Pick any day of the archery season, and somewhere across the continent it’s raining. If you haven’t spent a day in the rain, you either hunt in the desert or you’re a fair-weather hunter. If you sidestep bowhunts in the rain, you might be doing yourself a disservice.
Of course, gale-force winds and buckets of precipitation make life miserable for you and your quarry, but should you dodge drizzle and intermittent showers? Is rain your friend or foe? You decide.
Study after study on whitetail movement prove deer move to feed and they move to breed. All other factors take a back seat. That doesn’t mean weather, particularly rain, isn’t a factor. Ask any seasoned bowhunter and you’ll hear the same response regarding barometric changes or the effect of incoming weather fronts. When the barometer is moving, in either direction, animals move. As the barometer drops, big-game activity increases, even 48 hours in advance of a front. I’ve seen similar activity in both elk and deer. After the passing of a front and an uptick in the barometer, animal movement picks up again.
What happens during the passing of a weather front is also important, since this is when you’ll likely encounter moisture. Deciding whether to hunt or stay home largely depends on how much. Last season, a wet forecast threatened one of my whitetail bowhunts. I was miles from home and had two options: hunt or sit in camp. I chose to hunt.
Gray clouds shrouded the sun, but my first hour in the treestand was comfortable and productive. The temperature was about 45 degrees, with light winds. By mid-afternoon, whitetails were moving in the brush around my stand, and the darkening clouds were the likely reason. I passed on a 2 ½-year-old buck right before the front crashed my party. Within seconds, the calm afternoon took on the feel of a hurricane as 40 mph winds pelted me with a driving rain. Donned in quality raingear, I hunkered down in the rocking stand. I seriously contemplated leaving, but the forecast called for showers, not a prolonged weather event. I waited it out in relative comfort.
Ten minutes later, and with less than an hour of shooting light left, the storm subsided. Woods that were vacant minutes before suddenly sprang to life and whitetails began filing past on their way to visit a hay field behind me. A soggy buck started my way and his 10-point frame fit my definition of a shooter. To seal the deal, I grunted at him softly, and a moment later he was below my stand sniffing doe urine I deposited and the rain had not washed away. The shot was 12 yards, and I watched him fall seconds later. I had cursed the rain, but the spark of activity after the storm turned out to be my best friend.
Let It Rain
Wisconsin native Art Helin has viewed rain as both a friend and a foe over his 26 years of bowhunting. As a pro staff member for Hunter’s Specialties, Realtree and Vortex Optics, Helin has had his share of soggy sits. Despite the occasional front that makes you look up “ark” on the Internet, Helin believes moisture is more friend than foe.
“I look forward to a damp day at the end of October and in early November when whitetails are in pre-rut mode,” Helin said. “I’ll take those days over any others. Deer are up and moving more, and I believe it’s not just because of the rut.”
Helin’s theory of why deer move more on misty days makes sense. Rain or drizzle knocks down scent, and that affects the way bucks look for estrus does. Instead of being able to scent check field edges and bedding areas from a distance, bucks need to move closer to catch any whiff of scent. Helin also believes you see more deer moving on drizzly days because of a lack of visibility. Test it yourself. Can you see better in clear or rainy conditions? Helin thinks the deer move more to see more, augmenting their scent capabilities. Finally, he believes the pitter-patter of rain diminishes their hearing ability, again making them move more to visually locates does.
“Expect to see deer movement when showers are in the forecast,” Helin said.
An increase in big-game activity is a definite plus, but rain offers more than just one advantage to bowhunters. Foremost among them is decreased scent. Rain not only washes away any scent trail you may have left on the way to your hunting location, but it also rinses you clean while on stand.
“I’m a firm believer you can’t get rid of all your scent, but I eliminate the majority of it by using scent-elimination products,” Helin said. “When you add in the factor of rain on your clothes and the effect it has on driving your airborne scent down, you have a great advantage.”
Because rain showers constantly wash scent away, Helin improvises when leaving a drag trail of deer urine. Instead of pulling a drag line through the woods, using rubber gloves he cuts scent wicks down and after impregnating them in doe urine, he hangs them a foot off the ground all the way to his stand. This leaves scent at nose level, and at a higher dose, to withstand showers throughout the day.
Another benefit of rain is the noise it creates — a natural distraction that provides audible cover if you need to re-adjust for a shot or when you draw your bow. Instead of silence, deer and other animals have to hear through the tapping of raindrops on vegetation. Add in a little wind and you have the perfect cover to make a bold move at point-blank. Rain also makes it very easy to approach your stand location in virtual
“Without argument, rain quiets your approach to your stand,” Helin said. “You can sneak in quieter, and that gives you an advantage by not spooking animals that may be bedded or loafing close to your hunting spot.”
A Wet Blanket on Your Hunt
You knew there had to be some bad news, right? A downpour is the worst. Regardless of how well you outfit yourself to stay comfortable, you can’t make animals move when they don’t want to move. Heavy rains and driving wind, the quintessential characteristics of a major front, cause most animals to hole up until the front passes. It really doesn’t matter if you tough it out or not. In fact, even though a buck may tough it out while rutting in foul weather, if he discovers bedded does, he’s likely to hunker down as well. Only scrutinizing weather forecasts prior to a hunt will help you decide if you should go home or stay put. Helin has another good suggestion.
“When it appears the weather is active I watch the weather on my cell phone,” he said. “If the radar looks like it’s going to continue raining hard all day, I may stop the hunt. If it appears the rain is going slow to a light drizzle, I’m not leaving.”
One hunt a few years ago had Helin rethinking his strategy. With his wife by his side running the video camera, Helin decided to sit out a series of fast-moving, incoming fronts, each with a forecast of moisture. What he didn’t know is that one of the storm waves contained hail, and the pair was pounded in the treestand. Finally, the weather lessened to a light drizzle, and less than three hours later, Helin arrowed a monster 8-pointer that scored just shy of 150 inches.
“I try not to sit in a hail storm or something deadly like lightning. If the weather looks rough, but for a brief period, I’ll leave the woods or move to a ground blind,” he said. “Ground blinds provide great refuge for quick downpours.”
Remember Helin’s rainy day theory that the less deer are able to see, smell or hear, the more they move to locate does? Well, your senses are impaired as well, and although you may have a bird’s-eye advantage from a treestand or incorporate the aid of a binocular, you still won’t be able to hear due to the sound-diminishing moisture. Last year while in Kansas, I was hunting with the company of a videographer, and even with two sets of eyes perched in an elevated position, two different bucks walked within 10 yards of our stand before we saw them. Rain softened the usually crunchy quality of the woodland floor.
Rain may also hamper your shooting ability. You’ll be wearing bulkier clothing to keep dry. Everything will be slick and soaked. You may be wet and chilled. Your peep may even be holding water, obscuring your aim. Can you pull off the shot?
On a recent elk hunt, my friends and I got caught in a downpour with an angry bull on his way to our calls. I moved ahead and left my calling partners behind. The bull slowly made his way toward me, and when he was within shooting range, I prepared to shoot. Imagine my surprise when I clamped my release on the string only to have it slip and prematurely launch my arrow two feet in front of me. Rain was the culprit. The bull was surprised as well, and he won that round.
A Vanishing Trail
Rain washes away more than just scent. It washes away blood, too. Ethically, you need to consider what happens after you take a shot during the rain. Ultimately, it’s up to you to determine how much the conditions will diminish your ability to recover an animal.
In a hard rain, blood can disappear in a matter of minutes, whereas in a light drizzle it may be visible for an hour or longer. Where you hunt may influence your decision as well. If you’re deep in the woods and it’s almost certain you’ll lose sight of an animal seconds after the shot, hunting in a hard rain is probably not a good idea. If you’re hunting in open terrain where you can watch an animal’s escape, it’s not as critical. One of my best bowkilled whitetails took place as precipitation was falling, but the surrounding terrain was basically open. After the shot, the buck ran into a weedy pasture and tipped over in sight.
Bowhunting in the rain is a personal decision, but Helin reminds you that for deer or elk, rain is just another day in the woods.
“You and I may hate being out in the rain, but you have to remember that deer live in that environment 24/7,” he said. “And as the breeding season gets nearer, they have to move unless it’s a downpour. It’s their job. You may as well hunt, because they’re going to do what they’re going to do regardless of the weather.”