Fewer hunters, high numbers of deer and some dandy bucks left
By Brad Herndon
The date was January 7. It was the last day of Indiana’s late archery season, and soon it would be over since the sun was beginning to set in the west.
With only 10 minutes of shooting light left I noticed movement in the broom sedge to the west of me. Antlers appeared; then more antlers. Two 10-point bucks were headed toward me on their way to an unpicked cornfield one half mile away.
Within a few minutes, one of the 10-pointers stood in front of me, barely 12 yards away. I was able to place the arrow right through both lungs and I watched him topple over since he ran only 80 yards.
He ended up netting 121 5/8, missing being a Pope & Young buck by a little over 3 inches. Still, this was one of my most satisfying bow hunting seasons ever since the deer was taken in virtually the last minutes of the season.
By the way, this isn’t the only buck I’ve taken in the January season. In fact, the late December and January seasons are some of my favorite times to hunt because the deer are fairly predictable during this time. I’ll explain why.
It’s All About Food
There will be a few doe fawn come in heat during the December bow seasons when they reach a body weight of 70 pounds or more. When this occurs and you’re in the right location, you will experience absolutely incredible action since every buck in the area will be there. I’ve been in on several of these late season buck explosions and have seen as high as seven bucks milling around one doe fawn.
Typically this isn’t the type of action you will encounter in late bow seasons. Instead, the hunting will revolve almost completely around remaining food sources. This can be corn, soybean, and alfalfa fields, or it can be a location that still has a lot of acorns.
During the often frigid, post-rut time period, the bucks are in a rundown condition and desperately need to replenish their fat reserves. A complex carbohydrate food is what they seek if it’s available, and you can bet when the light diminishes at the end of the day, all types of deer will be heading to these food sources.
Know the Acorn Crop in Your Region
To locate these food sources takes some work. You should be familiar enough to know your home turf, and you should be monitoring the acorn crop in your region. If acorns are scarce, all of them will be gone by late season so you can rule that food source out at times. If, however, acorns are plentiful and your deer herd isn’t out of control, there should be “hot” acorn locations which will pull in the hungry whitetails. I look for ridges or points saturated with white oak trees in my territory, and they have been productive hunting spots for me in good acorn years.
Walk the Corn, Soybean and Alfalfa Fields
Regarding field food sources, simply walk the corn, soybean and alfalfa fields in your region to determine if sufficient food is left there to pull in deer from the surrounding timber. Finding great food sources such as these is becoming more difficult all the time because of the highly efficient harvesting methods of the latest farm combines. Often when a soybean field is harvested you can’t tell anything has ever been grown in the field. Likewise shelled cornfields can be sparse when it comes to food left behind for wildlife. Alfalfa fields, meanwhile, usually remain an excellent food source for deer.
Find Fields Hidden From View of a Road
Keep in mind while looking for late season food sources that hail damage, blown down cornstalks, and other acts of nature can oftentimes result in there being a notable amount of corn left in the fields. Also, if the fall has been a continuous series of rains, this often prevents the farmers from getting into the fields and there may actually be whole fields of standing corn or soybeans left in the late December and January bow hunting seasons. One final tip: Fields hidden from view of any road usually host the most deer.
How To Set Up On Late Season Food Sources
There will always be some kind of late season food source left, and if you put in the miles you will find them, just as I do. With this task completed, a strategy has to be formed which will allow you to hunt the location effectively without being picked off until you have a crack at the deer of your choice. This usually isn’t an easy task.
Find Where the Deer are Bedding
Your first step to success is to find out where the deer are bedding. This could be a brushy section of timber, or it would be a warm south facing hillside, or even a weed field or swamp. A little walking and observation should tip you off to the bedding areas, and this information will also help you determine how, and where, the deer are entering the food source.
Find Where They’re Entering the Food Source
On oak tree setups I like to enter from the opposite side of the bedding area, if possible, and wait until there is a wind that will carry my scent back toward my entry way, and thus away from the whitetails. The first hunt is the best because the whitetails don’t have a clue you’re there. In the timber, a variety of deer ages should show up at the oaks within good shooting light. If you want to put your tag on an antlerless deer, you could position your stand near the first productive white oaks the deer come to.
If you’re waiting for a mature buck, though, this strategy usually won’t work because several doe and fawn may come in early and feed past, and behind you. This means they will catch your wind, blow and bound off and alert any late entering mature bucks to your presence. Because of this I locate my stand near the oaks the farthest away from the deer’s entry location. This takes patience for them to get to you, but it will pay off.
Hunting fields can be tricky. If you know where deer are coming into a field and you just want any deer to eat, you can place a stand at this site. Using a wind that will blow your scent out into the field assures you the first deer past will present you with a good shot.
If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a good buck, most likely the first deer out will be doe and fawn. Obviously you let them go by, they start feeding in the field where they will wind you, you get busted and the big buck is alerted and never shows up until after dark.
As I said, hunting fields is tricky. I’ll use the buck I killed at the introduction of this story to illustrate what some of your options will be.
Understand How the Wind Will Bust You
My goal was to kill a mature buck, 3 ½ years of age, or older. I had located a standing cornfield in a valley in a hilly region. Timber was on only one side of this field, with the field making a 90 degree curve around a timbered point. I knew where two bedding areas were, one to the south of the field, the other to the southwest of the field. This gave me options.
At first I tried setting up down low and catching a northwest wind that would enable the deer to feed out in the field, yet not wind me when they got there. As many of you know, the wind may switch from time to time when you hunt low areas in the hills. The weather was just above zero and snow was on the ground, and this brought many deer into the field early. Every other hunt, though, I got busted by the wind. That’s no good.
As a result, I switched to another section of the field down low where a wind coming down a long hollow could be better used. Although this worked to perfection, presenting me with tons of shots at antlerless and small antlered bucks, no big bucks were sighted. A week had passed by then. My next step was to move up on top of the ridge within ¼ mile of the southwest bedding area. Sitting on a good trail on the ridge presented me with shots at 2 ½ year old bucks, but again no mature bucks.
As you can see, I patiently implemented my hunting strategies, moving cautiously into the bigger deer’s domain. Finally I made plans to hunt an inside corner right next to the bedding area, hoping to catch them just as they came out to make their way to the corn field one half mile away. A northwest wind was needed for this hunt and this didn’t occur until the last day of the season on January 7. As you have already read, my deliberate patience finally paid off. In all, it took me eight hunts to taste success, all in bitterly cold weather.
Each of these hunts were evening hunts, a time period I feel is by far the best for late season success. Morning hunts, moreover, can be successful if you locate on key funnels I mentioned in last month’s article.
Be Confident, Dress Right
A great trophy hunting friend of mine once told me to remember this when hunting in late season: Every deer you want to kill next year is alive right now. He was right, of course, and what he said really made my confidence level shoot up several notches. It should do the same for you.
Now, many years later I can honestly say I enjoy hunting the late season as much as any other season. Few hunters are in the woods, you will see high numbers of deer at the food sources, and there are some dandy bucks left. I use topo and aerial maps to help me determine stand locations, use a weather radio to determine wind directions, and doggedly stick to my hunting plan without fail.
I’ve also learned how to dress for brutal weather over the years, a key factor in staying on stand. I use pack books, excellent insulated coveralls, and super thermal underwear to wick away body moisture. A heavy hat, an insulated face mask, warm gloves, hand and foot warmers, and other layers of clothing all are part of my final outfit. I even use a bow vest so my hands aren’t holding a cold, heat-sapping bow riser for hours on end.
So hang tough this December and January, for the buck of your dreams may only be a hunt away.
Editor’s Note: The author’s best selling book, Mapping Trophy Bucks, can be purchased at Amazon here Mapping Trophy Bucks by Brad Herndon. Many consider this one of the best deer hunting books of all time.
See Brad Herndon’s article for The Havalon Post on How to Map Trophy Bucks here.
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