It has often been said that the hallmark of an experienced outdoorsman is not necessarily knowing where to go to find game fish, but when to go. There is a lot of truth to that statement. All living creatures, from amoeba to man, have their behavior influenced to some degree by a variety of environmental factors. Some conditions promote activity; others curtail it. Complicating this scenario is the fact that not all game animals and fish respond to the same stimuli in the same manner. A particular set of conditions that might promote activity in, say, waterfowl could easily mean inactivity for bass. Adding to the complexity of the equation is that there is seldom one environmental stimulus in play. Most often several are, and some may be positive, while others may be negative. Mixing and matching these conditions to determine the most productive periods to pursue game or fish is a blend of art, science and hard-won experience. Here are some of the factors to consider.
Lunar influence on living organisms is indisputable, a fact supported by years of observation and study. Certain alignments of the moon, sun and earth can promote increased activity for all living organisms. This was common knowledge among turn-of-the-century market hunters whose livelihood depended upon a thorough understanding of the movements of fish and game. Through the years, various systems have been devised to identify peak movement periods based upon the influence of the moon. Calendars and tables now help sportsmen predict fish and game activity. One widespread misunderstanding that continues to surround solunar tables is that they dictate when wildlife will become active. This is not entirely correct. Solunar tables only indicate when the lunar conditions are most favorable for movement on that particular day. Local environmental conditions existing at the time can easily exert a greater influence, either positive or negative, on game and fish. The tables are only a reference point, a tool for general guidance. Wise sportsmen will also factor in other conditions. For example, a deer hunter finding a solunar period occurring at dawn may expect activity, but if cold, sleeting rain coincides with it, the deer are unlikely to be moving, regardless of where the moon is. Bass fishermen too are well aware that the first bright, bitterly cold morning following a spring cold front is a poor time to be on the water, irrespective of what the tables say. So the tables are not absolute, infallible predictors, but they can still be valuable aids for outdoorsmen. Under stable weather conditions, those days showing significant activity periods are likely to experience more wildlife movement than those with minimal solunar periods. This can be an asset when planning forays days or weeks in advance. If time is limited, planning a trip when the maximum solunar activity occurs during legal hunting and fishing hours is a wise move. Unfortunately, it will not guarantee success. Current weather will always be a factor, and one of the most significant weather events affecting game and fish is a cold front.
Cold fronts have a significant effect on the movement of game and fish, and it is most pronounced during the fall, winter and spring. Unfortunately, not all wildlife is effected by cold fronts in the same manner. To understand how fronts influence wildlife movement, it is important to divide a front into its three separate parts: the pre-front, actual front and post-front. Then you must look at how each part affects fish and game.
Pre-Front: Pre-front conditions characterized by a warming trend, combined with winds shifting to a southerly direction, and increasing gradually in speed. Regardless of whether one is chasing fish, fowl or four legged creatures, conditions don't get much better than this! During the fall through spring period, virtually all wildlife will show increased activity levels as the weather front approaches. All wildlife knows that harsher times are on the way, and they make the most of the pre-front period and get ready for the lean times ahead.
The Actual Front: As the cold front moves over the area, with its attendant high winds or rain, the picture changes considerably. Most game animals, as well as upland game bird, will bed up and wait out the storm. Activity levels will be low, and savvy hunters have learned that this is usually an excellent time to stay home and attend to chores or sit by the fireplace. Waterfowlers, however, find this an excellent time to be in their blinds. Nasty weather moves duck, the worse the weather the lower they'll fly. This makes them more likely to settle into decoys. Bad weather normally makes for great waterfowling. The picture isn't quite as clear for fishermen. The arrival of a cold front generally signals the end of the pre-front feeding frenzy, although some species of fish continue to feed right through the front if the temperature drop is not sudden or severe.
Post-Front: Once the front passes, skies clear and temperatures drop. For anglers virtually anywhere, this is the toughest set of conditions they face throughout the year, which provides an excellent excuse to stay home. Bass, in particular, are invariably adversely affected by a sharp winter cold front and may not become active for several days. Waterfowl hunters face a similar paucity of target. Deer hunters, however, relish the first clear, crisp morning following the passage of a front. This is especially true if it occurs during the rut. In fact, nothing sets a buck's tarsals to tingling faster than a cold, clear morning following the passage of wet, windy weather. They are out of their beds at first light and may move well throughout the day. The same holds true for many other game animals. The effects of cold fronts on wildlife can be complex and varied. But, as a general rule, all move on the leading edge. After the front passes, cold-blooded creatures generally become inactive, while warm-blooded animals become very active.
The transitional periods from dark to light, and light to dark, are normally strong movement periods for game and fish, and can be excellent times to be in the woods or on the water. Sometimes, however, they're not all they are cracked up to be. Fishermen, for example, have learned that no matter how invigorating the sunrise, if it occurs on a bitter winter day, the angling may not be productive. Being cold-blooded, fish are significantly affected by water temperature, and the dawn brings the coldest water temperature of the day. While dawn can be the prime time to be on the water during warmer weather, cold weather anglers have learned there is nothing wrong with hitting the snooze button, and lingering long over breakfast. Under most conditions, dusk is actually a better movement time for game fish. During colder weather, it combines changing light levels with the warmest water temperature of the day, and often sees more game fish movement during the winter. Dusk can also be prime time during the summer months, especially if anglers choose to fish the western shorelines where the falling sun throws large amounts of shade onto the water. Although water temperatures may be at their highest levels of the day, the shade creates favorable foraging conditions, at the same time lowering temperatures slightly. Dusk is overlooked yet very productive period for anglers. An exception to that is during the summer months when afternoon thunderstorms are common in many portions of the country. A major thunderstorm, with heavy lightning and thunder, may well pass prior to dusk and leave the waters calm. Unfortunately, the lightning and thunder may spell the end to any feeding activity that day. Dawn and dusk are key movement periods for game, as well, but tend to act differently. While an angler won't miss much by sleeping in on a crisp winter morning, hunters will. Gamebirds, whether upland birds, turkeys or waterfowl, show strong movement patterns on a cold bright morning. A bird's naturally high metabolic rate requires a steady intake of food, and after a chilly night on the roost they are ready to move and eat. Look for them to seek food and water as soon as there is enough light to fly down from the roost. And it takes awhile for them to fill their crops. The exception, and there always seems to be one, is if the dawn is greeted with wet, stormy weather. This won't bother waterfowl. Indeed, it invigorates them. But it keeps upland birds and turkeys on the roost longer into the dawn. If the weather is dry, hit the woods early. If it's wet, take a page from the winter fisherman's book and enjoy brunch. While dusk is prime time for fish, it's not always the best for fowl. Having fed throughout the day, most birds are heading back to the roost. With game animals, the picture changes again. Throughout most of the year, dusk signals the beginning of the day for large, hoofed game. Deer coming off their daytime beds at dusk aren't much different in their behavior than turkeys flying down from the roost in the morning; they are ready for breakfast and head toward food. When dawn rolls around, they are frequently heading back to their beds. One exception occurs on the first crisp morning following the passage of a cold front. Most game animals move as soon as there is light after the weather clears. One major consideration is playing the dawn\dusk game is air currents. Those hunting in hilly country find air currents rise in the morning and fall during the evening. Hunters want to be high in the morning and low in the afternoon if they want to avoid being winded.
Of all the weather conditions that can thwart even the best laid outdoor plans, high wind ranks right on top. Any animal that depends heavily upon its senses of hearing and smell to protect it from predators (or in the case or predators, to find a meal) become extremely spooky when they simply bed down and don't move until the winds subside. Anglers face a different problem from a stout breeze. It seldom bothers the fish. In fact, the wind and wave action can often trigger many game fish to feed. Unfortunately, the same hard wind bothers the heck out of anglers. Battling the wind is seldom productive. But, there are exceptions. In fact, there are some situations where wind can be an asset. Waterfowlers are well aware that windy days are far more productive than calm days. Waterfowl stay on the move seeking lee shores, and they fly lower and are more inclined to respond to calls and decoy spreads. While most outdoorsmen relish pleasant days, savvy waterfowlers have learned that the worse the weather, the better the shooting. Wind is a key component in that equation. Turkey hunters can also turn a stout wind to their advantage. Turkeys will commonly find clearings and open field edges for strutting, but they will seldom move into the open in a strong wind. Instead, they find those open areas where a tree line breaks the force of the wind and creates a natural lee. Hunters who are intimately familiar with the terrain they are hunting can determine these lee areas in advance and thus eliminate a lot of unproductive terrain. When spring winds hit their peak, field edges in a lee are where the birds are. Anglers fishing lakes and reservoirs for many species, especially bass, can also find high winds an asset at times. During the summer and fall, baitfish schools move with the wind. Several days of breeze can stack large numbers of baitfish upon windward shores and particularly windy points. While the wind may make angling difficult, it will serve to position and concentrate predator fish, as well as trigger solid feeding activity.
Wet weather is often characterized as "a fine day for ducks." Unfortunately, that is about the only creature that appreciates precipitation. A light sprinkling may not overly inhibit the activity of game or fish, but the stronger it becomes, the less they move. The good news is that it seldom lasts long. Better yet, significant activity by game and fish often occurs immediately before and after precipitation. Variable circumstances determine just exactly when. Most game fish feed well just prior to a rain, light or heavy. The activity may slow down considerably after the storm, but the action preceding it can be fantastic. During the fall and winter hunting seasons, game animals also show an increase in movement prior to a front. But the best time to target the rain is often immediately after it ends. Warm-blooded animals don't like being cold and wet any more than we do. Once the precipitation passes and the sun puts in an appearance, they are up, and moving around and looking for both food and warmth. For big-game hunters, there are few better times to be in the woods than the calm period immediately following a fall or winter storm.
While most environmental conditions can be a double-edged sword, there is one that almost universally improves an outdoorsman's chances of success: cloud cover. Just why this is so is a debatable point. It might be that the decreased visibility provided by overcast weather provides prey animals with an increased sense of security. It certainly gives predators a heightened sense of invisibility. Regardless of the reason, virtually all game animals and fish increase their movement when there is a solid overcast, and it seems to make little difference during what portion of the year it occurs. Just what is the best combination of conditions to head to the field? Well, if one was fortunate enough to find a calm, cloudy day with moderate weather (combined with a strong solunar period during midmorning hours) few experienced hunters or fishermen could have reason to complain. Since days like that are not overly common, there is one other piece of advice worth considering: just go whenever you can. Even if conditions aren't ideal, a poor day afield beats the heck out of a good day at work.