Tactics for Foul-Weather Bucks

Don't give up just because bad weather blows in during your deer hunt. Our expert explains how to use foul weather to your advantage for a successful outing this month.

by Joel Fawcett

If you're going deer hunting this month, expect to face bad weather, including snow, pouring rain, dense fog and cold, blustery winds. It's not inconceivable on a weeklong hunt that you may have to experience all of these weather conditions. However, though the weather is wet, cold and uncomfortable for the hunter, whitetails carry on with their normal routines during all but the most extreme of weather conditions. Thus, sportsmen who elect to stay in camp on a rainy day may be missing out on some of the best deer hunting of the hunting season.

SNOW & COLD
After over 40 years of hunting whitetails, including 18 seasons when I earned my livelihood as a tent camp outfitter and guide, I've come to the conclusion that there are few better times to be in the deer woods than immediately after a December snowstorm. Too often for coincidence I've either tagged a deer or witnessed a great increase in whitetail activity during or just after a late-season snowstorm.

However, don't be misled by the myriad of tracks marking up the woods immediately after a snowfall. Sometimes a few deer romping about in new-fallen snow will leave a mistaken impression of the size of the deer herd. On a number of occasions I've gone hunting just after a late-season snowstorm and cut tracks everywhere. The way the woods were marked up with spoor the neophyte hunter might conclude there was a deer hiding behind every tree. There may be a considerable number of deer in the area, but not the super- abundance of animals indicated by the tracks.

Cutting a smoking-hot set of fresh hoof prints does tend to get the adrenaline flowing, but finding fresh tracks is no guarantee that the critter standing at the other end is going to be hanging from the game pole at the end of the day. Some skilled trackers can start out on a set of fresh tracks, follow them and then collect their venison, but not all hunters possess the expertise to do this.

Suppose, for example, the tracks you are following join a major game thoroughfare traveled by several other whitetails, and one of the deer, perhaps your quarry, cuts away from the main travel route. You must be able to unravel the trail and differentiate between the tracks made by your deer and the other whitetails.

A late-season snowstorm can put bucks on the move. If you can find a hot feeding area, you'll instantly find deer activity. Photo by Bill Vaznis

To do this, look for some telltale indication that'll pinpoint the deer you are following - perhaps a cracked hoof, spoor that's considerably larger than the others, or a widely splayed track.

Most still-hunters do better if they use tracks to observe the general movement of the herd rather than if they attempt to track an individual deer in the snow.

A wily old buck realizes he's leaving an easy-to-follow trail and is vulnerable in the snow, so he'll be very alert, will buttonhook off the trail occasionally and will watch his back trail for predators much more frequently than he would when the forest is bare.

A good indicator that your deer is getting ready to bed and watch his back trail is when the trail starts to wander. At this point, get above or below the trail and follow at a discreet distance, always downwind of your quarry, and proceed very slowly, a step at a time, scrutinizing the surrounding cover at each step.

However, tracking a deer down a day or two after a late-season snowstorm is more difficult. Unless you're skilled in aging tracks and can separate fresh tracks from older ones, you could end up following a trail that's several days old. Fresh prints are cleanly cut with fine edges, while in older spoor the edges and center become more rounded and less distinct. In crusty snow, take note of the small granules in the bottom of the track. In fresh tracks they'll be loose, but they will adhere to the bottom in a weathered one.

I prefer still-hunting over stand-hunting, but in December the weather often changes from fairly mild during the day to well below freezing at night. This tends to cause the snow to develop a crust, and it makes it impossible to still-hunt quietly. However, a crusty snow works to the advantage of the stand-hunter. He can hear an approaching deer coming from a long way off.

It's a good idea to be in your stand at least a half-hour before dawn, one of the prime times of the day to spot a big buck on the move.

If you're going to stay warm and comfortable hunting in the snow and cold, you're going to need to dress properly in layers. When I'm going to be in the woods under these conditions, I start out with a set of expedition-weight insulated long johns, a heavyweight wool shirt and heavyweight wool pants, wool socks and insulated boots rated at minus 40 or minus 100, depending on the temperature. For an outer covering I'll wear a down vest or heavyweight wool jacket, but sometimes I substitute an insulated coverall for my outerwear. I also like to wear insulated waterproof gloves and a hunter-orange vest and hat, since it is required.

COLD WINDS
Perhaps the reason deer are often seen actively feeding during a cold December rain or snowstorm is due to the weather that often follows. When a cold front moves in and the weather clears, it's invariably accompanied by cold, blustery winds. A whitetail depends upon its nose, ears and eyes to survive, and a strong wind whipping through the woods interferes with all of these senses, making it difficult for the deer to detect an approaching predator. Consequently, when the breeze is whistling through the woods, it makes whitetails nervous and edgy. A cagey buck may, for no apparent reason, suddenly spook and go dashing through the forest first in one direction and then another, but a whitetail's most common response to wind is to seek out heavy cover and hunker down until serener conditions prevail.

In the north country, a whitetail must go into the winter with as much body fat as possible. They must draw on their fat reserves to make up for the lack of nutrients in their winter diet. A cold December wind causes them to draw upon these fat reserves, and if winter hits hard and early, those reserves can mean the difference between life and death come late winter and spring. Therefore, when a cold winter wind blows, deer seek refuge from the wind to help conserve those fat reserves.

Look for sanctuaries on the lee side of steep ridges or knolls. The windward side of a large swamp or stand of conifers can provide a break from a cold December wind.

Consequently, the best p

lace to harvest a husky buck when cold, breezy December weather conditions prevail is to hunt windbreak areas. Deer are very alert and edgy in these windless refuges, so when I hunt one of these windbreak areas, I slip my way in very slowly and quietly to the edge of the wind sanctuary, find myself a seat on a blowdown or rock, and sit quietly for at least 15 minutes while I carefully scrutinize the cover. After a while, I'll sometimes catch sight of a flicking ear, a piece of horn or a chunk of hide. Occasionally a deer will rise out of its bed, make a short feeding circuit and then bed down again.

Although you'll want to sit for a few minutes at the edge of each windbreak, now is not the time for the traditional deer stand approach. Whitetails are not likely to be up and moving about when it's windy; consequently, sitting in a stand for hours at a time isn't very productive on a breezy day. The trick is to keep checking out those lee slopes and windbreaks. If you don't find deer in one of these, go on to the next windless refuge area and continue checking these out throughout the day. If you check two, three or four of these wind sanctuaries, you're almost sure to strike at least one occupied by deer.

When checking out lee slopes and other windbreak areas, always keep track of the wind direction. Make sure you hunt into the wind or on the lee side of a crosswind. In the woods, the wind often bounces off ridges or knolls and comes at you from unexpected directions. I keep track of wind direction by tying a short piece of 6/0 fly-tying thread to the end of my gun barrel. This light material will always flutter in the direction the wind is blowing.

If I'm going to be hunting in a cold, gusty wind, I'll dress by the layer system similar to that recommended for hunting in the snow and cold, except I wear a wind-stopper undershirt over my insulated long johns.



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