Gerald Almy: Dealing with the weather during late archery & muzzleloader seasons
Many hunters have either taken a deer or called it quits for the year with the end of rifle season. But for diehards, late archery seasons are open and later in December muzzleloader hunting will open again. If you decide to participate in these late deer hunting opportunities, dealing with weather will be a big challenge. Here are some weather conditions you might encounter and how to adjust your approach and hunting strategy to cope with them.
Late season can mean roaring winds, ice storms, sleet, gentle snowfall, or raging blizzards. It can also bring complicating fog or extreme heat waves. If you’ve booked time off or only have weekends free, you can’t wait for better weather. You need to adapt both where you hunt and your strategy to the quarry’s changing movement patterns. Here’s a game plan for each condition.
Heavy snowfall/blizzard. You have three options. Get out before it hits. Hunt during the storm (when it’s safe). Wait until it ends.
Before it hits. Deer have a built-in predictive ability to know when storms are coming. As a result, they feed heavily 6-18 hours before heavy snows set in. Try to be on a current food source before the storm hits. Orchards, food plots, corn, soybean, wheat, and radish fields, flats with acorns left–all can be productive pre-storm stakeouts. In high-pressure areas, check out secondary foods like raspberry, honeysuckle, and greenbrier thickets.
Mid-storm. Start by dressing right. Wear tall boots or gaiters, wool, and waterproof outer clothing. Look for bucks hunkered down in the best shelter they can find such as conifer thickets, brush, and blowdowns. Pinpoint this cover on the lee side of mountains and hills, on benches or even in valleys where they can find some escape from the worst of the storm. Still hunt by walking carefully along the edges.
Post Storm. After the front, find the best remaining food sources and take a stand downwind. Deer will be surprisingly open about moving. They have to be. Their survival demands they get food after being holed up, sometimes for days.
Ice and sleet. This weather can be even worse for deer than snow because the precipitation penetrates instead of building up an insulating cover on their coats. Bucks seldom move well just before ice events, either, because they typically follow low-barometer periods and often start as cold, chilling rain.
Focus on the same spots outlined for snowstorms. Finding evergreens is especially vital for deer now, since deciduous trees and brush offer virtually no protection.
With bucks even more concentrated in this situation than in snowstorms, I like drives. Pick 1-5 acre pockets of evergreens. Have two flankers work the outer edge slightly ahead of a single hunter who zigzags up the middle of the conifers. Place other hunters at the end or along ditches and side strips of cover that offer potential escape routes.
Light snowfall. Deer move well in light snow–seeking a late-cycling doe or a bite of wheat before it’s buried. That sets up one of the most exciting hunting tactics of winter–tracking.
You can’t try this on your favorite hundred-acre parcel. Look to large isolated tracts of public land such as the George Washington National Forest, then hike in a mile or more. Try to strike a trail along a ridge spine, brushy creek, or bench with greenbrier, brambles, and plums.
Find a large single set of tracks. Then dog them. As you move, try to predict the buck’s route and loop ahead when feasible. Nothing can compare with the thrill of tracking down a big buck solo on public land in late season.
Strong cold winds. Deer head to the leeside of hills and ridges, benches down from peaks, hollows, and stream bottoms where they can escape the brunt of chilling breezes. Since this concentrates them for you, still hunting these protected areas into or crosswind is deadly.
Bitter cold and clear. To soak in the sun’s warmth, bucks seek south and southwest-facing hillsides and benches with mostly deciduous trees that let rays through. Stands of warm season grasses also draw them because they’re hidden but the sun can penetrate and warm them. Take a stand and watch for them moving into these areas at dawn to bed or out of them in late afternoon to feed.
Bitter cold and cloudy. With heavy cloud cover, bucks will move to young evergreen thickets, especially those with shrubs and brambles that offer secondary foods. With no sun, the conifers provide extra wind protection and can be warmer than more open areas. Try a two-man still hunt through these small cover patches with one person working 50-75 yards downwind of the lead hunter to catch circling bumped bucks.
Fog. Deer hate fog. They feel vulnerable. But they’re hungry when it lifts. Be there waiting for them at corn, soybean, turnip, or wheat fields, flats with acorns left, or late-dropping persimmon stands.
Heat spells. With their heavy coats, bucks don’t like winter heat waves. They’ll move at dusk or dawn if at all, staying on cooler ridges or in shady conifer stands. When they do move, it’s often to a secluded water source. Find one with fresh signs and stake it out until mid-morning, then still hunt cooler wind-caressed ridges and groves of evergreens.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.