Dry Weather Deer Hunting

When habitat conditions fizzle during periods of drought, whitetail habits often change, too. The wise hunter will recognize those changes and put them to good use this season.

by Robert Sadowski

A "drought," as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, is, "A long period of abnormally low rainfall, especially one that adversely affects growing or living conditions." Drought or not, this year many Eastern-region hunters can expect to contend with dry conditions during the deer season.

Dry conditions cause deer to move around more for food, and this year's dry conditions should make things a little more difficult for deer and a little easier for deer hunters.

Agricultural crops as well as natural mast are affected when the water table is low. With less water to go around, crops grow slower and produce less. If the water shortage is severe, crops may be stunted. In the worst-case scenario, crops won't grow at all. Oak trees, a staple for deer, may produce fewer or smaller acorns. This means deer will need to eat more often.

State game biologists have been keeping statistics on deer populations, hunter success rates, mast crops, antler growth and other data for decades. They found a direct correlation between the annual acorn crop and hunter-success rates. When the acorn crop is low, deer must travel more to find food. This extra activity translates into hunters' seeing more deer. When hunters see more deer, they have a better chance of putting meat in the freezer.

In general, there is usually a positive correlation between the mast crop and antler beam diameter. Antler size and growth rates could be affected by dry conditions, but biologists point out that there are other factors determining beam size, such as the mineral content in food.

Crop damage and property damage by hungry deer are also the product of low mast production. The ways deer react to dry weather conditions should be considered in your hunting strategy and tactics.

Deer are creatures of habit, and they are resourceful. If they cannot find acorns, they will look elsewhere. Under extreme conditions, deer will feed on agricultural crops, landscape plantings and just about anything else they can find. Corn fields will see more deer activity during dry periods, and if your hunting area abuts farmland, set up on a trail that leads to known bedding areas.

Photo by Michael Francis

Success really comes down to knowing the area you plan to hunt. Clues garnered during scouting treks can be golden; however, sign picked up during a scouting trip in September can be useless if opening day is in late October or November, especially if the dry conditions continue throughout the season.

When dry conditions prevail, more scouting is in order because deer will move frequently in search of new food sources. You must find those sources, too, because they will be your best bet in encountering a deer.

If you were to write a top 10 list of deer's favorite food, acorns, apples and farm crops would be high on the list. Deer will, however, eat whatever they can get. One past season was particularly dry, and the acorn crop was nearly nonexistent. I helped field dress a doe and was immediately struck by the odor of cedar. This particular deer had obviously been browsing on cedar, and though cedar may not be a deer's first choice for food, it will do when there is little else to eat.

Usually, deer get most of the water they need from the plants they eat, but in dry conditions, deer may need to take in more water. Biologists know that deer drink water, especially when running during the rut or in hot, dry conditions. Hunting hotspots include areas laced with streams, creeks, a river or swamps. These water sources will have rich soil, a variety of succulent plants and brushy edges, which provide good food and cover for deer.

Finding deer in dry weather requires some detective work. Do you know of any private landowners who have had deer chowing down in their pumpkin patch or corn fields? How about the landowner whose ornamental shrubs have been turned into stumps by famished whitetails? One advantage of dry conditions is that getting permission to hunt from affected landowners may be easy. Many landowners who are on the fence about hunting may grant permission when deer start to cost them time and money.

When you do talk to landowners, find out when the unwanted visitors come in to feed. Look for trails they have created, and determine if the runs lead to another feeding area or to bedding sites. Hillsides facing south or east are good sources for bedding deer.

One area I hunt is typical former farmland reclaimed by second-generation forest. In the recent past, this particular piece of land had plenty of acorns. Annual rainfall had been average, and deer activity was normal, and I saw the average number of deer I usually see on that patch of woodland - nothing more, nothing less. There was a lot of sign, particularly rubs and scrapes. Near these rubs was a forgotten orchard, but the trees still produced fruit. I spent a few days in a tree stand overlooking those old apple trees and saw no buck. The ground under the trees was littered with apples, yet this buck seemed more interested in acorns.

Maybe that particular buck was not a gourmet who liked to mix up his meals and instead was a basic acorn and grass eater, but I will guess that this year, with fewer acorns available, he will make short order of those apples, and others will be right behind him.

Deer need cover and lots of it. Ideal deer habitat, say biologists, is about 30 percent brush and edge. Look for recently thinned woods or clearcuts, regenerating burns or overgrown fields. Deer also favor the fringes of areas and like to travel the edges, lingering here and there to browse.

Look for does to bed in large areas of dense cover. A buck will often hide in smaller, thicker pockets. Small swamps, brushy fencerows and high-ridge thickets are where you'll find the big boys. When the rut and hunting pressure build up, bucks travel from cover to cover, utilizing several core bedding areas. They will also want a sip of water, so keep this in mind as you consider hunting areas.

The nice thing about hunting in dry weather is that you can always hear what's coming through the woods, but the noisy duff can work against you, too. If you prefer to sit on the ground with your back to the trunk of a tree, clear out the

dry leaves under and around you.

Any hunter will begin to fidget after sitting in the same position for hours on end, and the sound of crunching leaves and twigs will be amplified throughout the woods as you reposition yourself. To avoid this, clear your spot before the season starts so the deer can become accustomed to the change. If you can smell the scent of a fresh-cut twig or bough, rest assured that the deer would know something is different, too.

When I try a new spot on a whim or a hunch, I make sure there is nothing under me or around me that will create extra noise. I believe that making a small amount of noise during the initial setup is preferable to continuous, sporadic crunching and rustling during a hunt.

If you are a still-hunter, you will soon find that dry conditions make for a noisy hunt. Fallen dead leaves will be crisp and crunchy, and stalking deer on them will be like walking around on potato chips. The most productive on-foot hunts include driving deer with a few partners or, if you go it alone, hunting from a tree stand or ground blind.

Scent is also affected by dry conditions. It has been said that wet conditions pull and hold the scent down to the ground, such as during a light rain. The theory is that deer cannot pick up the scent in rainy weather, but bucks have been known to come into the scent in the rain and after a rain.

In dry conditions, the scent has less humidity to draw it down or cling to, so scents linger and can easily be carried by the wind. Many people do not like to hunt in the wind, but with dry conditions and a good attracting scent during the rut, or by using a cover scent later in the season, a success story may come out of a windy day.

Even though dry conditions are not desirable, they can help increase your chances for success. Read the lay of the land and locate alternate food sources, and you should have to trouble filling your tags this season.

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