Why Late Is Great For Hunting Top-End Whitetails

Love fall deer hunting? Winter can be an even greater time to tag big whitetails, if you're packing the right gear and hunt strategies.

by Josh Honeycutt

HuntStand Pro Contributor MORE FROM Josh

Love fall deer hunting? Winter can be an even greater time to tag big whitetails, if you’re packing the right gear and hunt strategies.

I’m here to tell you why the late season is so great for top-end bucks. But first, let me start with a story. A battle-scarred buck creeps through thick, nasty cover. It’s been chased by hunters for months on end, and each danger-detecting sense is cranked up to 10. A snapping twig, rustling jacket, or careless blink could send that buck packing, but you know better. This is a familiar game, and checkmate is only a few carefully placed hoof prints away.

Hunting late-season deer is hard. Some bucks are dead. Food sources are dwindling. Most cover is gone. Deer are extremely pressured. The challenges are many. But for the hunters willing to brave the late-winter elements, now is an incredible time to be in the timber.Deer season extends well into winter for many hunters, and there’s still time to get it done. Perhaps you haven’t killed a buck at home yet. Or maybe you have a desire to try your luck at an out-of-state whitetail trip. Regardless, it’s possible to kill deer late in the season, even in December or January (where seasons allow). My DIY trip to Ohio in January of 2020 proved that, as my friend and I tagged two great bucks in three days. Of course, the late-season game plan that worked on our Ohio hunt can produce for anyone, anywhere, though—even in your neck of the woods.Winter Gear You Need. One of the most important aspects of late-season deer hunting is having the right gear. Those who aren’t properly clothed won’t be able to stay in the field very long, let alone be warm and still enough to prevent a deer from spotting your shivering, half-frozen, soon-to-be corpse. To prevent this from happening, wear quality clothing, and use a layering system that keeps you warm, but is easy to add or shed layers as it gets warmer or cooler.

Other essential items including warm gloves and boots. You can’t shoot a bow or gun with numb fingers or walk quietly with frozen toes. Disposable, chemical handwarmers are great for keeping the extremities nice and toasty, too.Certainly, it’s time to use HuntStand to its fullest potential. This app was made for scouting, even during the late season. It’s ideal for identifying stands of conifers that serve as thermal bedding. It’s easy to spot southern-facing slopes by using a variety of layer options, including aerial, hybrid, topo, and 3D. You can also find water sources, which are greatly overlooked during the winter. Once stagnant water sources start freezing, deer must work harder to get or find the H20 they need. And as always, HuntStand is ideal for tracking incoming weather systems, and marking treestands, ground blinds, trail cameras, entry routes, exit routes, and all your findings and sightings in the woods.

HuntStand Pro Whitetail provides powerful whitetail habitat information that can aid in your late-season scouting efforts. The crop history map, available with a Pro Whitetail subscription, can help you further identify stands of conifers that serve as thermal bedding. It also allows for easy identification of winter food sources that whitetails love.

Setting The Stage. John Kirby and I are Kentucky residents. We live and mostly hunt in the Bluegrass State. But we’re both avid whitetail enthusiasts, and just chasing deer at home doesn’t quite scratch the itch. So, we lease a small, 80-acre property in the rolling hills of southeastern Ohio. Five hours from home base, it’s just close enough to hunt on a whim.

For those aspiring to do the same, public or private land does the trick. Whichever road you travel, the key is to do your homework. Kirby and I spent the summer, fall and early winter learning this property, and spent several days in October, November and January hunting it. If not for investing time, we’d never have tagged the two bucks previously discussed.

Fortunately, the forecast scripted good weather and conditions for Ohio’s muzzleloader season, which spanned January 4-7. So, on January 3, Kirby and I loaded up his Tacoma and hit the road. We arrived, ready for the morning hunt. A Buck Called “Tall Boy.” On January 4, the first morning of muzzleloader season, Kirby and I decided to split up. I’d hunt a small clearing on the northern end of the property. He’d head to a green field on the southern end.

As daylight approached, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of excitement. The place is loaded with good deer, and I just knew one of us would burn some black powder.

My hope and faith weren’t tested too long. Legal shooting time finally arrived, and I was moments away from hearing Kirby’s smokepole sound off and echo throughout the meadow below us. Nearly 500 yards to the south, Kirby was set up overlooking a beautiful 1 ½-acre green field. Two big bluffs towered over each side of it split by a ravine that brought trickling water down to an open field. Settled into a natural ground blind, he hoped deer wouldn’t pick him out. Wind in his face, getting smelled wasn’t as big of an issue.As legal light neared, fog settled in, reducing visibility greatly, but he could still see the areas of interest, including the trails that led into the field around him. Then, 5 minutes after legal light started, a rack bobbed through the brush, and entered the edge of the small field. He identified his target—a buck we called “Tall Boy.”

Careful not to spook the buck, he slowly raised his muzzleloader, and settled in for the shot. It cautiously fed around the edge of the timber, and Kirby patiently waited for the right opportunity. Several seconds passed by, and then, the buck turned broadside. Inhale. Exhale. Then hold. A thundering clap flooded the meadow, and the buck disappeared in a cloud of swirling gray smoke and fog.

The shot was immediately met with a grin on my face, and after 30 minutes or so, I climbed down to meet up with my friend. He wasn’t sure of the shot, so we decided to back out and give it some time. It ran into a thick area of our property that we leave as sanctuary, and we didn’t want to pressure it if it hadn’t expired.

Several hours later, we returned to retrieve his buck. Upon arrival, we talked about the shot again, and then took up the trail. No blood. It was a slow process, and we ultimately followed the buck’s tracks, as well as disturbances on the ground, to find his deer. Fortunately, the buck only ran about 125 yards, and tipped over. Ironically, we found the buck’s shed from the previous season laying just 10 yards away. A Buck Named “Buckets.” With Kirby’s tag filled, I kept after it. I hoped to fill my tag, too, and our No. 1 target was a deer we called “Buckets.” A fitting name, indeed. Its beams wrapped completely around and not only touched but also crossed. On paper, the deer has a negative 1 ½-inch tip-to-tip spread.

Despite my desire to hunt opening afternoon, due to the disturbance of recovering and retrieving my buddy’s buck, I decided not to hunt that afternoon. We’d later learn after the hunt that was a mistake, as a card pull revealed Buckets walked through the clearing in daylight despite the commotion of dragging a dead buck out of there just a few hours earlier.On January 5, the second day of muzzleloader season, I didn’t see Buckets or any of the other big deer on the farm. It was a ghost town. Still, I was determined, and ready.

The next day, given the possibility of bumping deer in the pre-dawn hours, I decided not to hunt the morning shift. Instead, I got some work done and then headed in for the afternoon sit. I decided to hunt on the southern end of the farm exactly where Kirby killed his deer two days prior. After all, that was Buckets’ core area, and I thought we had a decent shot at seeing the brute there.

The afternoon sun was warm, and not what you’d hope for on a late-season hunt. Fortunately, is it dipped beyond the horizon, the wintertime air cooled quickly, and steam rolled from my nose with every breath.

We didn’t see a deer until sunset. Then, suddenly, a deer walked down the timbered hill toward us. That’s when I saw it—Bucket’s unmistakable rack weaving through thick cover on the hillside. Two minutes later, a 1 ½-year-old 5-pointer stepped into the open just 80 yards away and looked straight at us. Kirby and I froze. The youngster finally lost interest and focused its attention on finding something to munch on.

Wondering if Buckets was still behind the younger sentry, I didn’t wonder for long. The stud stepped out right behind it and looked right through us. A 4-minute staring contest ensued. Finally, Buckets blinked, and walked on down the trail. I slowly raised my muzzleloader, bared down on the vitals, and pulled the trigger. Buckets barreled through briars and brambles for three or four seconds, and then nothing. The woods fell silent. Not a bird sung. Not a squirrel barked. It was as if all were honoring the fallen king that once reigned over that hallowed meadow.

A mixing pot of emotions stormed through my veins. The slight tinge of remorse one always feels after taking an animal’s life. Thankfulness for fresh venison. Humble pride for finally catching up to a worthy opponent. Sadness the great buck was no longer on the landscape to play the game with.It didn’t take long to recover the buck, and we both admired the incredible animal. Despite the mix of swirling emotions, one thing remained true—I’d just shared a special moment in the wild lands of Ohio with my good friend, and we’d taken two great bucks to show for it.

Reasons To Hunt Late. Fond anecdotal memories aside, there are some very real reasons why the late season is so good for killing big bucks. And before we dive into major reasons, trust me when I say that there are still some really big deer alive during the late season. Contrary to what your brain and social media would have you believe, not all of the bucks died during the early season, pre-rut, and rut. A large percentage made it through. That’s the primary reason to hunt the late season.

The next reason is the percentage of recordbook bucks that are killed during the late season. Spend a minute scrolling through Boone & Crockett or Pope & Young records entries and you’ll see what I mean.

The third reason is that bucks are worn down from the rut, it’s cold outside, and food sources are depleting. If you still have the food during the late season, there’s a very real chance a giant or two could be living there. Of course, there are still other factors in play.

Things That Matter Most. As noted, hunting during the late season can be extremely difficult. You can also have magical days like the ones John Kirby and I experienced last winter. Still, there are certain things that can spur deer to move during daylight, and make a hunt come full circle. Some of these we experienced on our hunt, but not all of them.

Incoming weather fronts are huge for late-season success. A system pushing through really encourages deer to move. Often, they’ll be on their feet a day or so before it arrives, and a day or two after it pushes through.

Temperature drops often follow these systems, but you might experience this without a significant front. Regardless, it gets deer moving. A 10-degree decrease in highs within 24 hours is big, and anything over 15 is huge. The number of days during deer season that offer this are minimal. Take advantage of them.

Rain events are more common, but still effective, especially when they pass through two to three hours before dark. For some reason, it seems to get deer on their feet. Who knows, maybe they like their salad with dressing.

Rising barometric pressure is something else to look for. Some studies suggest it sparks deer movement, while others don’t. However, I think it holds some merit. Some also believe the moon overhead/underfoot position is another key player. Deer tend to get up and feed better when the moon is directly overhead or underfoot. When these times line up with early morning or late afternoon daylight hours, it can make for magical hunts.

Just-off winds and other winding advantages, such as hubs and thermals, give deer the courage to move further in daylight than if the wind isn’t in their favor. Because of this, if you really know where deer bed and the trails they use, it’s possible to set up where the wind is technically in the deer’s favor, but you’re set up just off enough that your scent cone drifts just left or right of them.

Weather and moon influencers aside, late-estrus does, and fawns entering it for the first time, can drag a buck by you in daylight. It’s not something to bank on, but it can certainly be a factor with the right conditions. Areas with good food sources that help doe fawns pack on the weight can see as many as 50 percent of them breed, and this usually happens in January.Speaking of food, good grub and water sources that are close to security bedding cover are great spots to kill a deer in January, and that’s exactly the setup that played into these two Ohio hunts. Finding high-carb foods, such as acorns, corn, soybeans, etc., is a solid recipe for late-season success.

And speaking of bedding, some of the best late season bedding options are solar and thermal bedding cover. Solar cover comes in the form of southern- and southeastern-facing slopes, which receive the most sunlight throughout the day. Thermal bedding is created by densely packed conifers, such as cedar and spruce trees.

If you’re having trouble seeing deer from the treestand or ground blind, try still hunting. You must move slowly, and spend more time glassing than walking, but it’s effective. Sometimes, if you aren’t already in a good spot, this scout-hunt combination tactic can put you in the chips much faster than waiting for deer to come to you. And if that doesn’t work, perhaps try a safe, well-planned deer drive.Finally, regardless of movement provokers and hunting tactics, a daylight-walking deer is a daylight-walking deer. If it has the personality or tendency to do such a thing, get in there and kill that buck. But it isn’t that simple. It takes plenty of work and preparation to get there. Still, it’s the journey, not the destination, that hunters quietly long for, right? So, enjoy it.

All things considered, the late season is almost here. And if you’re still packing a tag, it can be depressing. But don’t let it get to you. Instead, realize how great a time this is to kill a big deer, and go make it happen.



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