The winter solstice — December 21 — is the shortest day of the year. But anyone who has experienced winter on the Upper Great Plains knows just how brief daylight is for weeks yet to come. If anything, the days seem to get even shorter.
Consider the early-January day last year when my son Noah and I were working on a couple Nebraska whitetails to round out the freezer for another year before cleaning the rifles for good.
After a long, bone-chilling and uneventful stint on stand through a pale dawn and crystal-clear morning that saw the mercury drop from 8-below as the powerless sun rose and the bitterest of air settled into the Keya Paha River bottoms, we needed a break and some warmth.
By the time we reached the cabin, thawed out, heated up some hot beverages and made and consumed a warm lunch, it seemed like time for a siesta. But one glance at the westward-advancing sun changed our minds. It was already only a few hours until dark, and the thermometer on an ancient oak outside the window registered a relatively balmy 3 degrees. No wind stirred. Conditions seemed ideal.
A half-hour later we were walking across a long, abandoned pasture, trying to avoid crunchy-loud patches of snow here and there that threatened to reveal our approach to every whitetail in the valley, when I froze in my tracks and held out a halting hand.
Noah had one leg up mid-stride, and was slowly bringing it down to the ground as he saw what I was looking at — a trio of fat whitetails. They were paused in their pawing for acorns on the wooded slope below us, but partially hidden by thick-gnarly trunks and russet hanger-on bur oak leaves.
The deer were staring at us ever so intently, knowing something was amiss but also knowing they were screened and wanting to get some kind of confirmation of danger from their noses. There just wasn’t a clear shot, even after we finally dropped into a sit and eased the boy into a pair of shooting sticks.
Finally, the whitetails had enough and trotted slowly off. We let them be, skedaddled our own way down to our stand and settled in. The sun had almost three hours remaining in its low arc across the winter sky, but it felt like time for whitetails to be moving.
Four Steps To Cold-Weather Success
Some hunters despise the cold. I love it. There’s just something about deer hunting under bitter-cold conditions. Maybe it’s the deep quiet of the winter landscape, the bracing air in your lungs, the challenge of somehow beating the elements, the idea of a warm cabin and camp to go back to after the sun sets and the moon rises … hunting whitetails now is special indeed.
Then there’s the task of laying in some venison. This is the perfect time to fill an antlerless tag. Any cold-weather whitetail is a good one. And cold conditions can make great opportunities to shoot that big buck you’ve been waiting for, too.
Whether bow, centerfire rifle, slug gun or muzzleloader are legal for your late-season hunt, the strategies and techniques for success are the same: understanding how whitetails biologically deal with the cold; adjusting your hunting approach to match the resulting deer behaviors; managing your equipment for the conditions at hand; and keeping yourself comfortable, warm and hunting longer.
Step 1: Understand Winter Whitetails
Conventional wisdom says that a mammal’s metabolism should increase as cold weather intensifies — the better to create heat and stay warm. But a whitetail’s metabolism actually slows to low gear as winter sets in.
Why would metabolism — defined as the rate at which a body burns calories to maintain basic functions — decline now? Instead of burning more fat to stay warm and compensate for the cold, lower metabolism makes a whitetail’s body exceedingly stingy in the way it expends energy. The colder it gets, the more whitetails bed down and stay put. In many situations, energy expended obtaining food might far outpace the calories gained.
Studies show that whitetail metabolism can drop by half in deep cold. Consequently, deer start only venturing out to feed once a day. If conditions are especially brutal, whitetails will hole up for days at a time, using fat to fuel that lower metabolic rate and come out ahead.
Late-season hunting becomes a food source scenario. Whitetails will center their lives around the food — being close to it, bedded in good cover.
Step 2: Adopt A Cold-Weather Hunting Approach
Scouting smart and setting up right are the keys to a successful whitetail hunting in bitter weather. Scout from a distance to find out what fields or feeding areas the deer are using. Park on a back road, field road or ridge and see what the deer are doing without disturbing them. This is probably whitetails’ most “pattern-able” time of the season since September. Study deer movements and use them to your advantage. Be patient. Figure out what’s going on before setting up a hunt.
Standing crops are best because the food is usually above the snow. If snow cover is light or nonexistent, stubble fields are good. So are alfalfa fields and hay meadows where greens were preserved under the snow.
It’s important to set up right. The best food sources to hunt are away from cover. But whitetails will want to use cover as long as possible on their approach. It might be a point of timber, a brushy or grassy swale, a fence line, a ditch or river or creek bottom. Set up on the travel route to the feed source. Be on the approaches where deer will pause before heading out.
Much late-season hunting is done over food plots. This can be tough, as food is everywhere and the deer might come from all angles. If you can control it, put the main food source away from the edge of the timber. For instance, if there’s a corn or bean field, leave any standing crops in the middle, so the deer have to travel out to it. This is a great way to force the deer to use the funnels, pinch points and cover extensions discussed. If you plant brassicas or other cold season food, don’t put them next to woods where the deer can just step out and eat. Put these crops away from the woods so the deer have to use the travel funnels to get there.
Most of all, get out there early in the afternoon. Three hours before dark is not too early. Morning hunting can be tough in cold weather. Temperatures plummet at dawn, and after a long night whitetails often have no interest in moving. Once the day warms up, feeding makes more sense from a biological perspective. Whitetails will come out earlier than you expect.
Step 3: Manage Equipment For The Bitter Cold
Assure that your bow, muzzleloader or firearm is up to the cold-weather challenge.
Experienced bowhunters lighten up their bow’s draw weight after the rut. Ten or 20 percent of initial draw weight won’t lose you much performance, but will make drawing your bow easier in the cold. Adjust your sight pins. They also limber up before the hunt. At home or camp, throw a few arrows at a portable target to warm up and stretch out. They also practice drawing and shooting in heavy hunting clothes, and use armguards and rubber bands to keep floppy or bulky clothing from catching. They wear a muff so they can keep hands warm wearing only light gloves, which makes shooting more accurate than with heavier gloves. They clean oil and grease from a bow’s moving parts, re-lubricating with graphite. And, every 30 minutes on stand, they look long and carefully for approaching deer and prying whitetail eyes, then draw their bow a couple times to stay flexible.
Hunters using muzzleloaders know that gear can get cantankerous in cold and snowy weather. To make sure their rifle goes boom and not click, they use alcohol to degrease all the gun’s moving parts of oil and gunk before giving everything a light spray of Teflon oil, then wipe it all dry with a clean cloth. They place a piece of electrical tape over the muzzle to keep snow and moisture out. They also wear light gloves with the fingertips cut off so they can manipulate all the little pieces and parts (primers, nipples, nipple picks, powder measures, etc.) that go with muzzleloading, and keep their hands warm on stand inside a muff. And, if the weather has been dry, they leave their firearm outside in the cold at night, but protected in a vehicle, woodshed, barn or outhouse. Don’t bring your muzzleloader into a warm house or cabin where condensation can occur.
Riflemen and those using slug guns have the least trouble operating properly in cold weather. That said, there are still preparations to make. For example, as with other gear, remove all oil and grease, and use graphite or Teflon for any lubrication needs. They know that semiautos can jam up in frozen weather and so they choose either bolt- or pump-action guns for this time of year.
They make sure the firing pin is operational with a dry-fire or two before hunting. They also practice shooting with thick, bulky hunting clothes on to be sure you have proper stock clearance and eye relief. They also have gloves with a slit in the glove’s index finger so they can slip their finger out for precise control on the trigger.
Step 4: Keep Yourself Warm — And Out Hunting
If you’ve hunted in bitter-cold weather before, you know the drill: Dress in layers, making each layer progressively heavier. Here are additional tips, techniques and insights:
- The wicking base layer next to your skin is your most important investment.
- Pay special attention to feet. Use a good pair of light silk or polypropylene wicking socks next to the skin, followed by thick wool socks before donning heavy pac boots.
- Also pay attention the neck, where much heat is lost. Turtlenecks (ideal as your base layer) and fleece neck gaiters do the job.
- Never skimp on headgear. Fleece-lined wool is about as warm and cozy as you can go.
- Use a heater. It simply makes the wait bearable so you hunt longer.
- Handwarmers are essential. Nothing ends a hunt sooner than cold, painful hands.
This winter whitetail wait wasn’t overly long. The local deer were really on the move, working their way toward upland corn stubble now during the day’s mildest (that is a relative term) hours. Before our bones had thoroughly chilled, a small group of whitetails exited the cottonwood and oak timber lining the bank of the frozen river and skirted the quiet meadow we watched.
The boy and I picked out a nice doe, and the whitetail crumpled at the weak “crack” Noah’s carefully maintained .270 produced in the bitter-cold air. We had another tag, and were well-dressed for more waiting in the bitter temperatures. But one whitetail was enough for one day, and there was nothing but clear sky and cold air predicted on the horizon. Perfect.
So we climbed own, knelt next to and admired the fat whitetail for more than a few moments, and then set to work, surrounded by the pale sun’s orange afternoon glow, blue shadows and the deep silence of the land.