How To Plan A Late-Season Whitetail Ambush

This is the time of year many deer hunters go into depression. Seasons are winding down, the rut is a distant glimmer and the weather makes many outings as challenging as an Antarctic expedition.

by Mark Kayser

HuntStand Pro Contributor MORE FROM Mark

Temps are dropping and the season is waning. It’s time to get serious about stand location to kill a winter whitetail.

kayser-bowhunting-snow-600This is the time of year many deer hunters go into depression. Seasons are winding down, the rut is a distant glimmer and the weather makes many outings as challenging as an Antarctic expedition. Get your chin up. Despite the many challenges of hunting post-rut there are some irrefutable benefits to hunting the last days of the season. The biggest key to success is location; if you don’t find the “sweet spot” for an ambush location you may as well join the crowd on the couch with a bowl of Doritos and watch the NFL.

Whitetails, both bucks and does, set aside breeding priorities after the rut and begin to think purely about survival. They adjust living quarters to take advantage of quality nutrition, and that typically means the nearest bit of quality cover. Since bucks may burn 20 percent or more of their body weight during the rut they need to binge to add back critical pounds to maintain survival. That means your first priority is to find where deer are feeding and scout it for an ambush.

Deer feed and browse on as many as 20 different forage species a day. Still, when Old Man Winter comes to town they target energy-rich food sources for survival. Before and after a storm these sources have the potential to attract neighborhood whitetails. In much of the country whitetails simply seek out nearby agricultural fields. Corn and soybeans are natural attractors. Corn is especially attractive to whitetails in severe weather due to its high carbohydrate value that transforms to pure energy. Standing corn also sits above most snow banks. When winter bears down, cornfields are one of my top choices to target.

Whitetail land managers also have the option to put food plots in place for exact ambush locations. Delicious forage such as chicory, brassica, clover, and others can pull whitetails across a mile or more of countryside after the rut. Companies such as Cabela’s and their options and farming equipment can make your property a winter deer magnet.

A food ambush is how I tagged a late-season buck in Iowa several seasons ago. Snow was deep, temperatures were below zero and deer were desperate. I set up inside an old barn and waited for deer to pass by the building as they picked through stubble corn on their way to leftover soybeans. At dark a gnarly-looking buck sauntered by within range of my CVA muzzleloader and I ended the frigid hunt as yet another winter storm pounded the area.

Food is oftentimes easy to identify as a late-season ambush locale, but expansive fields, neighboring food plots, and other food dilemmas can force you to look elsewhere for a trap location, as deer randomly hit various food sources. Don’t give up. Instead, seek out whitetail bedding cover and consider a refuge attack. Every expert advises against hunting in a deer bedroom, but hunting the edges of cover may be your only option. Plus, in extreme weather occurrences deer may not even leave cover as they cope with conserving calories in a state of semi-hibernation.

kayser_late-rut-600The author killed this post-rut Nebraska whitetail with his CVA muzzleloader after careful scouting and choosing the right stand.

Your trap should focus on trails that enter and exit preferred sanctuaries. Invading the heart of a refuge may lead to tripping whitetail security alarms, but slipping into edge locations can lead to encounters of deer returning to cover at dawn, and those that slip out in the last minutes of shooting light.

You should also focus on interior food sources. Deer can easily survive on browse and may focus on varieties such as ash, basswood, hemlock, or white cedar, among other local favorites. Deer will also visit old acorn sites as they are rich in carbohydrates and a few mouthfuls of the crunchy concoction can quickly warm the body. A regional deer biologist can aid in identifying top choices in browse comfort foods.

While trying to fill a December tag I ran into abundant roadblocks as deer practiced nocturnal travel and feeding across the fence on a neighbor’s property. The only solution I could come up with was to set a treestand just inside bedding cover and catch bucks returning at sunrise. On my second attempt a nice 4×4 buck appeared just inside the tree line where I perched and made its way to the bedroom just before sunrise. He passed within 20 yards of my morning stand and didn’t see my frosty breath as I drew my Mathews and let go the ingredients to a happy ending.

Sometimes it’s best to consider an ambush with the least amount of risk. Try targeting a travel route. Hunting bedrooms risks spooking deer from cover, and hunting food can even cause deer to switch food sources due to paranoia. If you set up between these options deer will continue to have confidence in their sanctuary and food, even if they sense a trap somewhere along their travel corridor.

Depending on your hunting location, some deer might bed as close as 300 yards to a winter food source. In nutrition-challenged regions, whitetails might travel a mile or more to utilize high-quality food sources and cover. In areas with snow the packed trails will reveal the route of highest preference and in other settings it’s time again to rely on trail cameras to decipher hot travel corridors.  

In nutrition-challenged regions, whitetails might travel a mile or more to utilize high-quality food sources and cover.

To calculate travel tendencies even further, rely on HuntStand. There’s little doubt that deer, like most animals, sense the barometric changes associated with a winter storm. This is the key indicator that makes deer move. When the barometer begins nose-diving like an out-of-control drone, be on the lookout for deer movement. The same is true of a rising barometer after the passing of a major front. Deer realize they have a window to recuperate and take to the fields to fill their paunch. If the storm lasts for days, rather than hours, expect the deer to feed extensively to pad and protect their layer of winter fat.

Nebraska was the setting for a December hunt where I hunkered along a fence waiting for deer to vacate a river bottom and trek their way to an upland winter wheat field. I set up along the obvious travel route. My hopes were fading like the dwindling shooting light when I spied antlers in the fence line. It was a heavy-horned buck surveying for danger, but after a long pause he continued my way. I didn’t hesitate and lasered the buck at 70 yards with my Nikon rangefinder before making smoke and hitting the buck hard with a 250-grain Hornady MonoFlex ML bullet. The late-season trophy again confirmed some of the best hunting doesn’t have to coincide with the rut.



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