When we say the hunting is going to be hot, we generally mean that it’s going to be a prime season when the animals are moving, and our chances of success are greatly increased. However, it seems that in 2021 saying that the hunting is going to be hot, it’s a reference to the sweltering temperatures we have been facing throughout the summer. The Omega Heat Dome has planted itself over the western half of the US for the better part of June and July causing record breaking temperatures and the heat has been climbing steadily to its hot and muggy peaks. Low-water flows in rivers, wildfires, and brutal droughts have plagued the US for the entire summer and while there is relief in sight a serious question remains – How is such a brutal summer going to affect the hunting season?
In a sport that relies so much on animals moving in yearly patterns throughout the year, any break in the norm (i.e the unusual weather) can alter and break the patterns of game animals, making hunting much more difficult. Animals alter their behavior in extreme weather and despite the fact that the hot weather was months and months ahead of the hunting season, the effects of such heat and drought will be felt by both the animals and hunters come fall.
Where’s the Water?
Perhaps the most devastating effect that the summer heat has had on the environment is the drought. Across the United States water sources such as small ponds and sloughs have dried up and low river flows have caused many rivers to become stagnant – or completely stop flowing – and high humidity in areas has increased need for it. Big game animals such as deer and elk require vast amounts of drinking water in order to get through the year and without their usual water sources, the animals will become stressed. Deer and elk will travel to find water and the lack of it will push them out of the usual places they can be found. In many places, the need for water will drive them down to larger water sources such as rivers and lakes sooner than usual and so come fall they will be on and around water sources much sooner than usual. For hunters this means that locating and scouting new hunting areas or hunting spots they would normally utilize later in the season that are around water sources, such as river bottoms, will become absolutely vital.
What’s more is that the lack of water can have a devastating effect on the animals themselves. Deer, elk, moose, and other antlered game that are forced to travel to find water will be expending more energy than usual. This energy is vital. During a normal summer these animals move as little as possible to sustain the energy they need for antler growth and for milk production for fawns. The heat of this summer means that many of these animals were pushed to move much earlier than usual and so many bucks and bulls antlers will be underdeveloped and smaller than usual and many does and cows will have lost their calves causing them to go into estrus earlier than usual. This will cause an early rut and is something to be aware of for the upcoming season.
Wild fires in the western United States can have an absolutely devastating effect on wildlife. California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming are all experiencing massive fires, and the habitat they have devastated will have a lasting effect on the game in the burn areas. Food sources, cover, and migration routes have all been destroyed. So many spots that have always had high populations will be completely devoid of animals because they either had to change their habits and diets to survive or they simply died off.
Hunters that are faced with having their favorite hunting areas burned out are faced with a challenge, one they will have to adapt to and overcome. In areas where burns passed through at the start of the summer, new growth will have perhaps already begun. These new shrubs and grasses will be prime targets for ungulates like deer and elk who will flock to a lot of these older burns to feed. These areas will be much more open than they were previously and that combined with the strong smells of the burn will likely mean that the animals will only enter them to feed during the evening and the early morning. Instead of heading into your favorite hunting spots right away, scout it out and find areas of thick cover and travel routes to set up on. Essentially, treat the new burn like an open field and hunt it early and late from a stand or ground blind.
More recent burns are a different story. These places will be decimated ghost towns that animals will only use as easy travel routes. However, there is hope; the game from these burned out places will still be in the area and likely have simply moved into the closest safe place for them to move around and feed. Hunting areas of thick cover and good forage immediately adjacent to recent burns is an excellent bet for success as often all the animals from both areas will be stacked up together, which can make for smaller hunting areas with a lot of animals to chase after.
One of the worst things about a hot summer is the pressure that it puts on fall and winter food sources. During the severe drought of the summer many resources that game animals depend on either didn’t show up or had very short growing seasons, forcing many game animals to go off in search of other food sources.
Things like agricultural fields that deer, elk, and other animals would normally not visit until the autumn will have been fed upon early and moved on from by the time fall rolls around. Oak, beech, and other nut bearing trees will have stunted and low numbers of nuts in the fall, forcing many deer to move off hardwood ridges they would normally be roaming in the fall. These animals will likely be forced to move much more, and many of the old reliable hunting stands will see much less activity this autumn. High mountain grasses and berry patches will be sparse or nonexistent in some areas, so bears will move into lower elevations in search of roots, grubs, and other food sources they would normally only target later in the fall, so hunters should begin to look lower for them in creek and river bottoms and in wide open fields.
The key to success this hunting season will be to find off-beat food sources that the animals are still targeting. Corn fields, alfalfa field, and other well-watered agricultural areas will hold deer and other animals longer than usual because they’ll need the extra calories and will likely pick these places clean. Areas with a lot of new growth and edible shrubs will be hit more often by hungry animals as well as spots with both decent browse and healthy amounts of water such as swamps and beaver bogs.
The key to success in these areas will be to stick to any good food source you find like glue, holding to smaller areas of better food when you find them and doing a lot of roaming in search of the next one when your first spot runs out.
The summer of 2021 has broken a lot of records and probably broken a lot of people unable to deal with the heat. But when the season comes, we hunters will enter the woods with as much hope and expectation as any other year. Success may be harder to come by, but any time we spend in the outdoors is memorable – and making memories is truly what hunting is all about in the first place.