket case. And so the buck came picking his way down that ridge one step at time, with frequent pauses to make sure everything was all right.
I was surprised to see this deer. By this late in the season, a buck of this caliber usually is tucked away for the day before the first hint of shooting light. Most mature bucks become nocturnal out of necessity by this time of the year. They have learned that only by moving at night and staying put all day can they survive.
Chances are this buck had been feeding in a distant field all night, or maybe he had stopped to investigate a late estrous doe. Whatever the reason, I could tell by the buck's demeanor that he knew he was late getting back to his bedding area, and he did not like it one bit.
With good reason. When the 10-pointer was only a dozen steps from the base of the big white oak in which I perched, I put the iron sights on the point of his near shoulder and dropped the hammer on the Hawken, shattering the early morning stillness of the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area.
Anyone who hunts the late season, whether with bow or with muzzleloader, has his work cut out for him. There is nothing easy about hunting at this time of the year. That is the challenge of late-season hunting.
You can forget about rubs, scrapes, rattling, calling, decoying and all of that neat stuff that played a part just a few weeks ago. Now, deer hunting is a whole different ball game that boils down to two pieces of information. Where are the deer feeding? Where are they bedding?
Answer those two questions and you can take late-season deer with consistency. Fail to answer those two questions and you are left relying primarily on luck.
Your job is easier if there is snow on the ground. Any good food source or bedding area is going to attract multiple deer, and that adds up to a lot of tracks. If there's no snow, check for tracks in any sandy areas, mud or loose dirt. Spend a lot of time looking for droppings in potential feeding areas and along trails. Lots of droppings adds up to lots of deer and lots of visits. That is what you are looking for.
Start with the food source, because it's usually easier to locate than the bedding area. In our part of the country, corn is the top food source now. Check every field in your hunting area. Pay special attention to those fields which have been picked but not chopped or chisel-plowed.
Hike the perimeter of the field, and remember that deer don't just wander haphazardly into a field to feed; they use trails.
Get back in the woods
Once you find the trails, don't set up your stand at the entry point. You're better off placing your stand 50 to 100 yards back off the edge of the field. Deer will stage here before entering the field. Staging areas are not hard to find. Trails will crisscross the main trail and there will be lots of tracks and droppings. This is the best place for an evening stand.
For morning hunts, you want to be closer to the bedding area. Trying to hunt the stand near the food source in the morning will only result in spooking the deer you plan to hunt in the evening. No matter how tempting it is to go back there in the morning, don't do it.
Instead, follow trails backward from the feeding area. These trails will lead you to the bedding areas, or at least get you close enough to them that you can figure out where the deer are most likely bedding. Occasionally you'll find a heavily used trail that leads to a bedding area, but more often, the trail you're following will become difficult to follow and eventually peter out. This means you're near the bedding area. Deer don't all enter the bedroom through the same door; they disperse and enter the bedding area at random locations.
When you run out of trail, stop and try to determine what is ahead of you for cover. If you are familiar with the area you hunt, this is not difficult. Let's say that you know that just ahead is a south facing slope covered with lots of nasty dogwood thickets and littered with the tops of oaks from a logging operation a few years back. You need look no further; you have found the bedding area. Now how do you hunt it?
I figure on a northwest wind when looking for a stand site. I want it within 200 yards of the bedding area, closer if I can find a good, quiet access route. That access route cannot take me through or upwind of the feeding area. I'm also going to look for a place where a number of those faint trails that lead to the bedding area intersect.
Food and cover. Food and cover. That should be the late-season hunter's mantra. Find both, hunt them smart and you will have the satisfaction of taking on the toughest whitetails of all, one-on-one.
Gary Clancy of Stewartville has been a weekly feature columnist for the Outdoor News since 1997 and is the author of seven books. Look for his features on hunting and fishing each month on this page.