Hank Pennington

Cold weather and especially snow dramatically change the rules on deer hunts.

The deer certainly change their habits, and you have to change your strategies to match.

But even more than that, you have to take into account the very short days and the result of mistakes or weather changes.

Snow in the high country can make for exciting deer hunts. 

All those deer in the remote backcountry and on the higher peaks move down to lower elevations and toward the coast. You simply don’t have to hike as far or climb as high for the deer.

In heavy snow you’ll even find them on the beaches at low tide.

There is still a routine to the way the deer use the lower elevations however.

You might find lots of deer down low, but the big old bucks didn’t get big or old by being stupid. For the most part they just aren’t willing to come so far down or close to the shore as all the smaller deer.

At low tide the big ones will be lower and even on the beaches, but as the tide rises they’ll head right back up the mountains.

My rule of thumb for finding the biggest deer in snow is to look for “belly drags.”

You’ll see lots of tracks down low, but your chances of connecting with the biggest deer reside uphill where the snow gets deeper.

The biggest deer seem perfectly content in snow so deep that their bellies drag as they move around. Depending on how tall you are, that likely means thigh-deep snow on you.

I don’t usually resort to snowshoes on my deer hunts, mostly because I don’t climb up to the same elevation as those belly-dragging deer. 

I skirt along at lower elevations for a little easier progress as I watch the areas of deeper snow above me.

I particularly enjoy hunting in snow because of all the tracks.

Number one, if bears are in the vicinity you’ll know it right away. That certainly makes it easier to avoid areas with bears and relax a little in places where the bears aren’t waiting for a quick meal provided by your rifle.

You also know right away if an area is holding lots of deer or none. Seeing so many tracks lacing through alder fields does wonders for your outlook.

I especially like to look for fresh tracks of larger deer and follow them. Because I do most of my hunting with short range arms, especially muzzleloaders, I particularly enjoy the challenge of quietly following a set of tracks and working to get close for my shots.

But even with a long range rifle and scope, following tracks is the surest way to zeroing in on the bigger deer. You may take your shot further away than I do, but you still improve your odds of bigger deer simply by following their trails.

Looking for tracks in general will teach you a lot about how deer use the terrain in cold weather. 

On windy days they move to the lee sides of mountains and headlands, and especially into alder fields. 

When it’s windy up high you can count on the deer to move into the brush down low. Brushy valleys are especially productive on windy days.

But you should also pay attention to the sun. 

If it’s sunny the deer will seek out sunny exposures that are also protected from the wind.

For some reason the deer seem to enjoy the headlands, perhaps because they can move from one side to the other as the wind shifts.

As you follow the deer tracks and wander through the terrain however, always remember that the days are short. Really short. 

You probably have to wait till after 9 a.m. to have enough light for hunting, but keep reminding yourself that darkness will be closing in by 4 p.m., if not earlier. 

On sunny days you can stretch your hunts a little, but with clouds the daylight hours will be shortened considerably.

My rule of thumb is to never hunt more than a couple of hours inland from the shore in the morning, and an hour is a better rule in the afternoon.

I want to allow plenty of time to get myself and a deer back to the shoreline before dark. I’ve broken that rule a few times over the years, and I’m here to testify that it is no fun at all dragging a deer out in the cold and dark.

But getting out into the field, connecting with a deer, and dragging it back to the shoreline are only part of the story in cold weather.

You have to deal with the deer.

It took only one experience skinning stiff, frozen deer to educate me.

If at all possible, I prefer to skin deer the minute I get them back to where I’m spending the night. The deer are still warm and the skinning job is easy.

The bare carcasses will freeze, but at least I don’t have to thaw and skin frozen deer once I get back home.

I greatly prefer hunting from boats this time of year, specifically for the ease of skinning and hanging deer before returning home. 

It’s easier to clean up, plus there’s some assurance that a bear won’t suddenly appear.

When camping or staying in a cabin I still skin my deer prior to hanging, but I’ll do that well away from where we’re sleeping.

Back home frozen deer are a mixed blessing when it’s time to butcher. 

You don’t have to rush to finish the butchering before deer spoil, but you still need to thaw them enough for butchering.

Here’s a news flash for you. 

Deer hair is hollow and a natural insulator, and it can take days for them to thaw enough for skinning. 

Once skinned they thaw fairly quickly in a heated garage, but until the skin is off you’ll have a long wait before butchering can begin.

I go head and butcher my deer while they’re still slightly frozen. If they’re “half thawed” but I can still manage to cut all the way to the bone, that’s plenty for butchering. In fact it’s certainly easier to get nice clean cuts while the deer is still a little icy.

In following your deer directly from field to freezer I brushed past an important point.

That’s the business of assuring your own safety on short days in the cold, snowy hills. 

The flip side of short days is long, long nights. And in all likelihood the nights are going to be colder than the days.

You simply have to go in the hills prepared to spend the night. You can get disoriented in the dark or simply walk too far and find yourself separated for the night from your nice warm bunk.

With the assurance that you’re equipped to spend the night your hunting companions can perhaps avoid a dangerous search in the dark, too. We carry inexpensive radios to allow all hunters to stay in touch, simply to avoid those searches unless needed. 

But the bottom line is that everyone in your party has to be prepared for an overnight stay in the cold.

How can you be sure your clothing and survival gear are up to the task?

There’s an easy experiment you can try.

Assemble your hunting pack with its emergency supplies, then put on your hunting clothes.

Walk out the door into your back yard and try spending the night.

You won’t be comfortable, but at least when you discover your gear is lacking you can move back into the house.

I can almost guarantee that after your first attempt at an overnight stay with your hunting gear, you’ll be shopping for a much bigger hunting pack and lots more warm clothes to put in it! 

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