Smoke Poles at the Buzzer
By Kent Boucher
My father in law loathes the days on the calendar that follow the completion of the New Year’s arrival and fanfare. The “bleak midwinter” is what he dubs these blustery days, and I suppose the vast majority of people living above the 30th parallel share in the sentiment. But if you are deer obsessed such as I am, and can often be found pontificating about how the cavemen had life figured out, and how we have worked too hard to not have to work at all, then these brain freezing days of winter provide the old fashioned hardship that adds the perfect romantic zest which strengthens our connections to our hunting forefathers as we hunt deer with weapons as timeless as them.
Where are the deer? Ask a shed hunter.
The longer I hunt the more I learn about the nuances of deer routines throughout the hunting season. The early season offers last light action as deer seek calories in preparation for the exhausting demands of the rut when bucks spend the majority of day and night seeking and battling for receptive does. The late season offers a new objective: survival. As subzero winds whistle across the recently deforested corn and beanfields, deer turn their attention to areas of greatest thermal advantage and reliable food resources. The closer in proximity those two needs reside, the more attractive they are, and hunters should find them attractive too. This is when shed hunting can really pay off. All of the classic shed hunting hotspots are going to shine during the late muzzleloader season. If I was king of the world and could select my ultimate late season honey hole, I would choose to set up shop near a south facing slope, with dense bedding, bordered by wind breaking cedars and pines, and within a short distance of reliable food. Of course none of us have such privilege or power, so we instead must find a place that has as many of those elements as possible on the ground where we have access for hunting.
Hunting The Road Most Traveled
When I hunt such an area as I just described, I look for an ambush location within 100 yards of popular travel routes between these locations. Much of the grain litter from around the edges of the field has already been eaten by this point in the season, so it won’t take long for deer to migrate to the middle of the field where the shots get tougher, and the energy from a muzzleloader loses much of its potency. Because of this reality, staying alert while manning your post is critical so a buck doesn’t slip out of range after offering you the best shot opportunity while you were scrolling through social media on your phone. Although deer habits have altered significantly for this portion of the season, the same good hunting practice rules of the early season and the rut still apply. Be sure you play the wind, and have plenty of ambush cover to break up your silhouette- bucks didn’t survive this long because of stupidity or a burned out nose. The sun low angle of incidence during winter can assist in remaining undetected if you can work the angles to hunt with the sun at your back to create a real blinding advantage to conceal you from the watchful eyes of a late season buck. Once you identify a downwind location like this to set up shop, it will become a test of your cold weather gear and resolve to earn your opportunity.
Avoid the Cold Shoulder
During the rut I often feel guilty when I take a midday break. Aside from the lockdown phases of the rut, bucks are spending so much time on their feet during daylight hours that leaving the stand for a lunch break, or a chance to stretch your legs creates a feeling that you are walking away from your greatest opportunity. This isn’t the case during the late muzzleloader season. Deer must prioritize survival during this time of the year so conserving calories by remaining bedded throughout much of the day makes the most sense. Deer will occasionally shift around during the late morning, but the bulk of daylight movement cuts off by an hour or so after sunrise, and doesn’t pick up again until shortly before sunset. So go ahead and take that late morning-early afternoon break, warm up, take a nap, and be prepared to be back in the stand with a fresh thermos of coffee by 2:30 or 3:00.
Use The Gear Grandpa Didn’t Have
Just as your inline muzzleloader is a commodity that takes some of the hoping and praying out of each trigger squeeze needed by earlier blackpowder hunters, the cold weather gear available on the market today provides hunters with the R-value needed to hold tight through the frigid hours of waiting for a shot opportunity. A critically important factor to keep in mind if you are hunting from a treestand or elevated blind is the fact that the open air space all around you is going to zap your body heat. This means that the 800mg insulated boots that worked great through October and November are no longer going to cut it, so you will need to do some shopping for boots with heavy insulation that will keep your feet toasty and keep you in tune with the hunt. The best boots I have found for this are military surplus boots known as “bunny boots.” They are hideous, clunky, and wonderfully warm. I have never gotten cold feet while hunting in my bunny boots, and cold feet almost always end a hunt prematurely. Besides your feet, much of the heat will be lost to the cold air underneath your body while you’re sitting in the stand. I strongly recommend packing a quilt or blanket to sit on to provide an extra bit of insulation. Another trick I learned recently from a conversation my brother and Noel Gandy (another fine author for this here magazine), is to pick up some unscented, adhesive heating pads to stick to areas of greatest blood flow on your body to maintain a cozy feeling inside your hunting layers. Speaking of layers, always hunt the late season with plenty of them. The foundation for warmth begins with a quality set of fleece or merino wool lined base layers. From there, build outward with progressively heavier layers that keep your core and extremities warm, but also allow plenty of mobility for hiking in, and climbing into your stand. There’s no doubt about it, we do everything better when we are comfortable, and that includes hunting.
Although the bleak midwinter is a drudgery to most folks, we aren’t most folks. We see the value in all phases of the deer season, and the steamy breath and numb fingers are a worthy trade for the sweat and mosquitoes of the early season. So layer up, find the late season habitat and put the finishing touches on your deer season with a smoke pole held tight to your shoulder.