By Chris Eberhart:
“Man, I haven’t been out much yet this year. Every day I have time to hunt it seems to be raining.” Recently while browsing the aisles of my local archery shop I overheard this tidbit of conversation. Does it sound familiar? The sentiment about not hunting in the rain is very common, and really, who likes to bowhunt during a steady rain? It’s just a hassle. All of your gear gets wet, you get wet and perhaps uncomfortable, and the deer aren’t moving anyway, not to mention that you have to dry everything after your hunt. And, if you do hit a deer, the rain will immediately wash the bloodtrail away. So, it makes sense to wait for nice weather to bowhunt. Right? Wrong? I, for one, am convinced that there isn’t a better weather condition for chasing mature bucks. If it is raining in the fall, you’re very likely to find me out in the woods somewhere with bow in hand. Let me explain:
Why hunt in the rain?
The answer to the that question is almost too simple. Mature bucks tend to move during wet conditions, despite the contrary opinion by many hunters. This opinion may be due to simple armchair speculation over a cup of coffee to justify not hunting. Not only are bucks on the move, they can often be seen during daylight in periods when they are ordinarily nocturnal, for instance during the October lull. Though I haven’t had an opportunity to scientifically test my claim I have a great deal of anecdotal evidence to support it. According to my hunting records, over the last ten years nearly 30 percent of my mature buck sightings have been made during wet conditions, and this despite the fact that less than 10 percent of my hunts took place during the rain. Three mature bucks have fallen to my arrows on wet days in the last five years. Rain is indeed a golden opportunity for the determined bowhunter.
Deer move in wet conditions for a couple different reasons. One of those reasons is most certainly stealth. In dry conditions every step is met with a crispy crunch. This not only allows predators to hear deer coming, it masks sound that deer are able to perceive. So when the ground is wet deer are better able to detect danger via hearing. Another reason deer move during damp conditions is an improved sense of smell. Having worked with blood trailing dogs it is clear that under damp conditions their tracking ability improves compared to bone dry conditions. Applying this to deer, which have nearly the same olfactory power as good hounds, means due to conditions their sense of smell sharpens in a wet woods. Though a deer’s eyesight doesn’t improve directly because of rain, there is no deficite unless the wind is blowing heavily. Often while it is foggy, misting, or raining the forest in fact becomes quite still, meaning that along with improved conditions for both hearing and smelling a deer’s eyesight is at nearly optimum as well. You would probably be up and moving too, if the conditions for the functioning of your main senses were optimal. And there is more.
I believe deer move during daylight when it rains for a couple more reasons. The first reason is that they eventually they get wet, and simply stand up to shake off the water. Shaking off the water is often accompanied by a short stroll, mostly during light breaks in heavy rain. The second reason deer move during the day is due to what may be a learned reaction to hunting pressure. In a lot of heavily hunted areas the woods are devoid of hunters during rain. Deer, particularly bucks and mature does, have long since picked up on this. One final reason bucks are caught on the move during daylight in wet weather is the altered light conditions that accompany the moisture. The nights are darker due to thick cloud cover, regardless of moon phase, the mornings are later and more sudden, and in the evenings nightfall arrives earlier. Sometimes bucks are fooled by the darknesss and leave their nightly haunts just a tick later than normal, perhaps just after daylight. The enterprising bowhunter should be in position to intercept this exception of later than usual morning movement along a travel route to a bedding area. It is in just this fashion that I arrowed my biggest buck to date on a misty morning, right after daylight. On the other hand, because darkness falls earlier bucks tend to be on their feet earlier than normal in the evening, sometimes giving a hunter a rare shot opportunity during an evening hunt. This element of the rain-hunting-equation is particularly important before the rut during those tough mid October weeks.
However, all rain is not created equally. There are qualitative differences between types of rain as far as buck movement is concerned. Wet conditions conducive to buck movement encompass thick fog, light mist, light rain, and steady rain of medium intensity. If the rain is simply too heavy, deer tend to lie low, or if the wind is howling and the drops are coming in horizontally the effect is much the same. It is important to remember though, that when it rains the intensity usually increases or subsides, changing from minute to minute. During breaks in rain, or lower intensity periods, deer will be on the move. So, usually I bowhunt in any kind of rain, riding out the soaking to see what develops as the rain ebbs. Several times right after lengthy downpours of more than six hours I have had encounters with mature bucks. The only condition that must be avoided is lightning. Lightning is downright dangerous and the instant a bolt comes down, or I hear the grumble of thunder, my hunting is over. Fortunately, in autumn lightning isn’t nearly as prevelant as during summer rain storms.
Challenges of Hunting in the Rain
Hunting in the rain though isn’t without its difficulties. The foremost problem is simply staying dry and comfortable. In the past this was a major problem because most raingear was made of rubber or nylon and was simply too noisy for bowhunting. The only real solution used to be wool, which meant getting wet and eventually cold. This situation has changed dramatically in the last ten years. There are several companies that produce quality raingear that will keep you dry and warm in even the heaviest downpour, and that are quiet enough for even the most discriminating bowhunter. In fact, some of the new raingear is so good that have been surprised several times by actually how much it rained while sitting comfortably in my impervious soft shell. Once after a morning in the woods I had to forge a creek that had risen from ankle depth to over my waste! Another time, after an all day hunt in a heavy rain, I was surprised to find a massive power outage in southern Michigan and several washed out bridges in the area. Coincidentally, on both of those days I had encounters with mature bucks on public land, one in Ohio and one in Michigan. Good raingear is worth the investment, and makes staying on stand a breeze. My current rainwear of choice is manufactured by Rivers West.
Shooting and shot selection are more challenges to raindog style bowhunting. Water on your arrows will effect their flight, particularly if you use feathers instead of vanes. To know how my arrows fly in such conditions I take the opportunity for rainy day practice sessions a couple of times each summer. With my current set-up shooting out to twenty yards doesn’t show a noticable difference in arrow flight, even in a serious downpour. With each five yards beyond that, however, I my arrows drop more than usual, about two inches at twenty-five yards and almost four inches at thirty. Shooting farther means an even more extreme drop. (This is in really heavy rain, the lighter the rain the less effect it has.) Before you hunt in the rain you should know how your shooting is effected by the extra water by taking the time to shoot in all wet conditions from fog to a real drenching. This little bit of extra practice will prepare you for the shot when that wary wet weather buck ghosts into range.
Speaking of a buck ghosting into range, it is essential to be on extreme lookout during wet conditions. When the ground and entire woods are soaked it is nearly impossible to hear a deer coming. You have to ready at all times and see them before they spot you. There is no opportunity to drop your guard and hope to hear deer coming. On almost every raindog hunt I am surprised by deer suddenly standing in shooting range. They seem to know that they can slide through the forest undetected.
Conservative shot selection while hunting in the rain is critical, and not only because of altered arrow flight. The last thing you want to have happen is to lose a mature buck due to a washed away blood trail. The first defence against this possibility is short broadside or quartering away shots that you are sure you can make. It goes without saying that this should indeed be your goal all the time. Though I believe it takes more rain than most people think to completely wash away a blood trail, bloodtracking by eye while it is raining can be tricky, so you want your deer to collapse within sight if at all possible. If it is legal where you live, always have the number of the local tracker with a good blood tracking hound. As I mentioned earlier, these dogs work very well in wet conditions, as long as there is not an absolute soaker just after the shot.
Rain is also hard on equipment. After each hunt in the rain I diligently dry everything in my pack, all my clothes, and the pack itself. I even throw my bow-rope in the dryer. This keeps any mold from forming while my hunting gear is stowed in airtight tubs between hunts. It is also important to wipe down your bow and keep an eye on your wheels, limbpockets, and any screw that may begin to rust. This precautionary inspection will keep an equipment failure from clouding your bowhunting future.
Timing and Location
Timing during rainy periods is a little different than say timing your hunting at pre-rut stands, which basically means refraining from hunting them until the rut begins to happen. Hunting during the rain is a timing exception both in seasonal stand rotation and daily hunting timing. A good light rain is such a rare occurance that if it starts, you should make every effort to get out and hunt. It is time to cut to the chase. If it just happens to start raining during the day, attempt to head for the woods immediately, even if it is twelve noon during the second week of October. If rain is in the forecast, I often hunt plan all day hunts for that period. The important thing is to be out there, and stay as long as possible. You may be surprised at the action.
As far as location is concerned, your best spots are where you should be hunting during the rain. Generally I will hunt spots that are usually reserved for the rut, like primary scrape areas or rut staging areas. Other areas that are good for rainy day hunting are funnels between bedding areas, to catch deer meandering during midday, and funnels between feeding and bedding areas, particularly in the morning. Early in the season hard or soft mast trees close to bedding areas are a good bet, and will normally see good daytime action as the drops fall. Areas that I avoid during rain are secondary stands, such as stands overlooking crops. Though deer definitely feed during rainy conditions, there always seems to be more activity near bedding areas and in cover during daylight. Becoming a raindog has worked for me, and it can work for you. So instead of justifying staying home over a cup of coffee, break out of the trot, get out there and get wet, and you just might return home with a rainy day buck.