Late-Season Bowhunting: Part 1

It’s strange that while the late season is the toughest time to take a whitetail for most bowhunters, those who are skilled at winter-hunting techniques find it among the best of times.

There are certain skilled bowhunters who regularly take big bucks in December and January. They are the ones who know where to find deer at this time, what special hunting techniques to use, and how to deal with the harsh environment.

After The Shoot-Out
The biggest deterrent to success in bowhunting the late season is the effects of gun hunting. Whitetail bowhunting in most states runs from mid-September to gun season, then resumes after gun season to late December or into January. Most bowhunters try to fill their tag before late season, because they don’t hold much hope for post-gunning success.

There are about 30 percent fewer deer at this time of the season than in the previous month, and the survivors have been placed on red alert. But even more important than the actual impact of gun season is its psychological effect on bowhunters. It’s easy to perceive the winter woods as devoid of all deer except for those super wary specimens as elusive as ghosts, never leaving their thicket fortresses.

You can cure this “mental illness” with a trip to the woods. You’ll see that there are deer and they are moving. You’ll see that most deer are back to near-normal routines only a few days after the orange parkas have vacated the woods.

A Place To Hunt
With planning, you may not have to deal with the effects of the gun season at all. A little homework from the warmth of your den or pickup cab can save many fruitless hours on a stand that’s cold in more ways than one.

Before heading out, try to identify places where gun hunting has had little or no impact on the herd. These spots can actually offer better bowhunting now than before the gun season because deer fleeing heavily gunned sections concentrate here.

There are many places where whitetails remain undisturbed during the gun season. Perhaps the best are game refuges, cooperative private units, and wildlife management areas that allow bowhunting, but not gun hunting for deer. The rules may be for safety reasons, to ensure protection for a certain animal species, or whatever, but the effects are the same: there are more deer moving naturally, unalarmed, throughout fall and winter. A call to the local game agency will provide you with a rundown of these areas within driving distance.

Gaining Access
Farmers, ranchers, orchardists, and other landowners who post their land off-limits to the hordes of gun hunters are often more accommodating to bowhunters. It helps to work on identifying and gaining access to these places well before you want to hunt there. You can try knocking on doors, but that can be tedious and frustrating. You can avoid most of the rejections by establishing contacts first through friends, relatives, county agricultural agents, etc.

The author bow-bagged this bruiser on December 1 a few years ago.

Sizable deer herds with mature bucks also are found in suburban areas, property lying within limits of rural municipalities, and other semi-developed land where firearms are not allowed, but bowhunting may be. Even small lots that are too close to houses for gun hunting, or that are overlooked by deer hunters in favor of larger, more obvious tracts, attract deer seeking sanctuary.

The season change itself may give you access to places unreachable by hunters before you. You might cross a frozen lake to a place that could formerly be accessed only by boat, which few deer hunters are willing to do. You might use a snowmobile to get deep into territory inaccessible even by tire-driven ATVs.

Habitat, Habits Of Winter Whitetails
It’s not necessary to find an area where gun hunting was prohibited to find concentrations of deer. Winter itself concentrates whitetails everywhere as cover and food come in shorter supply. While the oak ridges where you hunted in Indian Summer may look bare of new sign, there are high deer concentrations in certain places. The best places are where there is both food and cover — pine swamps, fields of standing corn, and cutovers or transition zones with browse. In areas of heavy snowfall, whitetails migrate seasonally to wintering areas, and can be found now in abundance where they were absent in fall.

This leads to the second main advantage of winter hunting — snow. Most bowhunters are aware of the benefits of snow cover — it helps you see better and makes blood trailing infinitely easier. Read correctly, deer sign in snow will also put you onto deer. As snow cover accumulates, it is easy to pattern deer movements and find current concentrations.

Deer do their best to conserve energy in winter, and deep snow restricts them to travel lanes and concentrates them even more. With the time and character of every move of every deer in the woods chronicled in the snow, it is much easier to pattern movements. The snow alone makes chances of finding deer — both before and after the shot — much greater than in fall.

Deer Back To Normal Quickly After Gun Season
I let deer rest for a few days after the gun season. By then they are less wary. Contrary to popular belief, the pensiveness that keeps a deer holed up starts to subside even as the echoes of rifles fade. I’ve seen deer walking carefree and come into cut fields in the daylight the weekend after the rifle season. In Wisconsin and Minnesota, where I do most of my hunting, snow cover is permanent and records what they have been doing by this time.

I use track and trail accumulations to determine where most of the activity is taking place. Fresh tracks during and right after a snowfall show current feeding and bedding areas, and can show what time travel lanes are used. Very large tracks — those at least 5 inches long, including dewclaws — betray the presence of a mature buck.

Deer are now back to their routines of bedding in thick cover and coming out to feed in the evenings about an hour before dark. Researchers have found that winter deer activity drops with the thermometer, to conserve energy that cannot be replaced because food is scarcer. But they still spend more time eating because they need to generate more body heat and browse — their main food now in most areas — has less caloric value than summer and fall foods. In light snow cover, they’re usually still feeding in fields and oak groves. If it’s deep, they use the same thickets for bedding and browsing. The thickets usually see the most use.

Please read more in Part 2.

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