I really do not like cold weather. What’s to like about it? I don’t ski, I don’t really like snow machines and I view ice fishing as a pastime for the terminally bored. About the only advantage I ever found to sub-freezing weather was the fact that when I lived in Alaska, when everything froze solid, it was easier to access certain backcountry areas over the ice than when it was thawed and swampy. Other than that, things like having to wear all those clothes, worrying about pipes freezing, driving on slick icy roads and having a perpetual runny nose never did a thing for me.
And then, one winter, I discovered the magic of hunting big whitetails in bitter weather.
Hallelujah, I became a convert! Sure, it’s still miserable outside, and the snow and ice and bitter winds are never pleasant. But the potential rewards are so great that I decided that as a smart buck hunter I would simply suck it up, bundle up and go hunting. I have never looked back.
Why Hunt Bitter Weather?
We all know that post-rut whitetail bucks are tired and run down. As the rut begins to wind down, their only concerns are resting up for the coming winter and ingesting as many calories as they can as they try to replenish those fat reserves expended chasing girls nonstop for the past four to six weeks.
In much of the country — particularly those whitetail states located north of the Mason-Dixon line — the months of December and January bring two things: winter and the end of the rut. As the temperatures begin to plummet and the mercury stays closer to zero than the freezing mark, the deer really focus on the available groceries. Those foods with the best calorie-per-ounce ratio now are those grown by farmers and include corn, soybeans, winter wheat and a few others, as well as food plots planted by sportsmen. When brassica family plants like turnips freeze, their sugar content spikes, and deer hammer them.
That means, simply, that deer concentrate on these food sources. They move as close to the fields as they can so that they can eat as much as possible while expending the minimum amount of effort — calories — getting to and from the food.
The smart deer hunter will do the same.
How To Hunt
When planning my strategy for these late-season hunts, I am reminded of the game of chess, a game that is simple in objective but complex in execution. In chess the objective is to capture your opponent’s king while protecting your own, a task that requires thinking several moves ahead as well as being able to nimbly adjust to your opponent’s moves.
Post-rut deer hunting when the mercury plummets is much the same. Here the objective is to put yourself into position to shoot a mature buck without getting busted while being able to adjust to changes in weather, deer movement patterns and hunting pressure. It’s both great fun and a real challenge.
Basically, you need to find where the deer are concentrating on food sources. This means locating the area’s cornfields or scouting around other high-quality foods or food plots. When you find what you are looking for — lots of fresh deer sign and, hopefully, catching a glimpse of mature deer — it’s time to decide how you’ll hunt it.
Sounds easy, and sometimes it is. Generally, though, there are hitches in the get-along and you’ll have to make adjustments.
An example. One December in southwestern Kansas, when the mercury never reached double digits above zero, I was hunting a cottonwood riverbottom adjacent to a very large — and very private — farm that grows a lot of corn and an assortment of root crops. The bottom I had access to stretches for maybe a mile, and on the other end was a thick, tangled mess owned by the city and designated as a closed area. The deer loved to bed there, and during the bitter weather of December they would travel back and forth through the bottom to hit the food fields.
The solution seemed obvious: Find a heavily used travel route, hang a stand and nock an arrow. The problem was, there are few straight cottonwoods that make hanging a stand possible, and the few cedars that make for good stand trees are hunted a lot during November, so the deer are quite gun-shy.
So, I attacked the problem with a five-day plan. The first two days I sat high above the bottom a half-mile away and simply observed how the deer came and went. In this weather it is not unusual to not see any movement until the sun comes up and warms things a bit, and also to see deer of all ages, sizes and descriptions coming to feed at midday. So I mostly sat in my truck from dawn until dark and mapped out their travel routes using both a good binocular and a spotting scope.
I made my move on Day 3 when a big blizzard hit and it was possible to carefully hang a stand. What I’d seen was that the deer came from many different directions, but the one thing they did a lot was stop by a concrete water trough that, thanks to a week of near- or below-zero temperatures, was the only open water in the area. That afternoon, when the blizzard abated, a group of seven deer raced past my stand to get a drink. One was a big-bodied buck that, when I finally put a tape on his antlers, gross-scored 157 and change.
Treestand Or Ground Blind?
I dearly love to “sneak-and-peek” hunt along the edges of agriculture fields for whitetails. During this time of year it is almost impossible, though, thanks to snow that is as crunchy as cornflakes. That means that the odds are best for stand hunters.
Treestand hunting can be the ticket — if there is a good tree in the right spot. You have to be extra careful when setting a treestand, since everything is frozen solid and there is a slippery ice sheen on almost everything. The big downside to a treestand now, however, is the wind. It is plenty cold enough, but when you throw in a 10-mile-an-hour or stronger wind and you have to sit for hours on end, before long you’ll feel like a popsicle.
I’ll certainly set a treestand if that is the best chance at getting a shot. But now is the time I much prefer a ground blind. Commercial ground blinds made of fiberglass or fabric will block the wind, and you can even use small heaters inside that will keep you toasty warm. That means you can stay on stand longer and hunt more efficiently.
There are downsides. In bitter weather a fabric blind will freeze, and when it does the fabric becomes brittle and as noisy as a New Year’s Day parade. When the leaves are off the trees and low-lying brush, a dark-colored blind will stick out like a sore thumb unless you can make it look like snow or hide it among some willows or a cluster of tree trunks or corn stalks. And, generally speaking, setting up a ground blind several days before hunting it so deer can get used to it makes sense.
Worth The Suffering
I still suffer mightily from the bitter cold. Don’t like it. Never will. That said, you can bet the house that this coming season I’ll be back out there in the Upper Midwest someplace, trying to keep my nose from dripping and earlobes from turning blue while I sit patiently overlooking a cornfield waiting for another whopper buck to show himself.
This is one game where the risk/reward ratio is definitely in the hunter’s favor.
We all know that weather plays an important part in when, or even if, deer and other big-game animals move during legal shooting hours. This is very true during bitter winter weather when a weather change can really affect movement.
The key here is the barometric pressure. Basically, that pressure rises after a front passes through and when a high-pressure system is building, and it drops before the arrival of a front and during a low-pressure center.
I have tracked barometric pressure readings and my own deer sightings informally for years. I have also spoken with people much more serious about the subject than I am. (They live where they hunt and can choose the days they hit the woods, whereas I am a traveling whitetail hunter, so when I am on the road, I go hunting no matter the weather.) Generally speaking, you’ll find that deer move most when the mercury rises above 29.00 inches. They really like it when the mercury is between 30.00 and 30.50 inches. When it drops below 30.00, deer movement slows.
One scientific study I recently read showed that deer sightings increased dramatically at barometric pressures between 29.80 and 30.28, and the greatest activity was noted when rapid barometric pressure drops of .4 to .5 inch occurred with an ambient temperature in the whitetail’s comfort range (between 20 and 55 degrees F. in the northern half of the United States and southern Canada). In bitter winter weather, however, this type of pressure drop seems to really spur feeding activity.
Often, a rapid change in barometric pressure comes with a stiff wind. And generally, the windier it is, the more dramatic the change. That’s why so many deer are seen (and good bucks taken) right after sustained high winds die down. Watch your area’s pressure in conjunction with high winds sometime and see what I mean. North winds (NE to NW) seem to bring the highest barometric readings.
You can follow barometric changes on the weather app on your smartphone or on TV. What I like to do, though, is pack along a small, portable weather station to hunting camp. This tells me exactly what is going on right where I am, not in some big city a ways away. There are lots of them out there; just make sure to find one with a barometer, as not all incorporate one. You can find a selection at places like www.weathershack.com, www.weatherhawk.com, www.ambientweather.com, www.amazon.com, www.cabelas.com and others.
Staying Warm On Stand
Tons has been written about how to “dress for success” and all that, so why bother now? You already know you need to layer up, that synthetics close to the skin will help wick body-heat-robbing moisture away and that wearing boots a couple of sizes larger than normal will help trap warm air near the toes for added warmth.
In this game, it is the little things that make all the difference. To that end:
Avoid synthetic nylon-type outer shells that get stiff in bitter weather and, even when they are not frozen, sound like fingernails scratched across a blackboard. Wool and fleece are where it’s at. Period.
A wind-blocking membrane incorporated into your outerwear, gloves and hat is one of the most important items of all. Cutting wind chill while not adding bulk to an already bulky set of clothing will make you a more efficient bowhunter. I never, ever hunt in cold weather without it.
Disposable hand and toe warmers are critical. In extremely cold weather I even use them on my kidneys and the back of my neck. They’re cheap, and they’re gold.
A hand muff allows you to keep the fingers toasty while wearing gloves thin enough to permit unencumbered shooting.
Once you use a padded, insulated seat cushion, you’ll never hunt without one again.
Eat a carbohydrate-loaded breakfast that will help your body heat itself. And pack along little munchies so you can keep fueling the inner fire all day long.
One other note: If you wear a hat with ear flaps and anchor at the base of the jaw right below your ear like I do, you’ll find that unless you can flip the flap up and end up anchoring on the outside of the ear flap, your arrows will hit off to the side. Make sure you can move the ear flap out of the way before you settle in for the shot, or sure as the sun rises in the east, you’ll regret it.