Four Steps to Late-Season Whitetail Success

Late-season hunting conditions can be bitter cold and tough to endure. When you put this four-step plan to work, you’ll be well on the way to filling your freezer.

Four Steps to Late-Season Whitetail Success
Image Courtesy of Bob Robb
The author took this quality buck on a late December Iowa hunt in zero-degree weather.

To the uninitiated, the winter solstice—December 21—is the shortest day of the year. To those who live in the upper reaches of America, however, the next couple of months seem to get even shorter, with bitter cold, blowing winds and drifting snow.

It can be a glorious time to hunt whitetails.

Cold-Weather Success

Most whitetail hunters get their licks in during the milder months from early September through November, when deer behavior transitions from the lazy days of end of summer through the three phases of the rut. With the rut now over and most of the orange-clad horde of hunters hunkered down, deer that survived these early hunting seasons must now focus on maximizing their caloric intake so they can survive another winter. 

This is a great time to lay in some venison. Many states offer late-season hunting opportunities. Regardless whether it’s legal to hunt with archery gear, a muzzleloader or centerfire firearm, the strategies are the same and revolve around four basic concepts: understanding whitetail biology, adjusting hunting techniques to address their winter behavior, managing equipment in a cold environment and keeping yourself warm, comfortable and safe.

Winter Whitetail Behavior

It seems obvious that, as cold weather intensifies, a deer’s metabolism should ramp up, burning the calories required to stay warm. However, just the opposite is true. As winter sets in, a deer’s metabolism actually slows down. Instead of continuing normal activity levels and burning more fat to stay warm to compensate for increasingly cold temperatures, deer subconsciously do what is required to minimize expending energy and save their fat reserves. The colder it gets the more whitetails remain bedded down. They know that expending more energy to obtain food than the calories gained by that food is a losing proposition. Studies have shown that deer feed only once a day in brutal cold. If the temps drop well below normal, whitetails will actually hole up for days at a time, using fat to fuel that lower metabolic rate and come out ahead. 

In bitter cold, deer live as close to preferred food sources as they can. Thus, so should your late-season hunting strategy. 

A Basic Cold-Weather Hunting Strategy

Image Courtesy of Bob Robb
Scouting is key. Find from afar the fields the deer are using most, then plan your attack.

In bitter weather, walking on frozen snow and ice is like walking on Rice Krispies—you snap, crackle and pop with noise that can be heard over very long distances. So, you must scout from afar, using binocular and spotting scope to glass food sources and see which the deer are using heavily. Park on a back road, field road or ridge and see what the deer are doing without disturbing them. Look for deer, but also look for lots of tracks in the snow, as this is probably whitetails’ most patternable time of the season since September, prior to bucks rubbing off their velvet. Be patient and scout for several days if you must before moving in.

Image Courtesy of Bob Robb
Food is king during the late season, and nothing draws late-season whitetails like corn.

The best and easiest to hunt food sources are crop fields and food plots containing winter foods, including corn, soybeans, brassicas, winter wheat and the like. Large agricultural fields are excellent, especially if there is still some corn standing or there is plenty of corn on the ground after harvest, but standing crops are best because the food is usually above the snow. If snow cover is light or nonexistent, stubble fields are good. So are alfalfa fields and hay meadows where greens were preserved under the snow.

The best food sources to hunt are away from cover, forcing the deer into the open to feed. But even in bitter weather, whitetails instinctively use cover as long as possible on their approach. It might be a point of timber, a brushy or grassy swale, a fence line, a ditch or river or creek bottom. Set up so you can cover the travel route to the food source. 

Image Courtesy of Bob Robb
Chuck Jones, left, and Walter Parrott with a nice Iowa buck taken with a muzzleloader in late December.

If have control over a particular food source, put it away from the edge of the timber. For instance, if there's a corn or bean field, leave any standing crops in the middle, so the deer have to travel out to it. This is a great way to force the deer to use the funnels, pinch points and cover extensions that can force them to walk within range. I shot a whopper buck with a muzzleloader, one bitter December afternoon in Iowa, that came to standing corn in the middle of a huge cut cornfield. I saw him coming from a long way away as he crossed the bare field, giving me lots of time to get ready to make the shot.

Afternoon hunting is by far the best time to be out there in the late season, for two reasons. One, it is so cold and noisy walking on frozen ground that getting to a stand quietly in the pre-dawn darkness is virtually impossible. Most importantly, deer remain bedded until the sun begins to warm up the world. Once the day warms up, feeding makes more sense from a biological perspective. I like to be on stand about 10:00 a.m. and remain until dark. Most of my success has come between 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

Keeping Your Equipment Working

Image Courtesy of Bob Robb
A spotting scope mounted on a truck window is a great way to locate deer tracks in snow, as well as deer movement. Pattern the deer, then plan your hunt.

Bitter cold will amplify anything and everything, and this includes your weapon choice. 

If you are a bowhunter, lighten up your bow’s draw weight by 10 percent or so, so you’ll be able to more easily draw it back when your muscles are cold and you are wearing lots of layers. Practice drawing and shooting in heavy hunting clothes as well and use an armguard to keep bulky clothing from catching the bowstring. Use a muff to keep hands warm while wearing only light gloves, which makes shooting more accurate than with heavier gloves, and every 30 minutes on stand, look long and carefully for approaching deer and prying whitetail eyes, then draw your bow a couple times to stay flexible.

Muzzleloaders require special attention. Use alcohol to degrease all the gun’s moving parts of oil and gunk before giving everything a light spray of powdered graphite, then wipe it all dry with a clean cloth. Cover the bore with electrical tape to keep snow and moisture out. And, if the weather has been dry, leave your firearm outside in the cold at night, but protected in a vehicle, woodshed, barn or outbuilding. Don’t bring your muzzleloader into a warm house or cabin where condensation can occur. I also shoot my muzzleloader into a bank of dirt away from my hunting area every evening, then clean it back at camp, reloading it in the morning.

Riflemen and slug shotgunners should also degrease their guns and lubricate with powdered graphite. Be sure to practice shooting with thick, bulky hunting clothes on to be sure you have a proper stock fit and adequate eye relief. Wearing gloves with a slit in the glove's index finger so you can slip the index finger out for precise trigger control is helpful.

Optics should be treated with an anti-fog wipe, and you should keep a lens cleaning cloth at the ready in case your riflescope or binocular gets fogged up when it’s time to make the shot.

Dress for Success

The system is simple and basic: Dress in layers, employing underlayers that will wick moisture away from the skin, with each subsequent layer heavier. The wicking base layers are the key. Also, the outer layers should have an outer fabric that is quiet in sub-freezing temperatures. Wool is excellent, though a soft brushed nylon is a good choice, too. Everything should be breathable but also block the wind.

Pay special attention to feet and hands. Wearing a good pair of light silk or polypropylene wicking socks next to the skin, followed by thick wool socks, is important. My late-season pac-type boots are rated to well below zero and are two sizes larger than my normal boot size to allow for both extra socks and so the boot traps warm air next to my toes. A muff that straps around my waist that can hold a couple disposable handwarmers—an invaluable accessory—keep hands toasty warm. 

The head and neck, where the majority of body heat is lost, are also critical to protect. A turtleneck and/or fleece neck gaiter are awesome, and while my Elmer Fudd-like wool and sheepskin-lined leather hats with earflaps may not be stylish, nothing is better for keeping my head and ears warm. 

Hunting from a ground blind or elevated shooting house? Use a portable heater. It simply makes the wait bearable so you hunt longer.

Late-season hunting isn’t for everyone. There are days when the weather just gets too nasty to safely climb into a treestand or even navigate roads. But this never discourages me. That’s because I know that, when it’s like that, the deer stay hunkered down too—and that, when the weather changes, they’ll be up and moving.

So will I. You should be, too.