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Ben Harshyne | 8.1.2022

Student of the Wind

Dark Hollow was uninviting at 5:00 AM on the cold predawn of November 7th. I'd given the neglected pasture that name as it had transformed over two decades into a labyrinth of thorn-infested honey locust and multiflora rose. If the devil designed a forest, this was it, and I sure as hell wasn’t welcome. None of that mattered though, as I had two aces up my sleeve that assured me there was no other hand to play. My target buck was most likely in there somewhere, and equally important, the wind was right for me to move in on him. With headlamp deployed and Mathews in hand, I entered the black of Dark Hollow with eagerness.

Three hours later I hung my bow, reliving the arrow that just passed through him. After two solid seasons of hunting this buck, the moment I’d dreamt of just happened. I attribute this opportunity to an understanding of wind and how it influences deer behavior.

The olfactory organ is the whitetail’s superpower. They live and die by detecting what they can’t see or hear. There are two separate considerations when you’re trying to become a student of the wind. One: recognize that wind direction and velocity are affected by physical objects (like terrain and vegetation) and temperature change (thermals). Two: Consider that deer travel and position themselves based on their ability to smell the wind. To better illustrate, let's go back to Dark Hollow and cover what the wind was doing that morning.

I positioned my stand in a bedding area on a micro hill that overlooked the creek bottom. The subtle rise in elevation, combined with being four sticks high, allowed my body to be at a level that carried the wind away from most of the cover I was facing. The wind direction was consistent because it was coming from and going to an area that was unobstructed by dense foliage - essentially the wind was in line with the meandering creek bottom (instead of coming perpendicular across the topography). If any deer walked behind me, based on this setup, the rising air currents from the morning thermals would carry my scent above the deer.

The wind speed at sunrise was 10mph. Deer seem to be the most comfortable moving when the wind is carrying a little - not ripping over 25mph and not completely still. The sweet spot seems to be 5 - 15 mph. I also knew that it would be a sunny day, which is important because in the mornings, the sun heats the cool air, causing the air currents to rise. Rising morning thermals are exaggerated on sunny mornings. High barometric pressure enhances this rising effect even more. All of this meant that I would have a consistent wind direction, and my scent would start to elevate once the sun broke the horizon.

After watching a couple of young bucks make their way from the ag fields up above, I had strong optimism knowing that I had patiently waited until the conditions were right to hunt in a bedding area. I’d waited for when the first-morning southerly wind coincided with pre-rut or early breeding phase (when he was most likely to be active in daylight). The buck told me last year that he liked to bed in Dark Hollow, evident from noting his direction of travel in trail cams, and where he fled to one day when I bounced him while looking for his sheds.

At 8:00 AM, his doe led him down toward me, seemingly on their way to an inconspicuous area where they could be, away from the main crowd. The wind worked well for them, as they could smell the creek bottom that they approached. Their only issue though was that I was perched 30 yards away, upwind with the thermals rising above. I focused to keep my heart rate in check as he followed the doe toward my shooting lane.

As wind flows across a landscape, it will continue in that direction until it hits either terrain change or density of vegetation. When wind carries across a field and into a block of timber, it will slow down, scatter, and push across a wider region. On the contrary, if you are positioned in a stand that is facing or receiving a crosswind, and the area behind you is open, the wind will carry through uninterrupted. The same will go for how wind interacts with topography. Wind that is following a ravine or valley will continue to do so until it reaches a place where the land or vegetation obstructs its natural flow.

There are a few good ways to truly observe how wind interacts with the surroundings of a hunting location. Powder or vapor-style windicators only show you a very brief snapshot of the wind movement where your body is. They don’t reveal how your scent is traveling past a few yards. Utilizing milkweed will visually demonstrate the wind patterns after it passes the stand of a hunter. Studying this in the offseason will save you significant time from adjusting during the season, and it will also reveal patterns to remember in the future.

Success in many facets of life revolves around mastering the small details and being a student of the process. Observing the wind currents while you’re hunting, and in the off-season, will undoubtedly give you a stronger chance at finding what lurks in your own Dark Hollow.

Key Notes:

  • A deer’s sense of smell is the single most important factor in its survival.
  • Velocity alters wind direction, and wind currents behave differently at varying velocity amounts.
  • Prey creatures rely on their nose for bedding.
  • Obstructions don’t eliminate the air mass. They only change the direction and dissipate or concentrate the mass.
  • Warm air rises, cool air falls.
  • Watch ahead of you - is the wind doing the same thing behind where you sit?
  • High winds typically mean deer hang lower, where the wind may be more consistent.
  • Zero wind isn’t preferred by mature bucks.
  • Dampness enhances scent molecules

Ben Harshyne helps connect sellers and buyers of land across southeast Iowa for Whitetail Properties Real Estate. A student of whitetail deer for three decades, his content aims to educate and inspire those who wish to get the most out of their journey as a whitetail enthusiast.