The Winter Shift

Cold weather sends bucks packing. Here's how to track them down.

Field & Stream Online Editors

When a deep-bodied, drop-point buck trotted into the soybean field, I recognized him immediately as the same impressive 8-point I'd seen on a distant ridge during the pre-rut. It was now December, and he'd taken up residence more than 2 miles from where I'd first hunted him.

Such seasonal shifts in home range are standard procedure for northern whitetails and a common source of frustration for hunters who head back to early-season hotspots after the rut, only to find that the bucks there have moved.

The most dramatic example of this is the "annual deer yard"-usually a sheltered lowland that deer migrate to for overwintering. Such concentrations of whitetails are most common in the northern limits of their range, but deer in more moderate climates exhibit similar tendencies. Even in the Midwestern farm belt, for example, whitetails frequently abandon what was prime cover during fall to seek out specific wintering habitats.

Hunters who recognize this seasonal shift can stay on deer. Those who ignore it can get skunked and freeze. Here's what to look for:

Winter Forage
For whitetails, survival now means taking in more calories than they burn. And the best way for them to maximize caloric intake is to live near abundant, high-fat food sources, like agricultural crops, hard mast, or quality browse.

Cold-Weather Shelter
By the same token, the best way for deer to minimize the calories they burn to stay warm is to ride out the winter where the effects of cold, wind, and snow are reduced. Low-lying areas such as swamps, marshes, and creek- or riverbottoms are often several degrees warmer than surrounding uplands. Wind-deflecting cover-dense clear-cuts, the lee sides of ridges, and thick conifer canopies-offers a similar thermal boost. Finally, deer seek south slopes to take advantage of winter sun, as well as the easier travel afforded by reduced snow depths.

Traditional Hotspots
Where only one of the above is available, food trumps cover. But the best areas offer both. Research suggests that young whitetails learn about successful wintering areas by following their mothers, then later show their young the same places. So once you discover such a location, you'll have a late-season hotspot for years to come.