Hunting whitetails during the late season brings a unique set of challenges that we don’t normally encounter through the rest of the year. During the early season, shot opportunities were abundant and I passed on lots of deer. All those forgone opportunities now seem imaginary as I sit watching empty deer trails while scrambling squirrels tap dance on my last good nerve.
At this point, just seeing deer is reason for celebration and realistic chances at a shot are few and far between. There is a strong possibility that I’ll finish deer season with a few tags (including all of my buck tags) still intact.
Here are a few of the difficulties that come up during the late season, with some tips that might help us all in the final weeks of hunting season.
The deer in our area have been hunted hard for a few months now. This hunting pressure has changed bedding, feeding, and travel patterns and the deer have assumed a ghost-like scarcity. Where we hunt, the deer movement is almost completely nocturnal. Patterns have changed and my notes from October are nearly useless.
Not only are the actual deer numbers down as a result of harvest, but the deer that remain in the herd are skittish and unpredictable. Observations and experiences from one day don’t seem to convey to the next.
This year’s acorn crop has been consumed and early season trails now sit vacant. Adding insult to injury, weather patterns seem to change twice daily and deer movement seems impossible to predict. In short, I’m depressed.
Where one man sees trouble, another sees opportunity. So maybe I can muster some optimism in my winter wanderings.
Our trail cameras confirm that deer still exist. The cold temperatures seem to be pushing deer toward available winter food sources. Our food plot cameras are seeing pretty steady activity, but most of it is under the moonlight. I spent last weekend in my favorite plot-side stand and could hear deer movement in an adjoining thicket during the waning minutes of daylight. Trail camera shots show deer under my stand just minutes into the night.
So how do you buy extra daylight? Consider stand locations bordering bedding areas to catch deer early in their trip toward dinner, and late in the morning venture back to bed. This is a potentially risky endeavor and you have to be careful not to bump deer from the bedding area. Close attention to wind direction and noise will be paramount.
Although the glory days of the first rut may be gone, all is not lost here. The secondary rut is upon us in Virginia and it’s common to see an increase in buck movement despite the stress of the past few months. Our area holds many more does than bucks, so we have actually noted better buck movement in December as they seek out does that were not bred 4-6 weeks ago when possible mates were everywhere and they didn’t have to travel far to find a date. Again, focus on routes to winter food sources and you may catch your late season trophy checking does.
Despite the fact that deer are hyper-sensitive in late season, these final days may still warrant a well calculated aggressive game plan. We’re nearly out of time, so what do you really have to lose? If you have a late season buck nailed down to a bedding area or travel pattern, push the envelope a bit and try to get him close while you still have an opportunity.
The last advantage to the late season hunter is the fact that winter hunting is very difficult, and lots of guys opt out. Some of your buddies may have filled the freezer and exceeded their taxidermy budget for the year. Let them sit on the couch and take a little pressure off the herd while you put in a strong finishing effort.
The clock is ticking and the calendar is no longer in your favor. Put on a few extra layers and make the most of the late season. If you’re flexible with your game plan and willing to adapt to changing conditions, you may still cash in before the buzzer.