Late season hunting equals spending lots of time on food sources, right? Well, that certainly can be a good strategy, especially in cold temperatures. After all, deer have to eat to stay warm and are only concerned with building their bodies back up after all the energy they expended during the pre and peak rut, right? Righ…uhhmmm…not exactly.
Last year I was fortunate and drew Iowa deer tags for the first firearms season that ran Dec. 2-6. I had never hunted that season in Iowa, and everyone “in the know” told me to pray for bitter cold so the deer were forced to food sources. I was told over and over that if it is cold the hunt is phenomenal, but if it isn’t, you are in trouble. I watched the weather channel religiously leading up to the trip, and the frigid finger of winter seemed to be firmly pointing to my destination.
I was hunting out of Judd Cooney’s camp for the first time, and that was exciting in itself. Most hunters who read magazines are familiar with Judd’s name as he has been an outdoor writer and photographer for more than 30 years, and besides magazine articles, Cooney has authored a small library of books. Judd is best known for his expertise on calling and decoying big game of all sorts, but especially whitetails. I knew if nothing else, I would learn something useful from Judd on this trip, even if I didn’t come home with an Iowa bruiser.The cold weather didn’t disappoint, as the thermometer stayed in the mid-teens during the afternoon before the hunt when we checked the zero on our guns. The first two firearms seasons in Iowa are shotgun or muzzleloader, and I chose my T/C .50 caliber Pro Hunter muzzleloader because I know it shoots great groups out to 200 yards. I had to make some adjustments to my scope thanks to the delicate airline baggage handlers, but by suppertime, I was once again shooting with confidence.
After we ate, Judd told me a about where I would be hunting and why the stand was there. He explained that I would be in the bottom of a wooded hollow on the edge of an old dried up pond. There was bedding and thick cover behind me and on the ridge in front, Judd had a long food plot of turnips. Cooney said that in the morning deer would come from the food plot and cross the hollow on the way to their beds, and vice versa in the afternoon. It made sense to me and was what I would have expected on a late season hunt.
The next morning I began to see deer as soon as I could see at all through my Nikon Premier LX binocular, and that was quite a while earlier than I could with my naked eyes. The temperature at dawn was right around zero with a forecast high of seven degrees. Deer crossed through the dry pond and across the old dam constantly until 11:30 AM when Judd picked me up. I saw lots of small bucks and does, but nothing to get excited about.
After a quick bowl of soup and sandwich to warm my core, I was back on stand by 1:00 PM. I hadn’t been in the stand five minutes when the first deer came by, and the parade continued steadily until dark. Just at last light, I had a nice buck come out and pose on the pond dam at about 65 yards, and I really debated on whether to shoot. He was a beautiful 9-pointer that I guessed would go around 140-inches. He was the 82nd deer I had seen on stand that day, and I elected to pass thinking that with all the action I had witnessed and the weather remaining cold, I would surely see a bigger buck over the next four days.
No one shot a deer the first day, but everyone in camp had seen good bucks. The thing I hadn’t expected was that the deer I saw didn’t follow any pattern. They moved toward, away and parallel to the food plot throughout the day, and honestly, the early and late hours were no better than mid-day. It was cold, and deer were on their feet all day.
I got another Cooney seminar that evening. Judd told me that he wanted me to take rattling antlers and a grunt call with me the following day, and he said that every 15-30 minutes, I should make a sequence of calls. I looked at Judd in bewilderment, but he went on to explain his advice. “Even though peak rut has been over for a couple of weeks, calling will still work. I have called in lots of good bucks here through the month of December. We have a high doe to buck ratio here, and with all of these does, there are some that are in heat from late October all the way through December. Yes, the peak is over, but I guarantee you if a buck thinks there is a hot doe around, he will seek her out and breed her, no matter how tired he is.”
Cooney went on, “One thing that is to our advantage now, is that since a high number of does will not be in estrous now, the situation is a lot like when there is a better buck to doe ratio. The bucks are only concerned with the receptive does, and since there are very few of those, there are more bucks out there than hot does. So taking that into consideration, you can have some pretty stiff competition for those few hot does. That is where calling comes in.”
I am not the smartest guy in the world, but all this was beginning to make sense to me. I asked Judd why rattling would be the most effective, and he continued, “If there is a hot doe around, you can bet that there will be competition for her. It would be completely natural for two bucks to fight over her. Rattling will be heard farther and get more response. You are only concerned with shooting a mature buck, so you don’t have to worry about the rattling scaring the big boys away. I am not saying that every time you smack the horns a monster buck is going to run over you, but rattle often and you have a better chance of getting that response you are looking for. Again, don’t worry about scaring deer away, because it will only be the small bucks that get spooked.”
So that night, I got Judd’s rattling antlers and stashed some buck scent and my Knight & Hale EZ Grunter in my backpack. If I rattle, I always use a grunt call and put out scent. The grunting makes the rattling more realistic, and when a buck tries to circle down wind of the rattling, he expects to smell deer. So I was all ready to go do a lot of calling the next day.
When I climbed in the stand just before sunrise, the temperature was two degrees and there was a 20 mph wind. It felt much colder than the day before due to the wind chill, and I must admit that it was bordering on miserable. I saw deer off and on for the first hour, though not as many as the day before. I have to admit, I was so cold, that I didn’t want to move to reach down and pickup the rattling antlers. I had put a lot of scent out at 50 yards, but I figured it was frozen, so my whole “attracting deer” regime went out the window. I remember sitting there thinking that I was going to have to rattle once at some point so I could tell Judd I tried but it just didn’t work, and it wouldn’t be a lie.
About 9 O’clock I saw some deer in the hardwoods on the east-facing hillside down the hollow. I looked through my 10×42 Nikon’s and saw a doe and what looked to be a decent buck. They were slowly feeding in the timber, and though they weren’t moving much, they seemed to be easing away. I finally got a better look at the buck, and I saw what I thought was a pretty good beam and two tines. I assumed he was likely a good 8-point. It was obvious they weren’t coming my way, so I decided to bite the bullet and rattle.
I grunted loudly and crashed the horns together, and my stiff hands almost shattered. The buck immediately threw his head up and looked my way. I continued to rattle and grunt, and he turned and began a stiff legged march away from the doe and toward me. I was amazed but kept up the calling, and the buck was on a string right to me. He had to pass through a small drain to get closer, and I figured that was when I could lay down the antlers and grab my muzzleloader.
As soon as he went out of sight in the dip, another deer came out on my side. This was a 2 ½ year-old 8-pointer, and my heart sank. The small buck looked over his shoulder and ran up the hill, and I spotted the original buck emerging from the drain. He was definitely a mature buck, and on a quick glance I could see four tines on his left beam and good mass.
The buck never broke stride and was on a path that would lead straight in front of my stand on his way to get down wind. There was a good opening in the tangled woods about 65 yards directly ahead of me, and when the buck stepped into it, he stopped as if on cue. I brought the crosshairs of my Nikon Monarch down behind his shoulder and gently squeezed the trigger of my T/C Pro Hunter. The steady wind blew the Triple 7 smoke away immediately, and I saw the big bodied buck kick and race up the hill. He piled up a mere 40 yards into his sprint.
When I got to my Iowa prize, I was pleasantly surprised. The heavy antlered buck had split brow tines and a typical 5×6 configuration. The 13-pointer had good mass that was almost palmated on the beams around the G-2’s and G-3’s. He was definitely a better buck than I originally thought.
When Judd came to pick me up, I admitted that his plan worked to perfection, but I originally wasn’t going to go through with it because I didn’t want to move in the intense cold. In Judd’s easy going way, he just laughed at me and gave me an unmalicious, “I told you so.”
Sometimes when we deer hunt, we need to think out of the box. Normally I would have sat quietly on a food plot the entire hunt, but thanks to Judd’s vast knowledge and time proven calling tactics, I had one of the most exciting and unexpected hunts of my life. No matter how much we hunt or how much success we have, we can always learn, and when you have the opportunity to spend time with a seasoned hunter such as Judd Cooney, you will gain a wealth of knowledge if you will just listen.
Getting An Iowa Deer Tag
For those hunters interested in big bodied and big antlered whitetails, Iowa needs to be on the short list. Deer from this state remind me of the bucks from northern Canada. Iowa deer tags are on a draw basis, and because there are so many different seasons with different weapon choices, etc., you should go to http://www.iowadnr.com and read the deer regulations and license applications thoroughly.
If you do not draw a license, you earn a preference point for the following season. Generally the application period is the month of May. Archery season is traditionally October 1- November 30, and the firearms and primitive weapons season vary during December and January.
A Few Tips to Stay Warm
For me, there are three keys to staying warm in extreme cold. I have to have a great base layer to regulate my core temp and get rid of perspiration and moisture, I have to keep vascular areas such as neck writes, and head warm, and I have to keep my feet warm. If I can’t do these three things, I am doomed and won’t be able to stay on stand.
Under Armour’s new Base Layer 3.0 legging and ColdGear Metal Mock are the warmest pieces of “long underwear” I have ever found. Both have moisture wicking properties beyond compare, so you will stay warm and dry. I always cover my head and neck with a gaiter and knit hat in the cold, and in extreme cold, I am now a believer in the heat exchanger masks that use your warm breath to circulate into your parka. For my wrists, I find that cutting the toes out of wool socks and pulling them over my wrists seals out the cold from the gap that can form between cloves and coat cuff.
On the subject of warm feet, a book could be written, but the only way my toes stay warm is to wear a premium sock with chemical hand warmers taped on my feet inside a premium pack boot with lots of high loft insulation. Cabela’s makes two to three different pairs of pack boots that fit the bill, and I always buy mine a few sizes too big to make sure there is plenty of room for a nice envelope of warm air around my feet.