Nothing puts a “damper” on deer camp like the chatter of a hard rain on the roof. Suddenly, no one wants to get up, no one wants to go out, and everyone sits around lamenting the loss of a good hunting day. I have seen hunters pack up and go home days early because rain was in the forecast. What’s worse is, the gloom outside soon begins to affect the atmosphere inside. Just like that, a precious week of vacation — and deer hunting — is lost.
WHITETAILS AND RAIN
I know how rain affects hunters, but many hunters don’t really know how rain affects deer.
In general, rain means nothing to whitetails unless it’s pouring cats and dogs. When this happens, all wildlife (and human life) activity stalls until the storm is over. But when rain is light or only a steady drizzle falls, deer just go about their business as if it were a sunny day. The glitch is, “light” rain to a deer may seem like a soaker to a hunter who’s worried about his gear, his clothes and his health (don’t catch a cold!).
During the hunting season, rain is not a deterrent to deer movement. From my experience, whitetails don’t vary their habits a bit just because it’s raining.
For example, one of my favorite hunting spots is a box blind overlooking a field corner where deer come to feed near dusk every day, year ’round. I can relax, brew tea and glass the entire area without being seen and, thanks to the plywood box, I can do it with no fear of getting wet.
Deer come to the field every day except on very hot days, extremely windy days or when there’s a torrential downpour. At any other time, including drizzle, light rain or even heavy rain, they show up on cue: does and fawns first; small bucks next; and then, near dark, the real bruisers I’m after.
If anything, rain makes deer more content and less skittish. My guess is the endless drone of the rain through the woods, the constant motion of twigs and brush being moved by falling rain drops, and the overall dismal appearance of the woods lulls the animals into thinking everything’s just fine.
On clear, dry, cold days the deer come out tentatively, ears up and eyes on the blind, almost aching to find some reason to flee. On rainy days, however, they walk into the field, give the blind a cursory look and begin feeding without a care in the world. They seem almost docile compared to their behavior on clear days.
My first encounter with hunting whitetail deer in the rain took place at an old apple orchard that happened to stand behind the town maintenance building. I would never have found this hotspot if I hadn’t come out one day to discuss some road work with the grader operator. While we talked I happened to glance out his office window and was amazed to see a nice buck, two does and a couple of fawns feeding on fresh dropped apples. I didn’t mention the deer to the fellow (he didn’t seem to notice, and I knew he wasn’t a deer hunter), but I did make plans to come back the following day to set up on those deer.
Naturally, my big plans were dashed by a heavy rain that started in the middle of the night and kept up all day. I paced around the house fretting over my bad luck, before I couldn’t stand it anymore. I suited up and, with bow in hand, made my way through the orchard to a gap in the stone wall where I’d seen the deer cross the night before.
The cover consisted of thick saplings and alders, with about a dozen gnarled, mature apple trees in three rows on the garage side of the wall. Dressed in full camouflage and an olive-drab poncho for protection, I set up near a fallen log about 20 yards from the apple trees.
The rain continued pouring down, but I was determined to stick it out until dark. I stood there with my poncho hood up, head down, watching the rain drip steadily off the edge of my poncho.
It began to get dark, and I was about to give up, when I saw a shadow approach the gap in the wall, then another and another. I figured it was a doe with the two fawns. They were about 10 yards off to my right. They came right in without once stopping to look around, and I was high in the hopes that the buck would be tagging along behind them.
As the trio passed the first apple tree I raised my bow and tracked them just in case one of them miraculously turned into a buck (every hunter’s dream). As I swung the bow slowly to my left, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. It was the buck, and he was just two steps away from me, staring intently at the does! I literally could have slapped him with my bow! I was stuck, of course. As soon as he turned to look at me the game was over. With a snort, he bounded away, the does headed for the gap, and the hunt ended right there.
The point, of course, is that I was within 10 yards of four deer and, except for my selectivity, could have had an easy shot only because the rain limited the animals’ senses (they apparently could not see or smell me in the steady downpour).
I have had several such encounters with deer in the rain, and all of them have resulted in easy opportunities. The combination of noise, motion and suppressed scent conditions gives hunters a distinct advantage that should not be discounted. Still, you can’t win the game if you don’t go out there and play!
RAINY DAY STRATEGIES
Get up and Get Going!
The most critical thing you can do on a rainy day is get out of bed! If I had a dollar for every time I sallied forth into the torrent while everyone else in camp crawled deeper into their sleeping bags, I wouldn’t have to worry about the mortgage payment. No matter what the weather, you can’t shoot a deer if you don’t go after them!
Before I tell you what you should bring with you on rainy day hunts, I’ll explain what should be left behind. Don’t bring electronic gear (unless you are willing to risk losing it to moisture). Forget your wallet, keys, pocket knives, extra flashlight and GPS unit. Leave your pack behind. Don’t bring cameras, cooking gear, tripods, range finders, space blankets, survival gear or anything else that rain will ruin. Think of your rainy day hunt as a minimalist outing. Bring only the necessary gear you will need to bag and tag your buck.
Next, expect to get wet. I sweat profusely under any kind of rain gear (especially during bow season), so I opt for wicking-type long-johns, which keep me warm even when wet. I wear the usual camouflage pants and shirt, a fleece jacket (if it’s exceptionally cold), a hat, face mask and gloves. Of course, wear the appropriate amount of hunter-orange clothing, as required.
Other than my bow or gun, a sharp knife and a bottle of water, I carry only my climbing stand and a strap-on umbrella. I like the umbrella because rain running down a tree trunk will eventually fill your boots with icy water.
Where To Hunt
Deer will be active all day during a steady rain, especially if the wet weather lasts for several days. Don’t let these conditions discourage you! The deer are out there and they must eat and socialize (especially during the rut). Plan on being out there with them!
Hotspots during steady rains include all the trails, runs and feeding areas you scouted prior to the season. Get in there early and plan to spend several hours in each spot. If you decide to move, do it around noon, when deer are least active. You may bump a whitetail at any time, of course, but those standard pre-dusk deer will be out and moving much earlier in wet weather. Find your spot, get set up and start hunting by 1:30 p.m. Stay put until dark because the bigger bucks may not move around until the last minute, and on rainy days that “last minute” may come 15 minutes or more before actual sunset.
Good places to set up include ridge spines and saddles, stream and river crossings, crop and field edges (on trails at least 40 yards inside the adjacent woods), or near natural food sources such as orchards, oak stands and other mast-producing trees.
Deer won’t alter their behavior merely because it’s raining. They simply meander more during daylight hours and extend their dawn and dusk routines because there is less daylight. The animals simply feel less threatened in periods of low light.
The same conditions that make rainy-day hunting so appealing are also those that present the most challenges. Settle in to hunt, and you’ll quickly realize it is not only wet in the woods; it’s very noisy! Falling rain can be deafening, and everything those raindrops hit will move, often enough to make you think it was a deer! The soaked leaves and debris also allow deer to walk almost silently through the forest. This means the hunter must be extra vigilant, constantly scanning his surroundings for signs of movement. Wet deer look surprisingly like wet leaves. If you don’t pay attention, you could miss your opportunity for a shot.
Rainy days are excellent times to hunt those spots that often hold other hunters in balmier weather. During rainy periods, far fewer vehicles are parked along woods roads, giving you your choice of hotspots because everyone else is safe and warm back at camp.
Rainy days are also great times to hunt state parks (where legal), small woodlots, urban areas, hedgerows and any other site where human activity normally precludes serious hunting. Don’t forget that neighbor’s backyard where the deer always come out to feed on fallen apples or garden goodies. A quick hunt on a rainy afternoon can often put some serious meat on the table!
TAKE YOUR SHOT AT RAINY DAY WHITETAILS
The only real down side to hunting in the rain with bow or gun is that tracking wounded game can be difficult.
For this reason, it’s important to monitor you shooting lanes carefully and pick your shots so that when you climb down from your stand all you have to do is walk over and tag your deer. Avoid iffy shots, long-range opportunities. A bad shot is likely to result in a lost deer because blood saturated with water is difficult to see and a steady rain will quickly wash away any sign of a hit. Continuing rain will certainly obliterate any minor blood spatters, and the odds of retrieving a deer in the morning, taken the evening before, are slim at best.
The best solution is to aim immediately behind the shoulder in the middle of the deer. A bullet or broadhead in this area will result in a dead deer. Arrows released in the rain often pass through the deer without notice because the noise of the rain hides the slap of the bow. My last wet-weather buck took an arrow behind the shoulder and actually continued feeding for about 10 yards before it fell over dead. I’m all but sure a clear-weather buck would have bolted at the shot, and I’d have had at least some tracking to do.
Aside from keeping most other hunters out of the woods, rain is great for dragging your trophy back to camp. Wet deer on rain-soaked leaves drag easily and quickly. (I like to save that little chore for my fair-weather friends — the ones who elected to stay in camp instead of braving the storm with me). Call it poetic justice, but a soaking wet deer is just as satisfying a trophy as a dry one, especially when you’re the only one in camp who went out that day!