Late Season Deer – Hunting the Transition

By Rich Davenport, published December 4, 2021, updated 12/5/2021

Late Season Buck
Late season hunting can bring success in the snow

Winter is beckoning, the temperatures are dropping, and snow is in the air. With the Regular Big Game seasons winding down in New York State – Northern Zone Regular Season closes December 5, while Southern Zone Regular Season closes December 12 – hunters look forward to the extended archery and black powder opportunities that immediately follow the close of regular season, and bring with them a transition in deer behavior, from the rigors of breeding to the demands of finding food during the time of scarcity. As the rut finishes up for another year, whitetail deer turn their attention to feeding, as recovery from the rigors of the rut demands replacing the spent fat reserves before the snow pack really makes finding food the penultimate challenge for survival. Although the deer have been pressured heavily during the regular season, the lessening number of hunters in the woods as the season nears its end, coupled with the attention turning from reproduction to energy replacement, deer begin entering the questing mode for every last bit of food they can find – which brings movement throughout the day, something that seems abandoned at times during the peak of Regular season.

Hunting this extended season brings different demands, and different conditions, that, when played right, can bring incredible hunting experiences to those hearty enough to brave the cold and sometimes snow that most often marks this late season hunt. But with a little planning and patience, hunters may find this to be one of the most exciting seasons to hunt.

For starters, hunters should be aware that the season of breeding and territoriality are all but done. This means dispensing with the doe in estrous scents, making mock scrapes, and putting away that buck grunt call. The deer know this time is well over, and that magic scent that drew that big buck’s attention, or that grunt that announces to that dominant buck an interloper is in the area, all of this now serves to put the animals on alert. Knowing the transition from breeding to feeding is in play must be embraced or your chances to score diminish tremendously.

Next, hunters may be better off getting out of the treestand and instead start stalking the pines and hemlocks, and taking up positions in areas where feeding sign shows strong deer attention. The evergreen trees offer great cover and protection from the cold winds now becoming ever-present, while also helping to reduce snow pack underneath the boughs, making for easier travel. As the extended season wears on, the deer start to “yard” in an instinctual effort to use numbers to trample down the snow, making it collectively easier to root for food they can smell is there. Most, but not all, of the tree nuts have been consumed by now, but some do remain and these food sources are coveted in early winter for their high fat and protein content. Agricultural fields, too, see attention as the scouring for dropped corn left behind when the stalks were cut and some of the corn grown for animal feed is left behind. Winter wheat, late clover, tender shoots and buds, as well as rose hips and other forage is all targeted heavily now, as well as some evergreen food sources like arborvitae shrubs and trees, also now become fair game for hungry deer. Find these areas and you’ll likely find deer.

The pressure from the regular season being over also affords the hunter a bit more solitude in the woods, as most are done hunting for the year, focusing on the holidays and family gatherings. This reduces human scent in the woods, which makes for more normal-smelling surroundings for the deer, and as our scent diminishes, the wariness of the herds seems to abate. Hunters must still take care to play the wind and suppress your own scent as much as possible, as one whiff of your presence could send the animals scampering well before you know they are there.

Most all leaves are now down, and with snow covering much of the ground, deer can suddenly be very visible, but so are you! That treestand that worked so well earlier is now fully exposed with no bits of leaf cover to help obscure your position. Being off the ground in sub-zero temperatures also can make for rapid heat loss – especially your feet, while the ground offers more warmth to help extend your ability to endure the cold and remain still.

Although sitting on stand is an excellent all-season tactic if you know where the deer are moving, oftentimes a bit of still hunting will pay bigger dividends, when stalking is done correctly – which means SLOWLY! However, with snow on the ground helping to silence your footsteps, and snow on the trees obscuring your silhouette, that slow take a couple steps, then stop and observe for a few minutes before taking a few more steps, can really work well.

Take your time with target selection, as deer often look bigger than they are in general, but in the snow can be very deceptive. Examine the head and body shape thoroughly, and be aware that some bucks may have dropped their antlers, although this should be the exception rather than the rule. And remember, you only have one shot, so make it count, which can only happen when you’re not rushing, and avoid shooting at running/ quickly moving deer.

This year, in NY’s Southern Zone, an additional 7 days has been established as the “holiday hunt”, and although this season encompassing that week between Christmas and New Years still is hotly debated with hunters falling on either side of this new opportunity, the opportunity does exist now for young adults away from home for college, but visiting for the holidays, to get afield with friends and family to deer hunt, cementing the traditions created before college, and retaining the interest so once school is complete they are more likely to return home to hunt. The proposed opt-out regulation has yet to be adopted, so at this moment, all southern zone counties will be open for this new opportunity. The traditional extended archery and muzzleloader season runs 9 days from 12/13-12/21. Deer hunting is then closed in the Southern Zone until 12/26, and remains open until 30 minutes after sunset on January 1, 2022.