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Hunting the Late Season

By John Charles   

Many articles have been written by hunters with a great deal of experience hunting the late season months of December and January.  Few of these individuals, however, have made as many mistakes as I have in the few seasons I have spent in the woods during this time.  Mistakes are made to be learned from (and laughed at) and so I thought I would share them with you.john_charles_160_pic.jpg
       The first step to a successful late season is identifying the major food sources in your area.  Beginning as soon as possible after gun season monitor them for activity from bucks you consider worth freezing for hours on end waiting for.  Long distance observation and shining fields (where legal) are good techniques but nothing can replace a couple well placed cameras to do this job right.  They are the least invasive and they are there 24/7.  Most photos taken before bad weather sets in will be at night but this is not important.  You just want to find a buck to hunt and determine where to do so.  This leads to mistake #1, Don't be too aggressive.  Time is short and it is easy to be impatient but having a good buck patterned to a particular food source is to be treated very carefully.  I used to try to backtrail to the bedding areas and hang stands for the morning hunt so as not to waste half the time I had to hunt.  Big mistake!  Deer during the late season (especially older bucks) usually leave the fields before light and travel shorter distances to their bedding/loafing areas than other times of year.  The odds of beating them in and setting up without pushing them out are long.  If the weather is bad your buck may still frequent the food source, but your photos will remain at night... not what you want.  Better to spend your time collecting more intel on exactly how the buck likes to enter the field at night.  Then hang a couple stands where you can approach without alerting deer and wait for the stresses of winter to turn the odds in your favor for an evening sit.
       Mistake #2.  Not finding/creating a good, silent approach.  Until you spend some time in the field this time of year it is easy to underestimate just how quiet the woods are.  There are no more leaves rustling in the wind covering your small noises.  Branches move less without leaves to pull them around as well and deer get in tune with the fact that any movement or sound was likely made by an animal and should be investigated.  Compounding this problem is the fact that snow rarely cooperates as a fluffy, silent carpet to walk on when you need it to.  Usually it squeaks, crunches, and groans under each step you take, broadcasting your presence for hundreds of yards.  Both of my solutions to this have involved vehicles.  While no quieter than walking would be, vehicle traffic seems to be more accepted by deer than foot traffic in many areas.  Having a friend to drop you near your stand and quickly drive away can be a great way to go.  The other option is to drive your truck or atv repeatedly (while checking cameras for instance)  near your stand to create a packed path which is much quieter to walk on.  On still days, when it is cold enough to keep snow from melting underfoot, I like to walk in my stocking feet until close enough to the tree that scent becomes a concern.  Then I change socks and slip my boots on for the last 50 yards or so.  A little cooky but as close to silent as it gets.  Make sure to plan a way out as well as it won't take many nights for the deer to peg your tree if the can see you exit it.  Someone to pick you up after the hunt is invaluable as it bumps the deer out of the field and is a welcome luxury as you will likely be frozen by then.
       Of course being silent once you get there is just as important.  Take extra care to quiet your bow, treestand, clothing, etc. as your movement and noise will stand out in late December more than you are used to.  I have to remember to draw my bow once I get on stand as it has the tendency to creak if I don't.
       Speaking of drawing the bow, mistake #3, don't underestimate the ability of the elements to make that more of a challenge than you are used to.  It is not unusual to spend 3 hours at a crack with the temperature around 0 with shooting opportunities coming late in the hunt if at all.  Those temps take a toll on a hunter regardless of his/her toughness.  Crank the bow down a couple turns.  You won't be shooting too far all bundled up anyway and will not miss 5-10 fps.  Don't forget while dressing that this is not a gun hunt.  You can't keep piling on layers until you resemble the Michelin Man and expect to draw your bow, or shoot it well.  Shoot with progressively more layers until it seems cumbersome, then remove a couple and that is what you can wear, regardless of the temperature.  Add a couple adhesive warm packs to your 1st layer and put the other layers over them to trap the heat.  Use hand and toe warmers to stay comfortable, try a heater body suit, but do not put on more layers than you can draw/shoot with or you are wasting your time.john_charles_pic.jpg
       This was all driven home the final day of the 09 season when the buck I had waited for on 13 previous, sometimes excruciatingly cold hunts, finally showed himself.  A combination of the cold, and extra layer, a couple pounds of draw weight I did not need, and having to hold my bow in an awkward position waiting for the shot conspired to keep me from getting drawn smoothly and I blew the opportunity.  I had done 90% of what I needed to do to kill that buck but when bow hunting, that last 10% can make all the difference.
       #4 Never set any part of your bow in the snow at any time!  It can compress and soften, then refreeze to any metal part, potentially ruining you hunt.  Cams can freeze to strings or cables and make drawing noisy or impossible.  Blowing the snow away only adds moisture, which refreezes, and nearly blew a golden opportunity for me.  It was -4 and snow melting did not seem likely as I cleaned the snow from my bow before settling in to wait.  I pain extra attention to the snow on the rest, blowing it all clear before placing an arrow on the string. Two and a half hours later 9 bucks, including the 5 1/2 year old 9 pt I was hunting arrived single file down the bluff into the soybean plot above me.  They worked their way down into the cornfield I was hanging over, concentrating in a area which had been flattened earlier in the fall.  Soon the buck I wanted was 15 yards away, antlers locked with a 2 1/2 year old sparring.  The other bucks were scattered, looking for leftover ears to chew on so I made my move.  As soon as I pulled the string the first inch the nock pulled free and the arrow, still frozen to the rest where I had "blown the snow" away from earlier. It hung for just a second, before falling off the front of the bow, clanking off each rung of my climbing stick to the ground.  Surprisingly, only one of the bucks was staring at me, the others were all staring at the arrow in bewilderment.  After a few moments I decided I might as well try to get a new arrow as the bucks were still standing there and my "death stare" was not working.  Here I learned another lesson about bitter cold weather bowhunting.  #5 Remove a backup arrow from quiver before you need it.  At -4 the rubber holding your arrow in your quiver is transformed to steel making arrow removal impossible without great effort and movement.  The majority of the bucks, as well as 2 others who walked in during the commotion were now staring at me, and some were getting downright fidgety.  It was  now or never so I decided to come to full draw and see what was left after the explosion of deer that would surely result.  Incredibly, the bucks all just ran around in circles not knowing which way to go.  It was as if the bitter cold made the deer reluctant to expend the energy needed to run back up the hill out of the field.  The 9pt was standing next to a stalk of corn I had ranged at 35 yards and I wasted no time sending an arrow out the other side of his chest.  He was heavy antlered, with 5 circumferences over 5 inches, but not large antlered for his age.  It was still very rewarding to target an individual buck and be successful, even if it took a lot of luck to get the shot off.  It just must have been his time.
       This past season taught me yet another lesson, #6 don't wait until things are textbook perfect to hunt.  If you prepared the stand, approach, and exit right you should get several sits before you need to worry about burning the spot out.  You need to be there enough to tilt the odds in your favor.  Many years (soon to be decades!) of photos on late season food plots have shown me that a specific older buck typically only makes 2-6 appearances on the plot before dark in a months time.  To up your odds you need to get out before and after major fronts with the snow and cold that they bring.  Hunt extended cold snaps and anything else that stresses the deer and makes them think food first, safety second.  The first day after a bitter cold spell can also be good as the deer seem to appreciate the break in sub-zero temps as much as we do.  Use all these factors to help predict the evenings your buck will most likely to move before dark but don't outsmart yourself and skip days you don't consider perfect.  The 160 class buck I hunted this winter made 3 appearances before dark to the field surrounding my stand from December 3 to January 3.  Two of those I could have been there, but decided ahead of time that conditions were not right and stayed home.  The tree is 2/3 of a mile from my house and each time I got to watch him walking around my tree for 10 minutes of more.  Not fun!  If you have the evening off, the wind in your favor and your approach prepared, HUNT!john_charles_buck_pic_late_season.jpg
       If you are lucky enough to have a good food source with a good buck on it left in your area after the gun hunt is over, late season can be the best time to target a mature buck all year.  It brings its own set of unique pitfalls however, many of which I have fallen into, more of which I surly will in the future.  The #1 lesson I've learned from my time spent frozen to a tree in December and January is this... Shoot your buck by the end of November then stay inside and watch football where it is warm, like a normal person!!!!