For most hunters, the late season is more of an experiment than a real hunt. I hope to help you change that. Under the right conditions, the late season can be very good. In fact, the two very best days of every season are the day when the first doe comes into estrous in an area rich in bucks and the first hard cold snap in December. I dream about those two days (and all the bucks that bubble to the surface) when I visualize great whitetail hunting.
Everyone thinks it has to be cold to have great late-season hunting. Not true. What really gets deer moving is not so much the temperature itself, but rather any meaningful change in the temperature. If the late fall has been seasonal for a period, a temperature drop of even 15 degrees will get them out of their beds and into the food earlier in the evening. If, on the other hand, the weather has been frigid for weeks, a warm snap will serve the same purpose.
The best hunting I have ever seen on our farm in Iowa was not a rut hunt, and it wasn’t a cold snap. It started in late December 2008, right after Christmas, with a warm front that unlocked a half-inch of ice that had blanketed the area for weeks. When the weather warmed, the deer went nuts.
I filmed one of my employees when he shot a great buck the day the thaw started. The big, 150-inch 8-pointer came out at 50 yards when Chad pulled down on him with the muzzleloader. We saw 20 different bucks that evening. They were everywhere.
My friend Mike Sawyer and his cousin, Chris Mack, arrived a couple of days later. By the time they started hunting on New Year’s Day, the warm spell was three days old; all the ice was finally gone, opening up the alfalfa field along which they were hunting. Even three days into the warm up, the deer were still feeding heavily.
Mike was bowhunting and Chris was filming him. But Chris was also carrying a muzzleloader. If a buck passed out of bow range, Mike would grab the camera and film Chris. If it was close enough for a bow shot, Chris was in charge of the camera and Mike’s job was to get the arrow in the right place.
In a span of just two days, Mike shot four does with his bow and filmed Chris as he shot a mature, 130-inch 9-pointer that came by on Jan. 2. The next evening Chris returned the favor as he filmed Mike shooting an incredible 180-inch gross-scoring 8-pointer. Mike made a 40-yard shot as the buck headed past the stand toward the open fields.
Unbelievably, five of those six deer came from the same stand! All were so focused on the open fields made accessible by the warm front that they kept coming out despite all the human activity that had taken place in that area. It was almost as if they ignored it.
Of course, cold snaps have the same effect. During the 2010 and 2012 seasons, it was sharp dips in the temperature that did the trick and led to me taking old bucks with my bow.
In late 2010, a bone-chilling cold settled on the Midwest and produced a classic feeding frenzy. Starting right after Christmas, I began to get daylight photos of a couple of big deer on a corn plot. One of the bucks was a super-wide 10-pointer, and the other was a giant 9-pointer that would have pushed 180 inches.
These days I let trail camera photos give me the green light during the late season. It is never a good idea to hunt an area when the bucks aren’t moving during the day. All you do is educate deer at a time when the odds for success are low. So when you start getting daylight photos like I was back in 2010, make your move right away.
My cameraman and I went in early to put up a couple stands while trying not to sweat, and we hunted that afternoon. The deer started pouring in before I even got the stands completely in place, more than two hours before dark. I saw one of the biggest bucks on the farm that evening.
A few days later, on Jan. 1, 2011, the wind was right again and we went back. The temperature was still in the low single digits with wind chills below zero. It was rough staying on stand for more than an hour, but the deer sightings kept just enough adrenaline pumping to keep our blood from freezing. An hour after we got into the tree, a nice 8-pointer a friend had missed in November came within bow range. In all, I saw eight bucks that evening, all in legal light.
I never see action like that during the rut. Under the right conditions, the late season is better (surely more consistent) than the rut.
Then just last season I had another one of those great evenings in the stand (this time in a blind). It was the day after a cold front came through and dumped 6 inches of fresh snow. December 21 was still very cold, high single digits, and every buck I had on trail camera on that part of the farm came out well before dark.
One of the bucks, a deer I had nicknamed Loppy, was at least 7 years old. Old Loppy was a recluse. We saw him in daylight a few times in 2009, but not again until that day in late December last season.
I was as excited to finally get a shot at Loppy as any buck I have ever shot—including some with much larger headgear.
That is the power of the late season: You can see bucks you have not seen for years—nocturnal old buggers that only come out in daylight a few times per season.
The Key Role of Food
If not pressured hard, bucks will fall into feeding patterns that bring them out during the daylight shortly after the rut ends in late November. However, if they are being pressured (or recently were pressured during the general firearm season) you will need to wait a couple of weeks for the deer to give up their nocturnal ways. Either way, food is an important key.
If you don’t have a highly attractive food source in your hunting area, the late season probably won’t be much fun. It really is that simple. During the late season, it is all about the food. If you have the food, you have the deer. If you have the deer, eventually breaks in the weather will bring them out in daylight.
I plant quite a few acres of food plots on our farm each year. It isn’t too hard to pull off, even on a budget, if you are careful about what you plant, and how you plant it. Truthfully, my food plots aren’t all that useful during the rut. I often hunt near them, and they do hold does in the area, which is important, but I could have decent rut hunting without the food plots.
However, my entire late-season strategy revolves around those food plots. That is when the effort and cost are fully rewarded.
How to Hunt with Cameras
You can learn a ton from placing a trail camera on your best food sources to determine if and when bucks come out.
Many of the better cameras on the market today have what is called a field scan, or time-lapse, mode that allows you to take a photo at set intervals during certain times of the day. For example, you can set the camera to take a photo every 30 seconds or every minute for the last hour of daylight. When you go back to study these photos you will start to see patterns develop. It is a simple strategy: place the camera, set the mode, check as often as possible. When you start to get daylight photos of a nice buck, move in and hunt him.
Six Good Days
After 25 years of hunting nearly every day of every season, I am convinced that there aren’t as many good days as I had thought, or hoped. The early season has maybe one or two, the rut has three really good days on average each year, and the late season typically has two, again on average.
The trick, of course, is predicting which six days these will be. I have gotten much better at predicting them now. I can get you pretty darn close. But let’s zero in on the purpose of this article: the late season.
If you skip the late season, you potentially give up one-third of the best days of the entire season. I am not saying you can’t kill bucks on other days, but if you take those six and give me all the rest, I am likely to place my bet on you!
It is simple. Find good food sources in areas that have experienced no more than moderate hunting pressure in the regular firearm season and be there every time the temperature breaks warm or cold and you will see some action.
Without these critical factors, late-season hunting can be drudgery, even torture. With these factors in place, it can be the best hunting of the entire season.