By David L. Westphal
How to up your odds for success on the hunt of a lifetime
Planning and booking most North American big-game hunts takes place one to two years in advance of the actual event. The decision of when to go is often a best guess based on the recommendations of the outfitter and local wildlife agencies. With a little more work and some digital scouting, hunters can significantly increase their odds for success in choosing the best dates, even several years in advance.
Big game activity, regardless of region, is affected to some degree by weather patterns, temperature, moon phase and sunrise and sunset times. Other activity-dictating factors include food sources—both agricultural and naturally occurring. Hunters planning the trip of a lifetime can use data readily available at their local library and on the Internet to help narrow their choice of dates into an optimum timeframe.
Weather / Temperature
Everyone agrees weather plays a big role in the amount of game seen, but if your local weatherman cannot get it right today, how is a hunter supposed to choose key hunt dates 12 to 24 months in advance? The answer lies in the law of averages. Although weather may vary for several days at a time, looking at historical data will generally yield solid trends. These trends reveal the best approximate dates, as well as average precipitation and historical highs and lows for regional temperatures. You can use these to help target the weeks that weather provides a generally stable and desirable pattern year to year.
Moon Phase / Sunrise & Sunset
Most big-game activity takes place at the edges of darkness. The less ambient moonlight that is available, the more active game animals will remain during the hours immediately after sunrise and just before sunset. Target weeks with a dark moon phase on the calendar and game will be more likely to be seen actively during legal shooting hours.
Other factors can also contribute to game activity, such as the rut phase. The rut provides for some exciting activity, but success rates on outfitted hunts can often be much better during early and late season hunts. Animals are on a more regular bedding-to-food, food-to-bedding cycle during these time periods, which provides the optimal opportunity for you to connect in a short window of time. A bonus of these early and late hunts is generally lower cost and less pressure. Many of my best bucks were killed during these two time periods. Combine this data with your outfitter’s input and you will have a more defined strategic timeframe to consider and choose from.
Although this may seem like a difficult topic to plan for, good decisions can be made based upon locally-available food sources utilized by regional deer populations. Most agricultural activities involve a process of crop-rotation. Different crop types are grown on a rotating basis year to year to maintain soil quality. A friendly call from the outfitter, or yourself, to the farmer who is managing adjoining cropland should give you a firm answer. In that same discussion ask the approximate harvest date of crops—most will get you within a week of actual harvest schedules. If your outfitter doesn’t know the adjoining landowners, contact the local agricultural extension office for a list of neighboring farms.
For naturally-occurring food sources, determine the major forage used by game through discussion with the outfitter and local forestry or conservation office. These natural sources of food and cover also go in cycles, so the last several years of mast (acorn) crop production, for example, will give some indication of future trends.
Putting it all Together
Spend a few hours “hunting on the computer” and looking at all the data readily available at your fingertips. Compare seasonal trends to available dates provided by your outfitter, and the time of year you are considering. Look at some satellite images of the property, and consider how weather, precipitation and crops could impact the game routes and general activity. Couple all this information with some old-fashioned human interaction about the local agricultural and natural crop trends using your telephone. Armed with all this data, the prime dates to book a hunt should have become much easier to determine.
Most importantly, if Mother Nature throws you outside the averages, she should come back around to normal in a day or two. The hunter with the best odds is often the most prepared. Use these simple tools to ensure you have tipped the scales in your favor as much as possible.
Where to Start:
wunderground.com – Comprehensive information on local and regional forecasts; long term trends and averages can be found under historical data.
sunrisesunset.com – Comprehensive local calendars for sunrise, sunset and moon phase. This website allows users to select a nearby city and create custom calendars for specific months and years.
farmersalmanac.com – Source for regional short and long term weather, crop planting and harvest guidelines. Some data is free – other information available for a fee.
GoogleEarth.com – Great source for satellite images, look for cropland, woodland type and water sources as clues to the terrain and best time to hunt it.
Other Places to Look: Regional forestry offices and websites, fish and game harvest data. Usually this will include success rates by monthly period. Compare all these dates to those available with your prospective outfitter.