IN THE OUTDOORS: Playing the wind

Outdoors columnist Oak Duke offers hunting tips

By Oak Duke
When whitetails feel threatened, they often run into the wind. But sometimes, they break their own rules and sneak back downwind.

“If you want to get a deer, play the wind.”

Heard it all my life.

But what exactly does that deer hunting mandate, “play the wind,” mean?

Does it mean, hunt downwind?

Well, if it was that simple, then why not just say, “Hunt downwind?”

Theoretically deer could never smell us if we were downwind of them, right?

An understanding of the three-word phrase might be better brought into focus by taking a look at the word “play.”

In baseball, outfielders “play” hitters.

Like when a left-handed batter, known to pull the ball down the first base line, is “played.”

The rightfielder and centerfielder will cheat towards the first base line, and the left fielder will move toward center. In that way they are “playing” the hitter to where the odds are best to make the catch.

And likewise in card games we “play” a hand of cards, or we “play” a game of chess where skill and finesse are required.

So the word “play” is more complex than simply following an algorithm, like just hunting downwind.

At the tail end of this most recent bow season, I had been constantly vexed by the wind and whitetails in a particular hollow that comes close to straddling the New York-Pa. border.

And like in some difficult hunts, a more radical effort is what works.

The small valley faces east, so one would think, no-brainer, a prevailing southwest breeze would make it perfect to hunt.

But nope, there are thermals often involved so that daytime heating in the valley causes warming air to rise up the hollow, ergo dueling wind directions.

As my bow hunting mentor Roger Rothhaar told me years ago, this area of Western NY and Northern Pennsylvania, where we hunt for whitetails, is the most challenging that he had experienced because the winds are so variable here. His native Ohio was less difficult to hunt, he said, like most of the Midwest, because the terrain is flat and the betraying winds much more consistent.

However, when the wind blows with a gale force on the Beaufort scale, 40 mph-plus gusts from the west, thermals are a nonfactor in the east-facing valley.

Might be the wind of change I needed.

The only concern was that sitting 20 feet up in a treestand, was akin to being strapped in the crow’s nest during a stormy “Pirates of the Caribbean” episode.

Plus squalls off relatively warm Lake Erie pack a double punch. Once in a while whiteout or blizzard conditions appear as squalls. And a few minutes later, bright blue sky makes us blink, with the gusts still buffeting and rocking the woods.

Under these conditions, not only is the wind our friend, keeping the whitetails from scenting us; with branches waving, snow blowing, twigs and leaves falling down; we have motion camouflage.

During these high wind events we are favored with add another benefit…noise camouflage; trees creaking, branches rubbing, and wind howling.

And it makes it much easier to draw back the bow on a close whitetail when there is ambient tree branch motion and noise to overload the deer’s computer-like defensive processing sensing system.

And on schedule a buck, sans antlers from fighting, sauntered down the hollow, hit the trail and actually jumped into the zip-tied scrape where I have a trail cam set.

But my old school aluminum arrow shaft, barred turkey fletching, and cut-on-contact broadhead were covered with an inch of snow and ice as the gusts were ripping through the trees, making a shot impossible.

“Just my luck this year,” I thought. “Typical.”

After brushing off the snow, patience in this radical form of “playing the wind” was rewarded with a nice doe, just before sunset, bent on making a pheromone deposit at the scrape ATM.

This time, snow free, the arrow flew true, centering both lungs; concluding with a quick kill and a long but satisfying drag back to the truck by dark.

OAK DUKE

Most of the time when deer hunting we don’t have gale force winds to aid or hinder our plans when we try to “play the wind.”

Whitetails here are hard-hunted and the older animals especially, like to scent-check the wind when moving into it, rarely at their backs.

Pure downwind stands don’t often pan out.

Instead, the preferred setup and wind direction in my playbook is a crosswind.

Best is a crosswind that is almost wrong, blowing slightly towards the whitetails, which after all make their living “playing the wind.”

Oak Duke writes a weekly column appearing on the Outdoors page.