Foul Weather Whitetails
A cold November rain beat down on the hunt camp's old tin roof, forcing everyone in the bunkhouse to crack open one eyelid and smile quietly in the dark. The hard rain brought relief as well as a tinge of guilt - the former because it provided the tired hunters of our camp with a good excuse to sleep in; the latter because it was only day three of our hunt.
But when one of our camp's keener hunters reminded us that whitetails tend to move in weather just like this, the guilt got the better of me. Minutes later, I grumbled, left the warmth and comfort of my sleeping bag, and donned warm clothes and rain gear.
Less than an hour later, I was dressing out a nice doe, one of three deer I was able to sneak up on that wet morning, and the first of two that I shot that day, the latter being a respectable buck.
Throughout the years, I've witnessed many circumstances just like that - instances where the decision to tough it out in foul weather lead to more meat on the game pole and a warm feeling inside.
A Basic Premise
Weather affects the movement and behaviour of all animals (ourselves included.) I don't know of anyone who would dispute this, but I do know that too few of us consider this in the planning or execution of our hunts - we hunters are sometimes creatures of habit too. As a result, many of us hunt the same cover in the same way regardless of the weather. Others simply refuse to hunt at all in poor weather.
The choice is yours, but if you understand how foul-weather affects whitetails, you'll be better prepared to make the right decision, hunt in the best locations, and use the right techniques on those less than perfect days.
They say that into each life a little rain must fall. Deer know this and have developed survival strategies to deal with it.
Typically, short-lived or light rainfalls do not alter their normal movement patterns, except perhaps positively. If a light rain comes on the heels of unseasonably hot days, for instance, the cooler accompanying temperatures often encourage more activity. Similarly, I believe that deer take advantage of the fact that the woods are less crowded with hunters on rainy days.
Longer storms, lasting more than a day or two, however, are a different story, especially when combined with cold temperatures. In these conditions, deer will often take shelter in heavy cover after the first day - they seem to know that the wet weather's going to last a while. Then, look for them lying low beneath spruce trees, in cedar groves, or other places where they can stay relatively dry.
The severity of a rainfall also has a definite influence on all of this. As noted, a light drizzle is not apt to affect deer movement much, but a heavy and violent deluge can change their behaviour entirely. During these driving rains, deer might get up from their beds later in the morning or wait out the downpour altogether. Whether this is an effort to maintain creature comforts or merely due to the fact that the rain impairs their hearing and makes scenting difficult, is anyone's guess. I suspect it's a combination of all these things.
Lastly, it's my theory that nocturnal deer are easier to kill on rainy days. Instead of slipping back to their bedding areas at the first sign of dawn, the dimmer light of a dark and overcast morning keeps them out just a little longer, giving hunters a slim window of opportunity right when legal shooting time begins. Conversely, at dusk, they'll leave their beds a little earlier too. It's just a theory, but I've seen it proved more than once.
Snowfalls seem to influence deer in the same way as rain. Certainly, just prior to, and just after a protracted snowstorm, deer tend to be on the move and, in fact, there are few better times to be in the woods. But in the middle of that storm, they will, in most cases, bed down - again, in heavier cover that's out of the wind. Typically, these covers also inhibit deep snow accumulations.
During these storms it's often difficult to even find a fresh track. The ones that were made at the beginning of the storm have been buried and since deer are not moving, or only utilizing small sheltered areas, it can often seem like deer have picked up and left. If that's the case, rely on your knowledge of the local terrain and hunt all the heavy cover in the area. You might not see a deer in the thick stuff but if you find a freshly vacated bed and the tracks leading out, you're probably not too far behind. Often small pushes through heavy cover pay big dividends too.
We all know that whitetails rely on the wind to bring them the scent of potential predators. But sometimes we forget that when wind velocities pick up, whitetails get skittish. Why wouldn't they? Turbulent ever-changing winds play havoc with their primary defense - their nose. More than that, a good wind will shake branches, throw leaves around, and sometimes even fall trees. Each of these things is enough to put an already high-strung animal on edge.
When this is the case, deer will often take shelter on the lee side of cover until calmer conditions prevail. Or they might be active in valleys, gulleys, and fields with good windbreaks. Consider this the next time you wake to a blustery autumn day in the deer woods.
Though fog is not actually foul weather, it also deserves mention because it too changes deer behaviour. My experience suggests that deer actually move more under the cover of fog, perhaps for the same reason that they prefer moving under cover of darkness - sight predators, like man, are at an obvious disadvantage.
I've had many encounters with whitetails in the fog. There are logical reasons for this too. To begin with, when there's fog hanging over your hunting grounds, there's usually very little wind. And just as your vision is inhibited, so too is the deer's. Furthermore, sound is muffled. All these things work in our favour.
The bottom line then is that hunters who move slowly and carefully can get very close to undisturbed whitetails when still-hunting in the fog. And stand hunters, in the right location, have even more concealment.
If you're used to northern hunting seasons, as I am, oppressive heat is probably the farthest thing from your mind during deer season. But it does happen on occasion.
When that's the case, deer will bed down in cool places, often near water, just as you'd expect. Activity is then concentrated in the cool of the early morning, at dusk, and through the night. They're just trying to avoid overheating and dehydration in much the same way cattle do on a hot day.
It's also interesting to note that on hot dry days they're like dogs in that their scenting abilities aren't working as well as they normally do. On days like this I've seem them getup from beds in shady areas that offer good lines of sight. I'm not sure if there's a connection, but it is something to consider.
In any case, on unseasonably hot days, hunt from stands early and late in the day and spend mid-day poking around river bottoms, the shady side of ridges, wetlands and the like. And during prolonged droughts any place where they water is also good bets.
When all is said and done, foul weather hunting revolves around creature comforts, for both the deer and the deer hunter. Both need to decide whether their need to be out in foul weather outweighs their need for comfort.
As for me, I'm convinced that a warm sleeping bag and a few extra minutes of shut-eye are easily forgotten. A day like the one I wrote about, however, lives in your memory forever.
Steve Galea is a full-time outdoors writer who lives in central Ontario, Canada. He divides his time afield between hunting big game, chasing ducks, geese, and upland game, and fly fishing the lakes and rivers around his home. An award-winning columnist, his work is featured in several community newsapers as well as leading outdoors magazines.