November 28, 2023
Thanksgiving often marks the unofficial transition to late-season hunting as temperatures plummet and Old Man Winter looms across much of the country. Many hunts have come and gone at this point in the year but for those willing to brave the bitter elements, there is some incredible hunting opportunities to be had during the months of December and January. However, many of the tactics that reaped success during the fall months will become futile during the late-season.
Late-season hunting presents its own unique set of challenges that must be overcome but opportunities abound for the adventure-seeking hunter. Below is a breakdown of proven tips and tactics, regardless of your late-season pursuits, that will swing the odds of success in your favor.
The rut is over, and bucks have one thing on their mind - food. During the late-season, mature bucks are in full recovery mode, licking their wounds and trying their best to replenish their fat reserves that were depleted during the rut. This forces bucks to feed longer which subsequently makes them more visible and susceptible to being hunted. Knowing this, late-season whitetail hunters should focus on food sources and be in the stand as much as possible as mid-day movement is not uncommon. Sitting all day in frigid late-season temps is not for the faint of heart but the tingling pain of numb extremities is often rewarded with a punched tag and a full freezer.
It is no secret that food sources are more often than not associated with private land. Private landowners will not like this, but the late-season is a valuable time to hunt small parcels of public land that adjoin a private food source. Search out these small blocks of public and set up an ambush on well-used game trails as the deer move between feeding and bedding areas. Also keep an eye out for an abundance of acorns on the ground or naturally occurring fruit trees as both of these offer valuable nutrition that will hold deer in the general vicinity.
Western Big Game
By early December, most mountain tops out West are covered in several feet of snow and the high country is practically void of life. Both mule deer and elk are post-rut and mature bucks and bulls often congregate in bachelor groups as they seek seclusion to recover and prepare for the brutal winter weather they know is coming.
To be successful you should spend hours upon hours behind your glass and cover as much ground as possible. Their seclusion can make them much more difficult to locate. But once found, they often inhabit a very small core area during the winter months, which makes them easier to pattern and slip within range. Search out deep, rugged canyons with thick, north facing slopes for cover and open, wind-blown south facing slopes for the bucks and bulls to soak up the morning sun and feed.
While glassing, pay close attention to the tracks in the snow. You will begin to notice a pattern as deer and elk have set migration routes to their wintering grounds that have been used for many generations. Again, these areas can be difficult to locate, but once found, hunting a drainage that has migrating animals moving through it daily can be very effective during the late season. Be patient when hunting migration corridors. One day you may only see a handful of animals while the very next day hundreds of deer or elk will roll through. If you can time a migration, there are fewer phenomenon’s more impressive than watching hundreds of elk migrate from the high country to their wintering grounds.
A solid general rule of thumb when determining where to hunt during the late-season is to “follow the snow line”. However, keep in mind that many deer and elk make their way to their wintering grounds regardless of snow levels. Don’t be afraid to expand your search to the rolling, lower elevation BLM country even if snow has not pushed all of the animals out of the National Forest. Once in the wintering area, find a high spot and get behind your glass. Also, don’t be afraid to hunt all day. Due to the severity of winter in most of the West, animals will be on their feet during all hours of the day consuming as many calories as they can intake.
When all else fails and cabin fever begins to set in, head south. Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico all offer plenty of opportunities to extend your hunting season well into December and January on a wide variety of game animals.
We should always be prepared for the worst but preparedness is even more important during the late-season. Mother Nature can rear her ugly head with the snap of her fingers and throw some violent, even potentially deadly winter storms your way. Never hunt during the winter months without an adequate clothing layering system, multiple ways to start a fire, and a way to communicate with a loved one back home. This may sound like overkill, but you never know when a routine cow elk hunt an hour from home can turn into an unexpected night on the mountain in sub-zero temperatures.
Whether you are still pursuing your target buck on your farm, hunting a migration corridor for elusive high-country bucks, or just looking to fill the freezer with a cow elk, opportunities to extend your hunting season are plentiful during the late season. The mentioned tactics, while not a full comprehensive list, are undoubtedly proven to increase your odds of success this season when implemented.