I was thrilled to be hunting with frequent NAHC contributor Judd Cooney one December not long ago. He operates Iowa Trophy Whitetail Outfitters ((970) 264-5612) not far from where he grew up. I had faith in Cooney’s outfitting abilities and knew that big bucks roamed his Iowa properties.
I arrived the day before the December opener, and after I unloaded my gear, guide Andrew Warrington provided video evidence of a monster whitetail he’d filmed earlier in the season. That evening he and I did some scouting and spied a buck with a 150-class frame. Temperatures in the teens and blustery winds forced the big buck to feed with plenty of shooting light, but I had to sit back and watch because the season opener was still 14 hours away.
Unfortunately, that was the end of the show. The cold weather that forced the shooter buck into view was replaced with balmy temperatures more characteristic of a South Texas hunt. As much as I like the folks at The Weather Channel, I silently cursed at them each evening as they extended the warming trend across northwest Iowa. You could write the ending to this hunt: Warm temperatures led to no big buck sightings, and I headed home with memories of a great camp, but no buck.
Putting On The Feed Bag
The transition from “horny” to “had it” afflicts white-tailed bucks from Saskatchewan to Mexico. You can’t ignore it. When “love is in the air,” bucks move with relentless fervor, but when the air clears, bucks hunker down. The reason for their disappearing act is simple: Bucks lose anywhere from 20-25 percent of their body weight during the rut. They plan ahead by adding that much weight during the summer and into early fall, but losing that much weight pushes them dangerously close to the brink of death. According to Leonard Lee Rue III, in his book “The Deer of North America,” he states a whitetail can lose up to 30 percent of its body weight and stay alive: “The critical point lies between 30 percent and 33 percent. A loss of a full third of its total body weight is almost always fatal.”
So why should the weather play such a key role when bucks appear to be on death’s doorstep? They need to eat, right? Even though bucks have Pooh’s “rumbly in my tumbly” playing within, they take a careful approach to dining late in the season. After all, they’ve been hunted nonstop in most locales for the better part of 90 days. Paranoia alone causes them to stay put and keep a watchful eye for hunters and other predators that might be trying to take advantage of their weakened physical condition.
Evolution has also instilled whitetails with a “stay put” attitude for survival, and not just from warm-blooded predators. By bedding for long hours, day or night, whitetails conserve more energy. Whenever a buck is up and moving, he burns calories, and burning calories means burning fat. Depending on where a buck lives, research shows he might bed 70 percent or more of the day during the winter. Even bucks in the South bed longer after wearing themselves thin from the rut.
Despite the battle to conserve calories, whitetails, particularly bucks, know they must feed when the temperature plummets. Feeding requires a bold move to food sources. What makes a whitetail move in one latitude might not make another move elsewhere. Despite having more tolerable weather, Southern whitetails have a lighter winter coat and smaller bodies than their Northern cousins. When ice storms and the occasional winter storm blows through the heart of Dixie, it also pushes those whitetails living a Jimmy Buffet lifestyle to get up and stoke the fire by feeding.
Whitetails in the Northland might ignore a Dixie-style storm, but they can’t ignore temperatures that fall below the teens, especially if inches or feet of snow accompany the icebox conditions. A couple years ago, I lost 2 days of hunting to a “storm of the century” in South Dakota. It literally shut down half of the state, and I couldn’t get out of my rural home because of the drifting and zero-visibility conditions. Even after losing these hunting days, I knew conditions were perfect for success.
The rut was over and the bucks were beat. When the weather broke, I would’ve bet the farm on killing a buck. With feet of snow on the ground and temperatures in the subzero category, deer would be forced to move. It took a day and a half to get the job done, but I ended the season by ambushing a 61/2-year-old buck after he gorged on standing corn; he walked directly to me on his way to a nearby bedding location.
If you want weather to be in your back pocket on a post-rut hunt, you still have some homework to do besides watching the weather. First, you need to find the food. Look for high-energy food or the good stuff dieticians tell you to avoid—carbohydrates. Whitetails need more than 5 pounds of feed a day to survive, and even more if brutal winter conditions persist for any length of time.
As browsers, whitetails glean their daily nutrition from a variety of sources, but carbohydrates turn into energy quickly, which means heat. Corn provides much of the carb load for winter whitetails, but for deer living in corn-less regions, they resort to acorns and apples for energy needs, plus browse. That’s not to say deer will ignore a late-season food plot that can stand above a snowfall of several inches and also provides energy through protein. Clovers, sugar beets and turnips provide great winter forage, as well as many food plot blends designed specifically for late-season whitetails. For example, I’ve had great success with Hunter’s Specialties Vita-Rack Fall Mix in luring post-rut bucks within shooting range.
Besides waiting for a winter storm to roll in, you should also have pre-scouted your area to locate bedding cover. If thick cover is located nearby a food source, look for bucks to bed there because they often stay relatively close to food to conserve energy when traveling to and from the food source. In open country, however, deer might bed a mile or more away from food so they can distance themselves from the danger they perceive when exposing themselves in the open setting.
Late-season whitetail hunting is all about playing the weather. If you can hold out long enough, the weather will change and so will your success.
Late-Season Curve Balls
What if an intense high-pressure system sweeps in along with tropical winds and sunscreen days during your late-season deer hunt? You can employ three main strategies. First, use deer calls near food plots. Your grunts, rattles and bleats might just spark the interest of a weary buck and fool him into believing a hot doe has hit the scene. Second, you can still take a stand, but instead of setting up on the edge of a food source, move farther into the timber without ruffling a buck’s bed sheets. You’ll need to move far enough into cover to hopefully catch a buck sneaking from his bedroom to feed during the minutes before the end of shooting light. Finally, you can coordinate a deer drive. Try to push the deer past pre-set hunters with the hope one lucky hunter will have a window for a shot.
Whitetails often bed in thick cover during the peak of a winter storm, but as soon as it’s over, deer will travel to find food. By watching the weather forecast, you can be in the right place at the right time for an ambush.