Last autumn I hunted an elusive, mature buck that I never even saw. I found his huge and distinctive rubs and large splayed tracks all over my territory, but no matter how I tried to ambush him, the buck remained a mystery.
Things changed in late December, when a winter storm slammed southern Minnesota. As soon as it let up, I grabbed my bow and headed out.
Whitetails had beat trails from a south-facing slope down to fields of waste grain, and I set my stand near the junction of the four best paths. An hour before dusk, I spotted a massive, dark-horned 10-pointer. It had to be the deer I'd been hunting all fall. He ambled toward me without caution, and I breathed one soft word into my face mask: "Finally."
Mature bucks are more visible during the late season, and the reason is food. Whitetails are always focused on eating, but finding nourishment is now a matter of survival. This is especially true for bucks, whose fat stores are depleted from the rut. High-quality foods will draw whitetails from great distances. Standing crops of corn, soybeans, or new-seeded alfalfa are irresistible. Oak stands that have pumped out a bumper crop of nuts have a similar pull, as do young clear-cuts. I've talked with loggers who've watched whitetails, eager to feed on fresh-cut treetops, trot toward them as they fired up their chain saws.
Hunting these places can be a real challenge, because winter whitetails often bed close by them in order to save energy. To avoid bumping the bedded deer, you must set up directly on the food source. This makes it difficult to leave the stand without spooking feeding whitetails and shutting down the hotspot. In short, your best chance to score at a winter food source is on your first shot.
You must have the discipline to scout and find specific buck trails and entry points before you hunt. Ideally, the feeding area will be situated so that you can observe it from long range. Glass from a high ridge, a distant tree, a farm building, or even the cab of your pickup. If you don't have the luxury of such observation, visit the food source at midday and check entry trails for large tracks and other buck sign. If you find wide, splayed tracks, urine stains that dribble across the snow (does pee in a single spot beneath their hindquarters), or fresh rubs or scrapes, you've found a buck trail.
Another crucial strategy is hunting all day. Deer often eat during the warmest time of day to get the most caloric intake for the least energy expended.
Good Bad Weather
I not only steel myself for storms, I pray for them. The first snow of the season always kick-starts deer movement, and each ensuing dose of winter wickedness-dropping temperatures, ice crusts, howling winds-only makes deer eat more.
Pay attention to local weather forecasts and get in a stand the day before a significant storm or cold front approaches. Whitetails possess no-fail barometers and feed heavily prior to weather events. Stay out of the woods during the brunt of a severe storm, but return as soon as conditions moderate. Deer will hole up during a real howler, then feed in the aftermath.
And what happened on that post-storm evening with my dark-antlered monster? He was 45 yards and closing fast when I began my draw. But a doe feeding nearby was far more alert than my buck; she caught my slow move and snorted a warning to her fawns, spooking the buck in the process. A perfect late-season setup is still no guarantee of success.