Weather, moon phase, and timing can create perfect conditions for pursuing big game – but they can also do the opposite. Learn to capitalize on the ‘perfect storm’ and your odds of closing a tag go way up.
While plenty of factors influence if, when, and where big game animals move, there’s no question some circumstances are simply better than others. Consider them together and, there’s no denying the magical mix that creates perfect hunting conditions.
One of the biggest factors affecting animal movement, barometric pressure relates to the stability - or instability - of weather. Atmospheric pressure determines wind and weather patterns. For instance, a low-pressure system is localized in an area where the air pressure is lower than that of the area surrounding it. Generally speaking, lows are associated with higher winds, warmer air, and atmospheric lifting. They often produce cloudy conditions accompanied by rain or snowfall, in other words, what most of us refer to as bad weather including those troublesome swirling thermals.
High pressure systems, on the other hand, are present when the atmospheric pressure is higher than the surrounding area. They are characterized by more stable conditions, clearer skies and calmer weather.
Like people, most big game animals prefer stable weather, often opting for the comfort and safety of their bedding areas and shelter of the forest during turbulent conditions. Conversely, when barometric pressure is high and conditions calm, this is when big game animals feel more comfortable moving between bedding and feeding areas.
One of the best times to see heightened movement is during the hours when barometric pressure begins to drop, especially in the morning or evening, as a low front moves in. Deer and other big game recognize when harsh weather is coming and they will often be out feeding more aggressively just before the front arrives. In a similar manner, they’ll often feed more eagerly immediately after a high moves in. Whenever possible, capitalize on these weather shifts and be on stand or in the woods walking around as they take place.
Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
Throughout the spring and fall hunting seasons, temperatures fluctuate. Generally speaking hunters prefer to spend time in the woods when temperatures are a bit lower, but extremes either way are never good.
Early in August and September, depending on where you hunt in North America, daytime temperatures can be unbearably high. Extreme heat can delay movement as big game species are slow to rise from cool bedding areas in the evening and quick to return in the mornings. During the elk and moose rut, frosty mornings are a blessing. While heat keeps them down, when the mercury hits the freezing mark, its game on. I consider frosty nights with daytime highs hovering between 40° and 60° Fahrenheit (or 4° and 15° Celcius) to be most ideal for hunting September and October.
Then comes November, December and January when the mercury can drop to extremely low temperatures. In my experience, ideal conditions for whitetail hunting are notably colder. I feel, the best temperatures for deer movement range from 32° to -5° Fahrenheit (or 0° to -20° Celcius). If it's too hot, animals move less during daytime hours. When it's too cold, they can hold up as well.
Wind can be our biggest ally or our worst nightmare. Strength and direction of the wind affects movement. Relying on their ability to smell, big game animals constantly check the air to capture scent. In turn, high winds diminish movement. Deer, moose, elk, bear and all other big game rely on their acute sense of smell and ability to hear, to detect danger.
Strong winds make it difficult to hear and this makes animals uneasy. Take away their two most acute senses and they often opt to hunker down and wait for more favorable conditions. Wind also creates distracting motion. Leaves, branches, and grasses moving in the wind make it more difficult for the animals to detect predators.
Less willing to risk moving when they can’t detect danger, they either hold tight in harsh wind or they are borderline schizophrenic when they do. For the spot and stalk hunter, on the other hand, wind can be a blessing. Game simply can’t smell, hear, or in some cases see you moving when its windy. Pick a downwind approach, move in undetected, and shot opportunities will eventually come.
I’m not a big fan of dead calm conditions or even wafting breezes, especially during the morning and evening hours when thermals can easily and unpredictably shift. Animals can hear better than I can, so a gentle 4-to-7 mile per hour breeze (8-12 kilometres/hour) is ideal for covering up my movements on stand. If I’m slowly walking through the woods still hunting, a slightly stiffer breeze in the 6-to-9 mile/hour (or 10-15 kilometres/hour) range is even better. Its usually just enough to help cover my own footsteps but not enough to shut down animal movement. In my experience when winds exceed 12 miles/hour (or 20 kilometres/hour), this starts to suppress big game animal movement.
As for wind direction, this is relative to the topography, species, and type of hunting you are doing. For example, I strategically place my tree stands so I can choose which ones to hunt given different wind directions and conditions. With prevailing northwest winds in my home area, it is usually only when barometric pressure is dropping and harsh weather is moving in that I see south or southwest winds. Each of us may experience different conditions depending on our state or province.
Hunters often talk about moon phase and its affect on big game animals, although to what extent is openly debated. To understand moon phase, it's important to clarify what it is. Basically, it takes 27 days, 7 hours, and 43 minutes for the moon to complete one full orbit around earth. During that period, different percentages of light are visible on the surface of the moon. The eight phases include New Moon, Waxing Crescent, First Quarter, Waxing Gibbous, Full Moon, then Waning Gibbous, 3rd Quarter, and finally Waning Crescent. It takes the Moon about 29.5 days to complete one cycle of phases (from new Moon to new Moon). So, why does it help to understand this?
Most big game hunters do their best to avoid hunting during a full moon, but in many instances it’s simply unavoidable. As a rule, any full moon creates less than ideal conditions for hunting big game – even during the rut. With full lunar illumination during the nighttime hours, deer and other big game often move into cover earlier in the morning and out of cover later in the evening.
Seasonal timing presents different conditions for each and every big game species. Hunting the early season offers lots of cover. With foliage still on trees, particularly early on as bucks and bulls are still holding velvet antlers, animals often move freely feeling a sense of security in the woods. Later on, when the velvet disappears and eventually the leaves fall, big game feels much more vulnerable. By far, one of the best opportunities for bow hunters in particular to take game is when bucks and bulls are still in velvet and in relaxed bedding and feeding routines.
Then comes the various rut cycles. Weather and moon phase certainly does influence movement, but breeding periods wait for no man. Regardless of conditions, the biological reality is that bucks and bulls will always move more as they seek out breeding opportunities, even if most of their visible movement has to occur under the cover of darkness. So, what does this mean for us as hunters? Barometric pressure, temperature, wind, and moon phase aside, late pre-rut and peak estrus periods for each big game species always present the best conditions for hunters to get a shot opportunity. Give or take a few days, for elk this generally means the window between September 1st and 25th. For moose, September 23rd and October 6th. For whitetail deer, it can be variable on into December and even January for southern deer, but for most of the northern states and provinces, October 30th to November 25th covers it with the peak first estrus usually occurring between November 10th and 17th. Learning how and when to speak a whitetail's language will help tremendously during this time frame. Mule deer are usually a couple weeks later in their cycle so November 15th to December 10th (where seasons are open) can be ideal.
In the end, one fact remains - perfect hunting conditions are rare. Sometimes one or more variables are favorable. On those rare occasions that most, or all, of these factors are ideal, be flexible, get into the woods, and success will follow.
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