LATE-SEASON SUCCESS - When Food Plots Pay Off the Most

 By Bill Winke

Late season is the time when your food plots will pay off the most. Food plots are important throughout the rest of the year, but they are critical for hunting during the late season. 

For me, these past few seasons have confirmed a few things. First, you never can predict what is going to happen each season. That is a big part of what makes it so much fun. You go into the season expecting to hunt a certain couple of bucks and soon find yourself hunting something completely different. The killer stand from last year is lukewarm this year. Food supplies change, affecting deer patterns and the neighbor shoots “your” buck. It is all part of the fun. 

Second, last season showed me that trail cameras are the single best way to pattern big deer. They tell you almost everything you need to know. What an exciting tool.

Finally, this past season confirmed that the late season can be just as good as the rut when conditions are right. It was an amazing winter of hunting. 

When I say the conditions need to be right, I mean the weather has to cooperate, the deer need to feel comfortable and there must be an attractive food source. I’ll hit these keys to success one at a time. 


I am going to tell you about four hunts that took place late last season. One was a classic hunt and the other three were somewhat atypical. The classic hunt took place in mid-December. It was five degrees that day. Snow started falling late in the morning; by noon, there were six fresh inches on the ground and drifts building by the minute. Our kids came home from school early. Since our daughter had a deer tag, we welcomed this chance to slip out to the cabin stand, start a fire in the old wood stove and prop the muzzleloader in an open window facing the food plot that was once the cabin’s “yard”. The evening grew still and bitterly cold with the passing front.

These are classic conditions for late-season success; cold and snow push deer to travel to standing food sources where they can quickly and easily gain needed energy. We were on hand to watch. By sunset, the food plot was full of deer feeding heavily on the accessible food sticking above the new snow. One of the deer was a 150-inch buck that I had filmed in November while bowhunting from a stand nearby. He was now feeding just 70 yards away. He would make a great trophy for anyone. The fact that Jordan missed that dandy buck doesn’t detract from the fact that he was there and vulnerable. He was one of several bucks (the rest were all smaller) that made their way into the plot well before the end of shooting time that day.

That hunt is the classic vision of late-season hunting; cold, snow and deer in a panic to get to the accessible food.While these are definitely conditions I would look for when planning a late season strategy, you can also take great bucks under other conditions too, as these next three hunts will illustrate.

The third ice storm of the winter greeted Chad Lathrop and me as we headed out on the afternoon of Dec. 27. The previous several days had been warm and the snow and the inch-thick coat of ice from earlier in the month had melted off the fields, opening them up so the deer could get back to the waste grain they offered. Now after three weeks of cold weather and thick ice-covered fields, they were hungry and ready to take full advantage of the warmer conditions. Though it was barely less than freezing out, probably in the upper 20s, seemingly every buck on the farm came out in the fields.

Chad was along to film me as I hunted with my bow, but he also carried a muzzleloader and a late-season tag in his pocket. That way, if a buck came out that was too far for me to shoot, I could swing the camera over and film Chad shooting it instead. That is exactly what happened. Again, though the conditions were completely different, I found myself staring at another field full of deer. Right at sunset, a great eight-pointer came out of the trees at a distance of 50 yards to feed in the waste grain and was soon 70 yards out and well beyond bow range. It took us a few seconds to change stands, but soon I was filming Chad as he shot the magnificent buck.

The third hunt took place on Jan. 2, 2009 as my friend Mike Sawyer and his cousin Chris Mack were hunting along the edge of an Alfa-Rack field. By this time, all the snow and ice had melted away, opening up the fields for deer to graze. The deer were definitely taking advantage of it. Mike’s cousin was filming Mike’s hunt. It was a similar setup to mine and Chad’s. Chris had the muzzleloader and Mike had the bow. If a shooter came out close, Mike would draw down with the bow and if it came out in the distance, Chris would do the honors with the smoke pole.

That evening, a dandy, mature 130-inch nine-pointer came out just beyond bow range. Mike grabbed the camera and Chris pulled the gun off the hook. As the buck stepped out in the open, Chris made a great 60-yard offhand shot. Another late season buck in the back of the truck.

The next evening, Jan. 3, Chris returned the favor when he filmed Mike as he shot an incredible 180-inch gross-scoring basic eight-pointer. Mike made a 40-yard shot with his bow as the buck also was heading in the direction of the open fields to feed. Similar to the previous evening, the conditions were unseasonably warm and the bucks were on the move looking for available food. 

It is amisconception to think that it has to be cold for late-season success.While a cold snap during a stretch of otherwise seasonal weather will usually encourage deer to abandon normal caution in areas with moderate hunting pressure, cold is not an absolute necessity for late-season success.We have shot many nice bucks on average winter days.

The rigors of the rut are enough to push bucks to feed heavily during the late season. If they are not being pressured, they will fall into feeding patterns that bring them out during the daylight. However, if they are being pressured (or recently were pressured during the general firearms season) you will need more help in the form of unseasonably cold weather to cause them to set aside caution in favor of food.

OK, so weather is one condition that dictates lateseason success. It is not as important as most people think, but it does play a role. A cold snap will get them feeding actively, as will a warm snap after a prolonged period of cold. Watch for both conditions.


It is always hard to kill a buck that knows he is being hunted and that is especially true during the late season when the deer have been hunted hard during the regular firearms season. We intentionally avoid deer drives on our farm to keep the deer as relaxed as possible. We do hunt the firearms season some, but we don’t hit it hard. Instead, we favor giving the deer refuge during this time and then hunting them during the late season when they are more vulnerable on the food sources.

Moderate to light hunting pressure is the perfect condition for great late-season hunting. However, you can still enjoy some success during the late season even if the deer experienced heavy hunting pressure during the firearms season if they get peace and quiet for at least 10 days. Then they will start falling back into natural movement patterns. Again, cold temps help when the deer are wary.


Food may not be the absolute key to success during the rut, but it definitely is the key to success during the late season. Late season is when your food plots really pay for themselves. The rule: “He who has the food has the deer” could be called the cardinal rule after the rut.

It is very difficult to shoot a good buck (or even a deer of any kind) during the late season if you don’t have a good food source. It is all about the food. Most of the natural browse has been wiped out and the acorns vacuumed up by deer and turkeys in September and October. The deer are in search of something nutritious that packs an energy punch to help them stave off the brutal cold of winter. That is where your food plots need to come in.

WHAT TO PLANT: Ideally, you will plant food sources that are highly attractive and highly nutritional to deer during this time of great stress. That means foods that convert quickly and easily to energy — carbohydrates are ideal. However, in their absence, deer will also convert protein to energy.

Within the Whitetail Institute product lineup, that means you should specifically consider Pure Attraction, No-Plow and/or Winter-Greens for your late-season plantings. The nutritionists formulated these seed mixes to provide maximum forage and energy during the winter when deer need it most.

Outside the Whitetail Institute product lineup, you would be looking at corn and soybeans, primarily.

: The very best place for a winter food source is a secluded spot tucked away in the timber where deer can feel secure coming out during the day. But unfortunately, the notion of tucking an isolated food plot into the timber for months (you have to plant it during the spring or late summer, depending on the mix) without it being wiped out during the fall is not realistic. Typically, you should plant the small isolated plots to Imperial Whitetail Clover and hunt them during the rut. They make for some of the best rut hunting locations because the does will be in or near the fields and the bucks will be coming.

However, for late-season food sources to survive long enough to do you and the deer any good in the winter when you (and they) actually need them, these plots generally have to be either big or conspicuously removed from deer habitat — or both. In order to grow enough food, I have to do a little of both. I have a few medium-sized winter plots (four to five acres) that are tucked away but can withstand my moderate deer density throughout the fall without being wiped out. But, I also have a few plots that are on the edges of my commercial farm fields (the ones we sell) that are not as large but help to feed deer in the winter, as well.

Because these disconnected food plots are more exposed and the deer feel less secure in these places, the plots typically don’t get wiped out until late in the season. Also, they aren’t quite as good for hunting for the exact same reasons. However, when a cold spell follows warmer weather or a warm snap follows prolonged cold, the deer will hit these spots nearly as readily as they hit the more secluded fields before they were wiped out. Given my choices, I would definitely want only medium to large secluded plots instead of more exposed plots for all my hunting, including late season. But most situations aren’t perfect. You play the hand you are dealt or make drastic changes to the habitat.

Instead of making my isolated plots larger, I prefer to leave them small so they are prime for rut hunting. I am content to hunt the more exposed areas during the late season.


When the conditions are right, you really don’t need many hunts to be successful during the late season. It is as close to being a guaranteed deal as you will find when hunting mature bucks. While it is never wise to put all your eggs into one basket, you can be aggres- sive when you see the pieces falling into place during the late season. In other words, don’t sit back and watch when the mercury is dropping; get right in there and set up for a shot.

That is about the only difference between the late season and early season when bucks are also on food. During the late season, you should be more aggressive because it is easier to recognize when the odds are tipping in your favor. Yet the late season is similar to the early season from one important standpoint: If you don’t kill, you need to find a way to get back from the stand after the hunt without alerting the deer. If you don’t get a shot the first evening, you will likely need someone to come and move the deer off the field so you can vacate without alerting the deer.


Without a doubt, late-season success revolves around food sources. The better the food, the better the hunting. Every year that you have the best food in the neighborhood, you train the deer a little more to seek out your farm as soon as the rut ends. Soon, it will be a late-season buck sanctuary and you will know what I mean when I say that the late season can actually be better than the rut.

Maybe you are tempted to skimp on your food plots or maybe you think they are not worth the effort. You spend the rut hunting deep in the timber; how can that food help you? All I have to do to refute that argument is point to the three bucks we shot (and the one we missed) during the late season last year. They were all coming to food. We had more action in just a few days during this time than we did during the entire rut.