Every time we step off the asphalt into the country's wilderness, we carry with us a considerable store of outdoor lore, some of it based on personal hunting experience, some on information gleaned from our peers and our mentors and some on what we have read and heard in magazines and on programs. Our moment-to-moment decisions, regardless of how big or small, are based on this accumulated storehouse of both conscious and subconscious knowledge.
Yet, when it comes to hunting lore, more is not necessarily better since a portion of our accumulated knowledge is inevitably based on myths, superstitions and old wives' tales. Good hunters are able to separate founded fact from unfounded belief and are more consistently successful than those who do not.
In no aspect of hunting - especially deer hunting - is this more true than in our fixed notions regarding weather and how it affects animal behavior. Take, for instance, the hard and fast rule often heard at hunting camps that deer do not travel in the rain; fact is that October's cold downpours dampen our spirits and we condone our reluctance to venture out with this accepted myth.
Furthermore, by staying near the warmth of the fire, we inevitably strengthen the belief that one rarely encounters deer when it's raining.
Fact is that, within reason, deer do go about their daily business whether it's raining or not. Provided you're not in the midst of a torrential downpour, the hunting is actually excellent since the deer seem to be somewhat less wary and the hunter is able to move about silently on the sodden leaves.
Essentially, an understanding of how weather affects deer movements is based on common sense. Like all creatures, whitetailed deer seek comfort, retreating to cool havens in warm weather and protected shelter on cold days. They dislike blustery winds but seem unconcerned by a light drizzle. There are days when hunters should hunt and days when the best course of action is, indeed, to stay home.
I never fully understood the reactions of deer to the degree of wind velocity until I started to photograph them on a tract of land permanently closed to all hunting. Though far from tame, the deer were, to some extent accustomed to the presence of humans in the area and, on most visits, I was able to come away with at least one or two rolls of photographs. However, during periods of gusty or heavy winds, I counted myself lucky to get half a dozen exposures and these were usually photos taken in desperation.
The clue, I found, was the degree of branch movement generated by the wind. A light breeze which barely bends the branches of thickets seemed to be tolerated by the deer and perhaps welcomed. The animals are quite active at sunrise and sunset before the wind rises after sunrise and after it stills at sunset, but they also seem to be more relaxed on days when the breezes are calm. On the other hand, the deer were timid and reclusive when the branches of trees began to bend with the wind. They still went about their business, but they tended to be extremely skittish and nervous about showing themselves in openings.
Since that time, I've applied the same knowledge to hunting situations and found that the pattern holds true. During gale force winds that rattle the treetops, you might come across a whitetail that's been bumped out of its bed by another hunter, but for the most part, they'll lie low until the weather settles down again. During calm days, on the other hand, the deer go about their normal daily movements.
I like storms; in fact, the worse the storm and the longer it lasts they better I like it. They tend to concentrate and increase deer activity into the periods immediately prior to the start of bad weather and after it is over. Heavy downpours that pound the forest floor, accompanied by high, gusty winds will send the deer for cover, but my favorites are snowstorms. Like most wild creatures, whitetails sense the approach of a storm front about as far in advance as can our own sophisticated weather apparatus and begin to intensify their activities as much as 48 hours prior to start of the storm. The day before the storm hits usually provides outstanding hunting.
Storms often create spikes in deer activity. The period immediately
before a storm and the day or two after it are good times to hunt.
The worse the storm, I've found, the more inclined the deer are to find shelter until it blows over. And the worse the storm, the heavier the feeding activity once fair weather returns. If a howler is followed by blue sky, glorious sunshine and above freezing temperatures, drop whatever you're doing and go hunting; I don't think there's a better time to spot deer. Glass the forest edges carefully because whitetails tend to feed heavily after a blizzard or, if you prefer to stand hunt, pick a location just off the major runways and keep watch at least until noon.
Most hunters concentrate their activities from dawn to about 8:30 in the morning, but nobody told the deer that they were supposed to move only during this time slot. I've found that whitetails are most active between 7:30 in the morning and noon; during the afternoon there tends to be a slump in activity that lasts until three or four o'clock.
There's yet another angle to the whitetail's reaction to heavy blizzards inasmuch these conditions trigger deer migrations. In areas of higher terrain like the foothills of the Rockies, deer migrate down off the hillsides just ahead of the snow accumulations. In areas like Maine and the Adirondacks of New York, the approach of a severe weather system can start the migration of deer toward their yarding areas. If you're familiar with these migration corridors, it pays to stay tuned to weather forecasts for the region you'll be hunting. Look for blizzard or heavy snow warnings in the forecast. When they do show, you'll do well to stand hunt along the migration corridors starting about 48 hours prior to the storm and even during the first day of the storm itself.
As I mentioned earlier, rain tends to dampen our enthusiasm as hunters, but within reason, does little to affect the movements of deer. Sodden days when the clouds hang low on the land and a light drizzle falls like a mist are perfect days for hunting -- the deer seem to feel secure under these conditions and tend to be highly active during the better part of the day, yet the hunter can stalk silently through the forest on a soft carpet of damp leaves. A light to moderate rain does little to curtail the movements of deer.
On the other hand, a sudden cloudburst seems to spook the animals, probably because of the sound on the heavy raindrops falling on the leaf litter. A prolonged heavy downpour also seems to reduce their activities, provided the heavy rain does not continue for more than a day. Heavy rains that last longer than that are likely due to a major weather system of one kind or another and should be treated as are other storms described earlier.
Deer tend to maintain well-defined patterns of movement that are governed by the season. During the fall, the patterns change at an accelerated rate, but they remain patterns nonetheless. The changes actually start in early September when the bucks shed their velvet and the pace of life regains a measure of stability when they loose their antlers in late December. Between the two events, bucks generally spend the first three weeks feeding leisurely and, from time to time, sparring with other bucks to lay the groundwork of dominance. From the beginning of October to late in the month, they tend to lie low, feeding as much as they can and moving as little as is necessary in order to lay on a heavy store of fat. The rut kicks off in early November with increasingly heavy scraping and rubbing, then peaks in midmonth when the majority of does come in heat. Bucks continue to rut right into December since there are always a few unbred does and females that come into late heat.
Through most of October, whitetail bucks seek out secluded havens
where they feed and lay on reserves in preparation for the oncoming rut.
On a seasonal basis, you can almost use this pattern as a calendar, but on a day-to-day basis, weather can bring about deviations to the pattern. A stint of weather in mid-October, cool enough to coat the shrubs with a crystalline fringe of frost, will motivate the deer to move more than they normally would for that particular period so it's worthwhile for the hunter to select a stand and take up that position before the crack of dawn for the morning's hunt. If the cool weather persists into the afternoon, I like to work the sunwashed south slopes during the afternoon, glassing carefully to find a watchful buck bedded down and warming its hide in the sun. I also like to head out a bit earlier for the evening hunt during frosty weather since the deer seem to be active earlier.
By the same token, unseasonably warm weather during November slows the deer down and they tend to restrict their movements to the early- and late-day coolness. On the other hand, drop the temperature too far, add a bitter ground wind and the deer again restrict their movements. Stand hunting under the latter conditions tends to be relatively unproductive, whereas still-hunting the lee edges of evergreen stands will produce bucks.
The most difficult situation of all is the arrival of sweltering hot weather often associated with Indian summer. This is more than just a mild spell, this is downright hot weather when the daytime temperatures climb above 80 degrees Fahrenheit and the mosquitoes come out for one last torment. Everything tells me that the deer should be secluded away in the coolest nooks of the forest where cool breezes swirl. Nevertheless, I have a great deal of trouble finding them. I look for them along the edges of windswept ridges, along hillsides away from the sun and in the cool, moist cedar thickets -- all the places where I'd want to linger to find relief from the heat -- and yet the deer might as well have disappeared off the face of the earth.
During hot Indian summer days, look for deer in shaded sanctuaries
where they can find shade and cooling breezes.
Thankfully, there are few days such as these -- days that prove that deer still have refuge in the depths of the forest. And days that are best spent in search of grouse and woodcock.
Bottom line, however, is that under most conditions, deer hunting can be productive provided you know how weather affects deer, how they react to weather systems and where to find them in rain and snow, warm weather and cold. That's the secret to being a consistently successful deer hunter.
George Gruenefeld has been hunting big game for over four decades and his travels have taken him to several continents. Most of the time, though, he concentrates his efforts on the Prairies and mountains of Western Canada.