Rainy Day Blacktails
September 24, 2010
Throw on some rain gear and rubber boots for some of the best blacktail hunting of the year!
Photo by Chuck & Grace Bartlett
By Cal Kellogg
During autumn the West Coast's blacktail country often plays host to nasty storms that roll in off the Pacific. While it's true that rain is the nemesis of most outdoor sports, deer hunting stands in stark contrast, a fact lost on many hunters who let inclement weather signal the end of their hunt. For the hunter that understands blacktail behavior and how to take advantage of stormy conditions, rain is the strongest of allies.
My dad's knowledge of wet weather tactics played a key role in guiding me to my first blacktail in 1979, on a hunt that illustrates how stormy conditions, combined with an understanding of blacktail behavior and flexibility, can culminate in success during the worst conditions.
The season had wound down to the final three days and I'd yet to see a legal buck. For two days we hunted in a virtual downpour as a strong winter storm pounded our region. The blacktails had moved below the snow line but were holding in sheltered areas waiting for a break in the rain before continuing to their winter range. As a result, we spent the first two days still-hunting a series of brushy draws. The deer were holding tight and we almost had to step on them before they'd move. Combined with the dense brush and my inexperience in such conditions, still-hunting made for tough going. Dad said we'd have our best chance if there were a break in the weather before the season closed.
When the alarm clattered to life on the final Sunday of the season, Dad was already up heating water for breakfast. "Get dressed!" he exclaimed. "We're out of here in 30 minutes. The rain and wind stopped about three o'clock. The deer are going to be moving this morning."
Dawn found Dad and I perched on the tiny plywood platform of his favorite tree stand. The heavy overcast sky threatened, but no rain was falling and the air remained still. We overlooked the junction of two ravines a half-mile below an area of dense brush and hardwoods. Within minutes two does passed under our stand, followed by four does that filtered through the creek bottom cover below us. Within an hour we'd seen 17 deer. Just past 8:30, blacktails started topping the ridge in front of the stand and following an old wire fence that would lead them within 80 yards of our position.
I watched through my binoculars as the deer emerged single file. The first six were does but the last deer sported a high, straw-colored rack. My heart raced as I picked up my rifle. The deer moved quickly, and within a minute they disappeared into the creek bed below us. Seconds dragged by and the deer stayed out of sight. I was beginning to panic, thinking the deer had given us the slip, just when the lead doe eased over the creek bank and trotted uphill in our direction with the rest of the deer in tow. I spotted the 3x3 rack bobbing above the creek bed an instant before the buck clambered into the clear. With a flood of adrenaline hitting me I don't remember aiming or the .243's report, only the image of the buck collapsing backward into the creek.
Now, 25 years later, I realize that hunt provided more than my first buck. It linked in my mind the relationship between rain, woodsmanship, and blacktail hunting success. Since then I've kept an informal journal of my blacktail hunting experiences that illustrates the edge wet weather provides. For my hunting partners and I days with precipitation are by far the most productive in terms of deer sightings, shot opportunities and bucks harvested. If big bucks are your objective, wet days really shine. Since 1985 Dad and I have harvested four mature 4x4s, all of which were taken on stormy days.
THE EFFECTS OF RAIN
Storms and precipitation empower hunters because they impact the defenses and behaviors of blacktails in predictable ways, at both the individual and herd level.
Blacktail deer depend on the physical senses of smell, hearing and sight in addition to behavioral adaptations as a means of avoiding predators. When the woods are dry and quiet hunters face a serious disadvantage because the blacktail's acute senses will be working at peak efficiency. A blacktail's sense of smell is its foremost line of defense, followed closely by the senses of hearing and sight. During normal conditions a deer's sense of smell is the most difficult to overcome.
Stormy weather can help you beat a blacktail's nose in two ways. First, most storms are accompanied by winds that blow from a fairly consistent direction. Once you establish the direction of the wind, defeating the deer's nose becomes a matter of keeping the wind in your face. If there is no wind blowing, rain and wet dense air can still help defeat a buck's nose since they limit the spread of your scent by forcing it to the ground before it can disperse.
Blacktails possess highly refined senses of hearing and sight that enable them to identify and pinpoint sources of noise and movement. From a quail running through leaves to a squirrel cutting pinecones, the deer woods are ripe with sound and movement. Natural and recurring sounds are stored in the blacktail's memory and the deer pay them little attention. Unnatural sounds like the crunch, crunch, crunch, of an approaching hunter are quickly identified as potential danger. However, blacktails seldom flee based on a single noise or movement. Instead they focus all their senses on the source of the suspicious activity, depending on smell or sight or both to confirm the danger before they flee.
Rain and stormy conditions help the hunter by quieting the ground and creating diversionary noises and movements. When sufficiently saturated, sticks, leaves and grasses that once snapped, crackled and popped become a soggy, silent carpet. The sounds of falling rain and the wind that often accompanies it drown out any inadvertent noise a hunter might create.
When the weather is fair and dry, blacktails maintain a low profile by bedding during daylight hours. They feed and move during the low light periods of dawn and dusk. At these times blacktails are less visible and can take advantage of their excellent night vision. Hunting pressure magnifies this tendency and bucks often respond by becoming completely nocturnal.
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.
|WET WEATHER GEAR|
Reliable waterproof equipment is essential for wet weather hunting.
At the heart of the blacktail hunter's arsenal is a set of high-quality rain gear and waterproof boots. Blacktail hunting becomes an all-day proposition in the rain since deer are likely to move at any time. For years hunters were forced to struggle with noisy rubber rain gear that trapped perspiration and caused them to get almost as wet as if they hadn't worn rain gear at all. Today's rain gear is breathable, silent and printed in a variety of camouflage patterns. I bought my first set of breathable Gore-Tex rain gear over 10 years ago and I've never looked back!
Optics, both binoculars and riflescopes, are important tools for all deer hunters. Using these tools, and particularly scopes, in rain presents a special challenge. These days most optics intended for hunting are waterproof and nitrogen-filled, making them impervious to moisture and internal fogging, but that's only part of the problem.
Raindrops can accumulate on the outside of the lenses, effectively obliterating your vision. You could buy scope covers, which are oftentimes slow to remove, or you can try another way that's not nearly as expensive. I make scope covers using 2-inch-wide strips of latex (available at medical supply stores). I cut a 20-inch strip of latex and tie the ends together, forming a band, then stretch it over the lenses of my scope. If a quick opportunity presents itself, just pluck the latex off the scope's rear lens and shoot it off, rubber-band style.
I employ a similar cover for binoculars that's made from a 6-inch-wide piece of latex, which I stretch over all four lenses. — Cal Kellogg
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.
RAINY DAY TACTICS
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.
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