Hunting December Whitetails — Feast or Famine

December can be a challenging time for whitetails throughout much of the their range, and the hunting can be feast or famine, based largely on food and pressure.

Hunting December Whitetails — Feast or Famine

South Dakota icebox buck — the author was blessed a couple years ago to tag this fine 5x4 on his final available day (December 30) of bowhunting before heading home to Minnesota. He arrowed the buck during the hunt’s last hour. Speaking of hours, he spent 30-plus days bowhunting this river-bottom that season, so about 60 sits, which equates to 200-ish hours. The author drew his bow once all season.

November is my favorite month to pursue whitetails, but more often than not, December rolls around and I’ll have an unused deer tag still in my pocket. On the properties I hunt in the Midwest, December deer hunting can be feast or famine, and the two primary factors are food and pressure.

 

Limited Food

Throughout much of the deer season, whitetails have numerous and widespread food sources. I primarily pursue whitetails in areas with a mixture of hardwood forests and ag fields, so deer can transition from green fields (soybean leaves and alfalfa fields) to acorns (both white and red oaks) to corn. Of course, many landowners also install food plots, so a deer’s cupboard is almost always full during late summer and early to mid-fall.

The author tagged this Wisconsin doe on Sept. 19, 2020, from the green-field ambush seen in the left photo. His dad and nephew checked the deer’s field-dressed weight — 108 pounds.
The author tagged this Wisconsin doe on Sept. 19, 2020, from the green-field ambush seen in the left photo. His dad and nephew checked the deer’s field-dressed weight — 108 pounds.

Enter December. Depending on snow conditions, food choices can shrink dramatically for deer during December. If the forest floor is covered by significant snow depth, or crusted snow, whitetails are forced to find standing corn, or perhaps picked corn if a farmer left some kernels behind.

Food plots, even those containing brassicas, could be covered with too much snow for deer to find the forage. And any acorns not consumed during October and November are also covered by too much snow.

Yes, whitetails will browse on available twigs, but deer can do this without leaving thick bedding areas, which makes hunting them very difficult.

Because a whitetail’s cupboard is limited in December, your hunting success will likely be tied tightly to whether you have standing corn on, or nearby, your hunting property. Speaking of standing corn, it’s not a guarantee of great December hunting if you plant a food plot of corn and leave it standing. The reason is whitetails have so many after-dark hours in which to feed, and a deer herd can decimate a small standing cornfield very quickly.

Case in point: This year in western Wisconsin, my dad and I worked with a local farmer to plant a 1-acre cornfield on our land. At the time of this writing (third week of October), the deer and black bears are already hammering the field hard. We’ve had early snowfalls this year matched with two weeks of October temperatures 20 degrees lower than average. Even though the field grew well this summer and corn stalks are 8-feet tall with big cobs, I’ll be shocked if any corn makes it to December.

Assuming this is true, my December deer hunting on this property will likely be very tough. Sure, a few whitetails will still visit our 1-acre corn plot and scrounge for remaining kernels, but most of the deer will focus on larger fields of standing corn located a half-mile away. These bigger fields aren’t purposely left for whitetails, but each year a farmer or two decides to leave their corn standing into the New Year due to limited grain storage space.

Some whitetails will continue to bed on my property even though they’re feeding each night a half-mile away, and this will give me a chance to intercept them along the way. This will change, however, if snow becomes deep enough that deer decide to skip the half-mile hike and bed closer to the corn. When this happens, and it’s common, my property suddenly becomes deer-free.

The food/hunting propositions are brighter on land I bowhunt in South Dakota. I focus my attention along a half-mile river-bottom, and while a 3-acre standing cornfield (food plot) along the creek might have corn kernels left it in during December, it could also be totally consumed. Regardless, the river-bottom is the only bedding cover available to these prairie whitetails, so I often have decent bowhunting right up until the end of the month. The wind typically blows away enough snow on the crests of nearby picked cornfields, and the deer will find these feed stations. I simply set up along these travel routes during morning and afternoon sits.

 

Hunting Pressure

I mentioned earlier that December provides whitetails with many hours of after-dark feeding opportunities, and deer will take advantage of it. This is especially true when whitetails feel hunting pressure.

On my Wisconsin land, which is bordered by a vast public land forest, the deer feel the pressure from mid-September throughout December, and specifically the public land is home to an orange army of gun hunters for two weeks in late November and into early December. Not only have a lot of deer been tagged by mid- to late December, but those that have survived are relying on darkness to stay alive. The result is hunting here is tough, tough, tough.

Contrast this scenario with my South Dakota property. No one hunts with a firearm on the half-mile river-bottom, and I limit my bowhunting intrusions to the prime dates of Halloween weekend and early to mid-November. I stay off the land during September and almost all of October, and I minimize my impact during November. I treat it like a refuge as much as possible, and therefore so do the deer.

Because of the lack of hunting pressure, these SoDak deer travel during daylight hours throughout December.

During late December many years ago in South Dakota, when the state offered late-season antlerless-only muzzleloader deer tags for his county, the author joined his friends for a weekend hunt. The group saw dozens of whitetails — bucks and does — during daylight thanks to minimal hunting pressure and a nearby picked cornfield.
During late December many years ago in South Dakota, when the state offered late-season antlerless-only muzzleloader deer tags for his county, the author joined his friends for a weekend hunt. The group saw dozens of whitetails — bucks and does — during daylight thanks to minimal hunting pressure and a nearby picked cornfield.

Final Thoughts

I offer these two contrasting examples to give you some perspective on your own December deer hunts. After decades of pursuing whitetails on these lands, I plan my deer season and travel accordingly.

This means I do all I can to take antlerless deer early in the archery season in Wisconsin to fill my freezer. (In 2020, my nonresident archery tag included a buck tag and two antlerless deer tags.) If I get a chance at a Wisconsin buck — any buck — in September or October, I’ll probably take it, knowing that my chances go down tremendously in December. (I don’t bowhunt Wisconsin during November because I’m focusing on South Dakota.)

In South Dakota, where my nonresident archery tag allows me to shoot one buck (no doe tags), I’ll hold out for a mature animal. And because I know that my chance for success during December along the river-bottom is still good, I don’t worry if I don’t tag a buck in November. In fact, I’ll often end the SoDak deer season with a tag in my pocket because my freezer is already stocked with Wisconsin venison, and I don’t feel the need to kill a young buck.

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