September 20, 2023
Wiping the sweat from my brow as I sat in the thin shadow of a limb offered little relief from the sweltering autumn heat. Most Midwest whitetail hunts feature frost and colored leaves, not oppressive, summer-like temperatures. Yet, earlier, my truck thermometer read 82 degrees with a persistent forecast of more of the same. Would a buck even venture forth in this jungle-like atmosphere and give me a fighting chance?
While most deer hunters anticipate cool weather on hunts, you should always be prepared for the possibility of a heatwave. This happens most often in September, but it could be an irritant almost anytime during your fall hunting season. When the forecast calls for abnormal heat, turn to these strategies as you combat Mother Nature.
What’s the first thing you think of when it’s hot and you’re sweating? A cold drink of water, maybe? Well, deer think similarly. They need water to rehydrate and to help process food, and nothing cools like a drink of water after a long, hot day.
How much water a deer requires daily varies depending on its body weight. Based on several data sources, in winter an average deer requires roughly 1 1/2 quarts of water per hundred pounds of weight per day; it needs two to three quarts per hundred pounds of weight per day in summer. In brief, a mature buck needs at least three to five quarts when the thermostat rises in the fall.
Many variables affect where whitetails acquire their water. In the Midwest, water isn’t necessarily scarce like it is in the desert Southwest. Depending on the local rainfall and region you hunt, whitetails might even acquire some of their daily moisture simply from the lush vegetation they munch. However, this is usually less common during the dryness of late summer and early fall, and this prods deer to find consistent water sources elsewhere. Finding these spots can be a difficult task, especially on properties with lots of water where deer visit multiple sites rather than one highly trafficked source. Still, everyone has a favorite watering hole, so take the necessary steps to pin that source down.
First, determine all key areas whitetails use on a property. I utilize my HuntStand app to mark food, bedding, trails and all edge areas of importance. Next, add layers onto your map that showcase known water sources. Some seeps and springs may not be noted, so explore on your own or ask the landowner about any water sources on the property, too.
As you scout, think “secluded and shaded.” Also, contemplate danger from a whitetail’s perspective. Diving into a dark hole with no vision of the surrounding territory, for example, screams “ambush” to a whitetail, so avoid water sources where this is the case.
Once you have several candidates in mind, look for the path of least resistance. Water that’s easily accessible while traveling from food to bedding cover gets top priority. Inspect sources firsthand for hoof traffic and monitor with a trail camera to determine peak usage times. When a spike in temperature occurs, a setup at a confirmed watering source can be super productive. If all else fails, add water development to next summer’s project list to be ready next year.
HIDDEN MAST MECCAS
As fall progresses, whitetails feed heavily to prepare for the rut and the rigors of winter. Bucks especially need the extra weight—approximately 20 to 25 percent more—to counter the pounds they’ll shed while skipping meals during the rut. An ideal source of food for adding on this weight is acorns. The high-energy food contains twice the carbs and approximately 10 times the fat of other preferred crops like corn at this time of year. White oak acorns top the dining menu, but despite the harsher flavor of red oak acorns, whitetails will scoop them up simply to beef up.
When a heatwave hits, deer often relocate to a shady hollow where acorns and other forms of mast can be found. Discovering these pockets of fat-producing mast can be a home run. Whitetails do not have to feed during late-day sunshine. They glean the best of Mother Nature’s energy from the bounty. Often, these hidden restaurants offer ample invisible access to get in and out.
Although whitetails may spend more time on acorns, they still require a diverse diet. What other mast, such as fruits or chestnuts, provides is an addition to the fat menu.
Deer often detour to acorns while coming and going to other food sources. When mast begins to drop, they hit that source before dusk and at dawn while traveling to and from bedding cover. In the afternoons, a mast stopover offers a cooler way to begin dining than in the sunshine of a field; at dawn, it’s a way to fill their stomachs before a day of bedding.
Find a backdoor entrance to an acorn hot spot or the edge of a forgotten orchard, and you might have a perfect early-season setup. Just remember to scout your acorn sources ahead of time. Oaks do not necessarily produce the same crop of mast year to year, and your stand location must be near a mast-laden source. Trail cameras again offer a scouting partner that’s on the job 24/7.
FIELDS OF PLENTY
Mast sites are surefire ambush locations, but so too are the oceans of crops surrounding every woodlot in the Midwest. The top 10 soybean-producing states have historically been Midwestern states, with each producing hundreds of millions of bushels of the crop. Corn also ranks high in the region, and in September, whitetails not only dine on the still-juicy cob but also enjoy the shady coolness of a stalk-filled hideout. Add in irrigation that can accumulate in center-pivot fields, and you find yourself staring at an impenetrable fortress of vegetation.
Milo, sorghum, alfalfa, winter wheat and other crops all attract deer in early fall. Many are in the beginning stages of drying before harvest, but they’re still delectable enough for deer. Scouting will determine if deer prefer these fields or mast sources now, but again, bet on deer moving between all sources when dining diversity abounds. Perhaps spend a night or two behind your binocular to confirm if fields are filling with deer and whether an ambush is possible.
In the past, I’ve found farms where they chop end rows for silage use, which leaves a stubble edge. Deer often scrounge those strips for leftovers, and with the right wind, you can back into the standing crops and wait for deer to pass by an end row. A mist of deer urine in your shooting lane ensures they pause for the shot.
Don’t overlook waterways in the middle of the standing crops either, especially if any wetland vegetation, trees or brush is left in place. This is becoming increasingly harder to find, though, as farmers clear fields more than ever for maximum production. However, a small reservoir or grassy waterway always attracts whitetails roaming from interior cornfield safety to browse on edges under the cover of darkness.
See if your hunting app offers current info on ever-changing crop landscapes, too. Some apps, like HuntStand, offer monthly satellite image updates, which lend a more accurate perspective than years-old images. This helps you understand recent changes to the land and how to tailor a present-day ambush. The layer is provided at a lower resolution but with enough clarity to see agricultural changes for your tactical advantage.
Beyond food and water, whitetails also seek out shade, as their body does not release heat like ours. Shade helps them regulate body temperature, especially now as their hide is thickening ahead of winter. Remember this when choosing ambush sites, even on a field edge.
Consider shady locations deer may use before sunset, possibly even peripheral areas on trails leading to food hot spots. If natural browse is the preferred food, particularly in a big-woods setting, try isolating the browse most utilized in the early fall. A local biologist or land management specialist may be able to point out options. In shady settings with ample browse, you may come across a buck bedded here, waiting to head to a field edge later.
When evaluating field edge ambush locations, consider the shady side if trails enter there. If not, maybe back your stand up into the timber. Deer may loiter there before advancing to the field. A mock scrape on a trail leading to a field can be the perfect place to stop a buck holding back from a field until the sun disappears.
In heavily wooded settings, hunting shade may not be a gamechanger, but if your hunting area has a Great Plains ZIP code, a small pocket of shade can be the clincher.
Remember that, depending on the canopy cover, shaded areas can offer temperatures ranging from 14 to 50 degrees cooler or more than surrounding sunbaked landscapes.
BRINGING IT TOGETHER
Let’s go back now to my hot sit earlier. From my stand, I watched several deer drop into a dry creek before scurrying to shade as the sun rose higher in the morning sky. After my sit, I snuck to the creek and discovered a pool of water—one of the few around the area. That evening, I staged downwind of the pool, and at dark my muzzleloader added some smoke to the steamy September air.
Shade and water proved to be the key factors on that hot-weather hunt. However, one can never overlook the importance of food, either, as bucks are bulking up for the rut and winter months. Give some of the strategies a shot when the mercury is running high, and you may end up tagging your biggest buck of the year well before the rut’s peak.
- Key pieces of gear to make your early-fall hunts more effective and enjoyable.
Sweating is inevitable during a heatwave hunt, so come prepared with scent-elimination tools. My go-to is Wildlife Research Center’s Scent Killer Gold ($14.99/24 ounces; wildlife.com). Spray your clothes and gear, and its protection lasts up to 20 days. Regarding clothes, consider poly-based layers. Polyester fabric dries relatively quickly when soaked in sweat or rain. I continue to use a layer system of Under Armour poly that is nearing 20 years old and does wear like armor.
Like deer, have a hydration source nearby. Consider adding energy packets to spike energy and focus. If you do sit in the sun, such as in a treestand without an overhanging limb, protect yourself accordingly. The National Cancer Institute ranks skin cancer as the most common form of cancer, and exposure to the sun is a sure way to acquire it. Use sunscreen rated SPF 15 or greater on any exposed skin. Cover yourself with long sleeves, lightweight gloves and a wide-brimmed, military-style boonie hat.
Finally, guard yourself from insects with a scent-free repellent such as Lethal Bug and Tick Repellent ($9.99/4 ounces; lethalproducts.com). This product works on most nasty crawling and flying critters, such as mosquitoes, ticks and chiggers for up to 12 hours.