It seems like an appropriate time to write this article being that we experienced record breaking December low temps this past week. Last Saturday, the daytime high was -12 here in St. Paul, MN, and the windchill plummeted to a bone chilling -40 at night. In many states, rifle and muzzleloader seasons have wrapped up and with many archery seasons running through Dec. 31 or mid-January, the clock is ticking.
To me, late season means no pressure and lower expectations. Make no mistake, I am still after a good deer but the odds of tagging a giant are much lower due to hunting pressure and rifle season. Late season hunting offers a more laid back approach to tagging out and it is a great time to play the wind and approach hunts with a more laid back mentality. Make no mistake, you still need to hunt smart (wind, enter/exit routes, etc.) but the hunt itself tends to operate on more of a clock. After Dec. 10, morning hunts are out for me. For one, the deer are back to a strict feeding/bedding schedule and hunting them at first light can often bump them from their food to bed routine and vice versa. The same rules still apply to hunting a mature deer and if he is aware of your intentions, say adios.
During the rut, I am typically on pins and needles anticipating “him” cruising through at any given minute and offering an opportunity to fill my tag. During the rut, split second decisions often make the difference in filling a tag or going home empty handed. A rutted up, testosterone filled buck will often move through the timber like a bottle rocket without the stick attached. Late season hunts offer a much more laid back approach. Deer are cautious and unhurried and present a shot opportunity that may last a minute or more.
While a lot of people have intentions to hunt late in the year, few actually do. The odds are lower, and the thought of marching out into sub-freezing temps can be hard to overcome. However, fewer people means more options. If you are hunting prime locations on public land during peak season, it is not uncommon to have company. The unwanted anxiety and worry over having another hunter walk into your coveted “spot” are usually long gone by mid-December. The luster of the rut has passed, and you will often be alone.
As mentioned earlier, late season deer can be very predictable as long as they are not pressured. If you see a buck on a food source during shooting light, he is very killable. I will often check cams on or near food sources every 3-5 days during the late season because getting on him when he is using that pattern is crucial. Weather is significant to this strategy. Before and after fronts can be phenomenal. The key is to wait for the perfect time to hunt. It can be a game of roulette waiting for your window but rushing the hunt can destroy your odds of one last chance at a mature deer.
Time to reflect:
Above all else, I have time to reflect back on my season. I think that this is my favorite aspect of being alone in the field late in the season. This past year was a busy one for me. In the span of 12 months, I got married, launched a business and welcomed a daughter into the world. I have never experienced a time crunch like the one I faced throughout the past season. But, I can honestly say that the time I spent in the field was more valuable to me. I had to hunt smarter and more efficiently than ever before and time management was crucial.
Some seasons are short lived and some allow us to hunt to the bitter end, each has pluses and minuses. In 2015 I tagged out in both Minnesota and Wisconsin over a hectic, rut crazed, 3-day window in late October. The high that I was on was short lived and left me feeling a little empty being that I did not get to spend the coveted first two weeks of November perched in my favorite oak tree of field edge; I never had a chance to sit my best stands in 2015. This year (2016), my tags still rest in a zip lock bag tucked away in my pack. No two seasons are alike and the unpredictability is what keeps me coming back season after season. Sure, I saw some good deer and even had a small window to tag out on my target buck but this year, he wins. I hunted him hard and saw him multiple times but every time I zigged, he zagged. Whether it was his sixth sense or pure luck that put the odds in his favor we will never know, but he won, he beat me and honestly that is perfectly ok with me. In 261 days, the season will reset itself and the hunt will continue.