Checking a trail camera for whitetail deer movement in the late season.
With snow beginning to blanket the landscape and temperatures plummeting, it's time to shift away from your fall whitetail hunting tactics and prepare for late season pursuits. Undoubtedly, this phase presents one of the finest opportunities to fill your tag. As winter settles in, whitetails diligently prioritize calorie intake to endure the harsh months ahead. Mastering the art of locating food sources, deciphering deer sign and determining proper entry and exit routes becomes the cornerstone of success in this thrilling phase of hunting.
Food is king when it comes to hunting late season whitetail bucks. The combination of rundown post-rut bucks and below freezing temperatures has most bucks looking to consume as many calories as possible to pack on their fat stores in order to survive the upcoming winter months. During this time period, the number one priority for deer is finding a good food source.
What makes a good late-season food source? To find a good food source, you first need to understand what deer eat in the winter. There are several different winter browse options that deer will consume during this time.
Agriculture fields are the most popular. Corn, soybeans, alfalfa and clover are all excellent winter food sources for deer and, depending on the conditions, these larger agriculture fields can actually attract deer from miles away. It's important to consider this because where you saw deer a month ago might not be where you will see them during the late season.
Woody browse is another good option to consider. There are many different types of woody browse that deer will eat, such as dogwood, greenbrier, honeysuckle, twig tips, buds, etc. The best way to think of woody browse is as areas where the sun hits the forest floor, allowing for a variety of undergrowth. Clear cuts or small openings in timber patches are great areas to look for woody browse. These areas can be honey holes during the late season.
The last ingredient you need for a good late-season food source is low pressure secluded areas where deer feel safe. This applies to both public and private land; deer will always choose the best food source with the least amount of pressure. This brings me to my next point: scouting.
Where deer are during the late season can be much different from where you’ve been hunting them during the fall, which is why scouting becomes so important again at this time of year. You need to locate these late-season pockets that are holding the deer.
One effective and relatively simple scouting tactic is boots-on-the-ground, looking for deer sign. Remember that food is a high priority for deer at this time of year, so focusing on different food sources and checking these areas for deer sign will give you a pretty good idea of spots the deer are focusing on. Additionally, it's important to note where most of the tracks are coming in and out of the food source for possible evening stand/blind locations on the food source. Also, observing where these trails are going off the food source will give a decent idea of where they are bedding during the day for possible morning hunt locations. Hunt by the bedding areas in the morning and the food sources in the evening.
Another good tactic, especially in areas that are more open or have a lot of agriculture fields, is glassing from your truck in the evenings, checking out different food sources to find areas where the deer are concentrated. This is a great scouting tactic for covering a lot of ground quickly to find where the deer are. It's important to find good vantage points — usually at higher elevations — where you can see further. For flat areas, a great tip is standing up and glassing from the bed of your truck. That little bit of extra elevation can make all the difference in spotting those hidden pockets.
You've found the winter food sources. You've located those trails coming in and out of the food source to set up on. Now, the last piece of the puzzle is devising your entry and exit routes to your hunting location. More than any other time of the year, a bulletproof entry and exit route is crucial for late-season success. Here’s the reason why: deer will be concentrated in certain food sources, meaning you will most likely have to spend extended periods in this area. The only way you can successfully do so is by not spooking deer.
First, it's important to understand that deer will be bedded in cover during the day and out feeding on food sources at night. Knowing where the deer will likely be located during the day will help dictate entrance and exit routes.
Ditches and drainages are going to be your best friends for accessing and exiting your stand locations. Setting up next to a ditch, drainage or creekbed will allow you to access and exit the area without being seen while also minimizing the noise you make. Even the slightest change in terrain can be used to conceal movement, which is why looking at topographic maps can really help in planning entry and exit routes.
Using vegetation or thick cover to block you from a deer's view is another great option to consider. You might have to go in before your hunt and cut a trail, but it will pay dividends in the long run to have a quiet, unseen route.
Putting some thought into how you enter and exit your hunting spot to avoid spooking deer during the late season could be the difference between a successful hunt or an unsuccessful one.
Late season hunting undoubtedly poses a unique set of challenges, but offers immensely rewarding opportunities. Hunters who embrace adaptability and flexibility are poised for success, considering that late-season hunting tactics can be completely different from those used in the fall. By identifying diverse food sources, strategically scouting and positioning based on deer sign and meticulously planning bulletproof entrance and exit strategies for stand locations, you have a better chance of notching your tag during this late-season period.