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Winter Whitetails

December 19, 2016
By Ralph Scherder - OV Times Hunting Editor , Ohio Valley Outdoors

Gun season used to mark the figurative end of deer season. Yes, there were extended archery and muzzleloader seasons, but it just wasn't the same once winter had arrived. Either the weather turned too cold or the deer had been pressured so much for so long that you didn't have a snowball's chance of seeing one during daylight hours. When I was growing up, if you didn't have a buck by the end of gun season, you may as well hang it up till next year.

That attitude has changed considerably in recent years, though, as more hunters realize that late season can be a great time to harvest a mature buck. For one thing, there's more posted property nowadays than there used to be, and there's a much greater interest in managing whitetails. More young bucks actually survive the hunting season and live to reach maturity than there used to be. Hunting trends have also shifted toward low pressure tactics. Rather than still hunting or driving deer all day, hunters are more inclined to hunt from stationary stands overlooking food plots, acorn flats, or funnels, and wait on natural movement. Because pressure during gun season isn't as severe as it used to be, deer revert to their previous patterns much quicker. Not to mention all of a sudden those wily old bucks become somewhat predictable.

As always, food is king in the world of whitetails. There's only one time when food plays second fiddle, and that's during the rut. When the rut's over, food reclaims its rightful place at the top. Depending on weather conditions and availability, whitetails can key on certain food sources even more in the winter than they did in early fall. And, with the rut behind them, they have to feed hard and fast to replenish all the nutrients they lost from chasing does all fall.

Article Photos

During winter months, the range of whitetails typically shrinks. The deeper the snow, the less distance they travel. Photo courtesy of Bandit Outdoors

During winter months, the range of whitetails typically shrinks. The deeper the snow, the less distance they travel. In some cases, they reduce their movement by as much as 50% as they enter what scientists refer to as semi hibernation. In rare cases, whitetails can move so little that they actually starve to death even though food is a relatively short distance away. They just don't get enough nutrition to keep warm during severe conditions.

This time of year, deer prefer to frequent established food sources. Food plots and acorn flats are both viable options as long as the snow isn't too deep or crusted with ice. Cuts and freshly timbered areas that have lots of accessible browse are great options once the snow really piles up.

During these conditions, deer will bed as close to food sources as they can while still feeling secure. You should crowd these food sources, too, if you hope to intercept one of them. The trickiest part can be getting to and from your treestand without pushing them out.

It might sound like taboo, but late season is a great time to hunt near a bait pile. Many hunters don't like the idea of throwing out a couple hundred pounds of corn and hunting over it, but it can be an effective technique this time of year just keep in mind that it's not a cure all. In my opinion, hunting over a bait pile is at its best when you're not actually hunting over it.

Deer aren't stupid, and there's a reason those mature whitetails have lived as long as they have. More often than not, those bucks will show up at the corn pile long after legal shooting hours. When I've had the opportunity to hunt over bait, most of the activity I've observed has been of younger bucks. If I want a chance at a real shooter, I hunt the fringes, well away from the bait, in the funnels between the bedding area and the bait station. If I know a nice buck is hitting the bait after dark, I increase my odds of tagging it by back tracking until I get as close to its bedding area as possible without spooking it and then set up my stand accordingly.

Even if you have a hot setup, though, sitting still in a treestand this time of year can be rough. The cold definitely takes its toll, and the wind has a stronger bite than it did two months ago. It's imperative to layer clothing and carry enough food and water to replenish your body and stay hydrated. If you get too cold, now would be a good time to take a walk to get warmed up.

Light, fluffy snow can be perfect for still hunting, and the white background makes spotting deer much easier. You can literally sneak right up on bedded deer under the right conditions.

Back in October and November, it didn't make sense to still hunt and risk pushing that big old buck off your property and into someone else's sights. Even if you own a large tract of private property, a jumped deer can run a good distance before it feels safe enough to stop. This time of year, though, you don't have to worry as much about the possibility of it ending up in front of another hunter.

Late season deer hunting can be a rewarding experience. You're hunting the survivors, after all, the ones that have eluded hunters all season long. That doesn't mean they can't be killed, though, so get out there and try your hand at hunting these cagey winter whitetails.



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