Bowhunting in -30 Wind Chill on the Frozen North Dakota Prairie

A bowhunter overcomes brutal cold— and all the challenges that come with it—for the late-season deer hunt of a lifetime
north dakota buck
The author and his stud North Dakota buck. Darron McDougal

Shortly before Christmas, winter storm Diaz ravaged the West, Midwest, and Northeast, dumping heaps of snow amid blizzard conditions. Most folks hunkered down during the storm. Me? I was planning to fill my North Dakota archery whitetail tag. Certain that the subzero temperatures following the storm’s major snowfall would have deer feeding heavily during daylight, I was determined to go.  

The problem? I live in Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota DOT cameras showed that travel wasn’t in the cards for a couple of days. Most roadways had ice patches, continuous ice, or full closures. So I postponed the trip by about two days to let the roads clear. On the afternoon of December 17, I loaded my pickup, kissed my wife goodbye and put rubber on the road.

After a day’s drive and then a short night’s sleep, I rose early, got coffee and groceries, and then got back on the road. Temperatures were well below zero and they’d stay there for my entire hunt. I was sure those conditions would get the deer up and feeding, but I knew I’d also have to be careful as mistakes in those temperatures can be tragic. 

Welcome to the Frozen Tundra

north dakota hunting
Road conditions were dicey during most of the author’s time in North Dakota. Darron McDougal

Eventually, I reached a few spots I’d marked on my HuntStand Pro Whitetail app. I spotted deer everywhere in the wide open, which told me they were in survival mode. Most of the 12-plus inches of snowfall resulted in major drifting, driving deer from their usual bedding areas to anywhere the snow was navigable. I even observed deer traveling rural dirt roads to avoid the deep snow. 

After a quick walk on some public land that I’d hunted in November, I learned that a cornfield was left standing, and I saw three deer feeding in it midday. However, I recalled from my previous hunt that the corn cobs were basically gone. This explained why I’d observed a lot of trails emerging from the public land along the roadway and heading toward adjacent food on private lands.

north dakota prairie
The open plains are a brutal place to bowhunt when winter arrives, but the hardcore bowhunter can find success amidst blistering winds and biting-cold temps. Darron McDougal

While scouting the cornfield, I found where deer had pawed the snow to reveal grass just across the fence on private land. I immediately planned to ask the landowner for hunting permission. 

If successful, I’d throw down some corn (legal on private land in the unit I was hunting) and position a blind less than 20 yards away downwind. In more than 20 years of hunting, I’ve baited scarcely and took only one buck (also in North Dakota back in 2006) over bait. It isn’t my preferred style, but I’d be dressed in heavy clothing and shooting through absolutely brutal conditions with my compound bow. I needed a close shot. Plus, I was attempting to film my hunt for HuntStand Media’s Whitetail Posse YouTube show. Baiting would be my best bet for pulling off an ethical, slam-dunk shot and capturing footage. 

Getting Permission  

I referenced HuntStand’s Property Info layer to get the landowner’s address. His place was nearby, so I stopped in. 

His 20-something daughter answered the door. She was sweet as could be and gave me her father’s cell number since he wasn’t home. She also said, “You must be really dedicated to be hunting deer in this weather.” 

I assured her that something indeed was wrong with me (laughs). Just minutes later, I called her father and got the green light to hunt his property.

I returned to the spot and began walking in with my blind and some corn. Suddenly, I noticed does and fawns were feeding where I’d seen the digging activity earlier. Instead of spooking the deer, I elected to back out and return the following morning. I drove to town and got a room. 

Tweaking My Ground Blind

snow cover blind
Here’s the snow cover that the author created in his motel room using materials from a department store. Darron McDougal

I didn’t realize it at the time, but those feeding deer were a blessing. Whitetails rarely accept a brand new ground blind placed in the open, which is where my blind would have to be in order to hunt the forecasted winds. I realized I’d have to get creative to camouflage it. I swung by a department store to buy an 8-yard roll of white fleece, fabric scissors, and 100 zip-ties. I also bought a snow shovel.

I set up my pop-up blind in my motel room. Then, I began crafting a homemade snow cover. It took two hours, but when complete, the white fleece fit perfectly over my blind. I was convinced the deer would mistake my blind for a plastic-wrapped bale or even a snowdrift.  

Building Setups

late season bowhunting
The author isn’t typically a bait hunter, but with the conditions being the coldest he’s ever bowhunted in, he knew that nothing other than a top-pin shot would do. Darron McDougal

I rose early the next morning and scouted a piece of PLOTS ground that I’d hunted previously. Deer were feeding everywhere. The wind gripped my face as I hiked toward a bale from which I could glass the entire area. Of the 60-plus deer, only two were solid bucks. However, fashioning any sort of setup would blow the deer out, and stalking one buck amidst dozens of deer would be impossible. I watched a while longer as coyotes slinked between the struggling deer, looking for an opportunity to strike.

Soon, I drove toward some other PLOTS parcels. I saw lots of deer activity on private lands, and eventually spotted several bucks, including a 155- to 160-incher. They were bedded down in the wide open with their heads lowered trying to conserve energy. I visited the landowner, and she said I could hunt if I shoveled her deck. I battled the cold while shoveling the 20-inch-deep snow off her deck. Then, I returned to the bucks, parking on the road where I could glass them. They were up and moving. I spotted a cluster of trees and brush where I could bait and brush-in a ground blind.

It took a lot of effort and shoveling, but I made an excellent setup. I hoped my trail camera would function in the subzero temperatures, and that the deer, which had been observing me from 400 yards away, would find the corn quickly. 

Next, I traveled to the other parcel I’d gotten permission to hunt. The setup would be 600 yards from the road, so hauling corn, my blind and the homemade blind cover took two very exhausting trips through deep snow. I forgot my shovel, so I kicked away snow to get my blind on solid ground. Then I had to secure it to a fence so it wouldn’t blow down to South Dakota.

Back at the motel, I was exhausted and I still hadn’t made a single sit. However a few cell-cam photo transmissions showed that deer had already found my first setup.

Scouting More Ground

trail camera photo
A day after McDougal created his snow-blind setup, this mature, horse-bodied 7-pointer became a regular visitor. Darron McDougal

I woke up to multiple pictures from both setups. That made me confident that I’d have a big buck hitting one or both spots within the next two days. Meanwhile, I drove to some more PLOTS lands. I hiked and glassed some rolling hills and draws in the fierce winds and drifting snow. I saw no deer, but my phone received pictures from my snow blind that included a horse-bodied 8-pointer with a broken brow tine. He’d been in during broad daylight. After a fast nap back at the motel, I headed for my two setups to add more corn.

When I arrived at the property where I’d shoveled the deck, I noticed a note on the fence where I’d parked the day before. The note stated that I wasn’t allowed to hunt bucks there. Does only. The note was written by another hunter who’s known the landowner and her son for years. I immediately tore down my setup (and picked up a small shed antler). After discussing matters with the landowner’s son, he suggested that I call the hunter who wrote the note. I did later that night at the motel, and we really hit it off. All was good.

Meanwhile, I headed for my snow blind to put out some more corn. There were a couple of does and fawns out, so I nudged them away, put down the feed and left. That afternoon, I got pictures of numerous deer, including the big 7-pointer, before dark.

That night, my wife and I discussed travel plans because more snow and high winds were in the forecast. Unfortunately, my trip was being cut short to just one more day. That’s reality when hunting in wicked conditions days before Christmas. 

Waiting in the Cold

I didn’t hunt the following morning because I was afraid of bumping deer in the dark. Trail cam photos confirmed the 7-pointer had been in around 9 a.m., which was a good sign. 

I arrived at the property around noon. I shoveled out a place to park so that my truck wasn’t in the way for plow trucks, as more snow fell. I shot a confidence arrow into my Morrell target, then wiggled into layers of warm gear, including a heated vest and heated pants beneath my Sitka Fanatic Jacket and Bib. I stuck large heat packs in my Rocky boots, and trudged through the drifts toward my snow blind with corn, my bow, a chair, camera, and tripod. 

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I bumped a doe and fawn off the feed. By the time I reached the blind, I was sweaty … Not good. Once in the blind I removed my parka to let moisture escape. I was uncomfortable for a while, but eventually I dried out and put my parka back on. Then, I took two practice draws to make sure I could actually shoot with all my layers on. I made some clothing adjustments, then tried drawing again. My release went off, malfunctioning in the sub-zero temps, my hand smacked my lips and my arrow flew out the blind. 

I worked the mechanism a few times, then pulled against the release hook with my thumb. It seemed locked, so I nocked another arrow and began drawing. The release went off again. Flustered and down to two arrows, I quickly hiked 600 yards back to the truck to retrieve my spare release. I assumed condensation from my sweat formed in the mechanism, and that the cold temps had frozen it instantly. In subzero bowhunting it’s the little things that can blow a hunt.   

Back in the blind, I was once again sweaty. But, at least my backup release was holding as I drew and let down twice. Even with all of the heat packs and clothing, I felt the cold as I waited for deer to arrive. Then, with cold fingers, I referenced the Whitetail Forecast on my HuntStand Pro Whitetail app. It showed that movement would peak just after 4 p.m.

And peak it did. Does and fawns suddenly appeared, followed by a 3 1/2-year-old 8-pointer with a broken G-2. I’d been keeping my camera battery on a heat pack in my pocket, because it had been dying rapidly anytime I’d begin filming. I carefully slipped it into the camera and hit record. 

Deer continued pouring in. The broken-G-2 buck locked antlers with a smaller 8-pointer and then snort-wheezed. Does were bleating and running around. It was a late-season deer hunter’s dream. Then, a 2 1/2-year-old buck cruised right by my blind. The huge-bodied 7-pointer I had been waiting for appeared behind him, stiff-legged and posturing. 

When he turned broadside at 15 yards, I drew my new Mathews Phase 4. Then, he turned to a sharp quartering angle. I waited for a more broadside angle. After holding for about 40 seconds, he offered me a slightly quartering-away angle. My arrow hit home perfectly.

blood trail
The blood trail was the best the author has seen in 20-plus years of bowhunting. It froze within seconds of hitting the snow. Darron McDougal

Darkness was 45 minutes out, and the wind was gaining speed. After just 5 minutes, I climbed out and could see the blood trail running about 80 yards along the private fence before veering onto the public land. When I reached the fence, I spotted my buck just 20 yards ahead. His body had looked huge — particularly for late-December — when I shot him, but now laying in the snow, he looked even more massive. 

The Drag Out  

The 700-yard drag back to the truck through deep snow was an act of survival in the 30-mph wind gusts and -30°F windchills. Darron McDougal

After thanking the Lord for a great hunt, I shot some photos and video to recap the afternoon’s events. Then I began dragging the buck to a suitable spot to field-dress him, but one of his antlers popped off. Fortunately, his right antler stayed intact for the 700-yard drag back to the truck, but it, too, came off later. 

shed antler
The author found a shed antler and saw a couple of one-antlered bucks prior to his successful hunt. His buck’s left antler popped off the moment he began dragging. Darron McDougal

I hauled my gear back to the truck first, working up a sweat and nearly exhausting myself. I started my truck and stripped down to dry out my layers, which took more than an hour. I kept in contact with the gentleman who’d written the note so that someone local knew where to look for me if I stopped responding — frostbite is a real concern in -30-degree temps. 

Eventually, I redressed and headed back into the snowing, blowing tundra, the wind now gusting to 30-plus miles per hour. It was the worst drag I’ve ever experienced, but I loved it. I’d killed a darn good buck in conditions that few hunters are willing to endure, which made for an adventure I’ll never forget. Watch for this hunt to appear on HuntStand’s YouTube channel.