One of the Best Times Ever to Hunt Whitetails

Though not likely applicable to hunting whitetails in states where the temperature does not commonly drop below ten degrees during a hunting season, a thaw or near thaw with the wind calm or light following a few days of very cold weather will trigger an unusually productive 2–3 hour period to hunt sometime between 11 AM and 3 PM. Not realizing this, most northern deer hunters waste these hours thawing out in camp or automobiles and having lunch.

I’ll never forget the last time it happened. Following our third morning of 12-below zero temperatures with bitter winds blowing, everyone was back in camp shivering by 9–10 AM. While we sat around our cracking, two-barrel wood stove, complaining about the lack of deer sightings (only two bucks taken thus far), the weather was beginning to make an unexpected change outside. A warming sun was emerging from the clouds and the wind was dying. I didn’t notice the change until I heard drops of melting snow dripping from an eave of our tent, after which I immediately stepped outside to check our thermometer. Moments later I rushed back in, excitedly saying, “Get right back out there you guys. We’re about to have a midday thaw. Every deer in the woods is going to be up and feeding in a matter of minutes!”

While heading back to our feeding area stand sites that morning, most of us saw deer (I saw three does and glimpsed a buck). During the next sixty minutes, single shots echoed across our hunting area. By noon we had taken our self-imposed limit of five mature bucks (established years earlier to avoid over-hunting our older bucks).

NEVER MISS STAND HUNTING MIDDAY WHILE A THAW OR NEAR-THAW IS IN PROGRESS AND THE WIND IS LIGHT OR CALM FOLLOWING TWO OR MORE DAYS OF BITTERLY COLD WEATHER.

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Changes in Whitetail Habits & Locations in November

Expect whitetails to make a number of changes in habits and locations during November hunting seasons that have little to do with hunting. While the first two-week period of breeding is in progress, for example, dominant bucks will be accompanying different does in heat almost daily (individual does are in heat only 24–26 hours), feeding and bedding with them. During this same period, most antlered bucks will not be in their usual home ranges, having been temporarily run off by rampaging dominant breeding bucks. As soon as breeding is over, lesser bucks will return and dominant bucks will rest in seclusion a week or so. After deciduous leaves have fallen, whitetails will favor different deer trails, those with adequate remaining cover. While there is moonlight in early morning, whitetails will quit feeding earlier than usual. While there is moonlight in evening, whitetails will not begin feeding again until the last legal shooting hour of the day. In Minnesota and most northern U.S. states, whitetails will quit eating grasses in one area and begin eating browse (stems of woody shrubs and saplings) in another during the second week of November. Whitetails will not move from their beds until the second night following the first heavy snow of winter (six inches or more). Hunters, of course, also cause changes. In one day those who hunt on foot can cause quick and lasting changes, forcing whitetails to abandon their ranges and/or become nocturnal. Stand hunters cause less severe changes, most deer remaining out of sight within their ranges, utilizing portions not currently being hunted (next blog: temperature related changes).

Dr. Ken Nordberg’s Most Valuable Hunting Tool

Back in 1960 when I switched from making drives to stand hunting, there was no such thing as a tree stand. Rather than actually stand upright while stand hunting, most stand hunters sat on something — a stump, log, boulder, brush pile or the ground. I sat on such objects throughout 30 hunting seasons, but not without complaint. Typically, such seats were unyielding, lumpy, cold and damp or downright wet. During our wintery Minnesota deer hunting seasons, an inevitably soaked rear sometimes made stand hunting unbearable. Moreover, such seats were rarely located at sites that might be considered ideal. Us stump sitters nonetheless took deer fairly regularly, including some braggin’-sized bucks.

Now that mature whitetails everywhere have convinced many veteran hunters tree sand hunting isn’t near as effective as it once was, ground level stand hunting has been making a strong comeback, as evidenced by the relatively sudden wide-scale demand for folding, easily-packed hunting stools and chairs and portable blinds.

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After trying using a few of the first commercially made folding stools in the early 1990s, typically having aluminum or steel frameworks with canvas seats, I decided to make one of my own with an oak framework, an attached packsack and custom-fitted shoulder straps. I preferred a wooden framework for two reasons. First, to eliminate metallic sounds easily heard over great distances and readily identified as sounds made by human hunters by experienced mature whitetails. When my stool’s wooden framework inadvertently bumps a branch or tree trunk, it makes a natural sound like that made when two branches or tree trunks bang together in a breeze, harmless sounds commonly heard by all forest region whitetails throughout their lives. Second, wood made it easy to create a stool height comfortable for my legs and knees with wide, rounded edges across the top of the stool to eliminate the discomfort characteristic of sitting long hours on the small-diameter, metallic pipe frameworks of folding stools of that period. Custom-fitted shoulder straps, joined in the center in back, eliminated the need for metal or plastic buckles and attachments in front. My attached packsack with a simple draw string is large enough to enable me to stuff my hunting coat (and all other needed gear) inside to avoid perspiring during long and arduous hikes to distant stand sites. My stool has been remarkably durable for more than twenty years years, the only new part needed being a camo canvass seat.

It gets better: My stool provides me with an instantly available, dry and comfortable seat whenever and wherever I decide to stand hunt (sit). It enables me to freely use great numbers of promising stand sites without the need for preseason preparations. Silent to carry, it is ever ready to be placed silently on the ground where I am well hidden within easy shooting distance downwind of just-discovered, very fresh tracks, droppings or other fresh signs made by a mature buck. It has thus made me regularly successful at taking mature bucks. I thus consider it my most valuable deer hunting tool.

(Here is a link to an article on my website on how to make your own stool.)

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Look to the Sky for Predicting Hunting Success

Much of my youth was spent on a northern Minnesota farm where the ability to predict tomorrow’s weather had a lot to do with how successful a farmer was at growing crops. No farmhouse I knew of back then lacked a current edition of The Farmer’s Almanac, noted for its accurate long-range weather predictions. For day-to-day weather changes, however, my grandfather Nordberg regularly looked to the sky for answers. If, for example, he saw high clouds that looked like mare’s tails blowing in the wind or herring bones, he’d likely say, “We’ll have to wait a few days before we can cut hay,” such clouds generally meaning it was going to rain within the next 12-36 hours. Being avid deer hunters, us youngsters learned early certain weather phenomena also portended tomorrow’s hunting success.

For example, if the western sky at sunset is yellow, wind will be strong the following day. Knowing whitetails bed early when the wind exceeds 9–10 mph or remain bedded while wind exceeds 15 mph, refusing to even feed or drink water until the wind subsides at sunset, we have long made it a rule to get to our stand sites well before first light the next morning, taking full advantage of the 2–3 hour daylight period when the air will still be calm or the wind light. Strong winds generally do not become strong enough to make whitetails scurry to their secluded beds until about 9–10 AM.

If the western horizon at sunset is gray (cloudy), rain or snow is likely during the night and the next morning. If light to moderate precipitation is falling before first light the next morning, whitetails will nonetheless be active until mid-morning. If precipitation is heavy at that time, it might be better to sleep in, but remember the old farmer’s saying, “Rain before seven quits before eleven (not 100% true),” after which whitetails everywhere will suddenly begin feeding for an hour or two. The first heavy snowfall of winter (six or more inches) is likely to keep whitetails in their beds until the second night following the storm.

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If the western sky is a brilliant red at sunset (I call it a “deer hunter’s sunset”), expect great hunting the following morning, perhaps all day. The sky will be blue, the wind will be calm or light and whitetails will be active later than usual. There may be heavy frost at sunrise, which is great, whitetails then certain to be active until 10-11 AM when the sun begins melting the frost away. It might be foggy at sunrise, which is also great because whitetails will be very active until the fog lifts. Don’t miss a minute of legal hunting time during a day following a red sunset, a day when your odds for hunting success will be at their peak…that is if you truly understand what the word “skilled” in “skilled deer hunting” means.

(Here are a couple of more examples of red Hunter’s Sunsets.)

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A Whitetail Hunter’s Greatest Challenge

It’s eight days before the opener of our Minnesota firearm deer hunting season. I’m done scouting. I’m in the process of getting all my gear ready, including a trailer load of camp equipment. I still have to get to the rifle range, and, darn, I still have lots of leaves in my yard to get rid of. Most importantly, I also have to finish getting ready for taking on a whitetail hunter’s greatest challenge: getting to a stand site where I expect to see a mature buck without the buck knowing it. The final 100 yards leading to the sites I plan to hunt opening weekend have been cleared of dead branches. The soft-surfaced clothes I plan to wear have been washed with scentless laundry soap and are now drying outside under the roof of my back porch where they will be aired out throughout the coming week. My new lightweight boots, now well broken in, and my homemade backpacked stool with an attached backpack are hanging out there as well. Everything metallic I plan to carry will be checked for telltale metallic rattles, including my rifle sling swivels and hand-held flashlight. The only other thing left to do will be done when I begin my hike to my stand site well before first light opening morning — planning to arrive at my stand site one hour before sunrise or 30 minutes before the first legal shooting minute of the day. I will drive no motorized vehicle to my stand trail or stand. No metallic pickup doors will be slammed there and no one will talk out loud once we leave camp. My clothing will not be tainted by gas, oil and exhaust fumes after riding a noisy ATV, OHV or snowmobile. At the beginning of my trail, I will remember to begin bending my knees with each step and putting my feet down lightly, like a silently stalking bear. Black bears do this so well. This is difficult to continue very long without thinking about it the entire way to a stand. Sure, I’ll be stepping on dead leaves and grasses or snow, but as long as I don’t halt the entire way, drag my feet, make loud footsteps or break dead branches underfoot, deer ahead (upwind or crosswind) won’t be able to determine what I am via hearing. If they can’t identify me by my footsteps, they won’t abandon the vicinity of my stand site before I get there and my chance of seeing that buck soon after at first light will be as favorable as it can be. This I know because in 70 years of whitetail hunting I’ve succeeded in doing this so many times.

Tent Camping Among Whitetails

Other deer hunters who have never tried tent camping in winter typically find it difficult to believe we can actually walk around barefooted in our tent in complete comfort while it is as cold as 27-below-zero outside. We sometimes even find it necessary to open a tent door for awhile to cool things down. The only time it is uncomfortably cold inside is when our alarm clock begins ringing at 4:00 AM in the morning. At that time it is customary for me to crawl out of my sleeping bag rated for 20-below, get a gas lantern going, stack and light wood in our two-barrel Alaskan-type wood stove, get some coffee water heating on our propane kitchen stove, pull on a jacket and boots to head to the latrine outside and check the thermometer and the direction smoke is billowing from our stove pipe on the way back. By then it’s cozy warm inside, my hunting partners are sitting up on their cots yawning and stretching and asking, “How cold is it outside?” or “Which direction is wind blowing?” having certain stand sites in mind.

We began our cold weather tent camping in 1965 beginning with a 10X10 umbrella tent and aluminum bunk cots, heating the tent with a Coleman cook stove perched on a homemade rack and a gas lantern only when necessary. I have to admit, we had to be Minnesotans accustomed to cold winters to endure cold nights in deer country back then. As my hunting gang grew in number, we graduated to larger tents and improved heating systems. Today we use two big tents, 14×18-20 feet long, heated with barrel woodstoves. We are now thinking about replacing one of our tents, 31 years old, with a 27-footer to accommodate our growing gang.

Though necessary for some of us to head north a few days early to set up our camps and cut, split and stack firewood, we would hunt whitetails no other way. Our camps and parked cars mark our favorite deepwoods hunting area like bucks mark their breeding areas with antler rubs and ground scrapes. More than 99% of other Minnesota deer hunters, always welcome for coffee, have respected (not hunted in) our current hunting area for 25 years.

Half of the joy experienced during our deer hunting seasons comes from our tent camping. The sounds of wood snapping, popping and mewing in our barrel stoves, Coleman lanterns hissing above, the smells of tent canvas and sumptuous hot evening meals shared in one tent, spiced with spirited games of cribbage, our latest tales of hunting adventure and howling of wolves on distant ridges beneath the moon make our days in deer camp among the most revered and rewarding of a lifetime.

Scouting before a Hunting Season Begins

Scouting is meant to take the guesswork out of whitetail hunting: finding what kinds of deer live where so you don’t waste time hunting where there are no intended quarries. To be productive, scouting should be thorough. If thorough enough, however, while scouting you will alarm many deer in your hunting area, most of which will temporarily abandon their home ranges. Does with young, yearlings and fawns, will likely be back in their accustomed home ranges within 1–3 days unless other hunters scout in the same area after you scouted. Upon returning, these does, yearlings and fawns will be extra alert up to 4 days. Upon being alarmed enough by you while scouting to make them raise their tails, snort and/or bound away at top speed, mature bucks (2-1/2 years of age or older) are likely to remain off range 1–2 weeks. Being experienced at surviving hunting seasons, upon returning, they will remain extra alert a week or more. Ideally, to ensure the whitetails of your hunting area will be doing predictable things at predictable sites (feeding areas or certain deer trails, for example) during predictable time periods (making them most vulnerable to hunting), you should complete your preseason scouting, stand site selections and other field preparations at least two weeks before a hunting season begins.

Scouting a day or two before the opener is one of the most ruinous things you can do. Afterwards, like one neighboring hunter said a few years ago, you’ll likely end up saying, “Hunting was disappointing. We didn’t see near as many deer in our hunting area as we saw while scouting the day before the opener.” If you can’t scout early enough, you’d be better off skipping preseason scouting all together.