feature By: Bob Robb | September, 18
It was hot – real hot – the kind of heat that drives whitetail hunters bonkers. I was hunting in Illinois’ famed Brown County, known at the time as one of the best places to get a look at a truly giant buck. It was the second week of November, the peak of the rut, but there was a problem. That week, Mother Nature decided to send in all-time record heat. Instead of temperatures never rising much past 50 degrees Fahrenheit with lows near freezing, as was usual for that time of year, daytime highs were spiking in the mid-70s. Daytime deer activity had slowed to a crawl.
This was back in the 1990s, when I was somewhat of a novice whitetail hunter; and I think that’s what partially saved my bacon. I had cut my teeth hunting the little coastal California mule deer of the state’s central coast, when the rifle season opened August 10 and daytime temperatures where I hunted regularly topped 100 degrees. I learned then that a deer hunter’s best chance for killing a buck in fry-an-egg-on-the-hood-of-the-truck weather was to hunt very early and very late, and concentrate on areas where there was deep shade and water.
So while the rest of the whitetail hunters in camp kept on hunting in the usual places and seeing zilch, I met with the landowner and asked if he had any off-the-beaten-path places that had some water close to a deep draw or gully – someplace the deer could bed up in the shade during the day and get a drink without moving far. To make a long story short, he said “Yes,” and we snuck in close one day at lunchtime to check it out. We set up a tree stand where three trails came together, leading from a nasty tangle of brush on a north-facing slope to a tiny trickle of water in the bottom.
I remember him saying something like, “We’ve never done any good hunting around here, but go ahead and give it a shot if you want to.” That evening, just before the end of shooting light, I killed my biggest whitetail buck ever, a beautiful 10-point with a net score of 177-3/8 Boone and Crockett points.
I’m not sure if there’s anything to this global warming thing or not, but I do know that in the past several years, deer seasons just seem to have been hotter than usual. When I find myself in such situations, I go back to the same basic tenet that helped me shoot that monster buck – water and shade.
A few seasons back I was hunting some prime land in western Oklahoma. Again, the sun was baking the ground like a microwave. After three days of sitting in the usual stand sites near standing crops, I switched gears and dove into the water/shade program. This time it was a cattle trough located close to a thick stand of cedars that had been planted decades ago as a windbreak, all of which were located close to a brush-choked canyon with lots of deep shade. The hunting wasn’t the same as the Illinois hunt because the deer in this more open country tend to move farther each day, so I could set myself up where I could see a lot of country.
It took three more days before “my buck” appeared. It was with a buddy, and they strolled out of the cedars and headed for the water trough right at dusk. To be honest, I was a little surprised it happened, given the conditions: temperatures in the 80s and a 20-mph wind. But come those two deer did, and I was able to make the shot.
In December 2017 I was hunting a place in North Texas where I hunted several times in the past. In this region the rut is kicking in the last week of November and really gets going the first two weeks of December, so this was prime time.
Here’s how it went: I did the usual prehunt scouting, locating some really impressive rub lines along dry creek bottoms connecting bedding thickets with food sources, as well as tree lines that separated crop fields. There were tracks everywhere, and it was obvious the rut was kicking in. The usual modus operandi would be to set up shooting locations that allowed a rifleman to watch as much country as possible while covering those key travel corridors, as well as the winter wheat fields where the deer feed heavily that time of year. The goal on this property was to shoot bucks with a minimum age of four years, and generally speaking, that’s always been the case.
This year was going to be a challenge. The weather was ridiculously hot, and daytime deer movement was – not surprisingly – nothing like it should be. In a place where it was not unusual to see anywhere from a dozen to three dozen deer, including several bucks each morning and evening from stands overlooking food sources, the guys in camp were averaging 10 percent of that after two days.
A hay bale blind was built in a field that provided a great shooting location. It covered a tree line that was so rubbed up, I wondered how any of the trees could survive. A cut cornfield was on one side and a big winter wheat field was on the other, and not seeing a single deer in two days, I knew it was time for a change.
I decided to get off the food idea and into a funnel a half mile off a winter wheat field that the deer loved to use at night. A half mile in the other direction was the property line, which also held a thick copse of trees where the deer liked to bed. Adjacent to the trees was a cattle trough that was always full of water. Two hours before first light I parked my truck 1,000 yards away, then hiked to a small hill where I hid myself among a small stand of leafless trees and low brush. Fortunately, I remembered a ground cloth, which kept the abundant sand spurs at bay.
As soon as I could see through my Styrka S7 10x42 binocular, I began spotting deer heading back to the bedding thicket. When I caught sight of antlers, I was able to tell that it was a shooter buck. My EOTech Vudu 3-18x 50mm SFP riflescope allowed me to precisely place a .30-caliber Hornady 165-grain GMX bullet fired from a Mossberg Patriot rifle at 200 yards. Reflecting on the event later, I quickly realized that had I chosen to set up near the field edge, either in the morning or the evening, I would never have seen a deer.
The water/shade concept seems quite simple, and it is, except for the fact that depending on what and when I’m hunting, things are tweaked a little bit. A good example includes hunting pronghorn. The heat doesn’t bother them all that much, but they will bed in shaded areas at times during the day and travel long distances to get a drink. When it is really hot, they will drink pretty much every day.
Knowing that, a few years back a friend and I were hunting in eastern Wyoming in really hot weather. David, a classic Type-A guy, was new to hunting and it was proving to be difficult to for him to keep from lifting his head up and keeping his rear end down when we tried to crawl into rifle range. One time we actually got too dang close – like 50 yards – but instead of rising up ready to shoot, David decided to first peek over the tops of the sagebrush. That’s like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.
We then decided it would be best to set up a couple hundred yards from a stock pond, nestle ourselves into the sage and wait. In fact, we waited for hours in the hot sun. I fortunately had loaded up my pack with lots of water and sunscreen; three of us hunkered down for 10 long hours. Halfway through the vigil we ran out of stories to tell, so we took turns napping or – another little trick on a set up like this – I read a paperback.
At about 4:00 p.m. I spotted a lone buck far off in the distance, nearly a mile away. It stood atop a small rise, surveying the valley below for what seemed like an eternity. Finally satisfied that it was safe, the buck came on a beeline for the water. It trotted the last quarter mile, and it was all we could do to keep David from doing the Disco Duck until the buck dropped its head to drink. That’s when he got his .30-06 up on the tripod sticks and made the shot.
A few years back I was hunting Axis deer in South Texas in late spring; it’s always hot down there in May, but that year it just seemed hotter with more humidity than usual. In fact, it was so hot the biting insects didn’t bother hunters at all during the day, only the first couple of hours in the morning and the last hour of daylight; that’s not saying the chiggers weren’t a problem.
In any event, even the Axis deer were spending most of the day bedded in thick trees or deep draws to get out of the heat. We tried still-hunting these places the first day, but there were so many deer around that it was virtually impossible to creep stealthily along through all the animals when the ground was as crunchy as cornflakes. So once again, we decided to set up an ambush on water, choosing a place where overflow from a large, elevated tank created a little stream of sorts that ran for maybe 20 yards before petering out.
It was situated in the far corner of a long pasture, up against the trees. I built a little brush blind on the far end, and settled in with my novel several hours before prime time, then waited. An hour before dark, the critters began filtering out of the trees to get a quick drink. There were whitetails, a couple of beautiful fallow deer, a lone blackbuck and a handful of young Axis bucks and does until just before dark, when two good bucks showed up. I was shooting a nice Steyr .30-06 loaded with Hornady’s American Whitetail ammunition with 150-grain bullets on that hunt, and it worked well.
What about this year?
A check of the National Weather Service’s long-range forecast at www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov shows a prediction for above-average temperatures again this year. As a result, while I’m hoping for cold weather and bucks chasing does hither and yon like they show on television, once again I’m preparing to do something different.