Cold Fronts May Get Hunters On Their Feet, But Bucks Answer a Different Call

October 6, 2021 By: Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Don’t say it. Do not say it! Don’t say the cold front has got the bucks on their feet.

You are going to say it, aren’t you?

Seriously, listen to yourself this fall. You’re going to catch yourself wanting to say it, and it may even slip out. You’re going to hear other people say it, and you’re going to want to join in. Your friends, your hairstylist, the hunters on TV, the influencers you follow on social media, your bank teller, the dudes on the podcast, the server at Waffle House. Everyone! it’s like a scene in a musical where the whole town pours onto the street to dance and sing together: “This cold front has really got the buuuucccckkkks. On. Their. FEEEET!”

If you don’t believe me, do a key-word search in your favorite social media platform. You’ll find lots of posts like those I found, with a sample of direct quotes shown in the graphic below. Notice how similar they are. This phrase has become what we say when we see deer and it happens to be cold. If you don’t say it, FOMO will strike. And we’ve heard it, repeated it and believed it for so long that many hunters put it into action. They don’t hunt when it’s warm, which – and I’m going out on a limb here – could explain why they don’t see deer when it’s warm. They hunt when it’s cold. The truth is, this cold front has really got the hunters on their feet!

So, what’s wrong with saying this? Let me explain by telling you about some deer hunters in South Florida who don’t say this.

They went out into the Everglades when their bow season opened on July 31 this year and saw bucks chasing does. They saw bucks fighting with each other. They killed a lot of great bucks that were already in hard-antler and were “on their feet.” Check the Instagram feed of @lower_florida_bucks to see what I’m talking about. And I promise you, not a single one of these hunters ever said “This cold front has got the bucks on their feet.” It was August in South Florida!

In the absence of a cold front, you must be wondering what on God’s Green Earth could have stimulated those deer to be on their feet in July and August. Simple: The Rut. This is when south Florida deer breed. The powerful scent of estrus is on the steamy breeze, and the bucks don’t wait around for a cold front to give them permission to knock hoofs. They get busy!

“I’m going to put my hunting hat on when I say, I can’t find any compelling evidence that’s going to make me go hunt by looking at the forecast or the barometer.”  — Dr. Bronson Strickland, MSU Deer Lab.

In Southeast Georgia where I do most of my hunting, we have a fairly early rut as well. it’s the last two weeks of October every year. It was rainy, warm, and I was burning a Thermacell the last two times I’ve killed a mature buck there. On October 26, 2019, my dad killed his best Southeast Georgia buck ever. That morning he saw a lot of chasing, several different bucks, and plenty of movement before he saw the buck he shot. The low that morning was 72 degrees, the sky was overcast, and mosquitos were out. In Southeast Georgia in late October, that’s a warm spell. I bet you set your air conditioner lower than 72.

But for every anecdote I could share of seeing and killing bucks in warm weather, you’ve got a story of a buck you killed when it was cold. This debate always devolves into a war of anecdotes, which are all equally worthless as evidence. Yes, even my own. We must ignore the one-off anecdotes and look to hard science, and I have.

it’s the rut, y’all. it’s the rut that gets bucks on their feet! To be more specific, it’s the rut that increases daily buck movement above normal levels seen the rest of the year. They are “on their feet” every day of the year, because they must eat to survive. But they are on their feet a lot more during the rut because they feel the additional, overwhelming urge to breed.

GPS tracking study of buck movement by Texas A&M-Kingsville showing daily buck movement rates are higher throughout the peak of the rut – both day and night – than any other time of year.

Numerous scientific studies of buck movement using GPS tracking collars all group really well around a particular bullseye: Daily buck movement rates accelerate with the increasing number of does coming into estrus and becoming receptive to breeding, no matter when the local peak occurs in a calendar year. Their movement rates are high – compared to the pre-rut and post-rut – during cold fronts and warm spells alike. As long as it’s time for the rut, buck movement rates are higher than any other time of year, as seen in the chart above from a Texas A&M-Kingsville tracking study showing miles of buck movement per 24 hours. No study has shown a strong or consistent correlation between deer movement rates and air temperature, barometric pressure, wind, rainfall, or the moon. At least not strong and consistent enough to justify the die-hard belief among some deer hunters that these factors are most important.

Food, hunting pressure, time of day, the rut – these are important and influential factors in deer movement that have been repeatedly validated by science. Key on them.

Let’s look at another one of these studies, and it’s the flip-side of the South Florida example – a rut peak that occurs later than the rest of the country. The chart below from the Mississippi State University Deer Lab shows average daily movement distance by day of the year for 50 GPS-collared adult bucks (2½ or older) in Yazoo and Madison counties, in west central Mississippi. The local rut peak is from early December to early January. Note that distances covered daily by these bucks, at night and by daylight, begin to climb as the rut approaches in early December and remain high into January, coinciding with peak breeding dates. Yes, there’s some daily up-and-down fluctuation in movement during the rut peak, and I’ll even allow you to say these are caused by a factor like weather (there’s no correlation, but let’s pretend). Note that the lowest low in daily movement during the rut peak still exceeds the highest high prior to the rut! In fact, 1,500 yards per day in movement is both the ceiling for pre-rut movement and the floor for rut-peak movement. Even on a slow day during the peak of breeding in December, bucks are moving more than they were in the pre-rut in November.

October and November bring cold weather to Mississippi just like they do the rest of the country. The first frost usually hits this study area in late October or early November. Several fantastic cold fronts usually come and go before December arrives each year. Why don’t those November cold fronts get those bucks “on their feet”?

Because it’s not the peak of the rut yet.

“I’m going to put my hunting hat on when I say, I can’t find any compelling evidence that’s going to make me go hunt by looking at the forecast or the barometer,” said Dr. Bronson Strickland of the MSU Deer Lab. “We just literally don’t see any clear and consistent patterns.” 

It is coincidence. It is like saying “This cold front has really got the Trick-or-Treaters on their feet.”

Bronson was speaking on the Down South Hunt podcast when he said this (September 18, 2018: “The Science Behind Deer Movement and When to Hunt, Part 1”). He was referring to data from MSU’s research, but host Mike Higman asked Bronson if he had examined studies at other universities. He had. 

“The overwhelming majority, and I mean the overwhelming majority, conclude they didn’t find any reliable pattern,” said Bronson. “Maybe a tendency here, or a tendency in an extreme event, but on the average, if you’re going to try to make a rule or a plan for yourself as a hunter, there’s no substantial evidence that the weather is having big impacts on deer movements.”

“But,” some will say, “that’s in the South.” To which I’ll respond, studies north and south have failed to find a strong correlation between buck movement and air temperature. Mike also interviewed Dr. Duane Diefenbach of Penn State University in Part 2 of his podcast series. Mike asked Duane if his Pennsylvania research showed a link between weather and buck movement.

Duane provided a short answer: “Nope.”

“Once you get into the rut,” he added, “I don’t think there’s anything that bothers a male deer except a female deer.”

(By the way, Duane was our live speaker for the Beer & Deer Webinar on October 13, 2021, and he shared a lot of Penn State’s scientific findings about deer movement during the rut in Pennsylvania’s Big Woods. You can watch his full webinar here).

This chart from a Maryland study is the same as movement studies in Pennsylvania and every corner of the whitetail’s range: Buck movement peaks with the local peak of breeding and does not show a strong and consistent correlation to weather patterns.

Coincidence, Confidence, Convenience

I think many deer hunters believe cold fronts make deer move for a few reasons. The first is Coincidence. In most of the United States, the peak of the whitetail rut is in November. Buck movement is increasing gradually, week by week, during a time when average temperatures are declining and cold fronts are happening. The bucks are moving more because does are in estrus, but the air temperature is a factor that’s more obvious to us. Boom! False connection drawn. All it took was a few outdoor communicators to start writing and saying it out loud, and more to echo them every single year, and now it’s as dug-in as a tick you didn’t find for a week.

It is coincidence. It is like saying “This cold front has really got the Trick-or-Treaters on their feet.” But it’s a self-reinforcing belief. Go deer hunting on a cold, clear, post-frontal day in the peak of the rut, and guess what? You’re more likely to see bucks moving than other times of year, especially if belief gives you the Confidence to stay longer and pay more attention. it’s just not due to the weather.

Convenience is another reason. Most of us prefer to hunt when it’s cold and clear, so it’s easy to buy into the idea that if you stay home on warm days, it’s okay, because you wouldn’t have seen anything anyway.

This, plus decades of reinforcement in the hunting culture, mean that I’m on a doomed mission, and I know it. I’m as popular as Matt Hooper of the Oceanographic Institute explaining that the bite radius on that tiger shark doesn’t match the wounds on the victim. I much prefer to hunt when it’s cold, so I wish it were true as much as you do, but the science convinces me cold fronts are not to blame. The real culprit is still swimming around out there: the whitetail rut.

Keep saying it if it gives you the confidence you need to go hunting, sit longer, and be more alert. If you want to believe cold fronts increase buck movement, you will see it happen.

As for me, I’ve seen enough science. If it’s the peak of the rut where I hunt, and I have an opportunity to go hunting, and it’s warm… I’ll be on my feet.

About Lindsay Thomas Jr.:

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.