Scouting for Drought-Stricken Bucks
by Mark Kayser
It occurs every year somewhere across the wide whitetail range in North America. It occurs even more in the arid West, causing some whitetail sub-species to evolve or find a new home. The “it” in reference is drought. It’s a phenomenon induced by worldwide weather patterns and nearly inescapable, occurs every year. Ignore weather trends and you could be searching for whitetails that have already vacated a property for the proverbial “greener pastures,” but prepare for drought conditions on one of your future whitetail hunts, and you’ll still find success.
DROUGHT CRYSTAL BALL
If your future whitetail hunt is near home you’ll likely have a good handle on what’s occurring in the precipitation forecast for your zip code. You can simply look out the window. But what if you have a hunt planned across the country, say in Arizona for Coues deer or Montana for river-bottom whitetails? You can get precipitation forecasts and drought outlook by visiting several government websites.
The United States Department of Agriculture and the National Weather Service both put out long-range forecasts to aid farmers, and ranchers planning for future crops. Some of the best maps can be found on the website for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with the help of the U.S. Department of Commerce. These so-called “drought maps” also highlight trouble spots across the nation for agricultural producers. Of course, whatever affects cattle and crops will ultimately affect whitetails. Use the data to map your way to a successful hunt this fall.
SCOUTING FOR A DROUGHT HUNT
All creatures require water for survival and Western whitetails are no different. Water makes up 70 to 75 percent of the body weight of most animals. Nearly all big game species need water daily, but some could go for a day or longer without it. Deer require a half gallon to a gallon of water every day and all need more when temperatures or movement spike. That’s why you should target water in the heat of the early season, but don’t forsake it during the cooler weather of the rut when whitetails are hard charging.
When you combine the needs of a bachelor group of whitetails and other animals utilizing the same water source it’s obvious a consistent water source is required to sustain area wildlife. Despite changing water venues big game species know the location of most water sources within walking distance. They file it away or smell out new sources such as improvements ranchers add to the landscape like a new stock tank. These water destinations give you exact GPS locations to meet up with your whitetail quarry. If the drought outlook looks dry for your future whitetail hunt then you need to begin scouting for the best water locations for a close encounter, whether with bow or firearm.
Throughout much of the Western whitetail range water sources were limited to runoff and windmills until just recently. Technology has changed that by adding more water sources than ever before to the arid sections of the western United States. Water-pumping windmills are quickly being replaced by piped water to almost anywhere. Heavy, earth-moving equipment allows landowners to trench in miles of pipeline with relative ease to move water across the landscape for livestock and mooching wildlife. Solar power has also hit the scene with wells in the middle of nowhere powered by massive panels for sun-soaking energy generation. In years of good moisture, reservoirs boom and when combined with piped water sources it creates a mind boggling situation for hunters trying to find the right water to target.
With more water than ever before you need to put your scouting efforts into play. All water sources aren’t created equal. Some have merit while others should be ignored due to their open nature, livestock overuse and other subtle factors.
Begin your scouting by noting how close a water source is to bedding cover. Whitetails prefer to be hydrated before retiring to bedding cover, especially in above-normal periods of heat like the pre- and early-season. You’ll see deer visiting water prior to bedding and they’ll likely visit water soon after getting up.
A second factor whitetails prefer is a food source near water and not too far from bedding. Oftentimes a good water source and nutrition go hand in hand. Areas that have good water generally have a food source nearby, like riparian zone hayfields or even irrigated crops. Research has created new crop varieties that are drought tolerant and when combined with irrigation the West is blooming. Since whitetails like to hydrate before and after a meal you’ll want to locate water sources near any green acres.
Don’t get in too much of a hurry in your pre-season scouting. If the forecast is for continued dry weather, patterns that you find early could easily be abandoned by the time season rolls around. Wait until a month before season to get the most up-to-date information from onsite resources and firsthand views from the field. These can include viewpoints from fellow hunters, conservation officers and even county extension agents.
This is also the time to begin a trail-camera campaign in earnest. Camera options are unlimited, but look into lightweight models, like the Stealthcam G30, if you hunt backcountry locations. Get the most information possible from your trail camera, especially the time of day deer are visiting a site the most.
Plotmaster-style cameras are also a possibility, particularly if you need to cover larger reservoirs. They’ll do the same job and save you the chore of putting up multiple cameras. These styles of cameras take sporadic images, seconds apart, and may catch activity across a larger space.
On public lands be aware of theft problems. Use bear boxes, locks and electronic passwords to secure units. For added assurance place camouflaged cameras nearby to monitor other units, trails and parking areas thieves may use in an area. And don’t think you’ll be the only person targeting a specific waterhole. If you hunt Coues deer country that overlaps elk country you could find that your waterhole has a dozen or more hunting brethren scouting it with you.
The past couple years have been rough for Western whitetail hunters with severe drought in the Great Plains leading all the way into the intermountain West. And currently, the Southwest is experiencing a historic drought that will definitely affect Coues deer hunters. While on a hunt in western Kansas recently I was met with similar, challenging conditions.
The landscape was bare due to unimaginable drought conditions. Whitetails we usually hunted in the uplands had all but abandoned the grasslands now void of vegetation. To find whitetails I knew I’d have to target the only piece of Eden available, green vegetation on lower creek bottoms. Fortunately a friend of mine had been keeping tabs on the situation via trail-cameras and pointed me in the right direction.
After finding water pockets in an all-but-dry creek, and a distant field of drought-resistant sorghum, I set up an ambush. That first day was incredible, but unfortunately no mature bucks passed by within range of my TC muzzleloader. The next day was much of the same, but on the third day I knew it would take aggressive stalking to get the shot. I was ready.
Bucks slipped into the creek after sunrise and I used the rest of the day to ease into position for an evening stalk. When the bucks started moving to get a drink and eventually leave to feed, I dropped into the creek bottom and hustled to intercept one. It worked. I popped out of the creek and within 100-yards of the largest buck. My TC Triumph sent a Hornady SST on its way for a great ending to a challenging drought-ridden hunt. WW
Mark Kayser’s outdoor writing and photography career has spanned over two decades. Mark is the whitetail columnist for North American Hunter, the backyard whitetail bowhunting columnist for Bowhunt America magazine and is a regular contributor for many other outdoor publications. Each year Mark spends nearly six months in the field hunting big game, predators and small game. During the off-season Mark retreats to his small ranch nestled at the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming to spend time with his family. For more information about his outdoor adventures, visit www.markkayser.com.