The good luck charm that accompanied him on so many snowy hunts was sitting on the log beside him. For him, any day spent in the woods was a good one. But being new to flintlock hunting and rapidly catching the bug, he was especially glad to be out this frigid day in early January. That fella was my uncle. His good luck charm? Well, that was me.
I was a home-schooled kid with a real knack for waking up early to finish my schoolwork. I knew that if I could get everything done, I’d get a mid-morning phone call to head to the timber for a cold-weather hunt. Because we saw deer every time we hunted together, I quickly acquired the good luck title.
Back then, I viewed late-season hunts as a way to get outside and just have fun. But late-season can present opportunities to put a good one in the bed of your truck. Don’t make the mistake of writing off late season. It could be just the ticket you’ve been waiting for to go after those burly, cold weather bucks.
Mid-day Hours: Late season movement leans away from typical morning/evening movement patterns. Deer will usually feed during hours when less energy expenditure is needed. The exception would be in conditions when they are driven to feed. Conditions like snow squalls, rain, and other approaching storm fronts are good examples.
The warm periods of a typical day are ideal for catching deer that are switching bedding areas. During those hours, deer will also be searching for the best food sources to get the most bang for their buck (no pun intended). Focused effort around midday hours may be some of the best action you’ll find.
High-calorie diets: One of the best late-season hunters I know of is Johnny Stewart, a DIY hunting nut hailing from the North West corner of PA. Johnny is held in high regard in the world of public land whitetail hunting. If you haven’t listened to a podcast he’s been featured on, you can listen to his late season strategies here. This guy never gives up and he consistently shows excellent woodsmanship. You’ll want to hear what he has to say.
On the topic of late-season, in a recent conversation, Johnny told me “food is the absolute key.” Bucks are looking to recover from a long rut as well as pack on some dense calories to survive the upcoming cold winter months. Johnny often speaks about the importance of understanding types of substantial browse in the vast timbered areas he hunts. But any food source—from heavy browse to picked corn—will likely attract deer this time of year.
Johnny’s late-season plans revolve around the experience of witnessing bucks traveling long distances on bed-to-food patterns. He prefers to use a large number of trail cameras to understand the precise time bucks will be traveling to that food.
As far as the type of food source, that would be dependent on the area you live. In Johnny’s neck of the woods, we are talking a lot of big timber. Clear-cuts, heavy browse, beechnuts, and whatever palatable red-oak acorns are left are likely culprits. Here in the southeast corner of PA, it’s not uncommon to consider large agricultural food the center of attention. Even if your focus is public land, which typically won’t have large ag areas, a private field, even one a mile or two away, could be a prime attractant.
Interception: Johnny makes a valid point when he says that the “long-range movement of bucks has the potential to be a bee-line from bedding to food and straight back. That movement can often be in the middle of the night.” Johnny’s strategy this time of year isn’t fully dependent on snow, but as far as what snow can do for you, he states that “snow cover will give you a lot of clues to the late-season story. Especially when it comes to understanding long-range travel patterns.”
I’ve heard Johnny speak of homing in on the track of a mature buck that might be traversing a certain area. Johnny uses cameras to confirm the sign he sees on the ground. He matches physical sign and camera confirmation to the best time of day to intercept bucks on particular travel routes.
Bedding and Cover: According to Johnny, “while food is key, it’s also important to have a grasp on where the top bedding is for mature bucks.” For late-season deer, it’s all about survival. When overcoming bone-chilling temperatures is necessary, thermal bedding is key.
Evergreens of all kinds make great thermal cover, and if you’ve heard Johnny speak before, you know that he relies heavily on eastern hemlocks. But be careful in choosing a location loaded with evergreens. I’ve been in mature pine forests that feel more like an icebox than a toaster oven. If you want to target evergreen stands, with have higher heat-trapping capability, pay attention to thermal detail. Think about it this way: if you’re filling a thermos with coffee, pre-rinsing with hot water will keep your coffee hot longer. Evergreens that have adequate amounts of sun exposure throughout the day work the same way. Sun exposure will keep them warmer longer throughout cold night temperatures.
Clear-cuts make up another type of thermal bedding cover. Look for cuts in the 5-7-year-old range as they will hold the most advantageous browse and vegetation. The growth in this “cut age” is usually a 3-4 foot tall world and is generally very dense. This generation of cover still allows sunlight to penetrate all the way to the ground despite its density. Even on north-facing slopes, this cut age is one of the best.
Brushy creek bottoms, located between two ridges, are ideal for bedding and escape at this time of year—especially a bottom that runs SE to NW. That orientation is going to get the most sun exposure as far as bottoms are concerned. Look for these areas when your major food sources are in higher elevations.
Dress for Success: I’m an intensive care nurse, which means that I essentially wear pajamas to work daily. While some people might consider that an annoyance, I’ve learned to recognize the advantages. One big one is that scrubs pass as professional attire, even in a job interview. No ties required. The important thing to consider is matching the attire to the job description.
When it comes to late season, layers are essential; but knowing when to remove a few is also important. It might be frigid in the morning hours, but that 12:30-2:00 timeframe can get fairly warm. If the sun is out, reflecting off the snow, you’re going to sweat. Peeling off a few layers before that happens will help you finish out a hunt. Plus, not sweating is key to keeping your scent to a minimum. As the sun starts to set and the top layer of that melting snow begins to freeze, it’s going to cool off fast, especially if any kind of light breeze picks up. That will be the time to begin adding layers again.
Hand warmers and body warmers are always something I pack during cold temperature hunts. I prefer to activate them as soon as I start hunting, and if I don’t need them I put them in my pocket for later. When my core or hands begin to get chilly, I pull them out and warm up. Call me a sissy all you want, but this strategy has made a difference for me when it comes to my ability to remain in my stand.
Ending with a Story: That afternoon, as my uncle and I sat in that stark January woods, eight does came into view. They were on a path that would bring them to about 10 yards from our spot. I was 13 years old at the time. It would have been my very first time drawing my bow on a deer. My uncle watched with his flintlock resting in the crook of his elbow. The rubber whisker silencers on my bowstring quivered furiously as I slowly began to draw. I made it to the halfway point before the lead doe picked me out, sending eight white tails in all directions. There wasn’t even an arrow released that afternoon, but I recall my amazement. As a young hunter, every experience like that one, successful or not, led me to love bowhunting.