Like Mississippians, Mississippi deer don’t like super frigid weather.
OK, I hear the naysayers arguing that colder is always better than warmer, but apparently there is a limit to cold for Southern deer. And, after last hunting season, we know that anything is possible when Mother Nature is involved including ice and snow during our more typical mild southern winters.
The truth is though that our Magnolia State whitetails do not fare well when a polar vortex blows through. Last winter we had three of them in late December and January.
Chances are good at seeing a buck up on the move trying to find something to eat when temperatures dip below freezing, but when those vortices being temperatures down into the teens or single digits, I wouldn’t speed a lot of time in a stand, especially if a high wind is kicking up.
On each vortex, the deer shut down tighter than a bank on President’s Day.
This isn’t the “Yooper” of Upper Michigan, where deer — and deer hunters — are used to and fully adjusted to sub-zero temperatures throughout deer season. Those whitetails are acclimated to frigid arctic cold weather. Ours are not and react much differently during arctic fronts.
“I lived in Escanaba, Mich., most of my life working in a paper mill,” Darwin Hamilton said. “When it came deer hunting season, we would build little wooden huts out in the evergreen forests for a hunting blind. By the time season rolled around there might be two feet of snow on the trails and the temperatures could be 10 degrees below zero not counting the wind chill.
“I would hike the half mile to my stand, sit for maybe an hour or likely less on a hard, cold bucket seat, depending on the wind, then hike back to my truck to warm up for 15 minutes. Then do it all over again until we froze completely out. We killed bucks in this weather, too. They were used to it.”
That’s not the case in the South.
Last Jan. 28, I was sitting at my computer at home because the college where I work was closed for the day due to bad weather.
Bad weather? Overnight it snowed over an inch in Clinton and, from reports, much more in many other parts of the state. The wind was blowing a steady 20 plus miles an hour with a lot more velocity in the gusts.
Deer season was about to end on Friday in our zone. The high temperature that day reached 31 degrees. The wind chill was 13 degrees.
Though deer hunting would continue until mid-February in the Southeast Zone, it was super cold along the coastal counties, too.
We can only imagine what the deer were doing with temperatures that low, since nobody knows for sure. People just didn’t see them.
That was the third such storm we had during the 2013-2014 deer season. The one-time snow was a sort of bonus, or was it. I had no reports from hunter friends that deer moved that week the season wrapped up.
In fact, statewide reports indicate they did not move much during the other two arctic fronts either.
One might expect temperatures in the northern sector of the state to be colder than areas the farther south one travels on I-55. This is generally true, except when these polar blasts sail across the state. The fronts ice everything down in as little as a 24-hour period, often quicker, and quite often, due to the amount of Gulf moisture, the south gets more snow.
Thus, at various times during our deer seasons, nearly every part of the state can expect one or more of these blasts annually. When they occur, hunters are out in the fields and woods experiencing very mixed results.
The general consensus seems to be that deer move around very little — or not —at all until such fronts pass.
“Once the initial blast hits, with temperatures dropping fast, the deer hunker down in thick areas blocked from the wind,” said Tommy Hoff, a wildlife biologist for the Corps of Engineers at the Enid Reservoir area. “They stay holed up tight until the wind subsides. Once the wind stops or slacks off below 20-25 miles per hour or so they pick up and start moving around some.
“Eventually they have to move just to stay warm, since the temperature would have dropped significantly by then. They also have to eat at some point, despite the cold and wind. They can only hold out so long. All of this really depends on the strength and duration of the arctic front.”
It could also be a usual sighting to see does move under these conditions, once either the wind lays or the mercury goes up or both. Of course, if all this were to happen during the rutting phase the bucks might be more encouraged to get up and about.
Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks biologist Lann Wilf plays a huge role in statewide deer management, and his opinions are usually very succinct and accurate, which is precisely why his thoughts on white-tailed deer subjects are valued.
When asked what deer usually do during these periods when arctic fronts roll across the state, he answered with his usual terse straightforwardness.
“They lock down until it thaws,” Wilf said. “On the afternoon of ground thaw, they move good.”
This advice should give deer hunters a clue of when to be out there.
Polar vortex options
When the first arctic blast came across the state during last deer season, I was at deer camp. At 6 a.m, the electronic thermometer’s outside reading was 16 degrees.
Dude, it was cold.
The three of us at the camp decided to give it an hour. By 7:30 we were on stands.
All the mud holes, funnel branches and wetland ditches were frozen over, just like us after two hours in our stands. The deer sighting tally for the morning hunt was calculated at two does. I saw zero.
Later in the day, it did warm up over freezing to the mid-forties, but with a light breeze from the north it was still chilly. We gathered up our cold weather gear and headed to stands at 3:30 thinking we had two hours to hunt before dark. The afternoon hunt went better with one doe down for the meat pole, but only small bucks were spotted.
I counted a dozen deer from my stand but nothing for the freezer or the wall. The deer were finally up and moving as we thought they might be. Staying warm and eating are good motivators even for white-tailed deer.
From this experience and several repeats just like it, I have decided that morning hunts during the first two days of a polar blast is not worth the effort. We never saw any deer until after 9 a.m., so a late-morning to noon hunt appears a better bet until the sun warms things up.
Warming sunshine has a miracle effect on living things — human and otherwise.
“From my experience, afternoon hunting is best in bitter cold,” Wilf said.
It might also make a slight difference if there is a cloud cover or not, a breeze or calm conditions, or precipitation factored into the mix. If the sky is blue it will be colder but the sunlight will last longer.
The reverse is true for a cloudy day. A strong wind screws up everything in my mind’s eye. Sometimes you just have to roll the dice.
If you are keen on watching weather forecasts during deer season, as you should be, there is usually ample warning of an approaching polar vortex. That’s good, because Hoff believes that the best hunting is when the front approaches.
“From my experience two days before a front arrives is the best for deer movement,” Hoff said. “It is still very good to be hunting even the day before the front comes across before temps plummet or other nasty conditions prevail.”
In summary, an arctic front will slow or kill deer movements for the most part.
Hunt before a front comes if possible.
After it arrives, concentrate your hunts from late morning to noon, and afternoon hunts.
As the front leaves, turn your hunting attentions to a warming thaw, dying winds, and a dry out. The deer will be quick to move.
And, it goes without saying, if the temperature goes below freezing and a stiff wind is blowing, you had better wear every warm piece of hunting clothing you own.
And then some.