I dearly love bowhunting late-season whitetails, but I learned early on you must have the right mindset, and gear, in order to thrive in the typically extreme conditions—and give yourself every chance to taste wintertime success. Here are a handful of proven tips that can help you crack a deer’s late-season defenses.
1. Embrace Nasty Weather
You’ve likely heard this advice before, and that’s because it may be the biggest key to late-season success. There’s simply nothing like an incoming winter storm, complete with seriously diving temperatures, to get deer—even the oldest and wisest—up on their feet and moving in daylight during the too-short days of winter. If you need a few guidelines, in the upper Midwest, in the bigwoods public tracts I hunt regularly, I’ve found single-digit temps (and lower) inspire the most-consistent daylight movement, with the 10- to 20-degree slot a distant, next-best option. With temps much above 20, expect movement only very late, just before sundown, or during those first magical minutes of daylight.
2. Target Snowy Cedar Swamps
The white stuff is a good part of the reason why I like hunting late; tracks in the snow show me where I need to hang treestands near the best travel routes and food sources. Popular food sources are drawing deer like magnets now, but finding them can be difficult in public bigwoods areas. Some spots I can count on consistently when the snow piles up are nasty-thick cedar swamps, often located in large river valleys. Across their northern range cedars are a whitetail’s late-season comfort food, and these typically low-lying areas also offer protection from bitter winds. When the world is white, taking the time to get out and do some serious in-season scouting can pay off by pinpointing several new stand sites you’d normally not consider. Even if your late hunt doesn’t pan out, you’ve likely located smart spots to check out come early next fall.
3. Hunt With a Big Pack
Ensuring complete comfort on stand for three hours or more often requires carrying extra “just-in-case” layers. And there are times when long hikes in to remote stands require carrying outerwear separately—donning the heavy coat and bulky in-stand boots only when you arrive. Sometimes the best answer is toting a pack large enough to hold it all, while wearing just your mid layers and light boots. Sweat is one of the biggest enemies of late-season comfort; making good use of your “expedition-size” pack that’s been gathering dust since elk season will help you experience much more comfort on stand. Many packs offer the 4,000-plus-cubic-inch capacity that can be required for packing boots and big, thermal outerwear. Check out the newly redesigned Mystery Ranch Metcalf that holds a solid 4,200 cubic inches. Especially nice is the minimalist design featuring one large main compartment that’s accessible from the top or a convenient side zip, and a series of handy outside straps that can carry a bow or treestand.
4. Carry a Ground Blind
I love the many advantages provided by a well-placed treestand, but when winter weather is at its worst, nothing lets you hunt in more comfort than a heat-conserving, wind-breaking ground blind. I’m almost always toting a portable blind along on my hunts no matter what time of year, but in the late season I consider a good portable blind essential gear because it’ll keep me in the field no matter what. Another solid reason? Come December deer have a knack for avoiding areas where they’ve previously encountered hunters, and maybe not-so-coincidentally, you’ll often find the hottest late-season travel corridors in areas where good stand trees simply don’t exist. Still another bonus is that deer at this time like to hang and bed in the very thickest cover, creating a lane-pruning nightmare for dedicated treestanders. At ground level in these jungle-thick areas, the necessary lane pruning, by comparison, can be minimal. You say your arsenal doesn’t include a ground blind? Check out the new Stealth Hunter4 from Cabela’s. One of the biggest factors in consistent ground-blind success, especially when it comes to big game, is a smart and silent window system, and this design delivers. The innovative window slides offer silent access to 360-degree shooting, with no noisy zippers or Velcro.
5. Temper Your Expectations
I love the challenge of matching wits with mature bucks, and given the right conditions (see #2) the late season sets up nicely to give you a shot at some of the biggest bucks remaining in the county. However, it’s far more likely you’ll run into does and/or younger bucks. And that’s not a bad deal at all. If you still possess the drive and stamina to hold out for Mr. Big, go ahead and wait—but it’s awfully nice to stock the freezer at a time when most of your buddies have long since hung up their bows. Regardless, remember this: come the late season, each and every deer is a trophy.