Still got a deer tag or two in your pocket? That’s not a bad thing, because the late season is a good time to fill it. Deer are hungry. They’re eager to fill their bellies and store some energy for the winter. And the colder it gets, the earlier they’ll hit afternoon food sources. On the right night, you might see a veritable herd of deer in the best fields and plots. Fresh snow puts whitetails on their feet now, too, and it leaves a record for you to read that reveals exactly what they’ve been up to.
On the other hand, deer have been hounded for months at this point in the season. Whitetails always on edge, but right now, they’re paranoid. (And for good reason.) You’re going to have to be on top of your game. You can’t just sit in the same old stand locations, expecting to ambush bucks that have probably been skirting those spots for weeks. You need to set up in some new places, carefully chosen specifically for the late season. Here are five of the best.
1. A Major Food Source Near a South-Facing Slope
It’s not an exaggeration to say that your late-season deer hunting success most likely comes down to the quality of winter food sources on your property. If you’ve got standing beans or fresh-cut corn, say, or alfalfa or brassicas poking up above the snow, you’re going to have plenty of deer. And if you’ve got a south-facing timbered slope nearby (or other good bedding cover), the deer are going to bed in the sun and pour off that slope into your field or plot. There’s really no better winter deer hunting setup.
If you’re after just any deer, go in at midday and quietly hang a stand overlooking the heaviest trails. Ideally, you want to be able to shoot to the field and into the woods, especially if you can set up near some sort of pinch point, like the head of a wash or a downed fence in the timber. If you’re after a big buck, your best bet—if you can stand it—is to not hunt the spot right away. Glass it for a few evenings, look for a pattern, and then wait for the perfect wind to make your move with a climber or a hang-and-hunt setup. (I know several hardcore farmland hunters who will hang a stand in a place like this in September or October and stay out of it until the late season. It’s a great idea if you can pull it off.) If you don’t score on any given sit, your biggest challenge will probably be getting out undetected with a field full of deer in front of you. Plan to have someone pick you up in a truck or an ATV, or wait until full dark to sneak out.
2. Bedding Cover on a South-Facing Slope
A lot of hunters skip morning hunts in the late season because deer tend to bed close to the food and bucks especially tend to bed down before first light. But there are always exceptions, and one of them is when the best bedding area—often a south-facing slope—is a fair distance away from the best feeding area. Deer don’t want to travel far to feed now, but they will, even if that means getting to bed a little later than they like.
Get in extra early with a climbing stand or lightweight lock-on that you can hang quickly. Either go when the prevailing wind is strong enough to override early-morning thermals, or hope that the deer wait until the sun hits the slope and thermals start to rise before they start trickling up from the fields below. Another option is to just wait until after dawn to set up. There can be a lot of activity in a hot bedding area throughout the morning now, as deer may get up to switch beds or nibble on some browse, and second-rut bucks may well come sniffing around for late-cycling does.
3. Hidden Foods
If a wary late-season buck doesn’t have to poke his nose into an open field or plot before dark, there’s a pretty good chance he won’t. An oak tree that rained down so many sweet-tasting acorns through the fall that there’s still plenty to be had might be all he needs to start filling his belly each evening from the safety of the woods. The same goes for an apple, persimmon, or honey locust tree that still offers fruit, or a honeysuckle thicket with green leaves still clinging.
These are hidden hotspots now and they’re worth finding. Take a long woods walk at midday, looking for mast or greenery and the sign that tells you it’s getting hit hard. It can look like a bomb went off in the leaf litter around some prized late-season oaks. Just make sure you see the droppings and deep-set hoof prints that tell you it’s deer and not turkeys churning up the place. A fresh rub or scrape is a bonus.
When you find one such spot, mark it, and go looking for another. Then identify your best two or three hidden feeding areas and hunt them on a rotational basis when the wind is right for each.
4. Security Funnels
Deer are going to move as little as possible this time of year. But they’re still going to move, and when they do, they’re apt to walk through the thickest, meanest places—cattail sloughs and alder mazes, cedars growing so close you can’t walk beneath them, and boot-sucking ditches and swales latticed with briars and wild rose. Sounds pretty awful right? Well, now is the time to get yourself right in there. Find the best sign and then set up close by. You won’t have a shot otherwise. Odd are you’ll have to do some trimming, but keep it to a minimum—and be ready for a close encounter.
5. Wherever the Deer Are
There aren’t many benefits to winter in the northern half of the country, but one of them is fresh snow during the deer season. Wait a day or two, and everything that the deer are up to will be written in the white stuff. This by itself is great, but it has a corollary benefit: Fresh snow reminds us to get out and scout, something too many of us forget to do in the late season. We get too focused on hunting, too tied to the same spots, too reliant on old information. Fresh snow spurs you to go out and get the most recent info.
When you do get out there, you’ll invariably find out that while some deer may be doing what you thought they were, most aren’t. Instead, their tracks will tell you that they are hammering some nondescript browse or seemingly dried up forbs that you would have never even bothered to look at otherwise. You’ll also learn that they’re hanging out in some very strange places, like the copse of blue spruces next to the barn or the lone patch of phragmites near the road. In any case, there’s a lot to be said this time of year (whether there is snow or not) for skipping a day of hunting, scouting to find the absolute freshest and most revealing sign, and setting up on it immediately. Try it, and I’ll bet you won’t have that tag in our pocket for long.