Don’t Wilt When Heat Disrupts the Rut
Hot-weather rut hunts might offer low-percentage odds, but here’s how you can boost your chances.
Most hunters dread hot weather during deer season, especially when it shows up during the rut. Some deer hunters even avoid the woods when temperatures get unseasonably hot. That’s not necessarily the wrong approach, especially for those with flexible work schedules. After all, daytime activity by mature bucks plummets to almost zero during autumn heat waves.
But what about the common man? If someone can only hunt weekends and vacation days, or has booked a hunt with a nonrefundable down-payment, we can’t wait for better days. You must make the best of bad situations. Besides dealing with poor deer activity, you must get past our negative attitudes about hunting in the heat. You fight the urge to climb down early each morning. You're tempted to arrive late in the afternoon. And you avoid midday hunts altogether.
Increasing the Odds
Even so, some hunters find ways to increase their odds of bagging big bucks while other hunters waste time complaining about the weather. Consider an Outfitter who operates near the Mississippi River in Wisconsin. He would like to wake up every day from late October through mid-November to overcast skies and frost-nipped earlobes. But no matter what the temperature, he must send paying clients out to their tree stands.
Years ago, this hunting outfitter kept asking himself what he could do to give clients more hope of seeing a big buck, even when overnight temperatures stay above 45 degrees. His solution? Give deer access to drinking water. He knew whitetails can satisfy their hydration needs by eating crops, fruits and browse. But he reasoned that when bucks run most of the night during hot weather to fulfill mating obligations, they must crave a “tall, cool one” at some point. Western Wisconsin has lots of creeks weaving through its valleys, but hunting these water sources is often difficult. Even when hunters find sites where whitetails drink, it’s difficult to hunt them without alerting deer. Creeks run through valleys and draws, which spawn swirling, unpredictable winds for hunting. In addition, the sounds of gurgling water makes hearing difficult for deer, making them especially wary.
The outfitter considered those challenges and decided he could capitalize on it. Figuring rut-driven bucks drink more water than most of us realize, he decided to create watering holes like the ones farmers build for cattle along hilltop fields. He noticed deer tracks pocking these ponds’ muddy shorelines, but many such sites aren’t huntable, especially with a bow and arrow. These ponds are usually out in the open, far from cover. And if the ponds have trees bordering them, the trunks are usually too small to hold a tree stand, or their branches are too sparse to conceal a hunter.
Water that Buck
But the cattle ponds gave him an idea. Why not hire someone with a bulldozer to create watering holes along the crests of wooded hills? Ponds inside the woods would give bucks a water source they could use without feeling exposed and vulnerable. Not only would the ponds be a magnet on warm days during the rut, they might also attract deer from mid- to late September when temperatures regularly hit the 70s and 80s. To make the ponds even more attractive, he planted clovers and grasses around them to reduce erosion and filter the rain’s runoff.
The outfitter's hunch soon exceeded expectations. The ponds produced consistent action. Some regularly produce two or three Pope-and-Young bucks each fall. Although he usually places his tree stands uphill within 20 to 30 yards of the pond, his hunters usually shoot well before the bucks reach the water’s edge. Here’s why: When mature bucks approach a pond, they often pause near the edge of its surrounding clearing to survey the scene. That pause is often a buck’s last.
Not all bucks follow the routine, of course. During a recent rut hunt, one of the outfitter's clients hung up his bow at midday and started eating his lunch. A buck suddenly crested the top of the pond’s berm. The hunter put down his lunch and grabbed his bow as the buck approached the water and started drinking. But before the bowhunter could aim, the buck took two unhurried bounds and disappeared below the berm. Figuring he had nothing to lose, the bowhunter stayed there the rest of the day, hoping the buck would get thirsty later. As evening neared, the buck again crested the berm, approached the water and started drinking. Just as the P&Y buck turned to leave, the hunter’s arrow pierced its lungs.
Take to the Ground
Another way to take advantage of a rutting buck’s water needs is to act as if you’re hunting pronghorns on the Great Plains. Many hunters have grown so accustomed to tree-stand hunting that they've developed tunnel vision. They forget deer hunters as recently as 30 years ago did most of their hunting on foot or from ground blinds.
Remember those farm ponds mentioned earlier? Rather than be stymied by a lack of trees to hang a stand, why not use hay-bale blinds or build ground blinds that resemble those large, round hay bales? The trick is to make them large enough to hide a human and place two of them for different winds. Even then, don’t hunt them without a steady wind. These setups require close-up work, and calm conditions or light, variable winds won’t disguise the slight sounds you’ll make when positioning for a shot.
In some situations — provided you own the land or have the owner’s permission — a hunter could dig pit blinds. In fact, because whitetails so seldom encounter anything resembling a pit blind, they’re likely more unaware of their potential for danger than anything else hunters might try.
Take Advantage of Winds
Speaking of alternatives to tree stands, it’s possible to take advantage of high winds that often accompany hot weather. These are good times to stalk bedded bucks in uncut cornfields, or windrows and grasslands.
On an unforgettable recent Midwestern bowhunt when two hunters arrived Oct. 24 to T-shirt temperatures. The air all week was warm and humid, and long-sleeve T-shirts were the uniform of the day when we gathered in the pre-dawn darkness to discuss plans. The two were miserable and ornery. At midmorning one day, a truck pulled in with two local bowhunters. In the pickup’s box lay a 150-class buck one of them arrowed an hour earlier. The two hunters assumed he was one of those lucky guys who had a buck walk within range by fluke, but they were wrong. He had stalked the buck after watching it bed in a weed- and brush-choked fencerow.
About two hours after dawn that day, he was as disgusted as the rest of the men there. He couldn’t wait to get out of his tree stand and go into town for breakfast. Just when he was ready to lower his gear, he spotted the buck moving down the fencerow a few hundred yards away. He watched through his binoculars as the buck stopped into a patch of brush and high grass, looked around, and lay down. The wind was gusting straight from the buck to the bowhunter, so he figured he had nothing to lose by trying a stalk. He marked the buck’s bed with some reference points, lowered his gear, and descended the tree. He then sneaked to the end of the fencerow and began his stalk.
When he had crawled within 25 yards of the buck, he nocked an arrow, rose to one knee and looked for a shooting lane. Brush and grass blocked every angle to the bedded buck. He decided he had to make the buck stand up. After rising again to one knee and drawing his compound bow, he gave a low whistle and increased the volume until the buck heard it in the high winds. It finally stood to look around. Seconds later, an arrow sliced through its chest and out the off-shoulder.
Theres another guy who stalks rutting bucks much the same way. The only difference is, he sets out each morning intending to stalk. He grew up in a Midwestern river bottom that is heavily farmed by people he has known since childhood. He starts his day on high ground, armed with binoculars and a spotting scope. On hot days, rutting bucks bed before, or soon after dawn, and his trained eye spots them as they move into the river bottom to bed in high grass atop cool, sandy soils. Once the buck settles in, my friend studies the wind and terrain, and makes his move.
All of these situations might sound unique, but successful deer hunters look for unusual situations that work against a deer’s need for food, water, cover and security. What if your hunting is confined to one piece of land where ponds, fencerows and uncut cornfields aren’t an option? You'd still rather stay in the woods during the rut than remove all hope by staying home. If time is running short and the forecasts call for continued heat, you might need to go for broke.
Set up as close as possible to where a buck might bed inside a woodlot. In the morning, be in your tree stand, ready to launch an arrow at the first glimpse of legal shooting hours. This might require an extra-early start and a long walk to avoid a buck’s possible approach routes. In the afternoon, arrive early and stay until legal shooting hours end. Chances are, if a buck comes through when temperatures are hot, it will be at the extreme edges of daylight, and it will be far back from the woods’ edge.
Can rut hunts in hot temperatures be as productive as hunts on crisp November days when steam blasts from a buck’s nostrils? Not likely. But all it takes is one buck to make your hunt a success. Years from now, when you tell the story behind the big buck in a photograph, few will care if you saw 10 bucks that week or two. They’ll just want to hear how you got him.
And you’ll sound even more skilled if you can say you killed the only buck that made itself vulnerable that day.