Eric Morken: Busting some common beliefs surrounding whitetail movement in cold, warm and windy conditions
Don't let weather be the primary decision-maker on whether or not you get in the woods this fall. A look at what science says about this and some examples of "bad-weather" bucks.
ALEXANDRIA — One look at the headline of this story, and many would assume I am referring to the cold and snow that will hit Minnesota late this fall and early winter.
As hunters, we know better. Snow and dropping temperatures are what drive a lot of us into the woods. It’s those pesky comfortable weather conditions — sun and 70 degrees — that get a bad rap in the world of hunting whitetails.
If you listen to any deer-hunting focused podcast or consume any media on hunting whitetails, you have heard it. “A cold front is coming, and it’s going to get bucks on their feet.” If deer are not spotted, it’s those darn warm temperatures. Or maybe the wind is blowing too hard.
It is such a commonly held belief that bucks move more in cold conditions and sit tight until dark during warm weather that some hunters will simply stay out of the woods until a cold front hits.
Science does not back that up much. Studies of GPS-collared deer have found minimal evidence that weather has an influence on deer movement. Regardless of temperature, deer are going to move most at dusk and dawn because that’s when they see the best.
Mark Kenyon works for the outdoor lifestyle company, MeatEater, and hosts the Wired to Hunt Podcast focused on hunting whitetails. Kenyon wrote a story in 2020 titled “Does Temperature Affect Deer Movement?” That piece centered around the conflicting nature of this subject in terms of what science says and what hunters feel they see in the woods.
Those who study this will consistently say that if there is a connection between increased buck movement and temperature, it’s minimal.
“We did see some changes when we had temperature changes,” Bronson Strickland of Mississippi State University was quoted as saying in Kenyon’s story about one of their studies. “When a front was coming through, we might see some changes. But again, it wasn’t that dramatic. It was always subtle.”
Maybe that little bit more movement during daylight is all we’re looking for as hunters. Maybe it’s the difference between shooting a buck at last light and never seeing him. I have heard that argument, and it makes some sense to me.
Examples of bad-weather bucks
For many years, I lived by the “have to hunt cold fronts” mantra. It often drove decisions I made on when and where to hunt, even during the rut. I was missing out on the potential for a lot of good hunts because of this.
My experience hunting cold fronts is like any other weather conditions I have hunted. There are good sits and bad sits. My mindset on the importance of them has completely shifted, basically to just not caring about what the weather is doing.
I love climbing into a tree with temperatures in the mid-30s. It just feels right, but I have had many good encounters and some of my biggest buck kills that came in weather conditions when the popular thought is that it is a waste of time to be in the woods.
I think back to my first mature buck ever shot with a bow in my early 20s. That was on a near 80-degree day in mid-October. Hot during the “October lull.” What could be worse?
I watched deer move close to the river on an evening sit, adjusted the next afternoon to that area and had a huge-bodied Minnesota 9-pointer at 20 yards with an hour of daylight left.
Opening weekend of 2020 in Minnesota featured terrible conditions. Temperatures in the 80s and winds gusting out of the south to over 30 mph.
Those winds allowed me to move quietly up a creek to set up over a crossing down low and shoot a 9-pointer that came off a high point on the surrounding ridges.
Like warm temperatures, wind is another popular weather condition that some people say there’s no point to hunt in. That mindset would have kept me on the couch the evening I shot my biggest buck to date on Sept. 4 of this year in North Dakota.
I saw this buck with another 3.5-year-old buck on my first sit of the season on the evening of Sept. 3. Temperatures were in the 70s with light winds out of the northeast. The wind shifted completely the next day to the southeast gusting to 25-30 mph.
Again, the wind allowed me to set up quietly even closer to where I suspected those bucks were bedded. With half an hour of light left, the 12-pointer was 2 yards from me.
Winds will almost always calm down during the last hour of light. Deer will get on their feet at that time, and you will have had an opportunity to use the higher winds of the day time to get tight into where you suspect them to be.
The rut is consistent
I especially pay no attention to weather conditions during the rut.
My 2020 North Dakota buck came on the morning of Nov. 3 when high temperatures were in the 70s that day. Set up between two bedding areas a few hundred yards from each other, a 10-pointer came in right on the tail of a doe at about 8:30 a.m.
Think of the rut this way -- the timing of it is literally life and death sometimes for does and fawns in northern climates. Whitetails have a gestation period of about 200 days, and they have evolved to perfectly time peak breeding that give fawns the best chance of survival.
It takes a lot of energy to raise fawns, and does need that extra boost of nutrition that comes with spring green-up. If fawns are born too early in northern climates, there’s a high risk of mortality due to the weather. Born too late and fawns run the risk of not being healthy enough to survive their first winter.
It’s important that most fawns drop during a similar timeframe in the spring as well to overwhelm predators. Coyotes, wolves, bobcats and bears can only eat so many fawns in an area before the fawns are on their feet and able to better escape.
Let Halloween be the switch
I recently had a conversation with Kip Adams of the National Deer Association. Adams is the Chief Conservation Officer for the NDA with a master’s degree in wildlife biology from the University of New Hampshire.
The timing of the rut, meaning the actual breeding that goes on, is very consistent each year in the northern two-thirds of the U.S., Adams said.
It is not triggered by weather or moon phases, two things that fluctuate. It’s driven by photoperiod -- the amount of time each day that an organism receives light.
“It’s extremely cut and dry,” Adams told me. “We can measure fetuses from does killed late winter or in the spring, back date those and we know exactly when those does were bred. It’s not hearsay on, ‘Hey, this is when we think the rut is.’ Biologists know exactly when it happens. In the northern U.S., it’s very much driven by photoperiod.”
Adams comes at this as both a wildlife biologist and an avid deer hunter. He loves to hunt the cold fronts as much as anyone, but he is not letting weather dictate when he’s in the tree.
A popular peak breeding date in northern regions is Nov. 15, with breeding taking place on a bell curve around that date. Adams said come Oct. 31 and through the first week of November, he is in the woods to take advantage of that seeking stage where bucks are actively looking for the first receptive doe ahead of that peak breeding.
I get the intrigue of hunting on a frosty morning with winds 5-10 mph out of the northwest on Nov. 5. That will have me as excited as anyone. But if you’re waiting for those conditions to hit the woods, you’re missing out on a lot of potential great hunts this fall.