The deer are on edge. They’ve been pushed, shot at, chased and basically scared every which way from Sunday. They’re not in their usual haunts. They tried to go back to their old bedding grounds but were scared off by the second wave of early-season hunters. Then again by the third wave.
It’s been quieter lately. There’s not so many hunters in the field. In fact, there’s nothing to shake them up on most days. The initial deer hunting push is over. If there’s ever a time you need to think like a deer it’s now, during the late season. This can be the muzzleloader-only season that follows centerfire season in many states. It can be late in centerfire season. It can be archery season. Heck, it doesn’t really matter which season is when, you just have to know to hunt differently late in the season, when the deer are wary, wise and jumpier than spit on a hot griddle.
You’re a deer.
You were rousted out of bed one cool fall morning, early when the coon huntin’ moon was still in the sky, by what sounded like a platoon of raw recruits stomping through a bowl of extra-crisp, extra-crunchy Captain Crunch. You started to slip away but then shooting started and you ran for all you were worth.
You’re not very anxious to go back to your bedding ground, even though it had been a safe haven all year. There’s danger in the air, and gunshots, and more vehicles on the roads and people in the woods. You’re not going back, you’re going farther away.
Late-season deer hunters can generally save themselves the trouble of traipsing through the local well-known hotspots, the areas easily hunted, perhaps not far from the road or conspicuous by their great cover or by reputation of producing deer year after year.
Instead, you need to hunt smarter and probably harder. And smarter is usually better than harder. Start with a map, preferably a topographic map, at least a plat map showing property boundaries and ownership, preferably both.
Look for pockets of cover, geographic or vegetative. See those likely hotspots along the roads. Look behind those, especially along draws, fence-lines or other natural lines of escape. Look farther and farther away from the road. If you know how much pressure an area has had, you can judge how far back you’ll need to go.
If it’s a relatively heavily populated area, there probably won’t be large areas of uninhabited land to study. In that case, look closely for pockets of cover, even the slightest depression, draw or thicket. Even better, compare the map to the actual landscape when you’re out there scouting around. Pay more attention to areas you can’t see than those you can. Some nice late-season deer have come out of hidden pockets of cover a stone’s throw from a road simply because no one knew that cover was even there.
Before you approach such an area, take a good look at the lay of the land. Figure if a deer is in there it’s probably holed up so it can watch for any approaching danger. Plan accordingly and come in from a different direction, shielded from sight as much as possible. And, pay particular attention to wind and where it is carrying your scent. You can be the quietest, most unseen hunter in the world and it won’t do you any good if your scent gets there first. Remember, you have to figure these deer are already spooky, already jumpy and ready to slip off at the first sign of a hint of an inkling of danger.
During the late season, there will be fewer hunters in the field, so there’s less competition and less pressure pushing deer around. That is good, though a little pressure now and then can create enough stir that even the wily bucks are, on occasion, pushed by a particularly lucky hunter.
Without that competition and pressure stirring things up, you’ll have to go to where the deer are. Figure the deer are hunkered down in isolated cover and plan your hunt accordingly. Hunt as slowly and carefully as possible. These are educated deer now and they’ve discovered how to maximize the least amount of available cover. If they hadn’t, they would be in a freezer somewhere.
Hunting in pairs is smart too, because you can station one hunter along likely escape routes before the other hunter starts through an area. Just make sure the stationary hunter is in place well before any type of approach is made because any spooky deer may slink away unseen at the first hint that a hunter is approaching.
For late-season hunters, weather can be friend or foe. It can make hunting uncomfortable, by bringing on conditions that make you want to stay home by the fire; and difficult by keeping deer fast by their beds where they can be difficult to find.
Or weather can make hunting better. Stripping leaves off the trees, allowing you to see farther into and through woody cover. Undergrowth is dead and down and has less spring-backiness so tracks and trails can show better.
Tracking can be easier in late season too. Frost, if it occurs, is great for trailing, almost as good as snow, showing plainly the path an animal has taken. Sometimes frost is better for tracking than snow, since it renews everyday, meaning tracks you find are certain to be fresh. In snow, tracks may be as old as the snow itself.
But ask any late-season hunter and they’ll tell you there’s nothing better than a fresh blanket of snow. Not only are tracks clearly visible, but so are animals if they are caught against a white background.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get some decent foul weather. A blanket of snow for tracking and muffling your footsteps. Deer hunkered in heavy cover. Wind blowing in your face as you approach and, bingo, you score on a heavy-beamed monster who thought he had outsmarted all the hunters who were after him.
Which he had, except for one.
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