Hunt Bucks When It Rains!: Part Two
Written By: Cal Kellogg, October 11, 2013 Species: N/A,
In the last edition of The Fish Sniffer, Cal Kellogg kicked off this discussion of rainy day deer tactics. Here is part two of that article-Editor.
From a behavioral standpoint, rain helps the hunter because it increases daylight deer activity and can snap pressured bucks out of their nocturnal pattern. While most experts agree that deer activity increases during rainy conditions, they disagree as to why. Some experts attribute it to the low light conditions that accompany rain. These light levels, they speculate, being similar to those of dawn and dusk, encourage blacktails to feed. Others contend that blacktails have an internal barometer of sorts that warns them that bad weather is coming. The deer react by feeding heavily at the outset of a storm knowing that harsh conditions may curtail their ability to feed in the coming days.
I think there is truth in both theories, but I believe additional factors may be at work. Perhaps the lack of moonlight due to overcast skies makes nocturnal feeding difficult, and the virtual absence of hunting pressure when it’s raining undoubtedly contributes to the spike in deer activity we observe.
Local Or Migratory Herd?
I’m always amazed at the reluctance of hunters to operate in the rain. I remember a wet day in October 2000 when my hunting partner and I took a pair of big bucks within 300 yards of a well-traveled gravel road. Despite seeing dozens of road hunters, we didn’t see a single hunter in the woods hunting.
At the herd level, the behavioral effects of stormy weather can be dramatic. The West Coast has both resident and migratory blacktail populations. Resident blacktails, much like eastern whitetails, spend their lives within a few miles of their birthplaces. On an individual level, resident blacktails show increased feeding activity when confronted with rain, but the herd as a whole doesn’t change locations.
In contrast, migratory blacktails are nomads, spending summers in the high country and winters in low-elevation foothills. The first major cold storm of autumn generally triggers the migration. The hunting during such storms can be fantastic, as large numbers of blacktails stream out of the high country, headed for their low-elevation winter range.
To develop an effective wet weather strategy it’s critical to know whether you’re hunting a resident or migratory herd. This can be determined with a call to your region’s deer biologist. Pick up a topographical map of the area and study it prior to calling so you can identify any areas the biologist highlights.
If the biologist reports the deer in your area are migratory, ask about the elevation and basic location of the herd’s summer and winter ranges. Follow up with questions regarding the conditions that trigger the migration and the route the herd travels while migrating.
Finally, ask that the biologist give you an overview of the herd’s fall behavior. Some herds migrate directly from the high country to their winter ranges. Other herds filter down from the high country into the middle elevation hardwood belt, where they spend up to a month feeding on acorns before storms finally move them to the winter range.
Tactics When Things Turn Wet
Blacktails in any given region typically react in one of three ways when confronted with storms and precipitation: They either migrate, become active and feed, or hole up in sheltered areas. The key factor in determining how the blacktails react, beyond whether it’s a resident or migratory herd, is the severity and duration of the storm.
Blacktails that migrate do so in October and early November, during the first snow of the year. Before and after the migration these deer respond to rain in the same way as resident blacktails, meaning they become active during daylight hours and feed vigorously. Heavy sustained rain or strong winds drive both migratory and resident blacktails to seek refuge in dense cover.
When it’s raining, both stand and still-hunting tactics can be effective. To maximize success, it’s important to tailor your approach to the weather and the anticipated or observed reaction of the deer. In situations when deer are actively migrating or feeding, stand-hunting is always my first choice. If I can set up in a concealed location and have the blacktails come to me, I’ve got to take advantage of it. Sure, I could score in the same situation while still-hunting and I might even see more deer, but using that approach I’d run a much greater risk of being spotted and spooking deer.
Superficially, stand-hunting seems simple. You just plop down in the woods and patiently wait until a buck sneaks into view. In practice, however, stand-hunting is much more complicated than that. The criteria I use for selecting a migration stand are different from those I apply when selecting a stand aimed at intercepting a feeding buck.
I locate migration stands based on terrain and the elevation of the herd prior to the arrival of autumn’s first major storm. I like to set up 1,000 feet below the herd’s elevation, near terrain features that concentrate deer movement. Saddles, points, canyon junctions, and breaks in rimrock are examples of the areas I target.
Finding productive stands in feeding areas usually requires more legwork than locating migration stands, which can sometimes be pinpointed from home using a topographic map. For rainy day hunting I like to target food sources such as acorns, fruit trees, grapevines and berry patches that show evidence of deer activity in close proximity to bedding cover.
If you’re lucky enough to stumble on such a spot that also features buck sign in the form of recent rubs, guard its location closely, because it has the potential to be a wet weather hotspot.
In situations when deer are holed up in thick cover and refuse to move as a result of heavy rains, winds or both, still-hunting becomes the tactic of choice. For me periods of strong wind have always been productive. Deer absolutely hate strong wind because it effectively nullifies their senses and makes them feel vulnerable. As a result deer seek out and concentrate in areas that have the least wind. I generally focus my efforts on areas of brush situated on the downwind side of ridges. The knowledge that bucks prefer to stay on the upper third of ridges allows me to further refine my attack, resulting in several close encounters over the years.