Foul Weather Bow Hunting – Being Prepared Is Key

Wild Game DynastyBucks n Bears, Friends of ELO

By:  John Eberhart.

Tomorrow mornings weather forecast calls for near freezing temperatures, heavy winds and rain. You set the alarm in hopes that the forecast is wrong. It goes off and as you reach to shut it off you can hear rain hitting the roof. You look out the window to see a steady rain and the treetops swaying with the wind, and checking the outside thermometer, it shows 34 degrees.

You think about the last miserable hunt on stand when it started to rain. On that hunt the temperature was in the 50’s not the low 30’s. First there was a smattering of raindrops, followed by a steady rain. Within minutes water was running down the tree trunk in streams and dripping onto you from overhanging branches in exactly the same spot, drops after drops until you were soaked to the skin in certain areas. The skies had been clear so you hadn’t packed raingear in preparation, so you aborted the hunt and went home.

Now, you have the proper rain gear, yet the intelligent side of your brain is telling you not to go, but the “I’m a dedicated bowhunter” side temporarily overrides it, forcing you to go through the motions of pacing several minutes before deciding to crawl back into your warm bed.

You convinced yourself that even though you had the gear that being miserable in the rain wasn’t worth the slight possibility of having a confrontation with a good buck. There would also be the hassle of emptying your backpack to dry everything out and to care for your hunting clothes after the hunt. In deep reality, many hunters just don’t want to be miserable sitting in a tree. Does this sound familiar?

The mere mention of foul weather causes most bowhunters to reconsider their hunting plans. Depending on its severity and the quality of your hunting gear, hunting in rain, wind, cold, or snow can be an absolutely miserable experience.

Simply put, during severe inclement weather conditions, most bowhunters stay out of the woods. For them this is unfortunate, because they are missing some of the best hunting. This is especially true in heavily pressured areas within Michigan.

I’ve always hunted in foul weather, not because I enjoy being uncomfortable or chance getting sick, my motivations are very clear and quite self-centered. Mature bucks in heavy consequential hunting pressure (hchp) areas move more during daylight during inclement weather conditions than during bluebird days! This fact has been pounded home through my many years of hunting observations in Michigan.

There is likely a study somewhere reputing my solid hunting facts, and while studies are quaint and nicely framed, I know of none done in heavily hunted areas, so studies done in captive environments or in lightly hunted areas mean absolutely nothing to me.

The simple fact is this, not all deer grow up equally. Some bucks are born in areas that see tremendous consequential hunting pressure where nearly every hunter is targeting any legal antlered buck, while others are born in areas with few hunters or in managed areas where there are stringent hunter engagement rules such as age and or antler size criteria’s.

The fact is that the amount and type of hunting pressure an area receives has more of an effect on deer behavior and daytime movement habits than any other factor, PERIOD!

The majority of TV personalities hunt on either their own or leased micro-managed land, on pay to hunt ranches, or in areas with extremely low hunter densities and in all those types of areas there is no need to hunt in foul weather conditions to take mature bucks. I’ve hunted in Kansas and Iowa and can personally attest to that.

On these fantasyland properties there are many mature bucks and during the rut phases, due to competition between them for breeding rights, they move in the mornings and evenings just as the rest of the deer do, no matter the weather conditions.

Having exclusively bowhunted on knock on doors for permission and public lands in Michigan’s zones 2 and 3 for over 50 years, and having taken 23 out of state hunts to lightly hunted states, when speaking of hunting pressure and how it effects deer movements, it’s from direct experience.

As far back as the late 1960’s and early 70’s I can remember buck movements increasing during inclement weather conditions and while bowhunting pressure was nearly non-existent back then, there were nearly 1,000,000 licensed gun hunters that unlike today, targeted every legal antlered buck, leaving few to reach 2 ½ years of age or older.

Gun deer drives were common after the first day of season and hunters back then didn’t hunt from box blinds, which is basically going from point A (vehicle or home) to point B (box blind) and back. Hunters molested the woods and unlike today, they targeted every legal antlered buck.

I remember opening morning of gun season in Clare County in 1978. By 7:30 am I was hearing so many shots that for grins I started counting seconds (one Mississippi, two Mississippi) between shots and once another shot was heard I started over. From 7:30 to 9 am I never counted more than 13 Mississippi’s before hearing another shot. It was like a war zone and I actually felt sorry for the subordinate bucks trying to find a place to hide. It’s not remotely close to that today.

The movement habits of the few bucks that survive to maturity in Michigan’s heavily hunted areas are staggeringly more nocturnal than those of their brethren in lightly hunted and managed areas.

So what is it about certain inclement weather conditions that entice more daytime mature buck activity in heavily pressured areas? Maybe it’s because they can move quietly. Ever notice how cautiously mature deer move during dry, calm conditions, taking a few steps and stopping to listen for any possible reaction to their movement. They don’t move with that air of caution in rain, snow, or windy conditions.

Maybe it’s because while growing up they didn’t encounter hunters when moving during foul weather. Deer are creatures of habit and when there are no consequences for movement habits, they are likely to continue those habits. Whether mature buck movements during nasty weather is a natural phenomenon or whether it is due to their memory of past history, only they know.

To me, it’s presumably a combination of being able to move in silence and their previous history of lack of hunter encounters during certain foul weather conditions. Whatever the reason, their sense of secure movements during inclement weather conditions is conducive to repetitive behavior. My memory backs up this fact with big buck sightings, and kills.

What’s really strange is that while daytime mature buck activity during inclement weather conditions increases, other general deer activity decreases making foul weather hunts not only uncomfortable, but rather boring concerning general deer sightings. Doe’s and fawns tend to move more during bluebird days.

Precipitation Conditions

My records show that over 30% of my mature buck sightings in Michigan have been during inclement weather conditions, generally during light to moderate periods of rain, snow, wind or during that quiet lull just prior to or immediately following a storm. This is an extraordinarily high percentage of mature buck sightings considering that less than 15% of my time spent on stand, were during those conditions.

If it’s raining or in the forecast, it’s advised to only take broadside, double lung shots that are within your comfortable shooting distance. This should be everyone’s mantra in the first place, but unfortunately isn’t always the case. The last thing you want to do is make a marginal hit and lose the deer because it traveled a long distance and the blood washed away in the rain. Double lung hit deer rarely travel over 100-yards before expiring and should be easily recovered even with a poor or totally washed out blood trail.

On morning hunts in both 1975 and 1980 I respectively took 11 and 8 point bucks during steady downpours and mid 40 degree temperatures. As normal for that time, on both hunts I tied myself into large tree crotches with my bow rope so that if I slipped on the slick bark, I wouldn’t fall out of the tree. Back then there was no good rainwear and even during hunts in the rain I wore the same cotton coveralls as I did in dry conditions and on both hunts I was soaked to the bone by daybreak.

Within a few days of each of those hunts I also ended up with a severe cold and that was pretty normal when hunting in the rain, but the upside was a higher percentage of mature buck sightings.

Back then there wasn’t any quiet and sufficient clothing for inclement weather. My determination and to some extent, stupidity, allowed me to accept and deal with what Mother Nature brought and the misery of shivering from being soaked to the bone or cold was part of the process. I never thought about the aftermath of getting sick, if I had the day off, I just went.

Older rain suits were lined with stiff PVC and just weren’t quiet or practical enough for bowhunting.  Wool was the only fabric that would retain some body heat when wet, but you were still wet. Wool clothing was also quite expensive and beyond what I could afford at the time.

Looking back, I shake my head in disbelief. I now own comfortable, quiet waterproof/windproof gear and continue to go out of my way to hunt during inclement weather. Many hunters don’t have proper clothing, and many that do still find excuses to stay home which fits perfectly into my “hunt opposite your competition” thought process when hunting in Michigan.

I’ll never forget a morning hunt on December 16th 1996 in Kalamazoo County in pursuit of a big buck. The temperature was 34 degrees when I left home in Clare at 1:30 am and when I arrived at around 4:15 am it was 35 degrees and drizzling.

Wearing an insulated Gore-Tex lined Browning Hydro-Fleece waterproof suit over a couple other layers of clothing, I securely settled into my saddle about two hours before daybreak and decided to nap until daybreak. Locking my arms around the lead strap, I leaned forward and placed my head on it and dozed off. I don’t typically do it, but I fell into a deep sleep.

Several minutes after dawn my body did one of those jerky things and it woke me up. I was shocked at what I was looking at. The temperature had dropped a few degrees and the drizzle had turned to freezing rain and everything, including myself was covered with a layer of ice. As I un-wrapped my arms from around the lead strap, the ice was shattering in big chunks from my suit as if it were glass breaking.

All I could do is laugh and think, John, you are an absolute idiot. You knew the weather report called for freezing rain and you drove 2 hours and 45 minutes anyway. I thought, you are an absolute moron that could be sitting in a warm house, drinking a hot cup of coffee.

My bow and arrow were coated with ice with icicles hanging from them. I slapped the arrow lightly against the tree to pop the ice off before putting in back in the quiver with the rest of the ice coated arrows. I unscrewed the bow holders, slapped my backpack a few times to knock the ice off, lowered my bow and started down the tree.

My steps were coated in ice and extremely slippery and I try as I might, I couldn’t knock off the ice by kicking them. To say the least, I was overly cautious as I descended the tree from my 30-foot perch. I did take that 11-point buck a year later on a severely cold mid-December evening hunt while he was scent checking for estrus does in a secure transition corridor between a bedding and feeding area.

On a late November 2004 bowhunt in Missouri (during Michigan’s gun season) I sat all day in gut wrenching on and off rain for three days in a row. My motivation was the wide antlered 10-point I saw the first morning while scouting the property.

When the alarm went off at 3:30 am on the 4th morning in a row, it was still raining. It was a 20 minute drive from the Motel to the property and by the time I got back each night from the hunt, ate and washed and dried my Rivers West waterproof/windproof suit at the local Laundromat for the next morning’s hunt, it was after 11 pm.

Sleep deprivation had set-in, my stamina was waning, and after hitting the 10 minute snooze button twice, I nearly shut off the alarm and went back to sleep, but didn’t. I crawled out of bed and went through the process again.

Shortly after daybreak, the big 10-point busted out of the nearby stranding corn in pursuit of a doe and stopped broadside within a comfortable distance. Sliding an arrow through both lungs I watched as he ran 80-yards and expired. The payoff for the previous 3 days of miserable hunting conditions was worth it.

Raingear

Waterproof/windproof clothing for bowhunting has to fulfill several criteria. It has to keep you dry, must be quiet for the periods the rain lets up, should allow ease of movement, and should be durable.

In the early 1990’s micro-fleece garment exteriors with waterproof polyurethane and or Teflon membranes were introduced and still are the most popular garments in the marketplace. Polyurethane and Teflon waterproof membranes are noisy and the only way to make a suit quiet, while still using these membranes, is to use a heavy or deep napped exterior fabric over them to mask the noise.

Unfortunately, due to the lower cost of short napped micro-fleece fabric, most manufacturers producing waterproof hunting garments still use it as their exterior fabric. As far as I am concerned a short napped fabric is not effective enough at masking the noise of a waterproof membrane for up close bowhunting encounters.

Garments using exteriors with deeper (longer) and denser (more fibers per square inch) polyester fleece are going to be more expensive, but will be more suitable for bowhunting.

Will longer napped fabrics collect stick tights and burrs more than micro-fleece, absolutely yes? Burrs and especially stick tights are a pain to remove from deep napped fleece and after a period of time, the lower portion of the pant legs may lose their cosmetic appeal, but in my recollection I can’t remember any hunt where a deer cared about the stick tights in my pant legs.

Another downside of a deep napped fleece waterproof garment is that it absorbs a lot of water and becomes rather heavy when wet. To me the stick tight and water absorbing weight downsides are far outweighed by the lower noise factor.

There are many high end waterproof clothing manufacturer’s that use deep napped fleece for their exteriors. Some 2-piece suits can cost as much as $900, while others such as Rivers West offers 2-piece suits from $240 to $450. It boils down to what you can afford and I can testify to the quality of Rivers West as I’ve been using it since the late 90’s.

 

ScentLok also finally makes a quiet windproof suit and a waterproof suit and they both offer activated carbon scent control technology and are the only company that offers any viable scent control technology.

The words Waterproof and Breathable are two words that in my opinion should never be used in the same sentence let alone next to each other. The tests used for breathability in the hunting industry are rather meaningless. There are no waterproof suits that you can breathe any substantial amount of air through from either side. How is it possible for a membrane to stop water, yet allow enough air passage through the same membrane to evaporate body perspiration or moisture?

A waterproof/breathable labeled garments lack of permeability (air flow) is why the garment can also be used as windproof garment during cold windy days, it doesn’t allow enough air passage to mean squat. To test this concept, I took a Browning, non-insulated, Gore-Tex lined, “Waterproof/Breathable” labeled jacket and draped it over a large 3-speed fan. Turning the fan on high I lit a match on the opposite side and the flame never flickered. Reversing the jacket had the exact same results, not enough air passage to disrupt the flame.

Any meaningful breathability of any waterproof suit can only come through venting, which are visible openings that allow airflow. Some garments do this with zippered openings and mesh panels with covered flaps.

Windy Conditions

For decade’s strong windy conditions totally baffled me concerning deer movements, and due to arrow drift is still my least preferred condition to hunt in. Unlike a light drizzle or moderate rain where a deer’s sense of sight and smell are not totally diminished, heavy winds cause a great deal of movement and noise in the woods which dramatically diminishes the usefulness of all 3 of a deer’s senses. With impaired sight, hearing, and smelling restrictions, it is obvious why deer don’t move much during periods of strong winds.

My records show that while mature bucks will move during extremely windy conditions, general deer movements dramatically decrease. When weather conditions diminish deer sightings, it is also most likely to diminish a hunter’s will to hunt in those conditions in the future. However, it is common to have periods of lulls in the wind both in the evening and morning.

How many times have you decided not to go hunting in the evening because it was too windy, only to have it stop about a half hour before dark?  Oftentimes, as soon as the wind stops deer start moving, typically with a determination not seen otherwise because they lost several hours of feeding time.

Like hunting in the rain or cold, hunting in strong winds usually becomes a matter of attrition. Stick it out and something good may happen, or stay home and be guaranteed that nothing will.

Just as with rain, proper clothing in extreme winds is an absolute must, especially when it’s cold. It doesn’t matter how many layers of insulated undergarments you wear, if you’re exterior or first layer under it isn’t windproof, it will penetrate through your permeable insulation within a short period of time and you will get cold.

I have two choices in windproof exterior garments. My first is ScentLok’s Windbrace suit because it has it all, scent control in the form of an activated carbon liner, a windproof membrane, a deep napped exterior fleece to make it quiet, it’s warm, and inexpensive as far as hi-tech garments go at $320 per suit.

The only difference between a windproof and a waterproof garment is that the seams on the membranes of a waterproof suit are taped over to keep water from seeping through the seams. Windproof garments have waterproof membranes that are overlapped when stitched, however the seams are not sealed with a waterproof tape so it can’t be labeled waterproof. By not taping the seams the retail cost is kept down.

During high winds, shorten your shot distances because wind will usually cause arrow drift and erratic flight both of which will affect accuracy, especially in a cross wind.

In 2000 I took one of my most prized Michigan bucks on a severely windy day. The buck was bedded within 40-yards of my tree in some dense red-brush and I had no clue he was there. I was only able to get in the tree without alerting him because the wind masked my approach and tree climbing noise. About an hour after set-up I about fell out of my tree when the he stepped out of the red willows and walked within shooting range. This buck had two 00 bucks shot in his neck, a 2 ¼ inch Vortex broad head buried in his shoulder, and a 12 gauge slug in his right flank and had learned the hard way when he felt it was safe to move during daylight hours.

Cold and Snowy Conditions

What I have found to be the best snow for hunting is a light to moderate fall with a little wind. Mature bucks are more apt to move in these conditions for the exact same reasons as in the rain.

In mid-October 1996 during a torrential downpour, I went out to prepare a new location and by noon I was drenched to the bone, but finished. On my way out, as I walked around the corner of a standing cornfield, not 40-yards in front of me working a scrape in the still pouring rain, was the buck I was pursuing. We made immediate eye contact and after a few stare-down moments he bolted into the nearby woods. I saw that buck only 3 times in 4 seasons and two of those times it was raining. On November 11th 1997, I took that 14-point buck at straight up noon immediately after a 2 inch snowfall.

Deer don’t move much during extremely high winds (30 plus mph) and cold. They usually bed in low lying areas or in dense conifers both of which provide protection from the wind. But sometimes bucks do move, and that is enough for me.

On public land in Illinois, 2 days after their gun season ended in mid-December 2008, I took a 12-point during blizzard conditions just before dark. Conditions were 30 to 40 mph stiff winds, minus 30 degrees wind chill and snowing sideways as hard as I’ve ever seen. I saw 4 other bucks during the last half hour of light and nearly got out of my tree early because I couldn’t imagine anything other than my stupid self, being out in these conditions. There is always one solid guarantee, if you’re not out there, you can’t kill anything.

In hchp areas, a mature buck’s only point of vulnerability may be during inclement, nasty weather conditions. So if you are suitably prepared, and have the desire, get out there and hunt, after all what else is there to do?

Editor’s note: John has 31 bucks in the Michigan record book from 19 different properties and another 19 P&Y bucks from 13 different properties on his 23 out of state bowhunts.

What separates John’s accomplishment of having 50 record book bucks from 32 different properties from any other hunter in the country is that he’s exclusively hunted on public and knock-on-doors for free permission properties.

John also co-authored 3 instructional bowhunting books, produced the 3 part DVD series “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails” and has done many podcasts. To view the podcasts and for information on his books, DVD’s or 2 day in-field/classroom Eberharts Whitetail Workshops, visit: www.deer-john.net