I have been dancing with the wind most of my life. My mother told me that when I was a kid, I loved to chase bubbles floating on the breeze and run with a kite weaving back and forth as I giggled. I ran high school and college track, and had a love-hate relationship with the wind as far back as the 1960s. Spring in Kentucky is notoriously windy. On my home track the wind blew down the backstretch and it was like hitting a wall coming off of the first turn. My favorite strategy was to tuck in behind another runner on the backstretch and speed by him coming out of the home turn. At least that was my plan, and occasionally it actually worked.
As a young adult I was a bicycle road racer. That’s the sport made famous by the Tour de France where the racers wear those tight Spandex pants. Were it not for the strategies and the choreography of the peloton (the pack of riders) attempting to minimize wind resistance, watching bike racing would be like watching a faucet drip. I learned that the immediate and subtle difference when riding behind another racer could translate into a huge energy savings over the course of a fifty-mile race.
The wind, or its tamer sister, the breeze, brings us the perfume of the spring flowers, the musty sweet aroma of the autumn woods, and the smell of back straps grilling over a campfire. To this day I remember the smells of the outdoors in my youth: the scent of cattle, the black earth, my leather shooting glove.
To the hunter, the wind will make the difference between a harvest and tag soup. To wild creatures the wind is everything, literally the difference between life and death.
At the risk of sounding like a purist snob, indulge me by letting me preach a little. Today’s commercial hunting environment has created gadgets for everything, from lighted arrow nocks to fiber-optic bow sights. Overcoming the challenges of the wind has not eluded the gadgeteers. You can purchase clothing and gizmos to kill human scent and tell you wind direction and speed. Those devices are designed for misguided people. As traditional bowhunters, we are not purists for the sake of the label. We are more interested in the magic of hunting and all that it entails other than killing. Enough said; sermon over.
Severe windy conditions are not good for bowhunters. First, strong wind spooks game animals. Imagine what constant roaring in the trees and movement of the foliage does to an animal that lives in a constant state of anxiety. Critters will bed down or seek refuge in calm ravines and on the leeward side of hills and stay put until the wind dies down. Second, wind will really mess with arrow flight. Even on short shots, wind will throw an arrow out of tune, causing it to wobble. Not only can strong wind cause you to miss your intended target, wobbling of the shaft will severely decrease penetration. Third, a strong wind can cause trees with weak root systems or rotten trunks to blow over. Standing on a platform twenty feet up a tree that comes crashing down would be a nightmare. Just being in a forest full of rotten limbs ready to fall out of trees at the first gust makes you think twice about hunting in high wind. You certainly don’t need an anemometer to tell you if it’s too windy to hunt. Use common sense.
I’ve been using a simple thread tied to my bow quiver with a little fluff of turkey feather glued to the loose end to check normal wind. It only takes a glance to determine wind direction. Frankly, I could probably do it just as well by licking my finger and holding it up. At one point this year, I noticed that my feather thread was gone, probably pulled off by a bramble or bush. During that particular hunt, I didn’t miss it much. I had to focus a bit more on the breeze on my face, and that was fine by me.
I have several strategies I follow to overcome the challenges of the wind.
When stalking and still hunting, I always hunt into or across the breeze. Hunting big game with the wind at your back is a waste of time, unless you are there just to appreciate a nice walk in the woods. Of course, the exception is hunting wild turkey, a critter who has eyes that more than make up for its lack of a nose. If a turkey could smell, no one would ever kill one.
When using a ground blind or tree stand, I always set up downwind of the deer or elk’s destination…a food source, trail, or funnel. It’s even a good idea to have an ambush spot picked out on both sides so you can quickly move in case the wind does an about-face.
I stay clean. I shower with baking soda before each hunt, and store my hunting clothes and boots sprinkled with baking soda in a plastic bag. Even on longer wilderness hunts I bathe daily in streams and use scent-free soap. One molecule of human scent entering a deer’s nose puts it on alert. Two molecules will send him running.
Deer and other critters can smell where you have been. I use rubber boots free of human odors to approach my stand sites, and wear clean gloves to climb trees. I sometimes even purposely walk through cow manure on farms I hunt to add some familiar cover scent.
During the rut, and only during the rut, I will place liquid deer or elk urine-soaked wicks at different angles to me and the wind. The theory is that I hope that the deer, which is probably tacking back and forth in the wind, will hit the urine scent stream before it hits mine and acquire confidence or curiosity.
Often mature deer will approach an afternoon food source by traveling established game trails until directly downwind from that area. A smart old buck will stop and stage up until after dark, continuously scent-checking the breeze. One trick I have used successfully is to walk directly downwind of the food source until I intercept a deer trail. I then place my tree stand within bow range but downwind of that juncture. It may be a quarter mile from the food source, which I may not even be able to see, but there’s a good chance I will have a shot opportunity before dark from that spot.
Pay attention to topography, which can affect the wind. We all know that in hilly country there is a thermal inversion just after dawn and just before dusk. After daylight, as the sun warms the air, it rises uphill. Just before dark as the sun drops, the air cools and flows downhill. A hunter can use this knowledge to predict wind direction. However, abrupt topographic changes can produce air flows that are counterintuitive.
I love freestyle bowhunting—wandering around in the woods looking for good places to ambush game. However, over the years, because of job and family responsibilities, I have resorted to hanging lock-on stands in good places where I can quickly leave work and get in an afternoon’s hunt. I have three such stand locations, all on different tracts of land, and sit adjacent to food sources at the top of steep drop-offs. These three sites have been responsible for many whitetails in the last twenty years.
I discovered the first one during a freestyle hunt on a friend’s farm back in 1997. The second was a place on public land I stumbled onto ten years ago, and the third was one I created by plowing up and planting clover on an old logging road that sits above a steep hillside on a tract I own. Hunting these three setups has given me an education in dealing with fickle winds in steep terrain.
These sites have shown me that abrupt changes in terrain can disrupt normal air flow and create eddies, in which a downhill air current will roll back under itself and go the opposite direction. The breeze blows from the food source, past your tree, and over the drop-off. Unfortunately, it then curls back and swirls toward the food source, and the deer that is standing there busts you.
How can you prevent this from happening? The solution is simple: Climb higher. There is a critical height at which any scent below it gets caught in that swirl-back, and every smell above it does not. In that case your scent will blow predictably down the slope and over the sensitive nose of any deer or elk that might be downwind and climbing toward you. I try to perch myself at least fifteen feet above the level of the food source. Remember that above a certain height shooting your bow accurately becomes more difficult. Because of the steeper angle, your target decreases in size, and you have to bend at the waist to maintain consistent shooting form.
The wind can be your best friend or your worst enemy. During my dance with the wind I occasionally trip over my own feet, but those awkward mistakes have helped make me a better hunter. Hopefully, these strategies will help you overcome the challenges of the wind, and to maximize your chances at harvesting game with your traditional bow.