As my bones begin to feel the effects of weather change a bit more every year, I question my sanity in pursuing late-season whitetails. Bucks have been hounded for four months or more in most states. The rut is waning, save for a few locations in the Deep South. And the weather—I could stop there since you already have your own mental image forming—but the weather oftentimes is just downright, well, brutal. Snow, ice, wind chills, freezing drizzle, and temperatures below freezing, sometimes subzero, come at you with the ferocity of a social-media-agitated protester.
SOPPING WET IN WYOMING
Climate change aside, winter sometimes takes a bit longer to arrive. Hoping to get in one last hunt with my muzzleloader, I slogged to a river stand in a cold winter rain to wait and watch. Brisk winds, intermittent drizzle, and a chill soon sent shivers through my body. A move was in order as it appeared whitetails had abandoned a neighborhood brisk with activity just a month prior. After rechecking the bore seal and ignition system of my muzzleloader for dryness, I climbed out of the stand.
It was the norm to encounter mule deer above the river, but I had a sixth sense some of the whitetails were also escaping into the high country to get away from the constant beating of brush by hunters earlier in the season. Slipping and sliding up the gumbo slope soon had recharged my wool with warmth, and I quickly started glassing for antlers.
Several hours later, while peering down into one particularly deep draw, I thought for a second that I saw an antler tip through the haze. Wiping the accumulating drizzle from my binocular, I looked again. It was an antler and attached to a mature whitetail. The finding was warming, but now the real challenge was getting into muzzleloader shooting position in open, soaked country.
Studying the buck for a few minutes revealed it was browsing and staying in the bottom of the draw, which were normal operating procedures for a post-rut buck. Crawling over to a parallel ditch put me out of sight, and I cut the distance to 150 yards. Now came the brutal part. For a solid shot, I’d have to belly crawl another 20 to 30 yards on cold, snowy ground to a rise where I should have a clear sight at the unsuspecting buck.
Those last yards took longer than the entire stalk, but wiping the freezing mist from my eyes revealed the perfect shot on the buck, now in full-blown feed mode. I slid my CVA muzzleloader in front of me, checked the clarity of the wet optics, and lined up on the buck’s shoulder. A little prayer preceded the tug on the trigger, in the hope that smoke and not a sputtering of sparks filled the air.
Whack! I heard the hit of the MonoFlex bullet, and the buck disappeared into the gully below. I didn’t wait long after the shot. Darkness was minutes away, and the combination of cold combined with buck fever had me trembling like a Pomeranian waiting for a treat.
Rounding a corner, I nearly tripped over the waterlogged whitetail lying in a trench of half-frozen runoff from the deluge. Both of us were soaked, but I looked forward to the recovery and creating some sweat-driven heat to cap a great season end.
During the rut you can take risks and leave your stand to stalk bucks blinded by love. You don’t receive that advantage late in the season, but if situations arise, abandon your stand. Whitetails alter their patterns for survival and may change food or sanctuary in the snap of a finger. More often than not, these changes benefit them, but sometimes it puts them in the position for a better ambush or even a stalk. This buck vacated an appealing riparian zone to shake hunters, but it left him vulnerable to spot-and-stalk tactics that gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling.
YOU WANT ME TO SIT HERE ALL AFTERNOON?
That question was the start to every afternoon of an Iowa hunt that had sounded much more pleasant months earlier. My hunting connection said the muzzleloader tag was a guarantee and that a hunt in January could be cold but not miserable for a “toughened” Northern boy like me. Of course, weather has its own ideas, and radio broadcasts soon sounded nonstop warnings of a blizzard accompanied by subzero temperatures and dangerous wind chills.
The forecasters hit this one with precision. The blizzard not only arrived, but also stormed in with more strength than had been predicted. Snow as high as pickup trucks closed roads, and the air temperature was way below zero at the start of every day.
Whitetails weren’t taking risks in the storm. Dozens would gather in riparian or wooded slopes near the food, making any advancement by me a “Mission Impossible.” And when they did vacate sanctuaries to feed, they made a beeline straight to open country to raid any standing corn above the feet of snow.
Mornings were nearly impossible to hunt. Not only did you risk bumping herds of sluggish deer, but also a nighttime, wind-driven front drifted roads shut. We’d have to wait for the county crews to snowplow roads open just to go hunting.
That’s when my friend showed me a derelict grain bin from yesteryear. It sat squarely in a picked cornfield, but a few bucks would pass within muzzleloader range of the bin on their way across openness to feed beyond.
The first afternoon was absolute misery. Had I not brought along my Heater Body Suit I may have lost the fingers I’m using to type this story. The weathered slats provided a good, 360-degree view, but little wind break from the howling storm. By the end of the day, several bucks had passed just outside of range. That was hopeful, but a trend was beginning to show itself. The harsh stress of the cold temperatures was causing many bucks to shed their antlers early.
The next day was more of the subzero same as I settled into the granary watch. The storm was winding up again, and the truck barely made it in for my drop off. Visibility was diminished to just a few hundred yards. As I deliberated my extraction, I caught sight of something brown outside the granary. It was a buck, snowplowing early to get to feed before the storm blew up. I slowly raised my muzzleloader that was already pointed through a slat and waited for the buck to fully appear above the snowbanks for a broadside shot.
The buck eventually appeared in full sight, and as if on cue, he paused to rest from deep-snow exhaustion. I depressed the trigger and lost the buck in a cloud of smoke and whiteout conditions.
The amassing snow meant an immediate tracking job as blood would disappear under the drifting conditions. Luckily, I found him and had finished my field dressing when the welcoming sight of a four-wheel-drive tractor lit up the white darkness around me. It’s the only time I’ve ever had to retrieve and exit a hunt with the help of a John Deere.
When weather conditions turn extreme, whitetails herd up, making it nearly impossible to get within shooting range. Too many eyes and noses offer the ultimate in species survival. By setting up in a location deer think is secure, you can lure them into the perfect ambush. The granary I used was in the middle of an open field where deer felt safe because they could see everything in the white backdrop. Old machinery, a building, or a weedy fence line seems nonthreatening to deer, but you can use it as the perfect hide.
THE LAND OF OZ SUCKS. OR DOES IT BLOW?
Kansas is hard to hate. Monster bucks live from border to border in the Land of Oz, but the rifle season extends into December with weather variabilities as unpredictable as flying monkeys.
My buddy Greg illuminated the ladder with his flashlight. “Sit here,” he said and left me at the foot of the tower stand. An array of cables and lashings indicated the Kansas winds weren’t favorable to the stand’s continuing upright nature. I hustled up the ladder, strapped myself in, and pulled up the hood on my parka to wait for shooting light.
At dawn the view was incredible. I could see all aspects of the entire farm from the cliffside perch. It overlooked a soybean field and gave me extended views to food plots and timber nearly a mile away in the productive Flint Hills.
Even so, after three days of hunting in chilly conditions, I still hadn’t seen an inkling of a post-rut buck on any of the food plots save for a glimpse of a tall-tined buck at the other end of the farm. And the weather prognosticators were once again forecasting white hell. A storm led by freezing rain, snow, and powerful winds was on its way.
The next morning I gripped the ladder for dear life as winds measuring 40 mph rocked the stand. Fortunately, I had donned enough layers to protect myself in the exposed tower and harnessed in for the long morning. Whitetails stayed on the soybean longer than usual, but no bucks appeared save for a couple of up-and-comers.
I grabbed lunch in the cab of Greg’s truck and prepared for more afternoon wind-chill agony as ice pelted the windshield.
The storm was in full force as I climbed back into the tower. Ice and snow mixed with the full-strength power of the Kansas wind. The storm’s uptick was definitely testing my winter clothing system when a dark shape darted from the timber. It was a buck—and definitely a shooter.
Now came the real challenge. Battering winds swayed my reticle, and the snowy sight window made it hard to discern the buck. I leaned into the rail hard and used my shooting sticks to help steady the butt of the rifle. With some adjusting, I finally felt comfortable that I could pull off the 200-yard shot between gusts. When the wind dropped for a moment, I inhaled and slowly exhaled while depressing the trigger. The buck staggered a second and then dropped on the spot from the power of a 180-grain SST bullet.
Greg showed up right before dark, I was happy to hitch a ride in the cozy cab of the warm truck to collect my trophy. Next stop: a hot shower.
Not only do you have to endure wicked winter conditions, but also you have to be able to pull off a shot when a fleeting opportunity arises. By carrying my shooting sticks into the open tower stand I used them to support the rear of my rifle with the forearm resting on the rail. This provided me with a nearly solid, benchrest stability to make a shot when conditions allowed. Don’t forget about shooting accurately while lasting out the weather.