It was the last day of muzzleloader season in Michigan and it was time.
A cold front pushed through, the rain faded, and temperatures were nearly 30 degrees lower than they were just 24 hours prior. Best of all, my target buck was caught on trail cam during daylight the night before. Conditions were ideal and I headed out with the highest of hopes this past Sunday night.
At no other part of the season is getting the “ideal conditions” more important. After being hunted, harangued, and harassed for months on end—any deer that’s still alive in the late season is a deer uninterested in moving during daylight than is absolutely necessary.
Fortunately, there are certain conditions that can change that calculus and get deer on their feet. If you can get some combination of the three below conditions in your favor, you’re in the money. Choose your times wisely and get out there. Time is running out.
Temperature If I could only ask for one variable to be in my favor during the late season, it would be temperature. Few things can fire up deer movement (or slow it down) more consistently than swings in the mercury. Temperatures that’re above average for the time of year will usually dampen deer activity, while below average temperatures can ramp it up.
I look at a cold front that drops temperatures more than 10 degrees as a positive sign, with swings of more than 20 degrees as absolute godsends. Any time temperatures reach truly chilling proportions—I’m talking single digits or below zero in an area such as the Midwest—you have a great chance of catching a mature buck on his feet. When the bottom falls out of the thermostat deer need to pack on the calories to keep their internal body temperature up. This leads deer to feeding earlier in the day and focusing their attention on high-energy food sources.
When I see these kinds of temperatures on the horizon, I clear my schedule and make sure I’m in the woods. Making time for these conditions is even more crucial if you’re after a mature buck who’s typically moving after dark this time of year. This is your opportunity to take a swing deep into the core range of a buck like this, hunting near wherever it’s most likely he’ll exit his bedding area or come out to feed.
Neil and Craig Dougherty discuss in their book “Whitetails: From Ground to Gun” why this movement occurs. “Mature bucks are super wary as the season winds down, but the ‘need to feed’ sometimes overcomes their heightened state of awareness. If the weather cooperates (cold and nasty), they can be hunted very effectively.”
Precipitation Precipitation events during the latter weeks of the season can also be a major driver for deer movement. In the North it’s snow, and in the South it’s typically rain.
As a Northern deer hunter, I’m particularly tuned into when snow is in the forecast and how much is predicted. Any time there’s fresh snow on the ground, you can expect some bump in deer activity, even more so if it’s a serious dump. Six or more inches of snow seems to trigger an even more urgent need to feed as easy-to-reach food sources are all of a sudden more difficult to reach.
“A serious snow cover will concentrate deer on what foods they can find, and very cold nighttime temperatures will force deer to get out there and feed during the warmest part of the day,” said the Doughertys.
This kind of snow event can often lead to deer bedding a little closer to these food sources, too. As deer look to preserve their energy, they’re going to avoid long fatiguing walks in deep snow if they can. Keep this in mind when attempting to set up on such a day.
Further to the south, where rain might be the most precipitation you can expect, you can still see increased movement. I’ve found a light drizzle to be great for deer movement, but a serious downpour can slow things down in the moment. The trick to hunting in a true storm is to be in position for those minutes and hours immediately following. Once the deluge dies down, especially if the rain event has been lengthy, deer will often get on their feet immediately to seek food after being bedded for so long.
Whether snow or rain, if I can get precipitation to coincide with colder than average temperatures, I know I’m in for a good late-season hunt.
Unpressured Deer The last and possibly most important condition to have present for late season is not something that will show up on the Weather Channel. Instead, it’s dependent on your knowledge of local deer and the area. This factor is the presence of unpressured deer.
The reason that “ideal conditions” are particularly important during the late season is because deer up to this point have been chased nearly to the breaking point. If deer, mature bucks in particular, feel like their life is threatened, there’s almost no situation in which you’ll be able to get a crack at them in daylight. Cold, snow, or rain might push them closer to that possibility, but if you can’t find deer that are at least somewhat unpressured, you’ll likely be out of luck.
The trick to hunting unpressured deer is to locate their sanctuary. This might be an entire property that doesn’t allow hunting, a 40-acre impenetrable swamp, a 10-acre CRP field that no one walks, or maybe just a couple acre thicket that ends up sucking in a buck or two during gun season. Whatever it is, you’ll know you’ve found it when you see a disproportionate amount of fresh tracks or deer moving in and around it during daylight hours, whether that be during long-distance glassing sessions or via trail cam.
Find a sanctuary such as this, wait for the weather, and the trap is set.
Line Them Up The trick to late-season success is that there’s no trick at all. Avoid over-hunting deer until ideal conditions present themselves. Then when you do get cold weather and precipitation, find your sanctuary and strike. Is this always a sure thing? No, of course not.
I didn’t end up killing my target buck this past weekend. But it’s about as good of a bet as you can get this time of year. So cross your fingers, get out there, and give it a shot. It’s now or never.