By P.J. Reilly
When it comes to hunting in the cold, it’s all about the food.
Mark Drury has it good, and he knows it. He hunts deer for a living in some of North America’s best whitetail country. For a living.
Because it’s his job to chase whitetails, Drury is out in the field doing just that from opening day until the season closes. Ask the veteran big buck sniper when he’d hunt if he had to choose only a brief period during the season, and the answer might surprise you.
“I’d forget the rut and the early season and all those other days and focus on the late season,” Drury said. “In my opinion, that’s the best time to pattern and kill a really big buck. All you have to do is find the food.”
It’s winter. Except for the deep South, the rut is over and the weather’s turning harsh. Snow is a real possibility every day. The mercury is plummeting.
At this time of year, deer have two things on their minds: eating and conserving body heat. This means you can find them in predictable locations following predictable patterns. Any time you can do that, the odds are stacked in your favor. You just have to be able to weather the weather.
“It’s one of the best times of year for deer hunting, but it’s also one of the worst times of year to do anything outside,” Drury said. “And, unfortunately, the nastier the weather, the better the hunting gets in the late season. When the snow is blowing and the wind is howling, those deer are gonna get on their feet and feed. That’s what we’re all waiting for.”
According to Kip Adams, a wildlife biologist and director of education and outreach in the northern U.S. for the Quality Deer Management Association, a mature buck can lose up to 25 percent of its late summer body weight during the rut. Weeks of running around chasing does and warding off rival bucks take a toll. After the rut, a weary buck goes on a desperate mission to ensure its survival through winter by packing on pounds.
“Their testosterone level drops and their attitude changes from ‘breed, breed, breed,’ to ‘I need to eat,’” Adams said. “They’re going to eat anything they can as they get into winter.”
Everything a buck puts into his stomach during the late season goes straight to maintaining his life support systems. He’s not growing antlers. He’s just trying to put on fat.
As a result, forage with higher fat content is preferred. Winter foods at the top of the menu include corn and acorns, especially red oak acorns, which have about three times the fat content of white oak acorns.
Besides recovering from the rut, whitetail bucks through the majority of their North American range need to pack on any fat possible in December and January in order to have reserves they can live off in February and March. Those are the leanest months of the year for deer.
“As hard as December and January are on a buck, February and March are even worse,” Drury said. “Food can be pretty scarce by then. When we plant our food plots, we’re mainly concerned with providing the deer food during those two months until green-up starts.”
The deep South is different because winter isn’t as harsh and spring green-up starts earlier than in northern areas.
It’s a myth that a deer’s metabolism slows down like a bear’s in winter. Adams participated in a study at the University of New Hampshire that disproved that notion, but it’s still held by many hunters.
“The thinking was that deer could survive on less food because of the slowing down of their metabolism,” Adams said. “What we found is their metabolism in winter is basically identical to their metabolism in summer. They still need to eat as much as they did before. The difference is they move around less in order to maintain their body temperature.”
Aiding hunters is the fact that when deer get up to feed, it’s more likely to be during daylight hours in the late season, as opposed to after dark in the four months prior.
“It’s usually colder at night, so that’s when the deer are going to be bedded down to conserve body heat,” Drury said. “Get ’em moving during daylight, and you’re in the game.”
In farm country, whitetails won’t bed far from their winter food source. Adams said deer will seek out bedding areas that offer respite from the elements. Stands of conifers block heavy winds and keep falling snow from piling up. Open swaths of warm-season grasses like you’ll find in a CRP field might not look protective, but Adams says they are.
“Those grass fields really shelter deer from the wind when they get out into the middle and lay down,” he said. “They can disappear, and the wind can’t get through. Also, when they’re out in the middle of a field like that during the day, they’re soaking up the full strength of the sun’s warmth. It’s perfect for them.”
Wherever they bed in winter, farmland deer are likely to head to and from food sources on the same trails every day. This is not a time when they dilly-dally or wander. They want to go from their beds to their food without expending a lot of energy. Find those travel trails and either sit on top of them or plan to hunt near the spot where they meet a crop field or food plot.
In big woods country, deer can be a bit tougher to pattern. Naturally, if there are acorns around, that’s the food source to hunt, according to Drury. But when acorns are scarce, deer tend to wander and browse on leaves, needles and twig ends of woody vegetation.
“There’s no question browse has nowhere near the nutrition of acorns, corn or soybeans,” Adams said. “But browse keeps a deer’s stomach active. When a deer is digesting food, it’s burning calories, which creates body heat. So, it’s not totally without value.”
The types of plants deer browse vary widely from region to region. Some to look for include hackberry, grapes, Japanese honeysuckle, elm, young oaks, dogwoods and sumac.
During lean winters in the big woods when deer are primarily browsing, Drury likes to find bedding areas and hunt nearby to catch deer when they move out to feed.
“They’ve got to eat, and that means they’ve got to move,” he said.
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
So late season hunters are dealing with hungry deer bent on hitting the dinner table during legal hunting hours. That’s a slam dunk situation, right? Just sit near a food source or travel corridor and fill out everything on your tag except for the date, time and number of points the trophy you’re going to kill is carrying on his head.
Not so fast, Drury says.
“When the late season rolls around, the deer are really skittish,” he said. “Gun season really has them wigged out, and they will bolt for almost no reason.”
And the heavier the pressure deer face during the firearms season, the more wary they’ll be.
Drury has two farms, one in southern Iowa and one in northern Missouri, that are only 30 miles apart. Missouri’s gun season consists of 23 days straight of rifle hunting, including the general and doe-only seasons. By comparison, Iowa’s two gun seasons — for which a limited numbers of permits are distributed through lottery drawing — cover a total of 14 days, and only shotguns and muzzleloaders are allowed.
“We definitely notice a difference in the behavior of the deer on those two farms,” he said. “The Iowa deer seem to calm down a lot faster after gun season.”
What that means, especially on our Missouri property, is hunters have to be meticulous about being invisible to a whitetail’s eyes, nose and ears.
“If they even think there’s something out of place, they’re gone,” Drury said.
Normally, he prefers hunting from a treestand since the elevated position allows him to see deer sooner. In the late season, Drury prefers a ground blind.
“It’s just easier to disappear in a blind,” he said. “Hunting a late-season food source, you might have to let a lot of deer pile into the field before the one you’re after shows up. That’s a lot of eyes, ears and noses out there. When you’re in a treestand in the late season with very little cover, it’s a whole lot easier for one of those old does to pick you out.”
Unless your blind has been in place for a while, it’s imperative to camouflage it so it melts into the landscape. If it looks out of place, odds are it’s going to spook the local herd.
Drury lets his trail cameras dictate what time of day he hunts in the late season. If he sees deer are using a particular trail or food plot in the morning or evening, that’s when he’ll hunt. By and large, though, he said late season hunting is primarily an afternoon and evening pursuit.
“Especially when it’s real cold, they just seem to stay put in the morning and head out to feed in the afternoon and evening,” he said. “The last few minutes of shooting light is often the best time.”
As we know, just because it’s winter doesn’t mean there’s always snow on the ground or a chill in the air. Warm spells can roll through at any time. And when they do, Drury heads to interior oak stands for morning hunts.
“I absolutely will hunt the morning during the late season when we have a couple of warm days,” he said. “That almost always gets deer up and feeding early. But I don’t expect to find them out in the fields. They don’t feel comfortable doing that. They’re going to stay back in the woods and look for acorns.”
It’s all about the food in the late season. During the rut, you hunt the does to find the bucks. Find the preferred foods in your area in December and January, and you’ll find the bucks and the does.
They say if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. For late season deer hunters, if you can stand the cold, head into the kitchen. Read Recent Articles:
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• Snow Tracking Bucks: A fresh coating of white stuff can be like a road map to a big whitetail.
• Straight from the Masters: How predator hunting has made me a better deer hunter. This article was published in the Winter 2011 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.