Having a good ground game is as important to a whitetail hunter as being able to kill deer from a tree. Versatility is your friend, and there are times of the year—like the late season—where one style can offer up an advantage over the other. If you’re looking to arrow a buzzer-beater buck, your best bet might be to go au naturel on the ground.
This is especially true if there’s snow in on the ground to blend in with. Couple that with the fact that the trees are as bare as they’ll ever be, so the odds of getting picked off by sharp-eyed survivors 17 feet in the air is higher than ever, and you’ll see why an eye-level approach makes the most sense. However, success won’t come by simply putting your back to a tree and waiting for a buck to walk by.
Start by looking for food sources that have serious use, then investigate the trails leading to and from them. According to Aaron Warbritton of The Hunting Public, a necessity for the right setup is quality cover: “Try to utilize horizontal ground cover and get perpendicular to the movement. We use brush piles, cedar trees, multiflora rose, and anything we can to disappear.”
You want cover in front and behind you. Whitetails aren’t elk, meaning you can’t just get in front of a downed tree and keep yourself hidden. And, unlike hunting from a tree, you’ll want to have a bit more distance between you and the deer. While I like to set up at 30 yards, Warbritton prefers getting 25 yards from the best trails or best shot opportunities.
It’s almost impossible to draw on a late-season buck at 10 yards from the ground and not have him turn inside out. At 25 to 30, there’s a chance the buck will hear you or catch movement, but it’s not guaranteed that he’ll bolt. Just as you would in a treestand, think about typical wind direction and make sure the trail will provide a broadside shot.
If you’re a public lands bowhunter, the sitting on the ground with decent cover is probably the way to go. If you have private ground to hunt, consider a hub-style, pop-up blind.
The benefits of a camo cube are that you can get away with more movement and keep yourself far more comfortable. The downside is you will have to get your blind out early and let it “season.” If you don’t, you’ll need to do a world-class brush-in job, which can be done, but not without a fair amount of disturbance. If you’re planning to hunt an evening, going in and unfolding a blind, setting it up, brushing it in, and then deflating the lungs of a booner, I’ve got bad news for you.
I’ve seen pressured deer spot a trail camera and spook, so it’s no surprise that a six-foot cube showing up right next to the trail that leads from their bedding to the buffet is going to get their attention. The late season demands stealth and subtlety, so you might want to give the natural option a try first. If you’re worried about comfort or movement, get a chair or a seat that keeps you off the snow and allows you to maneuver into position quietly.
And remember, a natural ground blind might allow you to tuck into a small plum thicket, a patch of willows, or a host of other places that simply wouldn’t work with a treestand or hub blind. This opens up a world of late-season buck hunting opportunities where you can go exactly where the deer want to be, and not where you have to hunt because you’re attached to a hardwood. That’s no small thing considering how many bucks move into cattail sloughs, overgrown homesteads, CRP fields, fencerows, and other tree-less spots once the pressure of firearms season pushes them into sanctuaries.
Those spots may seem unhuntable, but they’re not. You just need to throw on some white camo, burrow into a deadfall, and prepare to sit statue-still for a few hours.