Late Season Whitetail Tactics
It’s never too early in the year to get your gun out of its case and practice. Try some different bullet and powder combinations. You may find that your gun likes a different bullet than your buddies. Ultimately, your gun should make the decision for you on what you shoot. It’s very important to be familiar with your gun. Spending a little extra time in the off-season could be the difference in bagging your buck or eating that dreadful tag sandwich. I know firsthand that waiting until the last minute can affect the way you sight in your muzzleloader. I waited until the middle of December one year, and I could not get it dialed in to save my life. I’d shoot twice, clean, shoot twice, and clean. I could not hit the paper! Come to find out my bore solvent was freezing in the rifling, and it was throwing my bullet all over the board. Since then, I’ve made a point to get out and shoot as often as possible. Doing this a couple times a year is not only going to make you a better shot, it will build your confidence in the field.
Locating the deer
Locating the deer during the late season can be very easy for some, but if you don’t have your own lease or land to manage, it can be a little more difficult. The guys that have several acres of standing corn and soybeans for food plots can take out the guesswork and just wait for the right wind to hunt. In the area where I do most of my deer hunting, it sees a large amount of pressure during the first and second shotgun season. With this pressure, it pushes a lot of deer onto those “managed” properties making it extremely difficult to catch a buck coming out to feed during daylight hours. After encountering this dilemma year after year, I started to pick up on a few things. Once the snow hits the ground you can start to distinguish their path of travel. With significant snowfall this can be very noticeable and by hanging trail cameras on all major corridors, it can tell you whether you are wasting your time or if you have a buck coming to feed during daylight hours. If your cameras are coming up empty, spend an evening or two glassing from the truck. Two evenings in a warm truck could possibly save your toes from the cold and save you several days of frustration. Later on in the season food can get a little scarce, and this will force the deer to travel just a little bit further to their destination field. So if you are seeing tracks galore, and not seeing any deer during the hunt, you need to figure out where they are coming from and move in between the bedding and the destination field.
Hunting high and low pressure systems can be very effective any time of the year but especially during the late season. When a low pressure system moves in, it seems like they are moving early towards corn and soybean fields. For High pressure systems, I like to key in on any green food sources that are still left like alfalfa or clover. I’ve had some of my best hunts in early January over a not so green looking alfalfa field where the deer crossed a cut corn and soybean field to get to.
The number one late season food source for deer would have to be soybeans. Soybeans are loaded with proteins and can provide deer with nutrients to sustain the harsh conditions throughout the late season. Once the beans are gone, they will move to the cornfields. Corn can be a late season magnet for deer. It lacks in protein, but it provides them the calories they need to plump up and keep their body warm. A very good alternative, if you are looking for a late season food plot, would be brassicas. Brassicas are a popular food plot mix of radishes, turnips, chicory, kale, and rape. The brassicas usually don’t get hit until the first frost, which causes the water concentration in the leaves to move lower to the roots, and in turn raises the sugar concentration to the leaves. Deer will often come back during the colder months to dig up the bulbs. I’ve heard of several stories of deer not touching these brassica plots during the early bow and shotgun seasons, but mid-to-late winter, you will find everything is demolished. I think a lot of this has to do with the deer having other preferred food sources in the area and once they dry up, they will move into the brassicas.
Second Estrous Phase
This is one topic I don’t hear much about and haven’t really experienced much of it until last year. My first late-season hunt of the year, I believe was on Saturday December, 27th. I was sitting just below a terrace on a field split evenly three ways with alfalfa, corn, and soybeans (all harvested), when about 10 minutes from last light, I see a doe step out with a really good buck following her lead. It wasn’t 3-4 minutes later she entered the field and already caught the attention of three to four more bucks. I experienced encounters like this off and on for the next 2 weeks. After all of these encounters, it really had me thinking; I was hunting in an area with a very dense doe population, the buck-to-doe ratio favors the doe at least 10-1, a huge imbalance! That is the perfect scenario where a mature buck can still catch the yearlings and the other does that didn’t get bred, coming into estrous late. So just keep in mind where your doe bedding areas are. Usually late in the year, it’s in the thickest cover on a south facing slope.
While not as prevalent as late November and early December the possibility is still there for does to come into estrous during the late season. Don’t expect bucks to be in a frenzy and aggressive this time of year if there are a few late estrous does around. Their main concern is still consuming food, but if there are any does that happen to come into estrous late it is a good idea to locate a group of does, especially in food sources. The bucks will get two birds with one stone!
Fighting the Elements
The elements during mid/late December into early January can be brutal, but you must be able to tolerate it in order to be successful. Good cold weather gear is a must if you’re planning on sticking out the entire season. If the wind chill gets below 10-15 degrees, it can be pretty rough if you are not prepared. Try anything you can do to keep your fingers and toes warm. This is very important because they are the first to go. I’ve had really good luck with the disposable hand warmers and the larger heat packs to take the edge off. I’ve also resorted to bringing in large blankets and cocooning myself, just to make it through the evening. When it gets below zero, I usually avoid the tree stands and strictly hunt pop up or box blinds. By hunting out of blinds, it can take the edge off that wind chill and make the hunt bearable; not to mention, you can get away with a lot more movement if you need to stand up and stretch to get the blood flowing again.
There are many things to keep in mind when you are planning your late season hunt. Whether you’re hunting with a gun or a bow this time of year, pay attention to the weather man, look for those fronts, stay focused on food sources, dress warm, and put your time in the stand or blind.