Check out these states that offer really late deer seasons.
Woodpeckers. I’ve never seen so many blooming woodpeckers in all my life.” It’s funny the things you can find to occupy your mind during those long hours on stand. The abundance of woodpeckers seemed odd to me. In the late-season deer woods back home, I might see one or two downy or hairy woodpeckers over the course of a day’s hunt. Here, in central Alabama, I was surrounded by them and their near-constant chatter.
What was even odder, though, was the date — late January. The latest I’d ever hunted deer before was mid-December. This almost felt like cheating. It was also a welcome antidote to those end-of-season, deer-hunting blues.
Serious whitetail hunters know what I’m talking about. Deer season doesn’t wind down. It ends abruptly. Meanwhile, your body and mind have adjusted to a routine. You still wake up at the same ungodly hour, primed and ready to go. But there’s nowhere to go. That buck you’ve been chasing all fall is still there, but now he’s safe. “If I had just one more day,” you muse to yourself. It can take weeks to clean your system of the deer-hunting addiction. Or, you can get another dose.
The Black Belt
One of my first late-late hunts was to the famed Black Belt region of central Alabama. Technically, I was hunting in Mississippi. The lodge I hunted from, the Roost, sat astride the state line. I could literally drop a rock into Alabama from one of the shooting houses.
I called it my Jackie Bushman hunt. For years I’d watched Jackie and guys like him on television, hunting those big green fields from a shooting house. Though I’d hunted a good bit of the rest of the country, I had yet to hunt the Deep South. I purposely set out to change that. I had also suffered a very severe case of withdrawal the previous year and couldn’t bear the thought of a repeat.
A few phone calls eventually got me in touch with folks at the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development, who, in turn, put me in touch with The Roost. I made arrangements and flew down for my first hunt in Dixie.
It turned out far better than I expected. Things began on a positive note when I stepped off the plane. Not only was there no snow, but the grass was green, albeit the dull green of winter. The hour or so ride to the lodge brought me past field after field of greenery, most of it planted for deer. “Man, there must be a lot of deer down here,” I thought. I had no idea.
The Hunt Begins
I couldn’t wait to hit the field, so after a quick orientation, I put on my camo, grabbed my muzzleloader and headed out. My instructions from the guide were simple: I was to make my way to a shooting house at the back end of a large greenfield of clover and winter rye. It was early afternoon when I arrived, but a few deer were already in the food plot. “A good problem to have,” I thought.
I should have done what I was told, but the thought of alarming more deer, and the limited range of my .50-caliber smokepole, prompted me to reconsider. Furthermore, as I walked toward the stand, I noticed trail after rutted trail coming out of the woods. Back home, one such trail would have been enough to warrant a stand. But all these? I was delighted when I found a ladder stand along the field edge.
Only 30 minutes passed before deer started to filter out again. Individual deer came first, mostly button bucks, followed by doe-and-fawn groups. Soon small spike- and fork-antlered bucks joined the growing aggregations. As their numbers grew, I’d take periodic counts. When I reached 100, I stopped. It was a sight to behold, and whether I ultimately shot a deer or not, it made my trip.
Several deer came within shooting range, but none was what I was looking for. As the sun dropped below the treeline, I glanced downfield just as a shooter buck stepped out right by the box I was supposed to be in. There was little I could do but watch and plan for the next day.
Not wanting to alarm deer on my way in the next morning, I chose to hunt a stand at the top end of the fields and was again treated to dozens of deer sightings. At mid-morning, I saw the big buck again as he crossed the low end of the field and entered the woods, again by the same box. That afternoon I did as my guide had instructed the first day.
That vigil was filled with deer sightings, though most of the deer seemed to be congregating at the top end. Just my luck. I saw several nice bucks, including one contender, but he was well out of range. As the shadows lengthened with no sign of the big buck, I began to rue my decision not to hunt this stand the previous night. Then I heard the sharp alarm cry of a wren behind me in the woods. I froze and ever so slowly turned my head. There he was!
The buck stood, testing the wind for several minutes. I eased the muzzleloader out the side window and steadied it as the deer approached. He paused again, just inside the treeline. Then, apparently sensing all was clear, he stepped out into the field and my crosshairs.
Through a cloud of sulfurous smoke, I watched him race down the field and back into the woods. Gradually, the ringing in my ears gave way to the sound of hundreds of hoof beats in the muddy Black Belt soil as the field cleared of deer. Then, through the dense underbrush, I saw my buck go down.
It was great to be hunting well into the new year, but I soon learned not all such hunts would be as easy as my first. My next hunt was with an outfit in North Carolina that had received considerable hunting pressure over the course of the season. By the time my friends and I arrived, the deer were as skittish as rabbits. The few that we saw seemed to pop out at the farthest possible location from our permanent stands, and always at the end of shooting light.
Then I got an inspiration. “Do you have any climbing stands?” I asked my guide. When he answered in the affirmative, I explained my plan. The following afternoon, he drove me to the same location I’d been hunting. Instead of walking to a shooting house, however, I took the climber into a funnel of flooded timber between two open fields. I’d been there less than an hour when the first deer appeared. Soon there was a parade. Each deer seemed to look nervously toward the open fields but never glanced my way as they strolled by within yards. I picked the biggest doe and quickly put an end to her afternoon.
I learned another valuable lesson on a subsequent Deep South hunt, this one in Alabama. By then I was a veteran of the mossy oak bottomlands and was looking forward to my annual retreat from the land of ice, snow and cold. I managed two out of three.
“I hope you brought your warm clothes with you,” was the first thing guide K.C. Nelson said to me.
“It should be warm enough down here,” I said confidently. Just two months earlier, I’d hunted in Saskatchewan, where temperatures “soared” into single digits during the heat of the day. Lows in the mid-20s should be a cakewalk.
It took about 30 minutes — just as the last heat generated from my walk to the stand dissipated — for me to feel the first effects. “Hmm, it’s actually cold out this morning,” I thought, somewhat casually. An hour later, I was ruing the inadequacy of my apparel. I also wasn’t seeing any deer. Being a New Englander, I know there is a very real difference between a dry cold and a damp cold. I just never expected to experience it in the South.
I also observed another unexpected difference. In the North Country, cold temperatures put deer on their feet — the colder the better. Thin-skinned deer of the South aren’t as accustomed to the bone-chilling effects of a deep cold front, however. It shuts them down.
The Way to a Buck’s Heart
Outside of the Deep South, there are distinct benefits to deep cold of the late season. It seems a bit counterintuitive, but male white-tailed deer expend their greatest amount of energy and physical resources just prior to the period of most severe environmental conditions. The rut depletes them of valuable fat reserves stored up earlier in the fall. Once it’s over, they have a very narrow window of opportunity to refill before the onset of winter. And they waste little time doing so.
If you live in agricultural country, you’ve seen it. Big bucks are drawn like a magnet to those last vestiges of corn or remnant soybeans. Hunters should take advantage of those surefire buck magnets. Outside the farm belt, that’s a great time to hunt food plots, particularly those rich in brassicas.
Deer are often indifferent to brassicas until the deep cold hits. Frost kills the plant, changing starches in the leaves to sugars. Deer begin with the leaves, then munch down the stems as it gets colder. Some members of the brassica family, including rape, turnip and kale, also produce large bulbs, which deer relish. In the coldest conditions, deer will actually paw bulbs out of the frozen soil.
Closer to Home
The more addicted to late-season hunting I got, the more I wanted to do it. Unfortunately, late seasons are a rarity in the North, and airline tickets are expensive. I began to look closer to home and discovered a potential opportunity when my New Jersey hunting buddy Jimmy Gaccione called. “You should come down for January bow season,” he offered. “It’s a gas.” He went on to describe it at length, but all I heard was “no bag limit on does,” and “six-hour drive.” I was in.
The snow was knee-deep, and so were the trenches (not trails, but trenches) created by hungry deer traveling between dense bedding cover and very limited food sources. It was one of those magical afternoons when the wind dies early, leaving a serene calm. The sun had already dipped below the trees, but twilight lingered, delayed by its reflection off the snow.
There was no sound from the procession that started on the ridge above me. Single deer, followed by pairs, gradually made their way down the hollow toward my stand. Before long, there were eight gathered within bow range. I picked out an old long-nosed matriarch and sent an arrow through her vitals. Deer scattered in every direction, ran a short distance then stopped to locate the source of the disturbance. Then they turned, all but one, and headed back toward my stand. I love late, late-season hunting.
It turns out there are dozens of very late-season hunting opportunities, especially if you hunt with a bow or muzzleloader. When I first found them, I thought they were a surefire cure for deer-season withdrawals. I soon learned, however, that they only delay the inevitable. Eventually, even the latest seasons end.
Fortunately, that’s about the same time as the Super Bowl. It’s kind of the same philosophy as pounding your thumb to cure a headache. You start thinking about how much your thumb hurts and forget about the headache. The end of another football season helps mitigate the sudden onset of no more deer hunting.
This article was published in the December 2007 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.