Late Season Bow Hunting

February 19, 2009 by  

By Curt Wells

The author with a nice late-season whitetail buck

The author with a nice late-season whitetail buck

If you’re from North Dakota you take a lot of grief about how cold the winters are. It’s just a fact of life.

It’s also a fact that many of us like the cold weather, or more accurately, the change of seasons. But the cold weather does a couple of other things too. It makes our deer grow big and the cold winters ensure that we remain a relatively rural state with lots of hunting opportunities and not a lot of concrete.

But it’s during our late season deer hunting that we bowhunters pay the price for our North Dakota winters. The bowhunting in December and the first week of January, can be excellent, but it’ll probably take lots of layers of clothing to keep you in that treestand or ground blind. We’ll look at staying warm later. For now, let’s consider hunting late season whitetails in North Dakota.

WHEN TO HUNT

A common question among bowhunters, at any time of the season, is when to hunt. The only acceptable answer is – whenever you can. That is especially true during the late bow season. Most of us have probably used all our vacation and we’re relegated to hunting only on our days off or holidays. And it gets dark too early to hunt after work, unless you’re one of those fortunate ones who gets off early in the day. So, the only alternative is to get out in that treestand at every opportunity and that includes mornings when the temperature may be difficult to tolerate.

In the late season, especially in a state like North Dakota, it usually doesn’t pay to sit in a treestand during midday. Deer waste little time getting to their bedding areas in the morning and you usually won’t have to sit much past an hour after sunrise. By then, most deer, and especially the bucks, will be tucked safely in their beds and they don’t tend to do too much wandering around during the day.

The same goes in the evenings. If you head for your treestand too early in the day, you will most likely be spending your time getting cold. “Primetime” comes later in the day as the season grows old.

The exception to this rule, and there are always exceptions, is if there is a storm in progress, or on its way. If you’re deep enough in the woods on a stormy, snowy day you may be surprised at how many deer you find wandering around. However, you’ll have to be protected from any strong wind or you’ll be freezing your hindquarters off for no reason. In summary, if you have your tag left, bowhunt every chance you get.

WHERE TO HUNT

Knowing where to hunt is the easy part, especially if there is snow cover. A couple of hours spent driving around in prime whitetail country will reward you with all kinds of places to hunt. North Dakota’s deer population is at an all-time high right now and you’ll have no trouble finding deer during December and January.

What isn’t a sure thing is getting access to those deer. North Dakota is about 93% private land and you’ll have to seek permission from landowners to hunt deer. That said, you should have almost no trouble with that during the last month of the season. Landowners will be done with their hunting and most are more than willing to allow access. They really want to see a reduction in the deer herd this year, so permission for late season bowhunters shouldn’t be a problem.

Dressed in white, the author inspects some fresh deer sign in the snow

Dressed in white, the author inspects some fresh deer sign in the snow

River and creek bottoms are probably number one on the list of places to find late-season whitetails. The Red River along the Minnesota border always holds large numbers of deer toward the later part of the season. Access isn’t quite as forthcoming along the Red because that deer habitat is in the heart of the population centers and some places are leased up or being saved for others. The same goes along the Missouri River, both north and south of Bismarck, and along the Yellowstone and Little Missouri Rivers in the west. Access to those whitetails can be difficult, even during December because of people buying land strictly for hunting – a practice that is growing in North Dakota.

However, that doesn’t mean there is nowhere to hunt. Some public land exists along the Missouri River south of Bismarck and Mandan. And there are many smaller river and creeks that provide whitetail cover and can be accessed just by locating gracious landowners. There are also several large tracts of National Grassland, managed by the Forest Service, that provide the bowhunter some acreage to pursue deer. Some of that land can be found near Leonard and Kindred in the east and in the far west.

Besides in riverbottom land, you’ll find whitetails holed up in large, thick shelterbelts, out in huge fields of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land (if it’s not filled in with snow), and the sure thing is usually a big cattail slough. Whitetails love to slip into a stand of cattails and snuggle up in the nearly impenetrable safety they provide. Another key thing to look for, as always, is the food source. Corn is king. Followed by volunteer winter wheat (nice, green fields that deer love) then sugar beets. I always look for corn and focus on that. Food plots are fine, but if they’re small they were probably stripped of their cobs long before late season arrived. Large cornfields that have been picked and hold lots of waste corn will do the trick nicely. Deer will travel for a long way to get to corn, and other food sources for that matter.

The next key is to figure out where they are bedding. Late season whitetails have just been hunted hard during the firearm season and are extremely spooky. They don’t like exposing themselves during the day and open cornfields give them more exposure than they care for. So, they’ll bed down in heavy cover nearby and wait until the last minutes of daylight before getting up and making their move to feed. Don’t underestimate how far a deer will walk from bedding to feeding grounds, a mile or even two is nothing to them.

If you still can’t find late season deer, stop and talk to some landowners, call a game warden or just ask around town. The locals know where the deer are wintering, but I have a hunch finding deer will be the least of your problems this December.

THE HOW OF THE HUNT

Here’s how I hunt late-season whitetails in North Dakota. By the time December arrives I usually know where to find the all-important bedding grounds. I don’t hunt the food sources themselves much because it takes too long for the deer to get there in the evening and they’re usually gone by daylight in the mornings..

I much prefer bedding areas, or somewhere along the trail that leads to where the deer are feeding. In the mornings I like to slip in close to where the deer are bedding. That’s an effort to get ahead of both the deer and daylight. Does and fawns will lollygag around for a while in the morning, but bucks waste no time getting to bed. Several years ago, on the second to the last day of the season, I finally had a good buck come down the trail heading for bed. He stood broadside at seven yards, but it was too early to shoot! Letting him walk away really stung.

During December I like to have my treestands a bit higher than usual because of the lack of cover. At 6’5”, I stick out like a giant squirrel and skittish bucks tend to notice me if I’m not up in the air. I try to hunt the hottest trails, but it’s often a game of chess trying to predict which trail the deer will take on any particular morning. I avoid setting up too close to a trail because in the cold, quiet mornings, the slightest sound can make a whitetail buck explode into flight.

My strategy doesn’t change much for evening hunts. I still like to be closer to the bedding areas than the feeding areas because that puts me in a position to better intercept a buck that is taking his sweet time getting out of bed and heading to dinner.

If there is snow on the ground, you may have to hang back a bit from the bedding areas because snow is just too noisy to allow you to get to your stand undetected. If a buck hears something ominous, he may not bolt, but he might stay in bed until dark.

If I’m hunting a cattail slough, a suitable tree isn’t always available, so I resort to a ground blind. In some cases, a ground blind is deadlier than a treestand. If you can get set up along a major trail, some of which prairie whitetails will purposely use to avoid trees, you can set up a pop-up ground blind and surprise them. I have a Double Bull blind that is made with a camouflage pattern called “Fall Flight.” It resembles cattails, corn or prairie grass and can be hidden very well in tall cane.

In extreme late-season cold a Heater Body Suit will help you conserve body heat. Its easier than it looks to slip out of the suit for the shot.

In extreme late-season cold a Heater Body Suit will help you conserve body heat. It's easier than it looks to slip out of the suit for the shot.

During the latter part of the season I don’t use a decoy, rattling antlers or any kind of a call. Oh, I’ll still have a grunt and a bleat call in my pocket, just in case, but most of the deer are so touchy at this time of year, those tactics only seem to alarm them.

Whatever strategy I use to hunt late-season whitetails, I make sure I go every chance I get, find the deer and spend as much time as possible in their travel path waiting for something good to happen.

WARMTH – A WEAPON

Probably the deadliest late-season weapon is warmth. The ability to stay warm will go a long way toward helping you get out of bed on a cold morning. Here’s what works for me.

Finding deer during the late season isnt hard. Sometimes you can do it from your vehicle but other times you have to take off hiking.

Finding deer during the late season isn't hard. Sometimes you can do it from your vehicle but other times you have to take off hiking.

It doesn’t work to just wear one thick, heavy pair of coveralls with light clothes underneath so, as you’ve read for years, you have to layer. I start off with silk or polypropylene long underwear and then layer according to the temperature. Wool is excellent because it traps air. Fleece is also very effective and this past fall I wore up to three fleece pullovers underneath my coveralls and that kept me toasty warm. It’s also important to have at least one layer that will stop the wind from penetrating.

The extremities are really where you need to focus. On my feet I wear polypropylene socks under wool and then I put on pac-style boots with liners that are absolutely dry because I keep them on one of those boot dryers overnight. If it’s really cold I take a pair of chemical toe-warmers with the adhesive backing and stick them on the bottom of my toes before slipping them in the boot. Since I started doing that, cold feet are a thing of the past.

For my hands I like to wear a wool military glove underneath a fleece glove you can buy at a clothing store. That combination is extremely quiet and that’s important. I’ve yet to find a decent pair of camouflage hunting gloves that keep me warm and aren’t noisy. However, I don’t depend on the wool/fleece combination to keep my hands warm. I keep them in the insulated pockets of my jacket, or I strap an insulated muff around my waist and keep my hands in that. Again, cold hands are a thing of the past.

For my head, where most of my body heat can be lost, I wear a knit facemask with an insulated ball cap underneath. I like to have the visor over my eyes when looking into the sun. If it’s really cold I’ll wear two knit facemasks. Another option is one of those pullover neck warmer/head cover combinations. They are fleece, camouflage, adjustable and very warm.

If that’s still not enough armor against the cold, I take my Heater Body Suit up in the tree with me. It’s like a sleeping bag with an interior harness. I can enclose my arms inside and when a deer comes I can quietly pull the zipper down and the harness keeps the suit up while I slip my arms out and grab my bow. It looks cumbersome, but it works.

If all that is not keeping me warm, I go home and wait for nicer temperatures.

FORCING THE ISSUE

Sometimes, when a bowhunter has an empty tag in his pocket, and not a lot of time to hunt, he resorts to trying to make something happen. That usually means getting together with other bowhunters and making a few drives. We used to do that in the public river bottoms south of Mandan years ago. The local bowhunters had the deer figured out and knew about where they would go when pushed. Some would carry treestands in and set up on escape trails and the rest would line up and drive large expanses of trees and brush.

Moving the deer slowly is the trick to this technique. The drivers need to slip along quietly, zig-zag a bit, and generally make bedded whitetails nervous by penetrating their sanctuary. Done correctly, the deer will trot ahead of the drivers, stopping occasionally to make sure the threat is still coming. Once in awhile, a stander would have a deer, whether it was a good buck or a fat doe, come sneaking along and stop right by his stand, presenting a shot. Enough tags got filled by this hunting tactic that it kept everyone doing it. Unfortunately, it also irritated other bowhunters who were trying to hunt from a stand and wait for the deer to move in their natural pattern.

If you and your buddies decide to try a deer drive or two, consider other bowhunters who might be affected. If the situation is right, driving deer just might produce a shot at anything from a juicy yearling to the biggest buck in the county.

It’s a special challenge to conquer both the elements and ultra-wary winter whitetails, the spookiest of which are often the does, and do it with a primitive weapon. Bowhunting North Dakota’s deer in December and early January isn’t for the timid or weak. But it is for the bowhunter who still has a tag and a strong desire to drop the string on a deer before the season passes him by.


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