Best Weather to Bag that Buck


The weather can make or break your hunt.  All animals, humans included, change their behavior based on the weather.  Perhaps you've heard about Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD?  Many people develop depressive symptoms during the winter due to limited daylight and reduced outdoor activity.  Remember how happy and alive you felt as a kid when summer came around?  Sure, three months away from school cheered you, but on a biological level, your body reacted to the increased sunshine and warmer temperatures.

The animals you hunt have similar reactions.  In fact, they are even more sensitive than you to the smallest weather changes.  If you understand weather basics and how game animals interact with them, you can use the knowledge to your advantage and bag more bucks, more elk, more bears, or whatever you're after.

What Goes Up Must Come Down (Warning: May Contain Science)

Weather is just air in motion around the Earth.  Because the planet rotates, one side is always hotter than the other while the sun shines upon it.  Warm air rises, and it does so at the equator first since the region gets the most direct sun light.  This heated air goes up into until it begins to cool (the closer you get to space, the cooler things get), and the next night cools it as well.  When it cools, it also flows toward the poles where it gets much cooler since the sun angle is very shallow there.  As it reaches the poles, it sinks back toward the ground (cold air moves opposite warm), and then it flows back toward the equator to fill in under the warm air which rose upward.  This cycle takes days or weeks to complete.

Doing the Twist (More Science)

While the equatorial air rises, the planet continues to spin under it.  This causes the return flow to move at an angle across the Earth's surface as it goes between the equator and the poles.  This twist in the flow is called Coriolis Effect.  The bent air flow from the Coriolis force creates a prevailing west to east wind in the northern hemisphere, an east-west flow in the southern hemisphere, and dictates spin direction in weather systems.  These winds are the trade winds which have pushed sailors across the oceans for centuries.  They bring more than just sailing ships, they also bring weather systems.

You Don't Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind's Blowin'

With all due respect to Bob Dylan, the various factors which cause weather systems to form and dissipate could fill several thick books and people make entire careers studying the weather.  Hunters don't need such detailed knowledge, just basic concepts.  Although, the more you know, the better.  Here's the minimum hunting weather tool kit.

Front and Center

Remember all the warm and cold air flowing around the planet we just discussed?  The warm and cold zones are divided along lines called fronts.  There are four basic frontal types: cold, warm, stationary, and occluded.  These fronts describe the air which is following behind them.  A cold front has cold air behind it and a warm front, the opposite.  Stationary and occluded fronts can have either air type on either side, the symbols used on a weather chart to depict them are arraigned to indicate which is where.
Weather chart front symbols. 1. Cold Front 2. Warm Front (public domain)

Hunt the Front

Hunters are more concerned with cold and warm fronts, and the cold ones are the most important.  Cold fronts bring adverse weather in most cases; anything from rain and snow to thunderstorms and tornadoes depending on season and region.

The important thing to remember is animals can sense the barometric pressure changes ahead of and behind cold fronts.  We can too, but we often ignore them.  As a general rule, when a cold front is eight to twelve hours away, animals are more active and at unusual times during the day.  Cold fronts make them want to get up and take care of whatever business they have in mind before the weather hits.  They eat and get water at odd times, and if the pressure change is deep enough, relocate to known shelter areas.  This tendency works regardless if the front brings just a mild temperature drop or a blizzard.

Once the front passes and the weather improves (rain and snow abate, wind drops, etc.) they get active again to make up for the time lost while bedded.  This phenomenon applies more to herbivores than predators, although they can hole up if the weather's bad, too.  So what's this mean in real terms?

Place Your Bets

Here's how to make all this weather and front business pay off with meat in the freezer and heads on the wall.

Pay close attention to the weather, and not just the smiling presenter who gives the dumbed down forecast on TV or radio.  Get the real scoop through the National Weather Service's web site: http://www.weather.gov/ .  You'll want the Surface Analysis Charts or Forecast Maps.  These show the frontal positions and begin with the current twelve hour outlook.  You can then call up future predictions for the next twelve, twenty-four, and thirty-six hours, etc.  The charts have a key so don't worry if you forget how a cold front is depicted.
NWS Surface Analysis Chart with fronts.  Barbs on front indicate direction of travel. (public domain)

Here's an example on how to hunt with the charts.  Say you are in western Montana.  The current outlook depicts a cold front just nudging Seattle, Washington as it comes in from the Pacific Ocean.  Deer, elk, moose, etc. will likely go about their normal routines today.  The 24 hour forward chart shows the cold front advancing across the Idaho panhandle.  So, tomorrow the animals should get up earlier and stay active later, they may not even bed much during mid-day if the pressure gradient is steep, ie. portends a big weather change.  Get out tomorrow and hunt hard.

The 48 hour chart shows the cold front well into western Montana and the textual forecast predicts cold and snow for that day.  Look for the critters to bed down early when and if the snow and wind hits.  Should you hunt that day?  Yes, but look in areas you know the animals bed and pay good attention to east-facing slopes which offer shelter from the wind.  Elk, in particular, hate cold wind.  Deer are funny, they can go about their day in what you would consider "bad" weather but not bed down unless it really begins to rip.
It takes worse weather than this to stop the deer party, as these does show. (public domain)

Find The Sweet Spot

No, not what you're thinking.  The "sweet spot" in hunting weather is twelve to twenty-four hours after a storm passes through.  You'll feel the relief yourself, if you pay attention, and so do the animals.  This is the time you've waited for.  Get out there and hunt for all you're worth because your next dinner or trophy will be busy eating and getting water.  During the rut, the boys get twice as stupid since they know the mating clock's running and they've lost precious time due to grumpy bedded does or cows.

public domain
Pay close attention to those good old east-face slopes again, especially in the morning as the sun hits them.  The critters are just like you--after enduring a cold, wet, windy night, they want to sun themselves and get free warmth.  Also hunt mid-day since they may still want to eat or are transitioning from their water in the valley back up to ridge-top beds behind schedule.  This is also the perfect day to find an elk track in fresh snow and follow it.

After the sweet spot passes, it's back to the usual daily grind and you already know how to hunt it if you've done your preseason scouting.

So pay attention to the weather, trust your gut, and go knock 'em dead--literally.

-- LJ Bonham