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Text and Photos By Curt Wells

I love bowhunting whitetails in winter. But then again, when you live in North Dakota, you’d better like it.

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, I’m 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 they’ve 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 that’s the nature of hunting mature animals - you can’t shoot the big ones if you’re 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 it’s 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.

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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 wouldn’t be any mature (I mean really mature) bucks next year. In other words, the big bucks you’ll 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 family’s table. The sex of the deer isn’t 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 they’ll 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 I’m 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 you’ve heard and read often - locate winter whitetails by locating the winter food supply. It’s a cliche now, but like most cliches, it’s as true as ever. You know what kind of foods attract deer in your neck of the woods, but what’s 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 you’ll 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.

 

If 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 you’re 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 isn’t that difficult to find deer in the winter, and their winter hideouts are usually perennial which means they’ll likely be there every winter, with some adjustment due to crop rotation, for example.

 

CHOOSING A STAND SITE

Once you’ve found the deer, your next task is to locate their travel routes. I’ve 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 supper table.

Finding 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 won’t show up to feed until well after dark.

What this means to me as a bowhunter is, I want to set up my ambush point, whether it’s 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 d’oeuvres for deer to munch on, you’ve 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 you’re 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. Don’t get too close to the bedding area because it’s difficult to be quiet in the winter and deer are extraordinarily spooky. You must always strive to hunt deer that don’t know they’re being hunted.

 

Winter, 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, we’ll 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 I’m 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 aren’t many smells out there at below freezing temperatures so your scent is getting the spotlight.

So, we’re 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 don’t come in the same stand. The need for silence is obvious and the need for comfort should be too. If you’re going to stick it out hunting for several hours on a cold morning or evening, you better be comfortable or you’ll start thinking about that Thermos of coffee back at the vehicle. Or you’ll 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 that’s 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.

 

When 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. It’s 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 doe’s 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
 
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