White-tailed deer are resilient survivors. Their numbers have expanded wildly over the past 10 decades, primarily because they are highly adaptable, beating adversity at virtually every turn of environmental fate.
Over time they have withstood much of the best and worst Mother Nature could throw at them, and still they recover. Often their recovery puts them in better stead than before calamity befell them.
That includes naturally occurring resource famines from droughts, floods or wildfires charring prime whitetail habitats. Then there are the tornadoes that ravage the Midwest and southern states to the east coast states, twisting and uprooting exceptional forest, field, and lowland habitats. Then consider the habitat damage done by Hurricane Katrina and its devastating impact on deer.
But in every one of these cases, deer herds rebound. We might call that staying power.
White-tailed deer certainly staying power, among numerous other traits that compel them to withstand virtually every natural pitfall.
The seasonal exception
There is one huge red mark in the white-tailed deer ledger book. It’s a rather simple turn of nature, but its impact is sure, certain, far reaching and consistent.
Cold weather can wield a cruel yet predictable influence on deer behavior, herd health and survival rates for does and bucks, adults and yearlings alike.
Obviously a harsh winter in Minnesota, Michigan or Wisconsin — frigid, tundra-like conditions with landscape-starving ice and snow — might be more treacherous for deer than a winter in Texas or Mississippi, but cold temperatures exact a toll on deer in different ways in different parts of the country.
And deer behavior changes accordingly.
Whitetails react differently in cold weather, no matter where they live. So hunters must learn what deer do to survive and how they react to the ever-changing winter atmospheric conditions. Comprehending exactly how deer alter their behaviors to adjust to winter conditions can make the difference in filling a tag.
The chill factor
Cold weather is more than a low air temperature. Energy-sapping cold winter temperatures can actually be a combination of several atmospheric factors that merge together to create the full bone-chilling impact on deer and hunters alike.
When most or all of these factors come together at the same time, the results on deer — even over a relatively short time —can be devastating to herd health, rutting activity and ultimate survival through the winter.
The more factors added to the mix, the tougher it is on the deer to sustain themselves.
These climate elements include air temperature, wind speed, wind direction, cloud cover, dew point, humidity, barometer pressure, wind chill, thermal currents and precipitation (including type, quantity and duration).
Hunters will want to monitor air temperatures, as well as wind speed when deciding hunting tactics for the day.
But these weather elements can change travel habits, feeding rituals, yarding practices, bedding area choices and normal activity schedules.
Hunting cold weather deer
The first step is to monitor the weather and all the elements that will impact the next hunting day. Watch for weather patterns coming in and going out.
Especially watch temperature and humidity, wind, rapidly changing barometric pressures and precipitation.
When scouting or hunting, check deer-harboring areas back in deep cover. Be sure to double check for fresh travel routes to current food supplies and the trails back to bedding areas or funnel crossroads between varying habitats.
Hunters might well have to abandon everything they scouted as the season began in favor of modifying hunting spots as deer alter behaviors.
In winter, with a reduction in daylight hours, deer will move more during the pre-dusk, late-afternoon hours up until dark. They will move very early at dawn, as well. If the day warms up or turns sunny between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., this is a good time to be out hunting open feeding areas, along water routes or places where does might gather in groups.
Deer will move in light drizzle rains but rarely downpours or in any combination with high winds.
Hunting winter food sources is always a good bet, but finding it might be tough. When I was in Michigan several years ago, the browse line along rural county highways was 6 feet high on the roadside bushes.
Snow and ice covering food means deer will have to forage even more, so search out areas where browse is exposed.
Always thoroughly scan corn or soybean fields with binoculars to see if deer are looking for leftover crops. Wildlife food plots shine this time of the season, even if frost burned. Southern hunters should hit these hard.
Scout one food source to the next until deer are found. If some acorns are still left on the ground uneaten, monitor those resources as well.
Winter can be deadly for deer. Yet they always survive for another season.
Hunting deer in winter is a tough task, too. Keep an eye on winter weather, but be ready to hunt at the drop of a hat, going to the woods before and after a cold front moves through the state.