My mother and I watched in astonishment as deer poured into an alfalfa field distant to our cornfield ambush. We were hunting public land in Nebraska with muzzleloaders during frigid December conditions. My initial hunch brought us to the cornfield, but it quickly became evident deer preferred the snow-covered alfalfa — the cornfield laid stagnant the entire evening as the alfalfa brimmed with deer. We were too far away to decipher does from bucks, but with more than two dozen deer in the field, several had to be antlered.
I dropped my mother off at the alfalfa field the following afternoon and instructed her to hunker into some plum brush that fringed the field’s east edge. The northwest wind would blow her scent away from the field, and with the ice-cold temps, I was confident she’d get multiple opportunities to take deer. With even colder temperatures in the forecast, I encouraged her to take a doe if the opportunity came.
The field soon began filling with deer as it had the evening before, and Mom passed several doe opportunities early on. Good thing, because two dandy bucks entered the field shortly after. One was a stud 8-pointer, and the other was a symmetrical 10-pointer. Both were 3 ½-year-old bucks, and they began sparring as Mom contemplated which one to shoot.
The 10-pointer stood broadside 60-some yards from the muzzle when Mom elected to take him. She rested the barrel on a tripod, steadied the crosshairs and squeezed the trigger. The explosion scattered the herd and the 10-pointer soon came to rest as a result of the perfect shot. A hot public-land food source paid dividends during mid-December in the form of Mom’s first deer — a gorgeous specimen nearing the 130-inch mark.
It’s Not Over
Each year when the rifles cease fire, thousands of hunters wave a white flag and quit hunting. They believe deer quit moving during daylight as a result of the rifle ruckus. That was the misconception I lived under for years, but I put it to the test more than 10 years ago. And since then, I’ve taken many late-season deer. The central factor to these kills? Food. It’s simply a matter of survival.
In states and provinces where winter brings frigid conditions, deer must visit food sources just to survive. Does and bucks are run down from the rut and must prepare for the winter ahead by increasing their caloric intake. If they don’t, they simply won’t survive. And while mature bucks on pressured ground visit food sources primarily after dark, they’ll most likely make a daytime visit at some point during the late season — but you have to be in the saddle at show time to capitalize.
Mapping Hot Food
Most whitetail strategies involve aerial-image study, which is certainly a great way to map potential late-season food sources without exhaustive legwork. Once you pinpoint several possibilities, conduct a low-impact recon mission. Deer paw out snow to access food, so look for spots deer have rooted up. Fresh sign tells you which foods are hot and which are not. Even still, deer activity at specific food sources can literally change overnight.
One example is the Nebraska cornfield setup I mentioned earlier. It had lots of sign, but the deer had shifted to the alfalfa. Why they would choose alfalfa over corn is beyond me. Perhaps another hunter or a pack of coyotes spooked them away from the corn. Those sorts of uncontrollable factors are something public-land hunters can expect. When a food source with good sign yields few or no deer sightings, find another one. Like the alfalfa field where Mom nailed her buck, a subsequent food source puts you back in the game.
Observe And Zero In
Nothing mars your success odds more quickly than an aggressive approach on unfamiliar ground. Once you locate a hot food source, watch it at a distance from your truck or an observation stand. Get a feel for where deer enter the field, where they feed and how long they stay. If you have enough time left in the season, you can even narrow it further by logging everything into a journal. Bucks might enter fields in slightly different places from night to night, but if you log wind directions and temperatures into your journal, you can possibly find a common denominator to specific ports of entry. This will become beneficial in being in the right place at the right time.
Once you fabricate an attack plan, move in during midday and locate an ambush. Deer can be wary from rifle-season hunting pressure, so plan your setup carefully. Keep trimming to a minimum, hang in trees with good back cover to break up your outline (trees can be pretty bare during late season) and keep the wind in mind at all times.
Consider ground possibilities if your area is void of suitable trees. I did this one January on the prairies of South Dakota. With a doe tag in my pocket, I located two hay bales deer were eating from. The wide-open topography meant I’d have to ground-pounce. I positioned a shield-type blind in a gap between other bales deer weren’t nibbling on and settled in for the evening.
About one hour before dark, four deer appeared 500 yards away. They closed the distance in only a few minutes and soon were eating on the hay bales 14 yards from my broadhead. A delivery truck zoomed by on a nearby prairie road as I was about to draw my bow. The deer raced 100 yards away and stopped. Once the truck had passed, they ran right back to the bales. I laced the biggest doe with a perfect shot. My out-of-the-box setup worked like a charm. The lessons? Don’t overlook a ground ambush, or less conventional food sources such as hay bales.
Hunt Weather Fronts
Once you locate a food source peppered with deer sign, monitor the forecast closely for sudden weather changes. Both warm and cold fronts move deer. Smartphone apps make it possible to stay in-tune 24/7. Both www.weather.com and www.wunderground.com are reliable weather resources.
Deer generally fall into nocturnal feeding patterns during lengthy periods of warmer temperatures. But when a cold snap is on the way, deer sense the barometric change and get on their feet earlier than usual. Likewise, deer move really well when a lengthy cold spell with wicked winds and pulverizing snow reduces to calm and moderate conditions. Bottom line: Fronts increase your chances of a daylight encounter.
Sometimes bucks visit fields only nocturnally. In that case, opt for a travel-route ambush between known bedding areas and the field or plot itself. These routes often produce encounters both late in the afternoon and early in the morning. They’re also a better bet for close shots if you’re archery hunting.
One example is my brother Joe’s 2010 South Dakota buck. He pegged the buck’s pattern as the season was winding to a close. The buck was using a particular draw to exit an alfalfa field, so he simply placed a ground blind near the buck’s exit route. The wind was favorable with only days left in the season, so he slipped into the blind for a dawn patrol. Minutes into the morning, the 135-inch buck strolled past the well-placed blind and Joe administered a perfect arrow, putting the buck down promptly.
Punch That Tag
My intent with this article is not to rewrite the late-season playbook. Rather, it is to provide you with real strategies my family uses to knock down quality deer after the rifle ruckus. We don’t manage expensive leases or hunt with premium outfitters. We hunt mostly public land, and once in a while, decent private ground. The integral part of our strategy is hunting until the bitter end, and really homing in on food sources during frigid conditions. If you’re tired of eating tags, buckle down on an active late-season food source, and punch them before the shot clock runs out.