Do you know a hunter who always kills great bucks in the rut but rarely shoots anything in the late season? I do. And I think I know why. It’s likely because this guy is in love with his comfortable and productive rut stand so much that he has a hard time hunting anywhere else. He’s a one-trick pony who’s killed too many great bucks in one place to believe his chances are better somewhere else in the late season.
But what he doesn’t understand—what good late-season hunters know—is that the woods have changed. What was a great food source earlier in the year has dried up, so deer are forced to alter their patterns. Mature bucks abandon their reckless drive to breed and return to the reclusive animals they are for 11 months of the year. They hug cover, trust their noses, and move as little as it takes to eat, drink, and escape danger.
Because they don’t move as much during December and January, the odds of seeing them from an open-country rut stand with a large field of view are not good. You’ve got to find out what they’re eating, how they’re getting there, and where they’re dwelling. Then you’ve got to get in the cover with them. Essentially, you’ve got to narrow your focus. Here’s how.
Many times in late season you’ll swear bucks no longer exist due to the number of times you’ll sit in proven areas without seeing a thing. No doubt some of them have been killed, but rest assured, big ones remain. They’ve just changed their travel patterns to survive. You need to find the site of a productive winter food source before sneaking into position and hunting it with conviction.
It can behoove you during this time to invest several mornings and evenings driving roads near your property and scouting with binoculars from vantage points rather than actually sitting in a stand where you haven’t seen anything in several sessions. If it’s impossible to scout your property via driving or glassing, consider spending a day hanging trailcams in locations and/or physically looking for sign with your bow in hand. Can you spook deer doing this? Sure, but it’s the end of the season anyway, and now’s the time to take risks.
Winter Food Sources
Obviously, if you’ve taken the time and energy to plant late-season food plots or your property has standing cold-weather crops, such as corn or alfalfa, you know where to hunt. However, if you aren’t seeing as many deer as you think you should be, it’s possible the bucks are hitting something else. Remember to check the stomachs of any local deer you or friends harvest to see what they’ve been eating. Then consider these food sources, as most public-land and deep-woods hunters do.
Even if there’s no late-season ag, such as alfalfa or winter wheat, on your property, if there is some nearby, you may be in luck—if the deer are using your property for its cover and traveling to the food. Use satellite imagery to locate potential ag fields in your area. Check with farming neighbors and drive roads to find crops. If you find a crop field within a mile, check your closest boundary to see if deer are traveling to it via your land. If sign hints yes, place stands over fresh trails.
In areas where it’s legal—and if it’s within your personal set of morals—consider baiting the winter woods. Plenty of guys use automatic feeders where allowed, but I believe that in areas where bucks are not conditioned from birth to use them, they can spook wary old bucks, principally due to the racket they make. So I like to distribute corn (because it’s cheap and doesn’t melt away in moisture like protein) in areas of deep cover. But rather than just dumping the corn, consider using some type of portable creep feeder such as the Tree Hugger Gravity Game Feeder from Wildgame Innovations. It will slow the food distribution, so you might get a week to hunt over it rather than just a day or two.
Finding food in winter isn’t easy. The soft mast is long gone, and about the only creatures that are eating acorns are the squirrels that smartly stashed some. Fact is, in many parts of America, woody browse makes up 80 percent of a deer’s winter diet. That’s twigs, buds, and leaves. This is one reason why deer are tough to hunt in thick woods in winter. No longer can you key on white oak trees; rather, deer browse in the woods wherever they are. Because you can’t key on one specific food source, you must focus on the terrain features that funnel or hold them.
If the property you hunt has no obvious food sources and baiting isn’t allowed, deer are likely eating what they’ve been eating for millions of years: woody browse. They can get it virtually anywhere, so bucks can eat while sticking to the terrain features that keep them safe. Therefore, you must get back in the thick stuff with them.
If you’ve been hunting your property for years, you already have a good idea of where the thick cover is and of the small areas that perennially hold bucks due to terrain features that either concentrate their movement (like creek crossings between steep banks) or hold them (like mountain bowls). During this time, wary bucks tend to travel using low spots like draws, creek beds, and mountain saddles in cover rather than traveling across them like they do during the rut.
Your job is to find subtle funnels such as creek crossings, saddles, or ridge confluences—anywhere that increases the odds of a buck traveling through the same place more than once. But don’t just drive in on a four-wheeler to hang a stand when you find one. Rather, pack a climbing treestand—or strongly consider hunting from the ground—and go hunt. Focus on three or four small areas in deep cover and use terrain features to slip in. If you do it sneakily enough and abide by the wind, you may just nail a big one.