The following appears in the September issue of California Sportsman:
By Cal Kellogg
If rain is the nemesis of most outdoor sports, deer hunting stands in stark contrast, a fact lost on those hunters who let inclement weather signal the end of their hunt.
For the hunter who understands blacktail behavior and how to take advantage of stormy conditions, rain is the strongest of allies.
A FEW YEARS BACK, a small cold October storm rolled through Northern California. It started raining on the first Sunday night of the deer season. On Monday morning, I logged onto the feed from a traffic camera located at the junction of two high mountain high-
ways. There was snow on the road. My heart started beating faster because I knew the deer in my hunting area were almost certainly migrating.
My gear was packed and ready, but I had business obligations I couldn’t blow off. My plan was to take care of business on Monday, make an appearance at a meeting Tuesday morning and then drive to my hunting zone.
It spit rain for much of my drive north and the mountains east of Interstate 5 were hidden by a sinister-looking soup of dark clouds. When I pulled into my campsite east of Red Bluff around lunch time, the sky was threatening, but no rain was falling.
I set up my tent, improvised a tarp over my makeshift kitchen and heated up a triple portion of spaghetti I’d brought from home. I needed to top off the tank because I’d likely be in the woods until dark.
By the time I’d finished eating, slivers of blue sky were starting to show. The forecast called for clearing conditions. Rather than put the rain gear on, I stashed it in my pack – just in case. With my pack, rifle, binoculars and a pad to keep my rear end dry, I started hiking toward a lava formation on the edge of a big canyon where I’d make my stand.
On the way out I walked past a camp. There were three guys standing under a tarp roof, drinking beer and looking at me like I was a little nuts.
“How are you?” I greeted.
“Just fine. We are hoping things dry out enough for us to get out and hunt tomorrow,” one of them replied.
I wished them good luck and kept walking. They were missing a great opportunity because they were afraid of rain.
Around 3:30, two mature bucks and a doe walked out on a knob across from my stand. My range finder indicated they were 298 yards away. For me, it was a massively long shot, but I had plenty of time, a good rest and my 7mm was more than up to the task.
The buck I selected plunged downhill. He probably traveled 80 yards, dropped and went still. My deer season was over. I’d made a good shot, but the real hero of the story was the storm that put the buck in position for me to harvest.
STORMS AND PRECIPITATION EMPOWER hunters because they impact the defenses and behaviors of blacktails in predictable ways, at both the individual and herd level.
Blacktail deer depend on their physical senses of smell, hearing and sight, in addition to behavioral adaptations, as means of avoiding predators. When the woods are dry and quiet, hunters face a serious disadvantage because the blacktail’s acute senses will be working at peak efficiency.
A blacktail’s sense of smell is its foremost line of defense, followed closely by the senses of hearing and sight. During normal conditions, a deer’s sense of smell is the most difficult to overcome.
Stormy weather can help you beat a blacktail’s nose in two ways. First, most storms are accompanied by winds that blow from a fairly consistent direction. Once you establish the direction of the wind, defeating the deer’s nose becomes a matter of keeping the wind in your favor.
If there is no wind blowing, rain and wet dense air can still help defeat a buck’s nose, since they limit the spread of your scent by forcing it to the ground before it can disperse.
Blacktails possess highly refined senses of hearing and sight that enable them to identify and pinpoint sources of noise and movement.
From a quail running through leaves to a squirrel cutting pine cones, the deer woods are ripe with sound and movement. Natural and recurring sounds are stored in the blacktail’s memory and the deer pay them little attention.
Unnatural sounds like the crunch-crunch-crunch of an approaching hunter are quickly identified as potential danger. However, blacktails seldom flee based on a single noise or movement. Instead, they focus all their senses on the source of the suspicious activity, depending on smell or sight or both to confirm the danger before they flee.
Rain and stormy conditions help the hunter by quieting the ground and creating diversionary noises and movements. When sufficiently saturated, sticks, leaves and grasses that once snapped, crackled and popped become a soggy, silent carpet. The sounds of falling rain and the wind that often accompanies it drown out any inadvertent noise a hunter might create.
When the weather is fair and dry, blacktails maintain a low profile by bedding during daylight hours. They feed and move during the low light periods of dawn and dusk.
At these times blacktails are less visible and can take advantage of their excellent night vision. Hunting pressure magnifies this tendency and bucks often respond by becoming completely nocturnal.
From a behavioral standpoint, rain helps the hunter because it increases daylight deer activity and can snap pressured bucks out of their nocturnal pattern.
While most experts agree that deer activity increases during rainy conditions, they disagree as to why. Some experts attribute it to the low light conditions accompanying rain. They speculate that these light levels, being similar to those of dawn and dusk, encourage blacktails to feed.
Others contend blacktails have an internal barometer of sorts that warns them bad weather is coming. The deer react by feeding heavily at the outset of a storm, knowing that harsh conditions may curtail their ability to feed in the coming days.
I think there is truth in both theories, but I believe additional factors may be at work. Perhaps the lack of moonlight due to overcast skies makes nocturnal feeding difficult, and the virtual absence of hunting pressure when it’s raining undoubtedly contributes to the spike in deer activity we observe.
I’M ALWAYS AMAZED BY the reluctance of hunters to operate in the rain. I remember a wet day in October a few years back when my hunting partner and I took a pair of big bucks within 300 yards of a well-traveled gravel road. Despite seeing dozens of road hunters, we didn’t see a single hunter in the woods hunting.
At the herd level, the behavioral effects of stormy weather can be dramatic. The West Coast has both resident and migratory blacktail populations. Resident blacktails, much like eastern whitetails, spend their lives within a few miles of their birthplaces.
On an individual level, resident blacktails show increased feeding activity when confronted with rain, but the herd as a whole doesn’t change locations. In contrast, migratory blacktails are nomads, spending summers in the high country and winters in low-elevation foothills. The first major cold storm of autumn generally triggers the migration.
The hunting during such storms can be fantastic, as large numbers of blacktails stream out of the high country, headed for their low-elevation winter range.
To develop an effective wet- weather strategy, it’s critical to know whether you’re hunting a resident or migratory herd. This can be determined with a call to your region’s deer biologist. Pick up a topographical map of the area and study it prior to calling so that you can identify any areas the biologist highlights.
If the biologist reports the deer in your area are migratory, ask about the elevation and basic location of the herd’s summer and winter ranges. Follow up with questions regarding the conditions that trigger the migration and the route the herd travels while migrating.
Finally, ask that the biologist give you an overview of the herd’s fall behavior. Some herds migrate directly from the high country to their winter ranges. Other herds filter down from the high country into the mid-elevation hardwood belt, where they spend up to a month feeding on acorns before storms finally move them to the winter range.
BLACKTAILS IN ANY GIVEN region typically react in one of three ways when confronted with storms and precipitation: They either migrate, become active and feed, or hole up in sheltered areas. The key factor in determining how the blacktails react, beyond whether it’s a resident or migratory herd, is the severity and duration of the storm.
Blacktails that migrate do so in October and early November, during the first snow of the year. Before and after the migration, these deer respond to rain in the same way as resident blacktails, meaning they become active during daylight hours and feed vigorously.
Heavy sustained rain or strong winds drive both migratory and resident blacktails to seek refuge in dense cover. When it’s raining, both stand-and-still-hunting tactics can be effective. To maximize success, it’s important to tailor your approach to the weather and the anticipated or observed reaction of the deer.
In situations when deer are actively migrating or feeding, stand-hunting is always my first choice. If I can set up in a concealed location and have the blacktails come to me, I’ve got to take advantage of it.
Sure; I could score in the same situation while still-hunting and I might even see more deer, but using that approach I’d run a much greater risk of being spotted and spooking deer.
Superficially, stand-hunting seems simple. You just plop down in the woods and patiently wait until a buck sneaks into view. In practice, however, stand-hunting is much more complicated. The criteria I use for selecting a migration stand are different from those I apply when selecting a stand aimed at intercepting a feeding buck.
I locate migration stands based on terrain and the elevation of the herd prior to the arrival of autumn’s first major storm. I like to set up 1,000 feet below the herd’s elevation, near terrain features that concentrate deer
movement. Saddles, points, canyon junctions and breaks in rimrock are examples of the areas I target.
Finding productive stands in feeding areas usually requires more legwork than locating migration stands, which can sometimes be pinpointed from home using a topographic map.
FOR RAINY-DAY HUNTING, I like to target food sources such as acorns, fruit trees, grapevines and berry patches that show evidence of deer activity near bedding cover.
If you’re lucky enough to stumble on such a spot that also features buck sign in the form of recent rubs, guard its location closely, because it has the potential to be a wet-weather hotspot.
In situations when deer are holed up in thick cover and refuse to move as a result of heavy rains, winds or both, still-hunting becomes the tactic of choice.
For me, periods of strong wind have always been productive. Deer absolutely hate strong wind because it effectively nullifies their senses and makes them feel vulnerable. As a result, deer seek out and concentrate in areas that have the least wind.
I generally focus my efforts on areas of brush situated on the downwind side of ridges. The knowledge that bucks prefer to stay on the upper third of ridges allows me to further refine my attack, resulting in many close encounters over the years. CS
Editor’s note: Cal Kellogg is a longtime Northern California-based outdoors writer. Subscribe to his YouTube channel Fish Hunt Shoot Productions at youtube.com/ user/KelloggOutdoors.