When the mercury soars, you can still find success in the whitetail woods.
You didn’t need to feel it; you could see it was cold. A dense glazing of hoarfrost coated the tall canary grass and smartweed. As the big buck stepped into the clearing, steam spouted from his nostrils like a twin-stack semi. With eyes wide and ears perked forward, he turned and moved aggressively toward the grunt call. Two more steps and he’d be in bow range. My heart began to pound.
Unfortunately, instead of witnessing this first-hand, I was watching it on a motel room TV. Videographer Scott Underhill had preceded me to Illinois to set up stands, do some scouting and, if time allowed, hunt the early morning and late afternoon hours. Time did allow, and when early November temperatures plummeted to the mid-20s the morning before my arrival, Scott had his close encounter with the big 180-inch non-typical we were now watching on the screen.
That video fired me up for the hunt, but the enthusiasm didn’t last long. The next day, temperatures began a steady climb that would continue for the duration of my stay, peaking out close to 80 degrees on the last day. I wasn’t all that surprised when I failed to connect. However, I did have several close calls and saw more deer than you might expect under such circumstances. Part of the reason is that we adapted to the conditions.
Warm weather can be a bane to deer hunting. Sometimes it seems like every deer in the woods has gone underground. It can also have some unexpected effects, depending on timing, location and duration. Fortunately, by knowing how to adjust to warm weather, deer hunters can expect a reasonable chance for success, even under the worst set of circumstances.
The aforementioned hunt was actually during my second trip to the Land of Lincoln last year. The first came during the first week of October, hunting with good friend Scott Alread, and Doug Doty of Dream Woods Adventures. Conditions then were about as bad as you could imagine. Daytime temperatures nipped at the 90s and bottomed out in the low 70s at dawn and dusk. I’d rather have rain. I still had several BTR-class deer come within bow range during legal shooting hours, again because we hunted based on the conditions.
One of the few certainties of deer hunting is that you can’t get a deer sitting in camp. And a good friend once told me the best time to be in the woods is when the season’s open. Still, some times are better than others, and I believe the disparity is greatest early in the season.
South Carolina’s deer season begins Aug. 15. I used to think that was nuts, until my home state of Maine established an early bow season that begins just after Labor Day. It took me a few seasons to adjust, but I slowly began to realize that 90 percent of my deer sightings came during the first and last half-hour of daylight.
Hunting other hours was largely a waste of time. This narrow window of opportunity broadened on overcast days and rainy days. This can be particularly important if your hunting time is limited and you want to make the most of what you have.
I learned to adjust where I hunted. I spend a lot of late summer evenings scouting deer by driving around and glassing fields. I’ve noticed that bucks, particularly big ones, don’t come out until almost dark. I also noticed that I seldom saw bucks when hunting feeding areas. Gradually I began to move my stands closer to bedding areas. As I did, my buck sightings — and eventually my success rate on bucks — increased.
It’s helpful to know that deer bed in different areas during early and late seasons. Later in the year, they’re found more often in areas sheltered from prevailing winds. And in hilly terrain, you’ll find them on south-facing slopes that get the first morning sunlight.
The situation is almost reversed in the early season. They seek cool, well-shaded areas to bed. This carries over into feeding areas, too. In hilly terrain, air cools in the bottoms and draws first, and that’s where the deer first stir in the afternoon.
In both cases, these areas are often near water, and that’s not coincidence. Water is found most often in lowlands, which are naturally cooler. It also promotes denser plant growth, which provides more shade. Most importantly, it provides deer with a basic physiological need, one that becomes exponentially more important when it’s warm. This is particularly true in more arid areas like the west and southwest. When hunting the early season in Texas, I’ll take a waterhole over a corn feeder any day.
While water and bedding areas are often better choices, don’t overlook feeding areas entirely. Key in on locations rich with preferred early-season foods.
Food plots are becoming immensely popular in some parts of the country. When hunting food plots, the western side is almost always best for an afternoon stand, because that’s where the shadows start. You can watch deer progress into a plot following the lengthening shadows.
One plus about early season periods is that deer, particularly bucks, tend to follow fairly regular patterns. With that in mind, it’s best to take a gradual approach in hunting near bedding areas. Start farther away, watching for regular patterns. Work closer over several days while also trying not to over-hunt the area or introduce too much human odor.
As the season progresses, many of the same guidelines apply. However, the onset of the rut can complicate things. One of the most perpetuated deer hunting myths is that the rut is triggered by a good cold snap. In truth, we know that daylight is what triggers the rut. Cold weather just increases the amount of daytime deer movement. When the mercury climbs, bucks still seek, chase and breed does. They just do more of it at night.
I say most, because when the rut is on, a buck could show up almost any time and place. If the weather gets really hot, dawn and dusk are still your best bets, because bucks are following does, and does aren’t moving during the heat of day. Let the first shadows appear, however, and everything’s on its feet. Now the peak period lengthens to the first and last couple hours of daylight. Second peak periods occur around mid-morning — say 8:30, and between 10 and noon.
Other factors also influence the effects of a mid-season warm spell. If it came on fast after a lengthy cold spell, reduced deer movement will be more pronounced. Conversely, a gradual rise in temperatures will have less of an effect. The same can be true of a warm spell accompanied by poor weather. My absolute favorite conditions to hunt during the rut are a still day with a light drizzle, regardless of temperature.
There are times when exceptionally warm temperatures can actually be beneficial. One is during the late, late season. The colder the temperatures, the more deer move — up to a point. I was hunting in Alabama several years ago when temperatures plunged into the low 20s. Back home in Maine, that would have been ideal. In Alabama, it shut the deer down. Even in Maine, when temperatures drop to the single digits, deer — like most hunters — stay in bed.
Then along comes a freak warm spell and suddenly deer are on their feet. That is when you want to be hunting those south-facing slopes, dense softwood bottomlands or steep, sheltered draws. It’s also the time to hunt oak ridges, food plots or unpicked grain fields. Deer crave carbohydrates in the late season.
I’m primarily a stand hunter, but there are a few things that will get me on my feet and moving. One is a fresh tracking snow. The other is a warm spell. When the deer won’t come to you, go to them. And when they won’t move on their own, make them move.
Still-hunting is a great alternative to stand hunting during a warm spell. Put on your very best stalking boots and slip through the woods slowly and quietly. Remember to pause every four or five steps and glass ahead with good optics. Look for parts of a deer. Take advantage of wind, which covers your movement and noise.
For making deer move, I prefer a two- or three-man push to a good old-fashioned blanket-the-hills-in-orange Pennsylvania deer drive, for several reasons. One is that it’s hard to get enough guys together and organized. Another is that I want the deer moving slowly past the shooter. Third, a push offers the drivers better odds at getting a shot. They might sneak up on a bedded deer or catch one trying to slip around the other pusher.
“They’re just not moving” is a common lament among hunters during warm spells. However, some nice bucks are taken during these times. When the mercury soars and the deer quit moving, you have three choices. You can stay home. You can continue to hunt the same places in the same way and lament your lack of success. Or, you can adapt. Hit the hotspots during hot spells, and you can find deer under almost any conditions.
This article was published in the September 2007 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.