Driving through the small, sleepy Montana town revealed more than a hint of Americana hidden in the hills. The digital bank sign revealed the temperature was in the 80s — and it was November. How was that going to affect the rut? Bucks were on the cusp of unwavering breeding behavior, but the heat could easily put a damper on senseless whitetail actions. Overheated bucks wouldn't be wandering as aimlessly throughout the day and would likely curtail their wanderings to dawn and dusk. The temperatures definitely required a different approach, and I scrambled to make a game plan as I traveled to a nearby ranch.
If you hunt long enough, you'll encounter a fall where temperatures more resemble summer than the frosty mornings must of us equate with deer season. Various factors including the latitude you call home, world weather patterns and continental weather fronts all play a factor in how hot the temperatures will be during whitetail season. We all know that animals rarely move as much when temperatures reach the uncomfortable zone. Instead of working up a sweat (or a good pant), animals retire to the shade and wait for cool windows to exert activity.
Whitetails need to retire in the shade when temperatures spike. They don't sweat like you and I do — instead, they release body heat by breathing faster and opening their mouth to expel hot hair that has been captured in the blood. That's why you see deer with gaping mouths after a long run or simply just standing in the hot sun, much like a hot dog. (I'm not talking about the kind with mustard, either.)
And deer seek shade when the mercury rises because of what they are wearing — in this case, winter coats. You and I have a choice on when and where we don a cold-weather jacket. Whitetails don't. Decreasing amounts of daylight will trigger winter hair growth on whitetails. They don't simply "wish" their coat to grow — it happens at the same time each fall whether temperatures are at 50 or 75 degrees. When it is too hot, deer either need to crawl into a shady hidey hole or face the effects of heatstroke.
In brief, heat makes whitetail hunting a struggle, whether the rut is running rampant or bucks are just beginning to feel the itch to spend time with the opposite sex. What's the fix? Since the idea of air conditioning your favorite whitetail honey hole is beyond common sense, you need to tailor your hunting strategies to target bucks that have become overheated.
What do you do when the temperatures are hotter than a slow cooker full of dumpling soup? You head straight for the refrigerator for a cool, refreshing drink. Whitetails do the same, heading for woodland water sources.
When you discuss hunting waterholes with whitetail fanatics from across the country, you receive responses that vary more than the current political atmosphere in America. Regardless if you believe hunting over water will work for you, whitetails require quarts of water a day to survive, so you at least need to consider where they are filling their tanks.
Water-rich zones with a dizzying array of possibilities might seem impossible to decipher, but when the heat is turned up, consider the following. Where would you grab a drink? A shady park or a hot asphalt parking lot?
Scout your hunting property for shady springs, ponds or creeks that are near bedding areas and easy to access from bedding locations. Drinking is one of the first things whitetails do after getting up out of a bed and before retiring. Shady, isolated water spots receive top attention and are excellent locations to waylay a steaming hot whitetail.
If you can't pinpoint a water source, the next best thing is to build one. This is a summer chore that requires some sweat equity or the rental of a small loader. After you excavate a small reservoir you can line it with some sort of waterproofing material such as bentonite, or even a tear-proof plastic liner. If moisture is unreliable, fill it from a trailer-mounted water tank that you can pull with your ATV. To make it even more appealing, locate it next to tempting browse or a mast source where bucks can grab a drink and a snack.
Acorns and other mast come from trees. Trees grow leaves. Leaves provide shade. The math is right, and sweaty bucks will likely feed in the shade before hitting agriculture or food plots when the temperatures dive at dark.
Hunting acorns and apples, the two most popular mast crops with deer, requires early-season scouting. It's best to locate these food sources early and even use sign from past seasons to set an ambush. I often scout in the spring when the leaves and mast products are long gone, but trails are clearly evident along with the rubs and scrapes from the prior breeding season.
Use these rub and scrape lines to decipher the trail receiving the highest level of traffic. You'll need to pinpoint these highways, especially if the area has more than one mast tree, such as a small pocket of oaks or an old orchard hidden at a pioneer homestead. If there are several trees producing hard or soft mast, you can't simply sit near one tree and hope for the best. You need to ambush the buck as he enters the area, and that means being on the best trail, indicated by lots of rub and scrapes.
All mast locations are not hotspots, and the really good locations are actually hard to access. Why? The best spots are near bedding cover, and many are so close that bucks actually can survey the area for an early warning system if you arrive. That's why it's important to locate the best ambush sites early and set tree stands well before the hunt takes place. It also means only hunting these locations when conditions warrant. Hunt stands when winds are perfect and wait for the best conditions, such as a breezy day that will hush your approach, or even a light drizzle that will soften the ground and muffle crunchy leaves. Walking into a mast area adjacent to bedding cover on a hot, dry, quiet day is as productive as hunting whitetails with a big splash of Old Spice cologne as deer attractant.
Targeting mast crops already puts you well into the woods. Moving right up to the bedroom is an even further gamble, but you might have to take that bet and knock on the bedroom door when the temperature really heats up.
Whitetail bucks need to eat and drink, and they also begin to feel the need to set the pecking order and begin the hunt for estrous does as the rut nears, so they will still move. They just don't feel the need to expose themselves during daylight hours. That doesn't mean they aren't moving then — they just don't romp around food plots when the humidity and temperatures create uncomfortable conditions. Take your hunt into the woods and you might just catch a buck waiting in the wings.
Mature bucks will routinely leave heavy cover and wait 100 yards back in the woods before strolling into a clover field after dark. We call that 100-yards-back spot a staging area. Irresistible browse such as ash, aspen, maple and basswood are some of the items targeted by bucks waiting for the temperatures to drop.
There are ways to increase the draw of a browse source by opening the canopy of a wooded area to allow more light to hit younger plants. Creating these mini stopping zones is the perfect way to draw bucks directly from bedding areas to staging areas where you’ve set an ambush. Another way to bring bucks out of heavy bedding cover to a staging area is the creation of a small food plot in a small opening en route to a feeding field.
Heat is going to curtail many of the activities of bucks preparing for or already engaging in the rut. These activities will still occur, not just with the same frenzy you'd see under frost-on-the-pumpkin conditions. If you want to throw a spark on that smoldering fire, consider slipping into the woods and lighting a fire.
Still-hunting into a heavily used deer area is a risk, but it can be rewarding with the right approach. When temperatures rise, deer will lie up longer than usual in shady bedding cover. Even so, they still have rutting on their mind and often the right stimulus can incite ambition and get a buck to come over and investigate. As noted earlier, conditions have to be just perfect before you enter the woods of a known whitetail hideout. You also shouldn't stroll around the woods if you only have a limited amount of acres to hunt. If you're hunting large tracts of state or national forest, this is a solid tactic. If you only have 40 acres to hunt the entire season, it might not be wise to bump around the woods during a heat wave.
Breezy conditions and drizzle are the best times to enter the woods. To cover any mistakes, use a grunt tube and burp occasionally. This gives the illusion of a young buck anxiously wandering around looking for the first signs of a lady in waiting. Don't use this tactic in heavily-hunted areas where your actions could be mistaken for an actual buck and always wrap yourself in blaze orange regardless of the hunter density.
You should also tiptoe with the start-and-stop tactic that will mimic a whitetail, for a grander illusion. Once you believe you are near a bedding location, look for a site offering good visibility, yet cover to hide in. Then start a mock fight using a rattling bag or antlers. To make the fight more believable, break branches, scatter leaves, grunt, snort-wheeze and bleat. The commotion might be enough to get a hot buck even hotter under the collar and get up to take a look.
I consider deer drives a strategy of last resort. It's not that deer don't get rousted from time to time, but it's not something you should employ every weekend. Deer learn, and if you push them too much they might escape forever from your hunting tract. There are ways to drive deer without a major fear factor involved. The key is to take it slow and easy. Try these two strategies.
Team up with another hunter and decide who is going to drive and who is going to take a stand. The stander should sit upwind, but at an angle where approaching deer will not catch his or her scent. Why? Deer always feel more comfortable escaping using their noses to lead the way. They like to escape into the wind.
The driver then enters the thickest, densest cover available and still-hunts slowly, trying to mimic the movement of a deer or another animal. If the deer don't see you, yet hear you, they'll likely bound a short ways ahead instead of leaving the country. The driver should also stay sharp and be ready to shoot, since you're likely to roust a bedded buck who thinks another buck or critter is invading his bedroom. More than once I've had bucks approach me in confusion before bounding right into the waiting ambush of one of my buddies.
Some cover is so thick you'll never get deer to leave, even if they scent you. Then you'll have to go in and get them. Place a tree stand in the middle of the thick stuff during the preseason and preferably in a slight opening. When the going gets tough, have your buddy climb in as silently as possible. Your role is to enter the cover from approximately 300 yards away or so and commence still-hunting in a large circle around the stand until you complete a 360-degree rotation. Now move approximately 100 yards closer and repeat, and keep repeating until you feel you've accomplished your mission of stirring up the deer in the area.
In super-thick cover deer will simply move out of the way and let you pass by or circle back. Hopefully the deer will sidestep you and walk through the opening where your buddy is set up. It doesn't have the romance of rattling in a buck, but it can be effective when deer don't want to move due to the heat.
When I finally reached my Montana hunting location, I went in with shirt sleeves and a plan to still-hunt into bedding cover for rattling opportunities. My first setup went unnoticed, so I slipped deeper into bedding cover while sopping sweat with my shirt sleeve.
My second setup was right next to a known bedding zone, and five minutes into the rattling I could hear the soft grunts of an excited buck. I couldn't believe the buck was responding, and when I first laid eyes on him, his open mouth gasping for air said it all. At 50 yards he stopped in the shade of towering bush as he tried to keep cool. Once refreshed he stepped out and gave me the perfect opportunity to end what had previously appeared to be a disastrous hunt.