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column By: Terry Wieland | May, 18
For centuries, the term “winter war” has struck fear into the hearts of soldiers. From Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812, to the Carpathians in 1915 and to Stalingrad in 1943, arctic conditions have meant agony for any army rash enough to challenge them. As with military campaigns, so it is with hunting. Winter adds an element that must be considered if you plan to come back from a hunting trip with anything more than frostbitten toes.
This year, winter seemed to follow me wherever I went. In early January three of us headed for South Dakota for late-season pheasants. Now, anyone would expect South Dakota to be cold in January, but it was -20 degrees Fahrenheit the night we arrived. By the next morning it had warmed up to zero, and we called that a serious improvement. For the next five days, temperatures hovered around 12 degrees. Sometimes it was windy, sometimes not, and that made a big difference; wind chill is not a myth.
A week later I went to Alabama for late-season whitetails. Alabama is warm, so I hear, and it was – the first afternoon. That night the temperature headed down, the snow blew in and we were faced with icebox conditions for the rest of a 72-hour hunting trip.
These two cases are obviously not the same. Pheasant hunters are usually moving unless acting as a blocker, and that’s never for very long; hunting whitetails the way it’s done at Westervelt in Alabama’s Tombigbee country, hunters sit in a stand for anywhere from three to five hours. It’s astonishing how cold you can get, and how quickly, even when it doesn’t seem all that cold. When it’s 9 degrees, as it was the third morning in Alabama, you get very cold, very quickly.
Some hunters might say, “Why go out at all? If you’re just going to suffer, why not stay home and watch football?”
One reason is that sometimes winter conditions provide excellent hunting if you know how to use them. An advantage of South Dakota in January, versus opening day in October, is that all the crops are cut, there is no danger of a sudden heat wave to dry out the dogs’ noses, and the pheasants tend to hole up in places out of the wind and weather. Instead of being spread all over the countryside, or hiding in the uncut corn, they are usually found in groups along treelines or under snowdrifts in the long grass. They burrow in and stay warm as toast, but a good dog that knows what it’s doing can sniff pheasants out even there. They are highly unlikely to run instead of fly. As a result, you get much better shooting. There may be fewer flushes overall, but they are likely to be better ones.
In Ontario, where I grew up hunting deer, it was generally accepted that when a storm was approaching, the deer would be out feeding. Similarly, the day after bad weather there was more movement for longer as the deer tried to catch up on missed meals.
In Alabama, the reverse seemed to be true. I arrived just as the rut was ending, and the exhausted bucks were looking for a nice spot to catch their breath. Instead of encouraging them to move, the onset of freezing weather caused them to hole up and wait it out. Steve Carroll, the manager of Westervelt, told me that in freezing weather the bucks seem to disappear from the earth and reappear only when it warms up. That’s about what happened. While there I shot two antlerless deer for the venison, but not a single buck did I see. The day after I left with the temperature rising, they got one good buck, and the next day, two more. Well, that’s hunting.
Regardless of the cold and poor prospects, however, we all went dutifully out to our stands at 6:00 a.m. and stayed until 10:00 a.m., and then went back out at 2:00 p.m. to stand guard until darkness fell around 5:30 p.m.
Although this cold snap had been widely predicted, most of the others in camp had either not believed it or had no idea how to suit up for cold weather. Regardless of whether you are sitting (deer) or walking (pheasants), a hunter has to pay attention to three particular spots: head, hands and feet. There were a few raised eyebrows among the camo-clad deer hunters when I went out wearing an Eddie Bauer Kara Koram goose down parka (warm down to -50 degrees, guaranteed) and a muskrat-fur trapper’s hat. On my feet I had a pair of winter boots made by Le Chameau. In a total of about 20 hours in deer stands in freezing temperatures, I was never once cold.
Feet are hardest to deal with. For one thing, you can have warm boots, or you can have walking boots, but rarely do the twain meet. For years I have used knee-high pac boots with wool felt or Thinsulate liners, but these are pretty clumsy if you have to start wading through snowdrifts. Standard hunting boots, however, will leave your feet numb in no time in a deer stand.
As a long-time fan of Le Chameau rubber boots, when they announced a new design of zippered, insulated, winter stalking boots, I had to have a pair. These are called the Condor Zip LCX and are warm to -4 degrees (-20 degrees Celsius) They are leather, waterproof, zip up the side and are generously proportioned in the upper to accommodate thick trousers. At the same time, they fit snugly around the ankle to make walking easier. I wore them in both South Dakota and Alabama, and they worked beautifully for everything from struggling through deep snow and long grass to sitting motionless in a stand.
There will always be trade-offs with boots. No tightly laced hunting boot, even if it’s insulated, will keep you warm in a cold deer stand. You have to have boots that are loose enough to allow maximum circulation, otherwise your feet go numb and your effective hours of hunting are over. At the same time, no boot that is not tightly laced will be the most effective for climbing mountains or still-hunting in rough country. For that, ankle support is a must. However, these Chameau winter boots come the closest I’ve seen to serving both requirements.
There’s a similar problem with gloves. I had wool-lined gloves, but mostly I kept my hands in the parka’s hand-warmer pockets. A glove that’s really warm is usually too clumsy for gun handling. Early arctic explorers solved the problem by wearing silk gloves under their caribou-hide mittens. When they needed to shoot, they dropped the mitten, but the silk glove protected bare skin from icy metal. I’ve found this works really well, wearing a sheepskin mitten instead of caribou. In slightly warmer conditions, a thin leather shooting glove can be worn under the mittens. By the way, the old timers had strings attached to their mittens to keep from losing them when they took them off. That’s still a good idea if you’re not embarrassed to look like a preschooler, and warmth is vastly more important than fashion.
In hunting, it’s impossible to say for certain what the weather will be like, and for that matter, it may change from day to day. If you prepare for the worst, you can be out hunting – in perfect comfort – while others are stuck inside bemoaning their lot.