Late season deer hunts provide a challenging experience. Recognizing deer travel patterns and locating the food sources will greatly increase the hunter success rate!
By Bruce Ingram
Photos by Bruce Ingram
Virginia deer hunters afield in December and early January typically have one of three objectives: manage their local deer herd, kill a doe for the freezer, or kill a trophy buck. Here’s some advice on how sportsmen can end their season and feel good about what they have accomplished.
Matt Knox, deer project coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, weighs in on the deer management aspect.
“There are two optimum times to take a snapshot of a deer herd: August/September (just before deer season) and January/February (after deer season or at the end of deer season),” he says. “For example, we have conducted pre- and post-season spotlight counts on the Radford Arsenal property annually for nearly 20 years to monitor deer population trends.
“Most deer hunters emphasize the late summer/early fall period because they can look at and get an idea of the number of and quality of antlered bucks on their hunting property by using trail cameras. This makes perfect sense from a deer hunting perspective; but from a deer biology and management perspective, the second time frame is just as important, or more important, in managing deer numbers/density.
“Also during the deer season, deer are in a state of flux due to the breeding season and hunting pressure. I have always felt I get a better picture of the antlerless deer population on a property in the late season when the deer woods and deer behavior are returning to normal.”
Although Knox feels that the late season is the best time to gain an accurate overview of the status of a property’s local herd, it is obviously not the time when most whitetails are harvested as few hunters are afield then and fewer deer are killed as well. Nevertheless, state sportsmen and landowners should take into account whether killing a few more does from a property during the late season will benefit the local herd or not – again depending on management objectives.
“The number of antlerless deer left on the landscape in winter should/will have a significant impact on the number of deer next fall,” says Matt. “This is a central tenet of our deer management program. The text below is taken from the first objective under ‘Populations’ in our Deer Management Plan.”
Deer management in Virginia is predicated on the fact that herd density and health are best controlled by regulating antlerless deer harvest levels. Management objectives are accomplished by increasing or decreasing the number of either-sex deer hunting days during the general firearms season and muzzleloader seasons.
Down a Doe for the Freezer
David Merritt operates Spring Lake Archery Park, as well as a pro shop (Spring Lake Archery Supply) in Moneta, Virginia. David is also one of the most knowledgeable bowhunters I’ve ever met. He weighs in on late season strategies.
“Whether someone is looking for a buck or a doe, deer movement revolves around food then,” he says, “I think there are four major food sources bowhunters, or any hunter, should be aware of now: chestnut oak acorns, honeysuckle, clover, and various grasses in fields.”
“One of the best strategies to take a late season doe is to find a south facing slope with honeysuckle growing on it.”
Perhaps because they have a high tannic acid content, chestnut oak acorns often are among the last nuts for wildlife to consume. They are also the largest acorns in Virginia, so deer are among the few creatures that eat them. In any event, I agree with Merritt about their potential as a late season food source.
“Honeysuckle is a huge deal as a late season food source,” continues David. “One of the best strategies to take a late season doe is to find a south facing slope with honeysuckle growing on it. The deer will eat both the stems and leaves, and, what’s more, they can bed in that same area because of how thick honeysuckle can grow.
“A clover-based food plot can also be a great place to set up. White clover is always a draw, but I think food plots with red clover are better. It just seems that the crimson varieties remain vibrant a little while longer into the winter.”
Last, continues the Bedford County sportsman, hunters should look for agricultural or field areas – but not just any such area.
“An opening that receives full sun is going to have grasses that are greener and more appealing to deer,” he says. “Clover, wheat, rye, or just about any kind of grass can be a food source there.”
David’s 17-year-old son Archer is also an accomplished bowhunter. In fact, the young man was 12-years old when he won his first national title, and in 2014, came within one point of making the US Team in the first FITA Tournament that he ever competed in. Matthews and Black Eagle Arrows are among the companies that sponsor him. Archer relates that locating funnels are a major part of his late season strategy.
“For mid-December to early January hunting, a creek crossing is a fantastic funnel,” he says, “One side will likely be undercut and relatively flat, and the other end of the crossing might have a little rise, but still be flatter than the rest of the bank in the area. If you find well-worn trails and droppings in that type of place, set up there for sure.
“Also quite good are what I call manmade funnels. They might be a fencerow or a small, narrow woodlot that a farmer has left standing between two agricultural fields or cow pastures, for example. If the woodlot is between two pastures, the deer will follow the same trails that the cows do.”
Archer lists gullies as another major late season funnel.
“Especially in Virginia’s mountains and rolling hills country, gullies are a big deal,” he says. “Deer don’t like to walk uphill any more than we do, so they’ll use gullies as travel ways. The best stand site will be where the gully sort of fizzles out and meets some other kind of habitat.
“The major challenge for hunting any of these funnels is to set up without spooking the deer. The deer have just been through the pressure of the muzzleloader and gun seasons. If we bump them out of these areas now, we won’t likely get a second chance.”
For more information on the Merritt’s archery park and shop: [email protected]. They also offer a tracking dog service with their Plott hound.
Take a Buck Now
Kevin McLaughlin, owner of Tactical Operations Incorporated (540-354-9316) in Botetourt County, offers these tips on how to kill a quality late season buck.
“Maybe because of the cold, deer movement is poor early in the morning during the late season. But I have witnessed mid-day movement, especially around 2:00, and the last hour before sunset can be great – it’s usually the warmest part of the day.”
“My best advice would be to take a stand by noon and remain there until dark,” he says. “Maybe because of the cold, deer movement is poor early in the morning during the late season. But I have witnessed mid-day movement, especially around 2:00, and the last hour before sunset can be great – it’s usually the warmest part of the day.
“Of course, if a doe in estrous is about (almost always, these are doe fawns that have come into heat for the first time) then that could change everything in terms of buck movement. But from my experience, it is very uncommon to see bucks chasing does now. The best bet is to concentrate on food sources.”
For buck hunting, Kevin says two stand sites stand out. One is an oak grove that is between a bedding area and an opening of some sort. If acorns remain on the ground, this type of locale can be golden; if acorns are absent, then, of course, a stand site here will be futile.
“One late season, I found one lone oak that apparently had dropped its acorns quite late,” says McLaughlin. “The last half hour of the day, the bucks would start filtering in to that tree.”
Another late season buck hot spot is a field, but Kevin emphasizes that often the last 15 or so minutes of shooting light will be the only time he might glimpse a shooter. Killing a buck during the late season is a real challenge the gunsmith emphasizes. Finally, he relates that playing the wind is just as crucial now as it is any other time during the season. Bucks are just as unforgiving about hunters committing wind-related snafus now as they are any other time.
Gearing Up for the Late Season
Of course, VDHA members know about the importance of wearing layers of polypropylene or wool under their camo now, but here are some other gear items that may be worth considering. For example, during the late season I have long been fearful of hunting from a tree stand here in the mountains of western Virginia. A cold, icy rain or snow could make it hazardous to climb up or down from a stand, and being aloft for long hours often make it difficult for my cold, numbed arms to draw back a bow.
The solution was so obvious that I am embarrassed it took years for me to think of it – use a ground blind. Several years ago for under $70.00, I purchased an Ameristep Doghouse blind. Light, easy to carry and set up, and offering protection from the wind, the Doghouse helps me stay in the woods longer, www.ameristep.com, 800-847-8269.
Last winter, ThermaCELL came out with hand warmers and pocket warmers that last up to six hours per charge and, in my opinion, allow for more effective warming than those chemical packs that have to be exposed to the air. A feature I really like is that these items can be recharged in a short time and have three different heat levels, www.heat.thermacell.com, 877-687-3741.
Kevin McLaughlin relates that one of his favorite late season items is a Butler Creek Flip Open Scope Cover for his smokepole. Silent spring hinges and a water-tight fit make this an essential part of Kevin’s hunting when rain or snow are falling, www.butlercreek.com, 800-423-3537.
Although annually I typically struggle to kill a deer during the late season, I really enjoy going afield now. The cold, often snowy surroundings, the lack of hunting pressure, and the challenge of tagging a buck or a doe are all special experiences. I look forward to the late muzzleloader and bow seasons every year.
©Virginia Deer Hunters Association. For attribution information and reprint rights, contact Denny Quaiff, Executive Director, VDHA.