The late-season is tough and most hunters get discouraged when they realize this, but the truth is they often give up before it actually gets good again. Everything the deer do after the rut revolves around two things: keeping their hides and filling their stomachs. They are all business.
Timing the Late-Season
The third ice storm of the winter greeted Chad Lathrop and I as we headed out on the afternoon of Dec. 27. The previous several days had been warm and the snow and the inch-thick layer of ice from earlier in the month had melted off the fields, opening them up so the deer could get back to the waste grain they offered. After three weeks of deep cold and thick ice-covered fields, they were hungry and ready to take full advantage of the warmer conditions. Though it was in the upper 20s, every buck on the farm came out in the fields.
Chad was along to film me as I hunted with my bow, but he also carried a muzzleloader and a late-season tag in his pocket. That way, if a buck came out that was too far for me to shoot, I could swing the camera over and film Chad shooting it instead. That is exactly what happened. Though the conditions were completely different from what most people think of for late-season success (the emergence of a warm front), I found myself staring at a field full of deer.
Right at sunset a great 8-pointer came out of the trees at a distance of 50 yards to feed in the waste grain and was soon 70 yards out and well beyond bow range. It took us a few seconds to change stands, but I was soon filming Chad as he shot the 150-inch 8-pointer. Deer ran everywhere when the buck piled up in its tracks. It was an amazing hunt, far more action-packed than any I have ever experienced in the rut. The reason: the weather change.
The second great hunt took place on Jan. 2, 2009, as my friend Mike Sawyer and his cousin Chris Mack were hunting along the edge of one of my alfalfa fields. By this time, all the snow and ice had melted away, opening up the field for deer to graze, and the deer were definitely taking advantage of it. Mike's cousin was filming his hunt. It was a similar strategy to the one Chad and I used. Chris had the T/C muzzleloader and Mike had the Hoyt. If a shooter came out close Mike would draw down with the bow, and if it came out in the distance Chris would do the honors with the smokepole.
That evening, a dandy, mature 130-inch 9-pointer came out just beyond bow range. Mike grabbed the camera and Chris pulled the gun off the hook. As the buck stepped out in the open, Chris made a great 60-yard offhand shot. Another late-season buck in the back of the truck.
The next evening, Jan. 3, Chris returned the favor as he filmed Mike as he shot an incredible 180-inch gross-scoring basic 8-pointer!
Mike made a 40-yard shot with his bow as the buck also was heading in the direction of the open fields. Similar to the previous evening, the conditions were unseasonably warm and the bucks were on the move looking for available food after several weeks of laying low under brutal conditions.
It is a misconception to think that it has to be cold for late-season success. While a cold snap during a stretch of otherwise seasonal weather will usually encourage deer to abandon normal caution in areas with moderate hunting pressure, cold is not an absolute necessity for late-season success. We have shot many nice bucks on average winter days.
The rigors of the rut are enough to push bucks to feed heavily during the late-season. If they are not being pressured, they will fall into feeding patterns that bring them out during daylight. However, if they are being pressured (or recently were pressured during the general firearm season) you will need more help in the form of unseasonably cold weather to cause them to set aside caution in favor of food.
Okay, so weather is a key component of late-season success. It is not the only component, but it plays a big part. A cold snap will get them feeding actively, as will a warm snap after a prolonged period of cold. Watch for both conditions.