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I love bowhunting whitetails in winter.
But then again, when you live in North Dakota, youd better like
I love those cold mornings when sane people are still in a warm bed
and the deer are not. I love knowing that while the sleepers
are wasting a good winter morning, Im out there working hard for
some venison, at a time when my chances for success are even slimmer
than they were just a month or so previous.
I love drawing deep breaths of cold, fresh air and the feeling of
snowflakes hitting my face as I walk to my stand. I enjoy battling the
cold to stay warm, and I work hard to become a quiet predator, a difficult
thing when the mercury swan dives to single digits.
I love outsmarting the wariest of all deer, the winter whitetail.
Whether buck or doe, there is no other time of year when a whitetail
is more on edge, more nervous and more likely to explode at the tiniest
stimuli. The gun season is over and theyve just finished earning
a degree at the School of Human Avoidance. They welcome any reason whatsoever
to bolt for cover.
There are generally two types of late-season bowhunters - the antler
hunter and the meat hunter. The antler hunter has probably been hunting
for a big buck all fall and has obviously failed to use his/her tag
up to this point. Oh, they may have had lots of opportunities but thats
the nature of hunting mature animals - you cant shoot the big
ones if youre always shooting the little ones. By this time of
year, some trophy (I hate that word) hunters are beginning to lose their
resolve and are not enthused about going through the winter without
some tasty venison. For those hunters its probably time to ditch
the big buck attitude and put some fun back into their bowhunting. Hunt
for a deer, make a clean kill and head for the locker plant.
For the trophy hunter with boundless resolve though, there is still
hope. There are mature bucks out there that made it through the gun
season. There has to be, or there wouldnt be any mature (I mean
really mature) bucks next year. In other words, the big bucks youll
be hunting next year are out there right now, waiting for you, challenging
you to beat the cold and the sharpest senses on the planet.
The meat hunter, on the other hand, is out there to have fun and put
some quality, healthy food on his familys table. The sex of the
deer isnt important, just the poundage. Show them a fat doe and
it will get the same clean kill and locker plant treatment as a big
buck and theyll both look exactly the same stacked up in the freezer.
I hunt mature game, and I meat hunt, and I have a mental transmission
that allows me to shift back and forth from one to the other with no
hesitation. But Im always in bowhunting overdrive.
Where this is all leading has to do with the first rule of late season
bowhunting - get out of bed or off the couch and go hunting! Forget
that football game (tape it, your team will lose to my Vikings anyway)
and get out in the woods, there is something there for every sort of
bowhunter - deer!
THE NEXT STEP
The next step to a late season deer hunt is the obvious one, and one
youve heard and read often - locate winter whitetails by locating
the winter food supply. Its a cliche now, but like most cliches,
its as true as ever. You know what kind of foods attract deer
in your neck of the woods, but whats important is, what foods
are available now? Is it acorns, browse or some sort of agricultural
crop residue? In my area, corn is king. Find corn and youll find
deer. Winter wheat is also a good bet.
Whatever it is, find it. Look for places where deer can congregate
and have access to that forage. Ask landowners where the deer hang out
in winter, they will know and may even give permission to a late season
bowhunter, especially if they have already tagged their own venison.
Cruise roads looking for major deer crossings, hike back into the bush
and take a map and GPS receiver. When you find some feeding activity,
set a waypoint and/or mark your map.
you can't find wintering deer, a short flight in a small plane
will help to locate feeding and bedding areas. Mark these areas
on a map and then plan your late season hunting strategy.
If youre really serious, hire a pilot for an hour and fly lots
of ground. If there is snow you will easily see where the deer are hanging
out and you can mark it on a map and then go in by foot. However, it
usually isnt that difficult to find deer in the winter, and their
winter hideouts are usually perennial which means theyll likely
be there every winter, with some adjustment due to crop rotation, for
CHOOSING A STAND SITE
Once youve found the deer, your next task is to locate their
travel routes. Ive found over the years that deer tend to travel
further from bedding to feeding areas in the winter than they do at
any other time. I suppose they are more fussy about where they spend
the day, especially when leaves are down and heavy cover is at a premium.
They may also want to be as far away from human activity as possible,
at least immediately after the gun season. Depending on where the food
source is located, deer may travel a mile or more from the bed to the
whitetails in the winter is easy, just look for sign near feeding
areas like this picked cornfield, or near thick bedding cover. Hunting
them is not so easy.
This is actually a good thing for the late-season bowhunter. Our job
is to intercept those deer at some point along that travel route. I
know that sounds elementary but how many bowhunters hunt the food source
itself? That is the natural inclination for most of us. However, unless
those deer are really hungry and have settled down from the hunting
pressure of the gun season, they are going to take their sweet time
getting to the food in the evening and may not show during legal shooting
light. The mature animals likely wont show up to feed until well
What this means to me as a bowhunter is, I want to set up my ambush
point, whether its a treestand or a ground blind, at some point
well back toward the bedding area. This will give me a better chance
of having deer wander by while I can still see to shoot. Many times
deer will loiter around in a sort of staging area until
it is dark enough to feel safe about going out to feed. If you can find
such an area, which sometimes contains some juicy browse or other hors
doeuvres for deer to munch on, youve found a honey hole.
Not only is such a place great for evening hunts but they are prefect
for morning hunts. You can slip in, well away from the feeding deer,
get in your stand and wait for their return trip to the bedding area.
So what youre looking for is a place where the well-traveled
trail sort of widens out and scatters for a bit, probably in some heavier
cover, then narrows down and continues to the main feeding area. Dont
get too close to the bedding area because its difficult to be
quiet in the winter and deer are extraordinarily spooky. You must always
strive to hunt deer that dont know theyre being hunted.
whitetails and corn, the ultimate combination. Find it and your
bow tag won't last long. This one-antlered buck thinks he's hidden.
THE SET UP
There are two options when setting up your hunt, the treestand and
the ground stand. First, well cover the treestands.
When hunting late season, I always place my stands further from the
trail than I do earlier in the season. The primary reason is noise.
In cold weather, squeaks come from nowhere, are amplified in the cold,
quiet air and can turn a whitetail inside out. Clothes rustle, treestands
sing and arrow rests can squeal like a wolverine having hemorrhoid surgery.
Or at least it sounds that bad on a winter evening when there is no
wind. I just feel a little more comfortable if Im back off the
trail 20 yards or so. That way I can work my way into full draw with
lots of clothes on without having to worry about a radar- equipped deer
standing right underneath me, picking up my signals.
I also like to go a little higher than usual, mostly because there
are no leaves on the trees and I stick out like a 6' 5", 220 pound
gray squirrel with a pituitary problem. Scent is also a problem because
there arent many smells out there at below freezing temperatures
so your scent is getting the spotlight.
So, were going a little further away and a little higher than
usual. Now we have to choose our quietest and most comfortable stand,
and sometimes those qualities dont come in the same stand. The
need for silence is obvious and the need for comfort should be too.
If youre going to stick it out hunting for several hours on a
cold morning or evening, you better be comfortable or youll start
thinking about that Thermos of coffee back at the vehicle. Or youll
start fidgeting and it will be noisy fidgeting - the kind deer depend
on for survival.
One trick I like is carrying a small white rug with me. When I get
to my stand I can brush off any snow and ice and then lay out the rug
to stand on. I can be as quiet as a black bear in wet grass when I move
my feet, and thats important - no, essential.
I sometimes like to carry a stand in, locate a good spot and put it
up with as little commotion as possible and hunt it right then and there.
When a buck discovers someone has infiltrated his stronghold the arrow
is on its way before he can react on that suspicion.
hunting winter whitetails you sometimes have to strap a stand to
your back and follow the sign. Spontaneous set-ups can be deadly.
The ground stand presents a whole other set of problems. These set-ups
are very difficult to perfect. Its tough to stay warm and comfortable,
and being quiet is next to impossible if there is snow on the ground.
The extra alertness of winter whitetails makes ground standing a lesson
in patience and often futility. However, there are times when hunting
from the ground can put venison on the meat pole. If the secondary rut
is going, you can still have good bucks stumbling around in a hormone-induced
stupor following a doe or even a fawn of the year. If you can get past
the does early warning system the buck can be easy.
Also, if the deer are really intent on the food supply and are not
being hunted by anyone but you, a ground stand can produce a good shot
opportunity at deer hurriedly making their way to the grub. Just remember
to be well off the trail and try to find a place where the deer tend
to stop and survey things before they move along. That will give you
the shot you need, provided you let them pass by and take a quartering
shot. Make sure there is plenty of background cover and, if there is
snow, wear some type of snow camouflage. It is the most effective camouflage
there is when conditions are right.
Hunting whitetails in winter is extra challenging, but then again we
bowhunters thrive on challenge. Personally, I enjoy an invigorating
winter morning with frost on my beard, a runny nose, red cheeks and
a trail in the snow that leads to my winter supply of venison. It makes
me feel alive, an integral part of the natural order of life, like a
mountain man just trying to survive in harsh conditions.
Winter brings essence to the hunt. Grab your bow and feel it for yourself.
||Curt Wells is a freelance
writer from North Dakota, he is a frequent contributor to Bowhunter
Magazine and a new contributor to Bowsite.com