Find the food source
The primitive firearms season begins the third Monday after Thanksgiving and ends December 31 each year. With cold weather setting in and the rut ending, focusing on food sources is the best approach to encounter deer. Hunters should concentrate on areas where acorns and beech nuts remain on the ground, apple orchards, fields planted with winter rye, or other natural food sources. In addition, shrubby thickets and young forest areas that regenerate following timber harvests can also draw deer in to browse during the winter months.
Advanced tip: White oak acorns are preferred by deer but are also eaten by other wildlife and can disappear pretty quickly. At this point, deer will move onto acorns from red oaks and other oak species. If you find a patch of white or red oak acorns, this is a good place to direct your efforts.
Keep your powder dry
When hunting with a muzzleloader, you generally only get one shot to harvest a deer and a misfire can rob you of any chance of success. Misfires can be caused by wet black powder or black powder substitute. To keep powder dry, store it in the original container until you’re ready to put it into your barrel or into a “speedy load,” which is watertight. Once the powder is in your barrel, place a small balloon or piece of tape over the end to keep water, snow, and debris from getting in. Don’t worry, it won’t affect the accuracy of your muzzleloader. Also, be careful to keep percussion caps or 209 primers dry.
Advanced tip: Several different brands of black powder substitute are available for use in many modern muzzleloaders. Consult the manual or the manufacturer of your muzzleloader to see if using black powder substitute is an option. These black powder substitutes have the advantage over traditional black powder in that they cause less fouling in your barrel, are easier to store and clean properly, and in some cases offer enhanced resistance to moisture.
Keep yourself warm
If you’re comfortable and warm, you will be able to sit still for longer and be ready if you get the opportunity to take a shot. During this late season in Massachusetts, staying warm can be a challenge. Dress in layers with moisture wicking material close to your body. Remember that cotton has little insulating ability when dry and zero insulating ability when wet, so avoid cotton clothes for your hunt at all costs. To keep your core warm, select a performance base layer, and insulating middle layer, and make sure to include a windproof fabric in one of your outer layers—and don’t forget the hand warmers!
In extreme cold, it’s also important to insulate yourself from the ground and from your treestand. Without extra insulation, the metal platform of a treestand can quickly pull heat from the bottom of your feet even if you are wearing the best winter boots. Carry an insulated seat cushion to sit on and some type of insulating material, like a piece of a foam sleeping pad used for camping, to stand on to keep your whole body warmer.
Advanced tip: Dressing in all your layers for the walk to a treestand often results in sweating. This extra moisture can make you cold and ruin your hunt. Carry heavy outer layers with you in a backpack and put them on once you arrive at your stand.
Bowhunting in the cold
Bowhunters face an extra challenge when hunting this late season as they must balance the need to keep warm with the need to draw a bow. Quality clothing and careful layering are needed to minimize bulkiness that can make it difficult to draw or interfere with your bowstring when you release. Be sure to practice shooting your bow while wearing all the layers, you may find it necessary to adjust the draw weight of your bow down a little.
You’re free to bulk up with warm clothing from the waist down so choose warm and windproof layers for your legs. Keep your feet warm with well-insulated boots and consider using disposable foot warmers or rechargeable heated insoles.
Advanced tip: Wearing a glove under your release and on your bow hand can change your anchor point and therefore affect your accuracy. Practice shooting with the gloves you hunt with or wear a thin glove and use handwarmers to keep your hands warm. You can find a wide variety of reusable and disposable hand and body warmers, including adhesive handwarmers.