Mulie Tactics For A Rainy Day

By knowing how downpours affect mule deer behavior and how to change your hunting strategies accordingly, you'll be better prepared the next time you're caught out in the rain.

Photo by Michael Mauro

Like an ominous sign drifting across the sky, the dark clouds started building the night before opening day. It would have been nice to be able to sit in camp until more favorable weather arrived, but with a three-day window for hunting mule deer, my older brother, Phil, and I didn't have that luxury. By the time the sun should have been casting its warming glow on the world opening morning, steady streams of water were running off the brims of our hats. It wasn't the most comfortable mule deer hunt I have ever been on, but it ranks right up there as one of the most educational.

Every hunter has learned the importance of knowing the behavior of their quarry. But we tend to fall into a trap of learning only the behaviors that are pertinent to us -- what bucks do during the rut, how they will react to a spooked doe, how far away they're likely to bed from feeding areas. For 90 percent of hunting situations, this knowledge is invaluable.

But when conditions change, deer behavior changes with them, and the best way to adapt is by understanding what the deer do, and why they do it.

As I sat in the torrential downpour that morning, there was a voice inside my head screaming out that no reward was worth this misery. Sitting under a tree in Gore-Tex raingear and boots lined with Thinsulate, I wondered how I would cope with this if I lived in the mountains without the comforts of protection that modern technology provided. The answer, as obvious as it sounds now, is that I would find a warm, dry place to hunker down. Which is exactly what the deer do.

"As far as thermoregulation, heavy rain is much more difficult for deer to deal with than snow," said Woody Myers, a deer biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Their coats are a little oily, so there is a little rain protection, but only to a point. So, that's a good reason for them to get out of heavy rain."

A deer's first priority is cover. Obviously, thick forests with multiple layers of canopy that have the greatest chance of absorbing the majority of the rain before it hits the ground would be ideal for deer. But in a great part of mule deer country, such forests do not exist. In these cases, the deer will take whatever they can get, even if it means hunkering under a thick sagebrush clump.

Because mule deer have adapted to hot, dry habitats, their bodies have developed efficient ways to regulate temperature by giving off excess body heat. Mule deer channel heat into their large ears and long legs, which allows the wind to quickly cool them.

"Their ears and legs help in getting rid of heat," Myers said. "But the converse is also true."

As important as it is for them to get out of the rain, it's critical to escape the wind. Box canyons, gullies and other natural contours of the land that give deer protection from wind are logical places for them to hole up and wait out a storm. Keep in mind, however, that their major natural predator, cougars, attack from above, so areas that could be likely ambush spots aren't apt to have deer bedded down -- unless they have no choice.

"It really depends on the intensity of the rain," Myers said. "A mild shower really isn't going to affect them, but in heavy rain they'll tend to seek cover and gain some thermal advantage by staying out of the wind."

Because a deer's patterns change based on the intensity of the storm, yours should as well.

NO CALM BEFORE THE STORM

From cell phones with Internet access to satellite TV to a good old-fashioned AM radio, with the number of tools we have at our disposal for predicting weather, there should no excuse for hunters being caught unaware of an approaching storm. A deer's early warning system is much more primitive, but it's also much more accurate. So if you know when it's going to rain, you can bet they do too.

"Falling barometric pressure before a storm will stimulate them into action," Myers said. "That's the ideal time to get out there."

Renowned hunter and Mossy Oak pro staffer Bob Foulkrod agrees. "Any front coming in makes everything more active. They will get up and start to move toward their feeding ground because they know it's coming," he said. "If I've got a front coming in, I'm going to be out there."

Because of the lay of the calendar on my wet hunt, hitting the field before the storm wasn't possible. If you find yourself in a similar situation, don't despair. The rain might make your hunt a little more challenging, but it also provides you with some advantages that bright, sunny skies erase. Seeking those advantages shouldn't be your first order of business, however

SEEK COVER

The first tactic that you might need to adjust if you find yourself hunting in a downpour is your movement. When it's raining our natural instincts aren't far removed from the deer's. Heed it, and do what the deer do -- find cover. Once you find a good vantage point with relatively good protection from the rain, sit down, pull out your binoculars, and, once again, look for cover.

Normally when you glass, you're looking for movement, the tips of an antler, or a hint of white that might be a rump patch. Keep in mind, however, that in a downpour any cover that is going to afford the deer protection from the rain will be thick enough to cover most of its body. Don't start off looking for the signs you normally would. Instead, look for likely cover spots.

"Look at north-facing or west-facing slopes in heavy stands of timber, because these are the places the deer will look for," Myers said. "Especially timbered fingers surrounded by open spaces."

If you're hunting the sage country, concentrate on looking toward the bottom of the thickets since they will provide the biggest openings and the best chance of seeing through the visual wall they create. Because movement is lessened dramatically during a rainstorm, the standard slow scan method isn't going to be effective. When you find a likely spot, it's important to study that area for a while.

"You can glass a spot over a dozen times and not see anything," Foulkrod said. "There are times when you stop and study a spot that a deer will materialize out of his surroundings, and you realize he had been there the whole time. A lot of it has to do with how the light changes."

Be prepared, however, to work a little harder to get to that point

when it's raining. Because the light doesn't change as much, you can't hope for the help of moving shadow to uncover a bedded buck. And there's one other dilemma. The glass of binoculars seems to have a magnetic charge in the rain and will pull a raindrop completely off course and directly onto the lens. (Although this theory has never been proven, anyone who has carried a pair of binoculars, a scope, or a camera in the rain knows it's true.)

Do everything you can to keep the fronts of your binoculars protected from this unnatural phenomenon, but also keep a dry cloth handy to wipe away any of the rain that is inexplicably drawn to them despite your best precautions. This will also serve to wipe away the fog that will form from your hot breath on the cold glass.

Jeff Zennie of Zennie Outfitters has been hunting and guiding in Oregon and Northern California for more than 20 years and has had more than his share of hunts in the rain. This experience has taught him a simple, but effective trick for dealing with this frustrating scenario.

"Keep a handkerchief stuffed up your sleeve," Zennie said. "It keeps it dry, and it keeps it handy. You can slip a corner of it out to wipe your binoculars or scope quickly and easily."

Even with this helpful hint, glassing in the rain isn't an easy task. Millions of tiny light prisms falling in front of you will distort your amplified vision making your eye have to work harder to readjust. This is another reason why it's important to glass slowly and take breaks often. If your eyes get overly fatigued you might not be able to spot that buck bedded down in thick cover. Once the quarry is marked, it's time to move.

SOGGY STALK

Going out into the rain might not be the most pleasant way to hunt, buy it is preferable to going home empty-handed. And as soon as you spot a deer in his dry, comfortable bed, the rain will likely be the last thing on your mind. Conversely, leaving his bed will be the last thing on that deer's mind. It is during this soggy stalk that you can start taking advantage of the slight advantage the rain provides you.

"You can get a little cockier in the rain," Zennie said. "Because it cuts down noise and scents, you can get into thick areas of cover you wouldn't be able to get close to otherwise and slip right into their living room."

There's a huge difference, Zennie cautions, between cocky and careless. "Their senses might be handicapped somewhat," he said, "but they still have them. You still need to make sure that you always have the wind in your favor."

Where you'll find the most advantage in your stalk is with the noise. The moisture will saturate dry duff on the forest floor reducing the rustling you make walking through it. It will also soften the live brushes that you move through and the scraping sound they typically make as they rub the cloth of your pants will not be as sharp.

Probably the biggest aid you will receive from the rain is the noise of falling water. In a slow, careful stalk, the sound of rain works to cover the slight sounds that are unavoidable as you walk through the woods and typically serve as an instant warning bell to a deer's amplified ears.

The deer realize this even more than we do, and they tend to be a little edgier and pay more attention to subtle messages their senses deliver. So don't think that the slight advantage you have is license to forsake the slow, meticulous stalk that is normally essential when trying to catch a buck in his bed.

"The last thing you want to do is bump them," Foulkrod said. "They'll move fast and they'll move far."

It's unlikely that a bumped buck will return to the same place where he sought cover previously. And you never know how far another suitable place might be.

BE CAUTIOUS

Your final stalk isn't the only time during your rain hunt that you can't afford to get careless. Rain might bring you a few advantages, but a host of uncommon issues also accompanies it.

"I hunt in places in the high desert where the roads turn to slimy clay when it's raining," Zennie said. "If you went down there when it was dry, don't count on getting out when it's raining."

Putting chains on your tires in this situation will only serve as a place for the mud to collect on your tires. If you don't know the area you're hunting well, make sure you pay attention to the kind of soil that makes up the road you take to camp. If there's a chance that it could turn to sludge, you had better give the buck his day and break camp.

Being mindful that the road traveled doesn't only apply to driving. While it's raining, it's more important than ever to be aware of where you are, and where your pursuit is taking you. And keep in mind that pouring rain and running water can loosen rocks and soil under your feet and make hiking on them as precarious as walking along a road of marbles.

"Don't be so focused on your hunt that you forget to use your survival mindset," survival expert Greg Davenport said. "Always bring a map and a compass, and have an emergency heading that will take you to a well-traveled road."

When it's raining, the normal nearsightedness that accompanies the thrill of the hunt can be intensified because the rain can obscure the time of day, distant landmarks and your ability to accurately judge distances. Davenport has been a survival instructor for more than 20 years, including an instructor for the U.S. Air Force. He has written many survival books and made numerous television appearances to help educate people on the importance of being prepared when they're in the wilderness. He said that it's easy to get caught up in the excitement of the hunt, which is why hunters should start preparing long before the chase starts.

"A hunting trip begins before you leave the house," he said. "Don't just be focused on how you're going to get that deer home. Focus on making sure you come back home. That happens by preparing."

Obviously, the biggest consideration that you have to prepare for when hunting in the rain is staying dry. Don't skimp on raingear. Gore-Tex material from head to toe is as essential as your weapon on any hunt.

"More people die of hypothermia at temperatures above freezing," Davenport said. "You lose body heat at a much more rapid rate when your clothes are wet. And when you start slipping into a hypothermic state, our ability to meet your survival needs becomes increasingly more difficult."

If you feel your clothes starting to get wet, leave the deer where he is and get back to camp. He might be there tomorrow, or he might not. But at least you'll know that you will be.

All things considered, however, the notion that hunting mulies in the rain is something better avoided doesn't maintain much basis in truth. By using the advantages rain provides, and being cautious to avoid the pitfalls it creates, there's no reason why rain has to ruin a perfectly good hunt.

As for Phil and I, we brought two bucks out of the rain that day, and with mouths to feed and an otherwise empty freezer, "legal-sized" had a nice ring to it. That deer did much more than feed my family. It affirmed to me what I have always held as an irrefutable fact -- any day is a great day to hunt.

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