It’s now the late season. You’ve hunted hard all fall and winter and yet you find yourself sitting here in the timber with an open tag. The snow is deeper, the cold wind is biting, and maybe you’ve spent too many hours away from your “honey do” list at home. Ending the season with an empty tag is not where you thought you’d be. So what do you do? What are your options? How can you still fill your tag to prove to your family that your time outside was all worth it?
The late season, like other seasons, offers it’s own unique challenges. Honestly, as hunters, if there weren’t challenges to the season, everybody would be doing this. The challenges are what keeps us sharp and keeps us going. Having a goal to accomplish is why hunters continue to endure all that mother nature will throw at them. So don’t give up! Assess your situation, your area, and what’s going on around you and come up with a new plan that just might give you the advantage you need to bring home something you’d be proud of.
Tip #1: The Post-Rut
Remember, even though November has come and gone and the days of the seasons are counting down, there are some bucks out there that are still interested in does. They may not be pursuing them with the intensity that they had during the rut, but their interest may still be perked if they come across a doe who is in a later estrous cycle.
If you know that this is happening or could be happing in the timber where you are hunting, perform some of the tactics that you’d be doing during the peak of the rut in November in hopes that you might lure an interested buck into range.
Continue to put out some scent. I have had some amazing success with using doe urine on drip rags. Remember, you don’t need to buy the most expensive things on the market to do this with. Find an old t-shirt (wash it in scent free wash) then cut it into strips. Don’t be afraid to hang these near your stand, refreshing them with new application from time to time. That scent will travel the miles that you can’t. With any luck, that buck will track that smell right to you.
Vocalizations are still an option too in the post-rut. Using a grunt call from time to time is certainly not out of line. Especially when you see a good buck in the distance. Sound off a few challenge grunts in hopes that it will trigger his dominance and he might make the trail to you.
Using a doe bleat is also something to be considered. The combination of scent and a doe bleat are always a good combination. If a buck first smells something interesting and then hears the bleat, you can bet there’s an excellent chance that he’s going to come and investigate.
Tip #2: The Weather
Throughout the different times of the season, the weather will do a lot to dictate the movement and activity of deer in an area. A good hunter should always be checking the weather before they head out to hunt for many reasons. You need to know where the wind is blowing from, what the temperature will be doing, and if there is any drops in the barometric pressure. Wind speed and any precipitation will also be vital information in planning your hunts.
During the late season here in Iowa, you can expect some nasty weather. Heavy snows, and cold temperatures will be at the top of the list and this is often times what keeps us hunters out of the woods. And why wouldn’t it? Who wants to be out in conditions like that? Well, sometimes, the deer will be.
One of the most “certain” hunts that I was ever on was with my cousin a few years back. He had a doe tag to fill and one night to do it. I had been hunting the nights before without much luck. The weather was cold, but fair and the deer did not seem to move too much.
When I checked the forecast, I saw that although it would be calm at the beginning of our hunt, a front was moving in with high winds and blizzard like conditions. After seeing that weather report, I told him, “If you want to fill that tag, tonight is the night!” As we watched the radar on our phones and knew what was coming, the deer seemed to know the same thing. When the previous nights were slow, this one was not. The first doe came out, presented the right angle, and he made a great shot. As we tracked her in the snow, the blizzard like winds came in and before we knew it, we were driving through the field back to the road not being able to see more than 5 feet off the bumper.
Was is smart? Probably not. Was I certain that the deer would move because of the impending front? Yes.
In the late season, if you can physically endure some of these things, you’re going to see some great action. Temperature drops, barometric pressure changes, and even wind will dictate the perfect conditions for an active night. Translate the weather patterns and you’ll be in good shape.
Tip #3: Trails and Tracks
This tip is something that I believe very much in. In fact, I spend quite a bit of time after the seasons in the late winter paying attention to these as I begin to shed hunt. Discovering the travel patterns of the deer on the property that you hunt is vital to you hunt. It will tell you where to hang your stands, what time of day the deer are coming and going, and which deer are showing up where. Spending time on this tip will give you a huge advantage throughout the season, especially during the late season when the snow is on the ground!
Deer trails are probably the greatest script that a hunter could read. With luck, by the late season, deer have begun to move into a new, somewhat steady routine of sleeping and feeding. The majority of the rut is finished and the bucks as well as the does are in “survival mode”. Sleeping and feeding are going to give them the nourishment and stores to make it through the rest of the Midwest winter. Along with these needs comes routine.
Deer trails in the snow are a great sign for you to pay attention to. A trail that is used over and over again will show when you compare it to other trails. They will be worn down and wider, which will indicate the routine that the deer are following. If you put a trail camera up, you might just gain the confirmation you need. If a trail is showing that kind of use, trust me, they are there.
You could also tell who is using the trail and what time of the day that they are using it. It’s true! There are certain things that can tell you which specific deer is traveling on this trail. That is, if you’re familiar with a few that you’ve been watching over the season.
When I was in college I read a book called, “Big Bucks the Benoit Way” and it changed my hunting forever. The Benoit family has been following these tracking facts for years and they have become experts at finding tracks, discerning them, and following them to accomplish some amazing record book harvests.
The Benoits suggest watching for tracks that sidestep low hanging branches indicating that the buck might be carrying a large rack. They suggest taking notice of the spread of the split hoof as well as the depth of the dew claws in the track. The direction of travel (to the plot is the evening trail, away from the plot is the morning trail) and so much more. If you see some of this on a regularly used trail, key into that area. You will have a good chance at a trophy buck in those last days of the season.
Tip #4: Bedding Areas
If you are at this point in your challenge to fill your tag before the season closes, I would call this type of hunting spot-and-stalk. (Which is my favorite way to hunt the late season.) Over the years, I have had some amazing success at spot-and-stalk hunts in late January. The skill that it takes to sneak into an area for a shot at a good deer will cause your heart to pump when you finally get close enough to take a shot.
If you have done your homework, you will know the general areas that deer are bedding and where you hunt. If those bedding areas are still on the property that you have permission for, you’re in good shape. There is just a few things that you need to think about.
First, pay attention to the wind. In a spot-and-stalk situation, the wind will be your greatest enemy! You have to make sure you are approaching your bedding areas with the wind in your favor. Also, make sure you have a little wind! A little wind does a lot for covering up the excess noise that you might make. Pay attention to the snow. Is it fresh, soft, fluffy, and quiet? Or is it older and crunchy from a slightly melted thin frozen crust. Pay attention to your visibility. Are you hidden? What do you need to do to keep yourself hidden as long as possible? Be ready to duck, crawl, or even pull yourself on your belly in order to move in for the right shot.
Tip #5: Deer Drive
This brings me back to my roots. A good ‘ol deer drive is still a late season option for you if you can line it up.
Here in Iowa, most deer drives are done during the shotgun seasons in early December. Groups of hunters will line up their “posters” while the others walk the timber towards them. Deer drives, if done in the right way and in the right area, will present the hunter with a good, but fast, opportunity to make a harvest.
By this time in the late season, you will be using a muzzleloader or bow for your hunt. If you are using a bow, this might not be the best option. If you are using a muzzleloader, you will have a chance to make a shot although it wouldn’t be your traditional muzzleloader situation. Find the few other guys who also have open tags and put a drive together. What do you have to loose?
With that in mind, practice some moving muzzleloader shots. Do what you can to prepare your mind as well as your body to make your one shot count! The pressure will be great to make sure you connect, but if you have your lead right and your distance calculated, you should have skills needed to make a successful harvest.
Whatever the situation you choose remember, just because you haven’t had success yet, it doesn’t mean you need to give up! Take the days that you have left and try something new? Come up with a new plan. And never throw in the towel until the last minute has come and gone. Give it a good Midwest effort and I’m sure you’ll have something to be proud of. Good luck!