Hot weather is likely the deer hunter’s most challenging problem. The issue is that Ontario deer are already sporting winter coats by the time the hunt is fully underway, so unseasonably warm weather can cause deer to overheat. To cope, deer have to change their behaviour. So do hunters, if they want to be successful.
What’s a hot spell?
While it’s typically warmest around noon on any day, a real warm spell is a full day or more of unusually high temperatures. Deer tend to behave normally even when the weather is 5 to 10 degrees above normal, any higher and they start to alter their movement patterns. Once temperatures get close to the 20s, the whole game changes.
According to Dr. Karl V. Miller, professor of wildlife ecology and management at the University of Georgia, deer have two responses to heat — one physiological and one behavioural. “When very hot, deer may start panting, extend their legs to increase surface cooling when bedded, and increase the blood flow to ears and other extremities to increase heat loss. On the behavioural side, they look for cooler places, such as thick conifers, they minimize movement, and when they do move, they tend to do so at night. They may even use water to cool down when it’s really hot,” said Miller.
The first change is that deer move to different cover. While hunters dream of a big buck sneaking through a hardwood ridge during the fall rut, overheated deer are more likely to head to lower, shady cover, such as evergreens like cedar, pine and spruce. They also tend to move toward water, where they can drink and take advantage of the surrounding vegetation and evaporation, and the damp soil offers a cooler bed.
Rutting behaviour also shuts down during a hot spell. While the drive to breed is strong, bucks won’t commit suicide by overheating, so they stop or drastically slow their classic daytime rutting behaviour, and instead, bed down to try to stay cool. Most of their activity happens after the sun goes down and things have cooled off.
It’s not just bucks that shift their movements to the end of the day. During a heat wave, most deer will move around, feed, and breed during full night, making the middle of the day the least likely time for a hunter to connect with a deer.
With these changes in deer behaviour in mind, here are some modifications hunters can make to their hunting strategy.
Hunting in heat
First, like the deer, you need to seek shade. Look for areas that have lots of evergreens to provide protection from direct sunshine. If these areas are in low lying valleys, hollows, ravines, or are adjacent to water, so much the better. Think pine on shady northern slopes as an example. These are the places the deer will retreat to in a heat wave. So this is where you must go, too.
Once you have found where the deer shelter from the heat, you need to formulate a strategy. Don’t go barging into the middle of the deer’s sanctuary. The best plan is to hunt the edges of their refuge early and late in the day.
It may seem a little strange, but a heat wave can be an advantage of sorts. A buck that is ready to breed and is cooped up in his bed all day will be eager to start a low light search for a doe in heat (reproductively speaking anyway). This means that the hour before shooting light ends can see incredible deer movement.
In the mornings, you have an hour or so of deer movement after legal shooting time when deer will be funnelling back to cool areas and the air has cooled overnight. Make sure you are in the woods hunting as soon as it is legal.
When hunting cooler areas, you have to keep a couple of things in mind. First, you want to be as close to the bedded deer as possible. If you’re too far away from the edge of bedding cover, they might not get to you until well after dark. This is risky, so make sure you play the wind properly and stay as quiet as possible.
Also, become comfortable hunting thicker cover. While you might have a rifle that shoots dimes at three hundred metres, the cover you should use in the heat often means point blank shots. Stay alert and keep your firearm in your hands, ready.
Heat is the worst thing, at least meteorologically speaking, that can happen to a deer hunt. But all is not lost. When it’s hot, look for areas where the deer can cool off and stand-hunt or still-hunt the edges of that cover at the beginning and the end of the day. Do this and you might just get hot deer hunting.