The sun had been up for a couple hours on the morning of Dec. 12 when I noticed a doe appear out of nowhere.
I grabbed my bow off the Heroclip with her only 40 yards away. The spot I was in was nowhere near the traditional food source people hear so much about when the subject pertains to getting on late-season deer. No corn. No beans. No food plot, but there was good bedding cover.
I stood in my saddle overlooking a pinch point with thick brush along the river bank to my right and left. My hope was that at least one doe would move through that funnel, but every deer I saw that morning was a little bit too far to my east.
I could only take the cold on my hand for so long before I needed to hang my bow back up as that doe stood in one spot for about 15 minutes. She was feeding on something. Leaves covered the forest floor with no noticeable vegetation to get at.
It was easy to see where she had stirred up the leaves. Underneath were a few acorns left over from the early-fall drop. They certainly are not as obvious as a corn or soybean field, but acorns right now offer great nutritional value to deer.
If you have oaks all over your property, you potentially have a food source that stays relatively hidden to the human eye under those leaves. The handful of does I saw that morning were all moving slow, looking for acorns just on the edge where that thick cover met up with oaks.
It’s the perfect morning scenario in December where deer are comfortable being on their feet feeding late into daylight with the comfort of that security cover. I’m able to get into this spot cleanly in the dark by coming across the river and slipping into the tree before deer return.
So often, we think of late season being best for evening hunts while sitting over food plots. But what if every agriculture field is black dirt around you? That’s the scenario I find myself in almost every year, but I am still committed to hunting through Dec. 31.
Here are a couple of things I key in on to get on deer during the late season when an obvious food source is not an option.
Great bedding matters
When I see one deer in December, I often see 10-20, and I believe that’s because both food and security cover will concentrate them in big numbers this time of year.
Bedding areas shrink with all the vegetation dead, and the pressure of months of hunting makes them key in as much as ever on the best areas that keep them safe in daylight.
Maybe it’s a cattail slough or willow thicket that offers warmth where they can hear any danger coming. Maybe like in the scenario above it’s brushy cover along a river bank where they can use their eyes and nose, or maybe it’s areas of hill country that are very wind specific.
On Dec. 30, 2018, I set up for an evening hunt with a southeast wind. This spot is a north-facing ridge system that has two main points right where the ridge drops off into a big, open bottom. These are the two best bedding points on this property when a south wind is blowing over their backs and they can face north, seeing forever into that bottom. The beds and droppings on these in the winter are incredible.
We are conditioned to never enter the woods with the wind at our back, and for the most part that’s pretty good advice. Not here. If I were to access this spot in the evening with the wind in my face it would mean coming up from the bottom where everything would see me.
Instead, I set up that night about 100 yards west of those points by entering through a plowed field. My wind was blowing straight into the timber, but by previously scouting and knowing where deer should be bedded I was able to blow my scent into a safe zone.
I saw over 20 deer that night come from the direction of those points. This spot is consistently good late season on a south wind regardless of what the adjacent crop fields look like, but deer activity is limited on a north wind when bedding on those points is less advantageous for them.
It’s definitely possible that deer will move from a property if a preferred food source like corn or beans is not far away. But it’s been my experience that if you have great bedding on your property and you understand how deer use it, you can be in the game.
Knowing preferred browse
Healthy deer have a diverse diet year around, and browse -- the leaves and twigs of woody plants -- is a big part of that.
One spot in particular on a riverbottom property I hunt stands out each December. This spot is a rectangular-shaped bottom along the river where two perpendicular ridge systems meet up. Those ridges drop down into a big low area that goes for hundreds of yards with oaks, open grasses and thick brush. Much of the bedding cover near this area is on the neighboring property to the east that I can’t hunt, but I have access to browse they prefer.
This area tends to hold moisture in the spring that makes it grow up like a jungle through the summer months. The leaves on the ground-level vegetation hold on late into the season, and even when they have browned up, the deer love to eat their way through this bottom. Three years ago, I had a close encounter with a good 8-pointer down here on Dec. 17 when he came in with a group of about a dozen does and fawns.
As you hunt and scout this last week, go into the woods actively looking for signs of heavy browse. Maybe it’s looking closely at stems instead of just walking by. If snow is on the ground, it’s all the easier to identify areas of heavy browsing because tracks are scattered everywhere instead of just on a straight trail that indicates deer are simply moving through.
There are going to be “dead zones” on properties that deer just don’t use this time of year because it doesn’t offer them what they need right now -- security and some sort of food.
They are more concentrated in specific areas. But if you have great bedding cover, preferred browse options and maybe throw in some leftover acorns on a good mast-crop year, you can have great hunts through the end of December without that standing bean field.