By Mark Kenyon
Most deer hunters seem to be in one of two camps when it comes to late season deer hunting; either they love it or they hate it. I personally am in the first category most of the time, but I also know that the late season is no sure thing.
With the proper conditions, the right property, and smart hunting – I believe you can consistently kill great bucks during the late season, but those criteria aren’t always easy to attain.
Over my years of late season hunting I’ve made just about every mistake in the book, but I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way. Those experiences, along with advice garnered from some of the best deer hunters in the country via my interviews on The Wired To Hunt Podcast, have led me to 10 late season lessons that I believe can help me and you have more consistent deer hunting success. So today I’m going to walk through each of those ideas, which I’ve broken down into the three categories below.
When To Hunt
1. Wait To Strike: The most important lesson I’ve learned about hunting during the late season is the importance of properly timing your hunts. This approach to deer hunting is very important during the early season as well, but once we get late into the year, your room for error decreases substantially. Every time you enter your hunting property, you’re putting pressure on the local deer, and that pressure is something that late season deer simply won’t tolerate after months of hunting. If you hunt too often and when conditions aren’t right, you’re going to educate the mature buck you’re after and eliminate your chances of ever seeing him. With this being the case, you need to avoid hunting when conditions are not optimal, and instead bide your time until all the chips are in your favor – wind, weather, location, scouting data. Then and only then, you strike.
2. The Right Conditions: The right conditions during the late season are cold weather and/or snow. If you can get a significant cold front coming through that drops temperatures way below the recent highs or at least way below average temperatures, you’re in good shape. Significant snow cover can get deer moving earlier too. At this time of year, unless you have an area that’s been completely pressure free, you’ll likely need some kind of weather event like this to get a mature buck on his feet during daylight.
3. Avoid Mornings: Speaking of waiting for the right conditions before you strike, one of those conditions is an evening hunt. Mornings are much greater risk at this time of year and much lower reward, and so with that being the case, when I’m after a mature buck in the late season, I avoid morning hunts. Of course, it’s possible to kill a mature buck in the mornings at this time, but it’s much less likely than during the evening – and at this time of year I believe playing the odds is critical. Most mature bucks are bedded before daylight during the late season or moving just before daybreak, increasing your odds of bumping them as you head in to hunt. Eliminate that risk and you’ll have much more comfortable deer that you can hunt in the evenings, when you can safely access a location without spooking deer, and then can take advantage of the natural evening feeding pattern that deer should be sticking too.
Where To Hunt
4. Be Aware of Close-to-Food Source Bedding: Deer, especially does, are likely to bed very close to their main food sources at this time of year (if sufficient cover is available). If that’s the case in your area, you need to be careful when setting up to hunt those food sources to ensure that you don’t spook those nearby deer. Make sure that you know where those deer are bedded and don’t get too close on your evening hunts, and if you can’t get in without spooking deer, you might need to find a new location.
5. Green Food Sources On Warmer Days: Late season hunting revolves around food sources, as deer are 100% focused on food and stocking up energy for the upcoming winter. The key to hunting in the right places at this time of year is to determine which food sources deer will most likely be feeding at on any given day. From what I’ve seen and heard from folks like Mark Drury and Neil Dougherty, deer will be most interested in green food sources on warmer days during the late season. Think clover fields, winter wheat, and some brassicas.
6. Grains On Colder Days: On the colder days, most deer will move towards higher energy content foods like corn, beans and sometimes still brassicas as well, like rape, turnips, kale, etc.
7. Create A Late Season Honey Hole: Given the fact that deer are focused on finding the best available food and doing so in a pressure-free environment, if you have some type of control over a hunting property, you can create a true honey holy for the late season. Simply designate an area off-limits until the late season, provide sufficient nearby late season bedding, and then plant a food plot with ideal winter food, such as the grains or brassicas mentioned above. Then wait til the late season and cold weather hits. When you’ve got those conditions, sneak into your honey hole and wait for the parade.
How To Hunt
8. Low-Impact Scouting: If you don’t have some kind of honey hole where you know there will be late season deer, you need to find them, and the best way to do that is with smart, low-impact scouting. Trail cameras can help, but be careful not to check them too often or in the wrong way. Stay on edges, avoid getting too close to bedding cover, and leave as minimal scent as possible. The best way to do that is to drive up to your cameras with an ATV or other vehicle during mid-day. Another great way to get an idea of where you need to hunt is through long-distance observation. Rather than jumping right into an area without knowing how deer are using it, set-up from a long distance and watch for a night or two. Then, when conditions are right and you know exactly where you need to be, move in to your prime spot.
9. Smart Access/Exit: As mentioned numerous times already, late season deer will not tolerate much hunting pressure. If you spook a mature buck once, it’s likely your last time – at least in high hunting pressure areas. That said, not only do you need to be careful about when you hunt, but you also need to be careful about how you get in and out on the days that you do. Don’t go walking across the middle of the crop field you’re hunting after dark in the evening, spooking all the deer away. That’s a sure-fire way to educate your buck that he’s getting hunted. Instead, find a way to exit your evening stands that will avoid spooking feeding deer OR convince a friend or family member to drive a vehicle down to spook the deer and pick you up.
10. Staying warm: And finally, if you’re going to be hunting on those cold nasty days (the best days for late season deer), you need to make sure you can handle the conditions. Make sure you’ve got the appropriate clothing (wind/precip protection and quality insulation), try using a hand muff with hand warmers in it, and on the worst of days, you might even want to duct tape some disposable hand warmers to your stomach and back (above your base layers.)
Want more late season hunting advice? Check out these great resources: