I hope you enjoy this article on late season hunting as much as I have.
I sat in my tree stand overlooking a
rub route, on a hill overlooking a cornfield. It was about 3:30 in the afternoon, there was at least a foot of snow on the ground, the temperature was hovering around 5 degrees, and the wind was blowing at about 10 miles per hour, creating a windchill factor of about -5 degrees. Very common for late season hunting. It didn’t seem like ideal deer activity conditions. As I surveyed the area I though to myself that I would be a lot warmer sitting in front of the television back home, but then I knew I wouldn’t see any deer.
And, just then I spotted movement in the finger of woods that bordered the cornfield. As I looked more closely I spotted an older 10 point buck I’d been watching since mid-October; he would easily score 170. With him was a big bodied, wide racked 8 point, 140 class buck I’d seen several times, and a smaller 11 point non-typical, that would score in the 120’s, that I had seen only twice before.
I’d been researching the deer in this area since early October, and I’d patterned the activities of the two larger bucks along their rub routes at least a month ago. The reason I was in my stand that night was to find out if the bucks would move in this type of weather, and what time they moved; so that I could figure out when and where trophy class bucks move under the different weather conditions.
In 1994 I began researching deer, using a journal and keeping a record of all my deer sightings, their location, sex, size and activity; along with their direction of travel, the temperature, wind-speed, wind-chill, humidity, dewpoint, cloud cover, precipitation, barometric pressure, moon position and moonlight. As a result of my seven-year study I realized there were several different meteorological conditions that both decreased, and increased daytime deer movement. I was most interested in the conditions that caused increased deer movement during the day. After analyzing my data, and correlating it with my observations over the years, I discovered several conditions that cause deer to move during the day once the rut has ended.
Light and Movement
During the fall, as the leaves begin to fall, most whitetail deer movement occurs at night, and most deer are seen during daylight hours at dawn and dusk, when they feel secure. Deer, especially older trophy class bucks, feel secure moving in low light conditions. It doesn’t make any difference what time of day it is as long as the light conditions resemble those at dawn and dusk. When cloud cover, fog, light rain or snow reduces the amount of available sunlight deer feel secure moving and feeding during daylight. Throughout much of North America the sky is cloudy most of the time from November on, which often causes bucks to move during the day.
During cold weather deer move less, because cold temperatures cause them to lose body heat. However, when prolonged cold weather keeps deer from feeding regularly; or when low food sources and cold weather cause them to loose calories and weight, they are forced to search for food, and they often move during the warmest part of the day, usually in the late afternoon or early evening, especially if there is cloud cover that may keep heat from dissipating.
In the northern states, when the temperature, dewpoint or wind-chill drop below 20 degrees, deer movement is often restricted to heavy cover, downwind sides of hills, low lying, or other protected areas, where deer can escape wind-chills. My research indicates that wind-chill is the determining factor in deer movement. Although I often saw deer during the day when temperatures were above 20 degrees I rarely saw deer in the open when wind speeds reduced 20 degree temperatures to wind-chills below 20 degrees. It doesn’t take much of a wind to create a low wind-chill. A five mile per hour wind at 20 degrees produces a 16 degree wind-chill. A ten mile an hour wind at 20 degrees produces a 4 degree wind-chill.
High wind-speeds also decrease deer movement. Strong winds make it difficult for deer to hear properly, and if the deer are in wooded areas the wind blows scent around, bouncing it off trees, making it difficult to determine the source of the scent. In most areas wind-speeds between 10 and 20 miles per hour make deer nervous and cause them to stay in protected areas, or seek areas where there is less wind. Deer in the plains states, where wind speeds often average 15 miles per hour are more tolerant of high winds than woodland deer.
One interesting thing the study revealed was that the older trophy class bucks continued to look for does during the rut when the wind speeds were between 10 and 15 miles per hour. I suspect rutting urge cause the bucks to continue looking for does, possibly knowing that the does would be holed up in ore near their daytime core areas. If you know where the doe core areas are, and the wind speed is above 10 miles per hour, one of the best places to hunt may be in or near doe core areas.
Prior to the rut bucks, especially older trophy class bucks, need to put on enough fat to get them through the rut. After the rigors of the rut bucks need to eat a lot to put on the fat they lost during the rut, so they can get through the winter. Bucks need to locate and feed in high quality food sources, or areas with abundant forage. If there are acorns, corn, soybeans, berries, legumes or other high quality food sources around, those are the areas to look for and hunt bucks.
When food sources are scarce, especially after agricultural crops have been harvested, grazing plants have been depleted and mast and berries are gone, older, trophy class bucks are forced to rely primarily on browse. If other preferred food sources are available deer will use them until they are depleted, then search for another source. Limited food sources in late fall/early winter often concentrate the deer, including older trophy class bucks, on the remaining food sources. If the only food source around is an un-picked cornfield, that is where you will likely find the books.
During my study, when wind-chills were above 20 degrees, most deer sightings occurred from 4:00 to 8:30 PM, and from 5:30 to 8:30 AM. When temperatures were below 20 degrees, and when cloud cover provided low light security factors during the day, I saw deer feeding in open areas as early 2:30 in the afternoon; and they were seen returning to their bedding areas as late as 9:00 in the morning. Although bucks generally head back to their core areas before the does I often saw the older bucks as late as 8:30; from an hour to a half hour after sunrise. When the sky was cloudy, the wind-chills were below 20 degrees, and the wind-speeds were below 10 miles per hour, most buck sightings occurred between 2:30 and 6:00 PM and between 6:30 and 9:00 AM.
Post Rut Bucks
Although early winter creates harsh conditions with low temperatures, rain and snow, it is one of the few times during the year when bucks carrying trophy racks may be seen together. Because the rut is over the bucks may not be as antagonistic toward each other, and they often begin to reform the bachelor groups they were in before the rut. Bucks are also in search of high quality foods, in order to gain back the weight they lost during the rut. This combination of factors provides late season hunters the opportunity to see several bucks, including some that are trophy class, together on a regular basis.
On several occasions I have seen trophy class, dominant bucks, traveling together when the sky was cloudy and the temperatures were low. The largest deer I ever saw, a 12 point 200 class buck, was traveling with a button buck near a cornfield on a cold, cloudy day in December at 8:30 in the morning.
The Right Area
The key to hunting late season trophy bucks, as you can see by my hunt, is to be in an area where trophy bucks abound. That hunt took place in a lightly hunted region of southern Minnesota, where hunting is by primitive methods only. Because of the hunting restrictions, and the cold weather, hunting pressure is always minimal, and there are several bucks scoring between 140 and 170 in the area, making it easy for a persistent hunter to see trophy bucks.
When you are hunting late season deer you need to know where the food sources are, and know the trails the deer use during daylight as they move to and from the fields. The easiest way to find the food sources is to regularly scout the area by driving the farm country roads to locate fields that haven’t been picked. Or you can get up high and watch the deer from a distance. Personally I like to watch deer from a portable stand or blind, or a high hill where you can stand and wait for the deer.
Right Place, Right Time
When you are hunting in the afternoon or evening, the farther from the food source you are, without getting too close to bedding areas, the better your chances of seeing deer during the day. Even though the deer may arrive at the food source well before dark, they are most alert near the food sources, where you may be detected. And, because bucks generally travel later than does, you will have a better chance of seeing them in protected areas, well away from the food sources, in the early afternoon.
When you are hunting in the morning try to position yourself between night resting areas/early morning food sources, and daytime bedding areas. Your hunting sites should be located along trails leading to buck bedding areas so you have an opportunity as the bucks return to their beds.
I often see deer bed and feed in overgrown fields of brush and saplings on the downwind side of hills in the morning. They often stay in these areas until daylight, then, as the sun rises, move to areas of deeper cover. When this happens you can setup downwind or crosswind of the trails the deer use as they leave. You can also setup near known buck bedding areas, provided you get there before the buck returns.
The time to hunt late season bucks is when the conditions are right. When foods are scarce, or a preferred food is available; and when there is cloud cover and the wind-chills drop, expect to see deer earlier in the evening and later in the morning than normal. After a winter storm lets up, or it has been cold, windy, or there has been heavy precipitation for more than a day and a half, causing deer to miss two or more feeding periods, and then the wind dies down, or the wind-chill rises, expect deer to begin feeding, and to continue for the next couple of hours.
Late Season Tactics
With the rut over and most of the does bred, bucks are not as willing to respond to calling, rattling, scents and decoys as they were during the rut. But, as long as a buck carries antlers it’s testosterone level is still elevated, and it may respond to estrus scents and doe calls, which can be effective when used along rub routes and scrape lines; and near daytime staging areas, food sources and buck core areas. Because bucks are not traveling as much, or as willing to respond at this time, the key to attracting bucks is to be in or near areas bucks use during the day.
Estrus scents can be placed so they spread out downwind of your hunting position to attract the buck as it approaches a food source. Estrus can also be used on a scent line by leaving drops of scent on the ground along a line that crosses a deer trail and leads to your location. Although scientific research suggests there is no doe estrus call the “social grunt,” which is used by does when they are trying to locate each other will get a buck’s attention at this time. When a buck responds to scents or calls it may not be because of rutting urge, it may simply be because of curiosity.
Decoys can provide the needed visual stimulus to bring a buck within range after it has responded to scents or calls. Bucks are not looking for a fight at this time of the year, and because of this doe decoys work best. A decoy with antlers may intimidate or alarm a buck, causing it to leave the area. Mobility is a key factor in late season hunting. I use a collapsible bedded doe decoy because it’s lightweight and rolls up for easy transportation. With their low profile bedded decoys should be placed in a semi-open area, preferably not on a trail. In several field tests I have seen deer skirt a bedded decoy on a trail, while walking right up to it in other areas. Place bedded decoys near a bush or tree where a deer would normally bed. Standing decoys can be placed in tall grass, brush or any other area where deer might be found.
Because deer, including trophy class bucks, are looking for food at this time of the year the combination of tarsal scent and deer urine on the ground, leading to a food scent, can be very effective. The tarsal and urine are non-threatening and may arouse the buck’s curiosity, the food attractant then brings it within range. These scents may also attract does, which may be followed by bucks. When you use food scents choose those particular to your area; corn, apple and acorn scents work well in most areas.
Again, because the rut is over, bucks may not be looking to exert dominance, or looking for a fight, and they may not respond to buck scents, aggressive grunts, tending grunts and rattling as they were during the rut. However, these products and techniques, when used in combination with doe or estrus scents to create the illusion of a buck with an estrus doe, may attract a buck that simply hasn’t had enough of the rut yet. Studies on several deer species suggests that a reduction of testosterone levels in males (which may occur during the later part of the rut) may actually increase rutting behavior. This may be borne out by the fact that in one study, older whitetail bucks were more responsive to rattling, than during any other part of the rut.
These are all things to be considered when planing your trip for late season hunting.
This article is an excerpt from the Whitetail Addict’s Manual ($19.95 + $5.00 S&H), by T.R. Michels, available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products catalog.