By the time December and January roll around, a lot of hunters are burnt out and ready for a change-up from deer season. However, the late-season brings about some great deer hunting if you can pin down their movements and hunt strategically. Deer have many obvious advantages on humans, but none more so than during the late-season. Time is of the essence for the bow-hunter, and bucks have already been through the ringer, avoiding an arrow during the rut and the orange army during your state’s firearm season has their senses on full-alert. Playing the weather, hunting near the best food, and grinding it out to the finish are key factors in late-season success.
Can Late Season Be the Best Season?
With the number of hunters hanging it up for the year, or switching to waterfowl hunting, the late season can be a great time to find the woods settling down and less human pressure on the local deer herd.
Jared Mills, Co-Owner of 41 North Media (the company producing Midwest Whitetail) and very successful bowhunter from Iowa, agreed and told me, “Depending on nearby food sources, where you set up, and how you hunt, late season hunting can be some of the best you experience all season. Of course, food is king this time of year as deer are replenishing from the rut and fueling up for the cold winter months.”
Focus on the Food
Your late-season hunting should focus largely around evening hunts, keeping in mind that food is the end-goal for the whitetail. Whether you’re hunting right over food or a ¼ mile from it, always set up in a way you would think deer should approach. Although the mainstream hunting media might lead you to think the late season is all about hunting well-manicured food plots or standing ag fields, Jared said, “Don’t count out the fact that deer will also spend a fair amount of time browsing for food in the timber – it’s not just the stereotypical fields and food plots.”
At the same time, it’s hard to beat corn in the late season. Corn is extremely high energy due to its carbohydrate levels, and this will help deer get through the winter months. A standing or picked soybean field is still a great option as well, and depending on where you hunt, deer may prefer soybeans instead of corn. I’ve even seen piles of deer eating in brown alfalfa fields in the late season. The key is to find what food source is drawing deer to the property you hunt in the final weeks of the season.
On or Around Food Sources?
When I asked Jared about late-season food sources and setting up near them he told me, “You don’t have to set up right on the food to have success. Depending on how much pressure the bucks have experienced recently, it is sometimes better to set up off the food to have a better chance of catching one moving in daylight.”
“I personally don’t hunt tight to the bedding this time of year, just because it seems like the bucks are back in there pretty early in the mornings, but setting up in between the food and bedding is a good move.”
Play the Weather
If you have food, coupled with a winter cold front (or warm), late-season hunting can be some of the best hunting you will experience in terms of big buck sightings.
Hunting a cold front is a great strategy for the late-season, like any other time of year, but watch the late-season warm fronts as well. A week-long stretch of frigid temperatures followed by a few warm days can really get deer up and feeling good. Much like humans, deer see breaks in the weather as an opportunity to get out and about.
If minimal food exists on the property you hunt, find areas that receive lots of winter sunshine and focus your efforts in the hardwoods near those locations.
Keep in mind, areas that receive lots of sunshine will be choice locations for bedding and feeding during cold weather. Watch for deer to be hanging close to the spots in the final weeks of the season.
Gather Late Season Intel
Setting up trail cameras for hunting purposes can still be helpful this time of year, especially if you own a few cellular cameras for real-time updates to see what type of weather gets your deer moving. Staying out of the areas you plan to hunt is critical during late season as well.
A late-season buck behaves much like he did in the early season. He’s all about food, and anything to disrupt his bed to feed pattern could throw off your chances.
Place a trail camera well in advance near a bedding area over a well-used logging road, mock scrape or heavy trail going to a feeding location.
Spend some time on the roads around your property before last light to see when and where deer are feeding. “You just need to figure out where the deer are going to feed, says Mills. “That may require some long distance scouting or some evening drives around the neighborhood.”
Grinding to the Finish
I call it, “grinding,” because late-season bowhunting can be a lonely, grinding experience. Cold weather, paired with the still and silent woods, can make for peaceful, yet slow evenings at times. Staying sharp can be difficult without many trail camera photos or in-person sightings of a target buck.
Staying motivated in the final weeks of the season is critical. “It can be tough,” says Mills. “Especially if you’ve been grinding it out for a month or two already. However, I just remind myself that as soon as the season is over, I’m going to want this time back and to not take it for granted. As long as there are still target bucks in the area, and the season is still open, I know I have a chance.”
Late-season hunting can be hit or miss, but if you key in on the best habitat and food in the neighborhood, you can find yourself in the middle of some great deer hunting. Be adaptable and time your hunts with the weather to keep pressure and human presence to a minimum and you just might notch a buck tag in the final weeks of the season.