Targeting Late-Season Whitetails After Crops Disappear

Pursuing Midwest whitetails changes dramatically after farmers harvest their crops. Here are a few tips on how to fill your tag during the late season.

Targeting Late-Season Whitetails After Crops Disappear

December can be a tough time to pursue whitetails in the upper Midwest. The reasons are many, but here are the three most important ones:

Hunting pressure. Firearms seasons put an enormous amount of pressure on whitetails, and in addition to deer being bumped repeatedly by people in blaze-orange coats stomping through their home range from dawn to dusk, there are fewer deer remaining because many have been killed.

Reduced daylight. When whitetails aren’t pressured (think July and August), they travel and feed regularly during daylight hours. Whitetails aren’t normally creatures of the night. However, combine human intrusion in the forest with shorter days, and the result is whitetails traveling and feeding after dark. A deer can remain bedded until legal hunting time ends in the evening, slowly walk to a primary food source, eat there off and on for 12 hours under the stars, then slowly walk back to securing cover and bed down before legal hunting time arrives in the morning.

Late-season whitetails in the upper Midwest love to bed in frozen cattail swamps. The good news is these deer have nothing to eat in their bedding area, so they must leave the swamp to find acorns or natural browse in nearby hardwood forests. The bad news is deer have at least 12 hours of darkness in which to complete this feeding.
Late-season whitetails in the upper Midwest love to bed in frozen cattail swamps. The good news is these deer have nothing to eat in their bedding area, so they must leave the swamp to find acorns or natural browse in nearby hardwood forests. The bad news is deer have at least 12 hours of darkness in which to complete this feeding.

Limited food. After farmers harvest their crops, the amount of food available to whitetails in farm country is dramatically reduced, which dramatically changes a deer’s travel patterns. Where I deer hunt in Minnesota, South Dakota and Wisconsin, it’s rare for a farmer to leave a cornfield standing into December. Of course, a standing cornfield is a deer magnet in December.

When farmers pick cornfields, there’s often enough corn kernels spilled on the ground that such a field is still an important food destination for whitetails. However, when farmers cut cornfields, which leaves only a 6-inch-long chunk of corn stalk behind, there are no kernels left behind. A field that was once a food buffet immediately becomes a food desert.

The author killed this late-season buck as it was heading to an alfalfa field. The corn in the area had been cut, which you can see in the background of this photo. Cut cornfields provide zero food for late-season whitetails.
The author killed this late-season buck as it was heading to an alfalfa field. The corn in the area had been cut, which you can see in the background of this photo. Cut cornfields provide zero food for late-season whitetails.
Depending on whitetail density and other available food sources, smaller food plots designed for late season can become deserts by the end of deer season due to heavy browsing. Shown above is a brassica field that’s no longer worth hunting.
Depending on whitetail density and other available food sources, smaller food plots designed for late season can become deserts by the end of deer season due to heavy browsing. Shown above is a brassica field that’s no longer worth hunting.

If you hunt private land with food plots and were successful in growing late-season deer forage such as brassicas or winter rye, then you’ll be in the game — provided hunting pressure has been light or nonexistent. If deer in your area are limited to natural browse and leftover acorns, then December can be very difficult. I know from experience that killing a deer —  any deer — under these conditions is a monumental task.

 

Finding December Deer

Where should you begin looking for late-season whitetails?

Whitetails vacuum up white oak acorns as soon as they hit the ground in October. In fact, deer will abandon green food plots in favor of these acorns. I mention this because most forests that contain white oaks have even more red oaks, and I’ve seen December whitetails finally target red oak acorns in December. This feeding sign is easy to spot if the landscape is covered by a bit of snow, so consider a speed-scouting mission during midday to identify these hotspots.

Wooded areas with high stem counts (i.e. thick cover) are also frequently visited by hungry winter whitetails, but the trouble is deer can bed in these same spots, making an ambush tricky at best.

 

Roll the Dice in December

If you’re finding it tough to ambush whitetails between bedding and feeding during December, and the hunting season is coming to a close, then it’s time to consider whether it makes sense to conduct a deer push. By “push” I don’t mean an all-out deer drive like you see during the firearms season with 5-10 participants. You don’t want deer running for their lives in all directions. These drives usually give hunters running shots at whitetails, and with all due respect, none of us are talented enough marksmen for this duty. Instead, have one person push, and post one or two hunters on likely escape routes. The goal is to move deer slowly, so the pusher should take his or her time.

On the private lands I bowhunt in the upper Midwest, my buddies and I will never conduct a deer push through a sanctuary, but we will do it through other thick bedding cover on the property. Note: I wouldn’t recommend pushing the same block of cover on two consecutive days, but we’ve had good luck doing it on consecutive weekends. In fact, what we learn during a push on one weekend is used to our advantage the next time.

The author tagged this late-December buck in South Dakota when a buddy purposefully bumped a south-facing hillside containing several bedded deer. The author was in a treestand 150 yards away on the other side of a creek, along a trail often used by deer as they traveled out of the river-bottom to feed after dark. Because of the crusted snow, the bumped deer used the well-worn trail when leaving their bedding area.
The author tagged this late-December buck in South Dakota when a buddy purposefully bumped a south-facing hillside containing several bedded deer. The author was in a treestand 150 yards away on the other side of a creek, along a trail often used by deer as they traveled out of the river-bottom to feed after dark. Because of the crusted snow, the bumped deer used the well-worn trail when leaving their bedding area.

One final comment regarding December deer hunting: Any doe that wasn’t bred in early to mid-November (I’m speaking about the upper Midwest) will come into heat again in early to mid-December. Often called the second rut or secondary rut, bucks will once again be looking for a doe in heat. This is also the time when many fawns are bred. The action won’t be as crazy as the primary rut, but the secondary rut is real. Don’t miss it!

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