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Temperature, precipitation and snowfall are all important to deer hunters and can be critical factors in successful deer harvests statewide. The weather affects how the herd moves, how quickly hunters must process their deer, how readily hunters can reach their deer stands, and how easy it will be for hunters to see and track deer.
Weather also acts as a social barometer – too hot and hunters may not stay in the woods as long; too rainy, ditto and the deer stop moving; too cold or windy and hunters may spend more of their day playing cards than chasing deer. In fact, I'd submit that weather throughout the short gun deer season may be as important to the successful hunt as the number of deer and hunters.
Though special hunts and extended seasons vary the deer season each year, the heart of Wisconsin's statewide gun deer hunting since 1960 has been a nine-day season beginning the Saturday before Thanksgiving and ending the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Since Thanksgiving falls the fourth Thursday each November and deer hunting has been linked to that date for a while, deer hunting for the nine-day firearm season can begin as early as November 17 and end as late as December 1.
While the weather norms give hunters the best idea of what to expect in a typical year, it is often weather extremes that are most memorable and influence the hunt in a particular hunting season.
What weather conditions can hunters expect when pursuing deer? I researched the question to describe typical Wisconsin deer hunting weather – temperature, precipitation and snowfall data – for each day during the gun deer hunting seasons from 1950 through 1999. The data was compiled for eight Wisconsin locations: Fond du Lac, Green Bay, La Crosse, Madison, Menomonie, Superior, Waukesha and Wausau.
Late November in Wisconsin can range from almost late summer-like to wintery conditions. In some years, the weather makes a noticeable switch from autumn to winter during the deer season.
If you want one temperature to associate with deer hunting, it is 30° F. That's the average temperature for the season with average daily highs of 38° and average daily lows of 22°. Locations near Superior in the northwest are about four degrees cooler than this average, and places nearer Waukesha in the southeast are about four degrees warmer.
Although some hunters like warmer hunting temperatures, once it climbs to 50° F or higher, deer carcasses have to be dressed, cooled and moved more quickly from hunting grounds to refrigerated lockers or meat processors to avoid spoilage. Fortunately, temperatures that warm occurred only four percent of the time. Likewise, really cold temperatures (colder than 10° F) also occur relatively infrequently – only about five percent of the time.
The highest temperature recorded at the eight stations during the 1950-1999 deer hunting seasons was 72° F at La Crosse on November 21, 1990, the day before Thanksgiving. The lowest temperature was -16° F at Superior on November 28, 1976, the last day of the 1976 season.
The coldest overall deer season during this period occurred in 1985, with an average temperature of only 15.4° F. Other cold years were 21.2° F in 1951 and 21.5° F in 1977. The warmest season occurred in 1998, with an average temperature of 44.1° F at the eight recorded stations. Other warm seasons were 40.9° F in 1990 and 40.7° F in 1979.
Rain puts a damper on both hunter and deer to keep moving during the nine-day season, and movement is often a key to hunting success. Measurable precipitation (0.01 inch or greater of rain or snow) fell on 30 percent of days during the gun deer seasons I examined. Precipitation is more frequent in southern and eastern Wisconsin (35 percent of the time in Green Bay, 34 percent in Madison and less frequent in western and northern Wisconsin (Menomonie, 24 percent and Superior, 26 percent).
The average daily precipitation in this late fall time period is really light, just over 0.059 inch, which is far less that the daily average for the entire year. Of course, there are always exceptions and you may remember that the 1983 deer hunting season was a doozy – an average of 1.89 inches (rain and snow) fell at the eight stations during that year. Other years when more than an inch fell were 1952, 1965, 1973, 1985, 1991 and 1994.
At the other extreme, back in 1960, seven of the eight stations had no precipitation and the eighth had only 0.02 inch during gun deer hunting time. Other dry deer hunting seasons with an average precipitation of 0.10 inch or less included 1957, 1969, 1972, 1984 and 1998.
Small to moderate amounts of fresh snow on the ground – one to three inches – can help hunters track deer and see them better while hunting. More than this can be an obstacle. Snowstorms make deer hunting less pleasant and travel more difficult.
On the average, 16 percent of days during the season experience measurable snow – 0.1 inch or more. Southeast parts of the state (the Waukesha and Fond du Lac stations) had lower snowfall frequencies at 12 and 13 percent while more northerly locations (Green Bay and Wausau) had higher frequencies at 23 and 21 percent.
Statewide, there is a 26 percent chance of having one inch or more of snow on the ground while deer hunting during the nine-day season. The likelihood of this is much less (18 percent or less) in the southeast – Waukesha, Fond du Lac, Madison – and much higher than this (36 percent or more) in the northwest – Superior, Wausau, Menomonie.
On rare occasions, impressive snows have occurred during the season. Most stations experienced a snowfall of 10 inches or greater on a single day sometime during the deer hunting seasons of 1950 to 1999. The greatest amount was a whopping 18 inches at Superior on November 23, 1983, the day before Thanksgiving that year. Likewise, Superior had the greatest single day deer season snow depth, a hefty 25 inches on November 30 and December 1 of 1991, the last two days of the deer gun season. That 1991 season also ranked third in statewide snowfall – an average of 9.7 inches; 1985 had the most – 13.4 inches statewide; 1971 and 1977 each averaged more than six inches of snow statewide during the gun deer season.
Snow is often completely lacking during the deer season too. No snow fell at any of the eight stations in 1960, 1984, 1990 and 1998. Minor snows fell in 1967, 1972, and 1999, but not enough to accumulate on the ground.
A fine stretch of weather for hunting deer
From a weather perspective, a late November shotgun/rifle deer season that straddles Thanksgiving is an excellent time to enjoy a hunt. Most of the time, moderate temperatures in the 20s and 30s are comfortable for walking through forests and fields wearing a moderate amount of clothing. The weather usually stays cool minimizing meat spoilage and allowing time for field dressing and hanging deer before the meat has to be processed or taken to a meat locker. There is less precipitation at this time of year, certainly smaller amounts than during spring, summer, or early-to-mid-autumn. Snow falls in at least part of the state in more than 90 percent of deer hunting seasons, and stays on the ground long enough to be measurable in over 80 percent of seasons. However, on most days, any given location will not have snow on the ground.
These estimates show that deer hunting weather from 1950 through 1999 included relatively cold conditions from 1960 to 1985 as well as the relatively warm periods of the 1950s and 1986 to 1999. Climatic change in Wisconsin in future years might change those norms:
Of course, "average" weather does not occur every year. We'll continue to live with variable conditions. Whatever the weather, enjoy your hunt!
Dick Kalnicky oversees grants and contracts to clean up contaminated lands for DNR's Bureau of Remediation and Redevelopment.