at mature bucks in
Michigan after two months of intense bow and gun hunting is difficult…
Stacked against the hunter during late season are the facts that surviving mature bucks are wiser, in tune with how to avoid hunters, and primarily nocturnal in areas that receive heavy consequential hunting pressure (HCHP).
Fortunately for those willing and able to brave the elements, the bitter cold of winter causes hunting competition to dramatically decline. As the days progress after gun season the diminished hunting pressure along with an abbreviated late rut and a need to replenish body fat lost during the main rut causes a gradual shift to more daytime movements.
There are many factors that create a realistic opportunity for mature bucks after the rifle/shotgun/muzzleloader season. Previous amount of hunting pressure, types of terrain you have access to, food sources in your area, your ability to dress for the weather, and even the types of trees you have available to hunt from all play a major role in your chances of success.
Without a bedding area and or preferred food source on or bordering your property, your odds of success will be near zero. The bedding area doesn’t have to be a large area of heavy cover however it must be one that had minimal hunter activity in it throughout the season.
An Old December Bowhunt
On a bitter cold and windy December morning in 1975, while standing in the crotch of a huge oak, I had a decision to make. The snow in the funnel of transition cover was churned up with deer tracks but by 8:15, due to improper clothing, I was cold to the bone, shivering, and considering leaving. I knew I would see deer and chose to suffer a bit longer.
At 8:25 eight deer were passing by and I noticed a set of perfectly curved spikes on the one bringing up the rear. His near hidden spikes along each ear likely saved his life during gun season. According to DNR statistics, in the mid-70s only 2 to 3% of bowhunters annually took an antlered buck compared to 25 to 35% today and given the opportunity I was taking the spike.
The other deer moved through but he stayed, seemingly loitering with purpose in the nearby brush. The adrenaline rush warmed me up a bit and shortly another group moved through. Once in my lane the spike came in and mounted a yearling doe.
Cold and stiff, I struggled to draw my bow and took the quartering away shot. Bows were much slower then and it was no problem watching as my arrow passed perfectly through his chest, but he just slid off her and stood there. I was shaking so bad from the cold and adrenaline rush that I couldn’t knock another arrow in time for another shot and after about 15 seconds he took off and ran out of sight.
Once the doe left I got down and looked for blood. Several flecks were at the shot sight, but within a short distance the blood became heavy. He was recovered within 100 yards and after offering my condolences for taking him at such an inappropriate time, I admired his perfect spikes.
I had the little guy mounted in 2006 and hung him with my other deer heads in the boot department at Jay’s in Clare. No doubt he looks out of place, but make no mistake, I was as proud of that spike, as any buck on that wall. It was just a different era, with different equipment, garment options, circumstances, and kill criterias.
Staying warm during long, exposed to the elements sits in extremely cold weather requires clothing and accessory items that are up to the task and they didn’t exist for bowhunhters back then. Even today gun and crossbow hunters can bulk up with as many layers as needed because bulk is not an issue when shooting the like styled weapons, but bulk is not conducive to drawing and properly shooting with a vertical bow.
Garment and accessory technologies today allow bowhunters to stay warm all day without resembling a camouflaged Michelin man.
Staying Warm And Quiet
Wearing a waterproof and or windproof exterior suit is a huge part of staying warm because either will block the wind. No matter how many layers you have on, if they’re all permeable (allow airflow through them) and it’s cold and windy, the wind will penetrate through it and you will get cold.
By late season the foliage is gone and without it to adsorb sound, sounds travel farther and seems amplified, therefore your exterior clothing must be silent in calm below freezing conditions. The vast majority of bowhunters don’t have the luxury of hunting TV and video fantasy-lands where mature bucks look up at hunters after hearing something and continue on offering a shot, instead they must have quiet gear.
Nearly all waterproof and or windproof clothing has a polyurethane and or Teflon membrane bonded to the garments exterior fabric. All membranes are noisy and the only way to quiet them enough for bowhunting is to mask the noise by using a deep napped fleece exterior fabric.
The popular and most prevalent micro-fleece short napped exterior fabrics do not mask membrane noises to bowhunting standards and in pressured areas many shot opportunities have been lost due to noisy clothing at crunch time.
To test exterior clothing for noise put them in your freezer overnight and inspect them in the morning by ruffling the garment and listening. If it’s noisy, shop for a suit that isn’t. They may be more expensive, but why suffer through severe conditions only to have an opportunity lost due to inappropriate gear.
For many years my go to suit for teen digits and below temperatures and windy conditions has been Rivers West’s Ambush jacket and Trail pants. Their exterior fleece is dense, deep napped and extremely warm, waterproof, windproof and most importantly quiet. For scent control purposes, when wearing Rivers West I wear Scent Lok Base Slayers as my bottom layer.
Once you have a quiet exterior garment the next hurdle is being able to adequately layer your clothing below it. Layering is the only method that provides the flexibility to adjust to changing weather conditions while on stand and to keep you from sweating during long entries.
Moisture conducts cold many times faster than air, meaning if your bottom layers are wet from sweat you
get colder much faster than if they were dry. An example would be if naked and you jumped into 35 degree water you would die from hypothermia nearly 30 times quicker than if your naked body were exposed to 35 degree dry air.
I begin with a top and bottom layer of anti-microbial, moisture wicking Icebreaker merino wool or Scent Lok’s carbon lined Base Slayers. Icebreaker’s merino wool retains heat when damp or wet, whereas polyester undergarment don’t.
Anti-microbial garments must be worn against the skin to come in direct contact with your bacteria in order to adequately kill bacteria so they don’t reproduce. Anti-microbial only garments do nothing whatsoever in adsorbing odors from the dead bacteria or hundreds of other odors emitted from the human body.
Expecting any non-bottom layer anti-microbial garment to have an effect on your bodies bacteria would be like having ants in your house and expecting to kill them by spraying around the outside of your house with ant killer.
Scent Lok’s Base Slayers have both an anti-microbial treatment as well as a layer of activated carbon to adsorb body odors.
Next might be a wool sweater or insulated layer garment and a pair of sweatpants or insulated bottoms. Despite advances in synthetic materials the natural warmth of wool can’t be denied and military wool sweaters are very affordable at Army surplus stores.
A deep napped fleece or insulated vest is the next upper layer. A vest provides warmth to your body’s core, while not further inhibiting movement of the arms. From the waist down, typically one or maybe two layers are adequate below your exterior pants.
Wear as few clothes as possible on your upper body to your stand to keep from overheating and perspiring. Carry additional layer garments in your pack and once at or on stand remove your jacket and allow your upper body to cool. Once cooled down put on your other layers.
A proper scent regiment requires clean rubber boots and my preference is Baffin’s, Titan rubber pack boots with removable liners. Do not be fooled by rubber boots without removable liners that have well below zero temperature ratings because those ratings are for walking, not sitting, and there is a huge difference in the two.
I think the biggest secret in the industry for staying warm is Grabber’s air activated Adhesive Body Warmers! Until you’ve strategically placed these gems on the outside of your upper body bottom layer during cold weather, you have no concept of what warm is while on stand. These controlled heat pads stay warm for twelve hours and were originally designed for medical applications, such as arthritis. Centering one on your chest and one over each kidney will reduce layer amounts and increase time spent on stand.
A quiet hand warmer muff strapped around your waist with a hand warmer inside will allow you to wear lighter gloves.
The more severe the weather, the greater the need is for deer to feed. I have sat in blizzards and 35 below zero temperatures (wind chill factor) and taken bucks in each moving to and from feeding areas or searching for late estrous does at feeding locations.
The only weather condition I have hunted several times in without seeing a single deer is freezing rain, so other than it never assume deer will not be moving.
On one occasion I arrived well before first light and fell asleep in my saddle. During the hour I slept it started a freezing rain and when I woke at daybreak my bow and arrow were coated in ice with long icicles hanging from them and my waterproof suit was coated in a blanket of ice. The ¼ inch of ice on each step going down the tree had to be kicked off in order to have a firm foot and hand hold on them.
Periods of high winds or heavy snow are the best times to scout, because both will baffle your noise and lessen the probability of spooking deer. Scouting in calm conditions during late season is near impossible without spooking deer, and spooking deer is detrimental to hunts at the locations you set-up.
With the foliage gone you should set-up higher in trees than in the fall when there was cover. Getting away with movements is near zero when hunting from low exposed stands. In pressured areas, conifers and oaks that held their leaves are the only types of trees in which you can get away with 20 feet or lower stand heights.
In big timber areas acorns (preferably white oak acorns), late falling fruit, and preferred browse will be main food sources and if they are within some form of security cover. Set up at the destination location and hunt them in the evenings. Entering these areas prior to daybreak will spook any deer feeding at them.
Cedar swamps are major feeding areas during seasons with early snow. The deeper the snow, the greater the odds of encountering a buck in the cedars, and the more likely deer are to stay on runways. In large cedar swamps, hunting at any time of day can be productive, due to the fact that these swamps become deer yards in which the deer don’t leave.
In agricultural areas whitetails prefer (in order) corn, soybeans and alfalfa. Locate the best travel routes to them and set up a minimum of 50 yards off the field’s edge because your odds of getting silhouetted against an open skyline when hunting the field’s edge are far greater than hunting back in the timber. Deer also slow down to a snail’s pace and pay more attention when nearing exposed areas making getting away with movements nearly impossible.
When hunting field edges, there is also no way of getting in or out of your tree without spooking deer. In the morning you would be spooking deer going in and in the evening while coming out. No matter the time of season, mature bucks in HCHP areas rarely enter exposed crop fields during shooting hours so the only times I ever hunt field edges is when taking does for the freezer.
In agricultural areas if acorns or fruit is available in the nearby timber mature bucks will likely visit them prior to entering open crop fields after dark.
There is a subtle second rut. Michigan’s gun season coincides with the peak rut and in HCHP areas up to 80% of antlered bucks are taken during the first few days. The remaining bucks become extremely nocturnal and some adult does don’t get bred during their first estrous cycle.
Approximately 28 days after a doe’s first cycle she will again come into estrus during the late season. Doe fawns reaching puberty also add to the intensity of the second rut. Recent studies show that nearly half of the doe fawns in agricultural areas come into estrous during their first season.
There will be far less scrape and rub activity during the late season, with the majority of it being done at night. What little signposting that does take place will usually be found in travel corridors between bedding and the now more precise feeding areas.
A Late Season Buck
Scouting a new area in mid-December 1997 I located an area of heavy undergrowth in an otherwise open wooded area. Keeping away from its edge so as not to spook deer bedded in it, I made a wide circle around its perimeter in search of travel routes in the week old snow.
While searching I spooked a doe and within seconds a large buck jumped up and followed her into the bedding area. I walked over to check his tracks and the snow made it easy to identify the buck had a broken right front hoof.
Checking the travel corridors for his tracks I found he was not traveling along the north side of the woods as most of the other deer, but rather through the middle where there was better security cover. There was also a scrape along it and I immediately set up a tree within shooting distance of it.
With the temperature in the teens, that evening I went in to hunt. Hanging thirty feet off the ground, the hunt was relatively quiet as five does and fawns followed the runway on the north edge of the woods that led to a picked cornfield to the east.
The next morning it was 6 degrees and I arrived an hour and a half before daylight so as not to spook any deer. I also set up a buck decoy at about fifteen yards. At 8:55 a.m. ten does and fawns and a six point traversed the north edge of the woods. Noticing the decoy the six-point came over, circled it once and left. I watched as the buck disappeared into the bedding area where the does had went which was about one hundred yards to the west.
At 10:15 all hell broke loose. Does exploded from their sanctuary as if a hunter were walking through. I knew this could not be possible because once outside their bedding area they just skirted it and went back in. I doubted the 6-point could create such havoc and within moments the big guy appeared, chasing does. He chased one doe within 35 yards but never noticed the decoy. By 10:45 it was quiet so I pulled the decoy and left.
Knowing I hadn’t spooked any deer, that afternoon I was in the tree for the third straight sit. At 4:00 the big buck appeared along the bedding area and skirted it scent checking for doe activity. No sooner than he cut in, does begun filing out.
This time however, I watched as nine does and fawns and the six-point proceeded along the north edge of the woods towards the cornfield. I was now questioned my stand location. As 4:45 went by, so did the last doe of the ten I counted in the morning.
Just before dark I heard the faint sounds of crunching snow moving towards me. Peeking around the tree, the big buck was moving directly at me, following his own separate route. At eight yards and broadside, I took the shot and after a 150 yard search the wide 12-point was recovered.
At no time during those three hunts was I cold because I had
appropriate clothing and was
wearing 3 Grabber Adhesive
There is no doubt that if pursuing mature bucks, the late season in Michigan is tough, but the up-side is you will likely have the woods to yourself. While success rates will be much lower, I must admit there is nothing quite like taking a smart old buck with a vertical stick and string after he survived through all the gun seasons.
John Eberhart is an accomplished big-buck bow-hunter from Michigan that specializes in HCHP areas. You can learn more about his tactics through his instructional books and DVDs available at deer-john.net