5 Tips for Final Days Bucks

By Noel Gandy

The doldrums of winter can be taxing on anyone. Short days coupled with cold temperatures can tend to get some folks in a funk. Don’t tell that to a dedicated whitetail hunter though. The days between December 21-January 10 mark the late muzzleloader portion of the Iowa whitetail season and can be some of the most fruitful times in the field.

Often overlooked and underutilized, the late season of whitetail hunting can be a time to fill that unused archery tag from earlier in the fall or put a fresh muzzleloader tag on a rut worn buck. The remnant of hunters in the woods will find that using some strategy will up their odds of filling that tag and help you leave the year with a sweet taste in your mouth as you long for October to roll back around.

First, who can hunt? Archers with unfilled tags are quick to raise their hands. They’ve pursued the bachelor groups of October. They’ve weathered encounter after encounter during the rut of November where they just couldn’t quite connect. Then, they sat out for the grand portion of December as the orange army took to the field. Biding their time, the archery hunter is able to take back to the timber during this late season swing to use their bow and arrow.

Also, this begins the late muzzleloader portion of the season. During this time, archery tackle, handguns, crossbows (residents only) and muzzleloaders are the weapons of choice. For archery purists, this gives you that second buck tag. For those with a score to settle, this gives you a chance to use the great equalizer: a gun. It seems that every year muzzleloaders and their technology advance to great new degrees. There are muzzleloader rifles that are built to shoot for distance and can effectively harvest deer well beyond the ranges of their predecessors. Also with muzzleloader rifles, a hunter can purchase one and have it delivered right to their door due to the nature of the weapon not having the same characteristics of a traditional centerfire type rifle. Often times, they’re relatively inexpensive so this makes muzzleloader hunting a type of hunting that more people can enjoy.

Those who are eligible for a late muzzleloader buck tag are fairly limited. The stipulation for this tag is that you haven’t purchased a tag for any of the other gun seasons. That means, shotgun hunters, unless it’s to fill an antlerless tag, you’ll have to sit this one out.
Now, we know who can hunt and we have a tag, how do I hunt this late season?

Crop is King
The heading could be a little misleading but the principal is the same: find the food and you automatically up your odds of finding a good buck during the late season. Harvest has come and gone for the most part by this time and that means that the deer’s food of choice is likely gone as well. For most deer, they have resorted to snacking on browse and leftover crop remnants. If you happen to have access to a farm with some standing crop then, by all means, be near that area. Scouting will come into play as you seek to find where the deer are entering the field in the afternoons. Often times, deer will come from quite a distance to be able to munch on the leftover fare. Setting up a blind or stand with a good wind advantage is always necessary. At this point, you are likely not hunting a single deer but are rather hunting a herd. If you find the herd then the bucks will likely be within that group. That means more noses and eyes will be working against you.

Don’t Neglect Scouting
More than likely the deer that you will be hunting will have had quite a bit of pressure up until this point in the deer season. Not only have they been bow hunted pretty hard but the droves of hunters who prefer the shotgun portion of the season have taken their toll as well. This means that many deer could have potentially been relocated to different chunks of timber and are beginning to make their way back to their home ranges. With this in mind, be aware that some scouting needs to take place in order to assess the deer herd on the farm where you’ll be hunting. Maybe they’ve all been pushed to you, and maybe there’s not a deer to be found. This is where some time behind a quality piece of glass will come in handy for you. Determine what deer are there to be hunted and then form your plan of attack.

Pick the Best Time to Hunt
Many times we equate late season hunting with hunting in the afternoons only. This is largely due to the fact that we anticipate the deer being out in the fields during the evenings and nights eating and replenishing themselves from a crazy rut and a hard winter. Honestly, this is a really good strategy. There is very little reason to question the logic that you could potentially bump deer by hunting in the mornings. However, if there is a chance you’d like to hunt in the mornings then I would point you to remember:

This is where access is super important
Mornings, while not often utilized for late season hunts, can still be effective. If you have access to hunt close to some bedding, perhaps in the timber, then it might be to your benefit to give it a go. However, this is where your access to and from the stand site is super important. Take care to check the wind as you walk into the stand. If you can walk with your face heading into the wind you are likely better off. This will keep any deer who are downwind from being alerted to your presence and bumping off before you even make it to your perch. Also, do your due diligence to keep visual barriers between you and where you suspect deer to be is located. If you suspect they’re in timber then keep a field terrace or tall grasses between you and the deer. Large brush piles can also serve as visual barriers to leafless timber beds.

Wind Bump
While party hunting is not legal during the late season it is still okay to walk slowly through timber with other late season tag holders. I’m definitely not recommending an all-out push of timber and drainage ditches like would traditionally be done during the shotgun seasons. However, I am suggesting that if you are in a safe area to do so, still hunting through the timber with the wind to your face could prove beneficial. If walking while hunting is not your style, it never hurts to have someone very slowly zig zag through a bedding area from the upwind side to “wind bump” an area toward a standing hunter. Again, I cannot reiterate safety enough when it comes to hunting with partners. Hunter’s orange is a must and constant communication beforehand is the key. Be where you say you are going to be.

Late season can be such a fruitful time for a hunter. It always seems that the colder the weather is the better the hunting is. This seems to drive the deer to feed and makes them just a little more predictable as a wily hunter attempts to wrap his tag around an Iowa trophy. Be sure to take the proper measures to be dressed accordingly and you can have a fine time and top off the freezer in the process.