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COL You can still fill your tag

But a December whitetail is a different kind of deer

Taking a deer with bow in December is doable, but be warned: Filling your tag is at least twice as difficult now as it was in September, October or November, primarily because the firearms season has dramatically thinned the herd. There simply are not as many deer in the woods now.

Fewer deer means fewer opportunities. And the deer that are left are super-spooky. Earlier in the season, you can get away with little mistakes. Not now. If a December whitetail gets even a hint that you might be around, that deer is gone, no questions asked.

If those odds aren't enough to make you consider staying at home by the fire this month, how about the fact that despite all of the advances in cold-weather gear the past few years, you are still likely to get cold on a December deer stand -- sometimes very cold. All of which explains why most bowhunters hang up the sticks and strings when the Minnesota firearms season opens.

But if you, like me, just can't get enough of this addiction called bowhunting, then let me share some tips I have learned over the years.

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For starters, focus on finding the food. Yes, decent bedding cover is important, but it runs a distant second to food at this time of year. In the whitetail's world, winter is all about finding the groceries -- and around here, that almost always means corn.

Sure, deer will feed in soybean stubble, chomp frozen acorns and consume a substantial ration of browse during the winter, but corn is number one. A standing field is best, but your odds of finding one in your hunting area aren't good.

Second best is a field which has been picked but not chopped. And in third place is a chopped but untilled field. Once a cornfield has been tilled, deer will look elsewhere for their vittles, because those golden kernels they depend upon to fuel their internal furnaces are just too hard to find in a plowed field.

Your mission as a late-season bowhunter is to find the field the deer are using. If there is snow on the ground, this mission is easily accomplished by simply walking the field edges while looking for deer tracks. Find a field with lots of deer tracks and a well-used trail or two entering the field and you have hit late-season paydirt.

If there is no snow, your best bet is to spend a late afternoon or two glassing suspected feeding fields from a distance. Look for deer to begin showing up in the field anytime between 3 p.m. and sunset, although they will feed earlier in the day if a storm is moving in.

Resist temptation

Once you've pinpointed a field the deer are feeding in, it's tempting to set up a stand right on the edge of the field. Resist that temptation. By this late in the season, deer are experts at spotting and avoiding even well-camouflaged blobs sitting in trees along the edge of a field. I've had much better results by hunting along a trail back in the woods.

Late in the season, when there is not much cover in the trees and the deer are super-sensitive to anything out of place in their world, I try to hang my stand in a red oak, which will usually still be stubbornly clinging to many of its leaves. A spruce or cedar is even better, but rarely will you find one growing where you need it.

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When a red oak or conifer is not available, which is most of the time, I like to hang my stand so that the trunk of the tree is between me and the direction from which I expect the deer to approach. Then I stand up while hunting from the stand and peer around either side of the tree to watch for deer.

Hanging your stand on the back of the tree also makes it easier to draw without being seen, and any late-season bowhunter can tell you that this is the most critical moment of any hunt.

And speaking of drawing and shooting, do yourself a favor and get all dressed up in the same gear you will be wearing in the field and then go out and fling some target arrows. If your bulky winter clothing is going to snag the bowstring, now is the time to make that discovery and correct the problem.

Otherwise, you'll discover the problem when you're half-frozen 20 feet up an oak tree and that last minute whitetail is finally posing broadside.

If you shoot a compound bow, you might also consider cranking down its poundage for winter hunting. Cold, stiff muscles can make pulling the same poundage you are comfortable with in the warmer months difficult and sometimes impossible. I shoot a Mathews Switchback at 60 pounds pull most of the season, but for hunting in the cold, I crank it down to 53 pounds. That's still more than enough to get the job done.

Finally, do yourself a favor and spend your time afield in the evening, not the morning. Deer tend to follow well-established trails from bedding areas to food sources in the evening, but are not nearly as predictable when returning to bedding cover in the mornings. This random approach to even well-defined bedding areas makes it difficult to select high-potential stand locations for morning hunts.

I've also found that if I stay out of the woods in the morning, my odds on evening hunts go way up. Late in the season, deer will go totally nocturnal if they feel pressured. Concentrate your late-season energies on hunting the last two hours of shooting light over the best trail you can find leading to a dependable food source.

Follow that strategy, and the odds are good that Christmas will come early for you this year.

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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.

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