The wind will blow (no pun intended) many more chances for you during the course of a hunting season than a big game animal’s two other lines of defense—sight and sound—combined. The reason is simple. Virtually all big game animals rely on their sense of smell as their first line of defense against predators. Well-known photographer, videomaker and naturalist Leonard Lee Rue III once said that white-tailed deer “live in a world of smells,” and he’s right. The same is true for most other big game species, including animals with reputations for exceptional eyesight, like sheep, pronghorns and mountain goats.
It’s difficult for people, with our poorly developed noses, to understand just how acute an animal’s sense of smell really is. While doing research for a book I wrote on wild boars, I once sat on a California ridgetop and watched a string of 10 hogs stroll out of some brush and into a ripe barley field to feed. The wind was steady at about 5 mph, and blowing in such a direction that the pigs would soon intercept my scent line, much like a torpedo merges with a moving ship. The range was between half- and three-quarters of a mile. I wanted to see if the animals could pick up my scent at that distance, and if so, what their reaction would be. The moment those hogs hit my scent line, the lead sow stopped, threw her head up and gulped some air, wheeled about and raced back to the safety of the thick brush with her companions in tow. I’ve had elk and mule deer repeat that scenario several times at long range, too.
To be a successful Western big game hunter, one must become something of a wind-doping wizard. And doping the wind is more than simply knowing that the prevailing breeze is blowing from east to west, up or down the mountain or not at all.
My friend and NAHC Member Lynn Chrystal was an Alaska weatherman for nearly 30 years. One day he attempted to explain to me the process of air flow and weather patterns. What he basically told me is air flows from a high-pressure system to a low-pressure system in the form of wind. The only thing keeping that wind flowing in a smooth, even progression is terrain.
When winds hit mountains, valleys, hollows, hills and other irregularities, the air mass flows like a stream, bouncing off boulders, skirting around logs, moving quickly in one area, slowly in others, and generally becomes difficult to track and predict. Throw in other variables like mountain peaks and valleys; snow or ice fields; an ocean or large lake; a stream coursing through tall trees; land mass temperature variations caused by shade and sun, etc.; and the job gets even tougher.
Temperature variations are what cause thermal currents. Thermals are created when one area of air is warmer than another. As the sun begins to warm the air in the morning, the air expands, causing it to rise, or flow uphill. In the evening the air cools, and the reverse process occurs. Visualize a mountain trout stream as it flows over the land and around rocks, stumps and trees, and you can picture how the wind moves up and down a mountain.
The thermal current phenomenon can wreak havoc with your basic hunting strategies. The best strategy is generally to climb high early in the day, search for game with your optics and wait for the thermals to begin flowing up the slope before attempting to make a stalk with the breeze in your face. While afternoon thermals will put the wind in your favor if you try and sneak in for a shot from below, I almost always prefer to stalk an animal from above. If the wind is sliding down the slope, I’ll try and dope it as best I can and slip in from the side rather than try and come in from below, which has almost always been fruitless for me.
Thermals are just one aspect to consider. On relatively calm days, with few clouds and a bright sun, thermals can be reasonably predictable. But who can count on conditions being picture-perfect like that? In mountain country, the weather can change as quickly as the planks of a politician’s election year platform, bouncing the air around rugged terrain like a pinball. I then use thermal patterns as only a general guideline, calling them uphill or downhill, onshore or offshore. When I get relatively close to a target animal, I begin trying to figure out how the breeze will flow over rocks, trees, valleys and the like.
When it comes to wind, hunters often make two mistakes that are inexcusable—believing there is no wind, and thinking they can cheat whatever wind there is by taking the easy way out.
An important point to remember is this: There’s always wind, no matter how slight it might be. A seemingly calm day might be bad for flying a kite, and it can also be disastrous for a hunter, especially one shrouded in a false sense of security that their scent won’t carry. Those subtle, soft changes in airflow are what will bust a hunter more often than any strong breeze. Tying a soft, downy feather by a thread to your bowstring or rifle sling is one way to immediately notice even the slightest shift in wind direction and speed. Using the flame of a butane lighter, or a slight puff of unscented talc or corn starch from a squeeze bottle can also give you a quick indication of wind direction. But you have to remember that while the wind might be blowing in one direction where you’re standing, it could very well be blowing in another where a game animal is standing. These differences might seem minimal, but all the critters have to do is just catch a little whiff of your body odor, and it’s adios, amigo.
Believing you can cheat the wind is another sure-fire road to failure. When I first started bowhunting, I remember thinking that a barely noticeable breeze wasn’t strong enough to carry my scent to a bull elk I was working with my calls. I had a comfortable setup, and the bull was coming, so why move? At 75 yards that bull taught me a lesson by stopping his steady march as if he’d run into a brick wall, whirling and then crashing off the instant my scent reached his nose.
The wind can also be your ally. A decent breeze will help mask the sound of your footsteps. Most ungulates, and especially those that live in reasonably open country like pronghorns, mule deer, caribou, mountain goats and mountain sheep, will take refuge behind natural wind breaks in a strong wind, making them easier to locate and, at times, stalk. The wind might bring even your own simple olfactory unit a whiff of an elk herd, a rutting moose or a fresh bear kill, if conditions are right.
But by and large, the wind is a mountain hunter’s Public Enemy No. 1. Force yourself to check it constantly, learn to anticipate its subtleties and never, ever underestimate the ability of even the slightest breeze to bring your smell to the attention of your quarry, where it will ring like a fire alarm inside their brain. Like the old television commercial used to say, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!” When it comes to the wind, you simply can’t.