This is one of many technical, how-to bowhunting articles Steve Bartylla regularly contributes to D&DH. Be sure to subscribe to the magazine so you won’t miss any of his upcoming bowhunting articles in 2008. Also be sure to check out Steve’s new book BOWHUNTING TACTICS THAT DELIVER TROPHIES. To order a signed copy, send an email to Steve at: email@example.com
It was downright painful. As December day after day passed, the Wisconsin temps refused to remain below freezing. Struggling not to sweat on the way to my stand each afternoon, I could see the writing on the wall; the odds were high that I was going to eat my buck tag for the first time in years.
I was initially confident that I?d tag a good buck. Twenty acres of standing corn stood on a ridge that was circled by prime hardwoods. Being a long-established wintering area, it was just a matter of putting in my time before a big buck arrived to refuel his engine from the toll the harsh winter took on his body.
As you already know, the first player missing was the harsh winter.
Unfortunately for me, during my 26 December and early January sits, the other player consistently missing in action was the star of my show.
Oh, he was close. A combination of scouting pictures and a handful of tracks revealed several shooters had relocated to their winter home. Unfortunately, the lack of snow and cold allowed them to pick through the few remaining acorns, dead grasses and leaves immediately around their bedding sites. The eventual result was my chewing on a tag for the entire off season.
When reading of these painful sits, I?m sure many readers aren?t surprised by the outcome. After all, late season has the reputation of being the hardest portion of season to tag into a good buck. Though my experience appears to back this up, I couldn?t disagree more.
Many of my most thrilling, buck-filled hunts have occurred during this dreaded phase. However, transforming late-season misery into euphoria requires both using bucks? adaptations to your advantage and a few breaks.
Winter is one of the most stressful periods for mature bucks of the central and northern United States, as well as Canada. Not only have they beaten themselves up running, fighting and breeding does, they now must try to survive what?s commonly a cold winter. To make matters worse, it?s not uncommon for bucks to have lost as much as 30 percent of their body weight during the rut, and food sources are entering their seasonal low point.
Luckily, bucks call upon several behavioral and physiological adaptations to aid in their survival. Perhaps no one is better qualified to address these adaptations than D&DH’s own John Ozoga.
“Certainly, winter can be a very stressful time of year for the whitetail in northern latitudes,” John told me. “To increase their chances of survival, they modify their behavior. This modification is based on the conservation of critical energy and for protection from predators.
Accomplishing this generally requires a shift in habitat. This habitat selection is at least partially based on the severity of the winter weather. In milder winters, they may not relocate as far and base selection more heavily upon food sources. Whereas, during more harsh winters, they tend to select areas that offer more thermal protection, even at the cost of a good food source.” The adaptations are not limited to habitat selection. “Congregating in groups also serves as a beneficial adaptation, as does the beaten-down trails created in yarding areas,” Ozoga continued. ?Both the group dynamic and trail system aids in predator detection and avoidance. The increased number of eyes makes predators easier to detect and the trail system provides them with escape routes through the heavy snows.
The trail system provides yet another advantage. The deer expend less energy walking a hard-packed trail than breaking through deep snow. Minimizing movement is also a means of conserving energy. I know that deer in my studies decreased their movement by well over 50 percent as winter goes on,? Ozoga said. “They reduced their movement to nearly exclusively traveling between their beds and food sources, often during the warmer parts of the day. Finally, they actually decrease their metabolism. When all of these adaptations are combined, deer are often able to withstand very brutal conditions.”
Of course, John is applying these statements to the Northern deer herd. Even as you travel south in Wisconsin, you see traditional deer yards and winter-long deep snows start to vanish. However, deer still most often congregate at prime food sources, minimize movements and concentrate trail usage during periods of heavy snow. I?ve experienced these same traits on late-season hunts as far south as Missouri.
That’s assuming that relatively cold temperatures and snows exist. That?s also where catching some breaks comes in.
Catching a Break
The concentration at food sources will occur to a certain extent regardless of snow cover. However, as was the case for me last year, the feeding in standing farm crops typically isn?t nearly as heavy when acorns, grasses and weeds are still accessible. When a foot or more of snow is on the ground, I begin seeing a more dramatic switch to feeding on standing crops and the woody browse in clear-cut re-growths. After all, it?s easier for deer to dine on these than paw for the few remnants.
The exception I?ve found is when a bunch of good acorns are still laying on the ground. In that case, it often takes two feet or more of snow to dissuade deer from digging.
The other advantage that snow provides is the concentrated trail usage.
Because much more precious energy is expended busting a trail through even a foot of snow than following a previously established doe trail, big bucks now seem much more interested in using family group trails. The deeper the snows, the more deer trails tend to concentrate and the more incentive bucks have to following suit. That eliminates much of the guesswork from what trail a good buck will use.
The other extremely helpful break is cold temperatures. In this case, cold temperatures are relative to the area. In southern Illinois, we may be talking temperatures in the 20s, whereas in northern Minnesota, it might mean single digits or lower.
In either case, relatively cold weather spurs more daylight movement. It?s a matter of energy demand and conservation. During relatively harsh winter weather, most deer experience a negative energy balance. They burn more energy to survive than they intake. Colder weather, as well as deeper snows, cause energy consumption to rise. That makes conserving energies even more important.
One way of addressing this is to feed during relatively warmer periods of the 24-hour cycle and remain bedded during the coldest portions. When standing, more surface area is exposed and heat loss is greater than when curled up in a bed. The more temperatures plummet, the more important this becomes.
Looking at a typical 24-hour cycle, temperatures begin dropping during the late-afternoon hours on through the night, with the low often occurring close to dawn. When relatively cold weather occurs, it provides the incentive for deer to feed earlier in the afternoon and evening, allowing them to bed during the coldest hours. Conversely, warm late-season temps are very conducive to a more nocturnal lifestyle, particularly when combined with the buck?s decreased movements.
Getting a big buck on its feet is an obvious advantage to bow-hunters. So is narrowing down its feeding and traveling options. That makes cold temperatures and significant snow cover the late-season hunters? friends.
Making it Pay
Finding the food sources is the first step in taking advantage of these traits and weather conditions. In agricultural areas, standing crops are a great place to start. When not available, look for fields with high amounts of crop waste left on the ground. In the bigger woods, relatively young logging regrowth areas and white cedar stands are both hard to beat. If both fail, check the woods of areas still offering acorns.
With the food source found, it can be extremely beneficial to invest time into o
bserving. By setting up at a distance and glassing the source, a big buck?s trail can be pinpointed and clues are often provided on where the deer are coming from.
That was the key for me taking a good late-season buck some years back.
Through my observations, I could literally see deer getting up from their beds on a ridge and filtering down to the cornfield. If I set up on the trails, I?d be busted coming in. Setting up on the other side of the field made it so I needed a break to arrow the 41Z2-year-old 9-point, but I firmly believe I?d have never gotten it by setting up on the sign.
That buck also illustrated the need for having a good route to the stand.
For one, unless hunting evergreens, the woods is now wide open, allowing deer to see much further. Furthermore, sound seems to travel forever on cold and calm days. Now, toss in that the deer have been hunted all fall, are educated and touchy. All of that makes keeping disturbances low and carefully planning the attack critical to success.
This is the time to err on the safe side. During late season, I?ll go for the low-impact stand 100 yards off the best trail every time over the highly disruptive stand that covers it all.
Late-season hunting can be very challenging. However, understanding the deer’s behavioral and physiological adaptations can be a great help. Next, toss in some nasty weather and a prime food source. Suddenly, late season becomes a great time to be in the deer woods.