By now, in most parts of the country, the rut is starting to wind down. Although there may be a few does that come into estrous yet, the majority has already been bred and bucks have trying to recover for a strenuous last few weeks. During the rut, bucks actively search for does for the majority of the day. Unlike the summer months, when their lives revolve around food and water, bucks are actively searching for does the majority of the time during late October and November Instead of feeding heavily and resting, bucks rarely feed and quickly burn up their fat reserves. Once the rut is over, they concentrate more on finding food and bulking back up in order to survive the winter.
Here in central Illinois, the winter months can be pretty brutal. It's only the first few days of December and we’ve already had a few inches of snow and temperatures have been in the single digits at night. Deer around here will have to survive another 3 months of this weather. Combine these conditions with the rigors of the rut, and you quickly understand why deer begin to feed heavily this time of year.
As hunters, we love to hunt in cooler weather. Deer too enjoy the cooler weather, but there comes a point when it is even too cold for deer. When temperatures plummet, deer activity does as well. Instead of spending time looking for food and feeding, deer will conserve their energy and stay bedded through extremely cold weather. Instead of feeding in early morning and late afternoon, they will feed during the warmest parts of the day: midday. I’ve seen a lot of movement through the 12-3 time period. I rarely enter the stand before daylight. Most of the time I will sleep in and head out by 11 am. There are only two scenarios that will make me head out before the sun rise is on days when a cold front will move through mid day, especially if the front is brining in snow or rain that will last for a prolonged period of time. The deer can sense the coming conditions and will feed heavily prior to bedding when the storm hits. The other time, is when the rain or snow stops just before sunrise. Just as they feed before a storm, they feed just after it stops as well. Times like these can be the most productive all season, especially if you’ve located a hot late season food source.
Some great food sources for late season hunting include corn and wheat. Corn is high in carbohydrates which provide the deer with the energy they need to stay warm through the winter months. If you can find a secluded cut corn field you’re in for some success. Look for a well used trail leading to the field and set up just down wind of it. I was hunting a small corn field a few years ago that was well off the main road. I have over a half mile walk to get to my stand. The stand was located near an inside corner on the edge of the field. Deer would filter out of the bedding area during the early afternoon hours and head towards this corn field. I arrived shortly after noon and by 1:30 there were already a half dozen deer in the field. By the time the sun was down that evening, I had seen over twenty deer. Three of those deer would have scored over 130 inches. Unfortunately, I had chosen the wrong trail to sit on. Out of the twenty three deer that came in to the field that evening, only four came out within bow range of where I was set up. The next year, in that same field, I was set up during late December. This time, the field had been planted in winter wheat. The evening started much the same as the year before. A few does entered the field early. Shortly thereafter, a couple bucks came out. Unlike the year before, these bucks weren't as big. The largest buck I saw that afternoon would have scored just over 100 inches. With an antlerless tag in my pocket, I was satisfied when a mature 150 pound doe fed within 30 yards. The deer all bolted out of the field when I shot her. She ran less than 20 yards out into the field. I quickly started to drag her out. By the time I was ready to exit the field, a half dozen deer had already re-entered the field. This just goes to show you the drawing power of a hot late season food source.
Even though the temperatures may be cold, the hunting can still be hot. By hunting the warmest hours of the day during bitterly cold weather, and focusing on the arrival and passage of cold fronts, hunters can enjoy some of the best hunting of the year even after the rut is over.