Hunting upwind or downwind doesn’t have much to do with a bullet’s trajectory. It is all about whether an animal can smell your presence or not.
We are visual creatures. Soldiers tell stories of smelling the enemy in a heavy jungle before they see them, but the resulting firefight is always brought on once someone spots the enemy.
The animals we hunt have a dramatically better sense of smell than we do. That’s why washing your hunting clothes in scent-free detergent is so important.
What is also important is positioning so the wind is blowing from the animal’s position to yours.
What does it mean to hunt downwind?
Hunting downwind is a productive practice whether you’re pursuing eastern whitetails in the heavy brush of upstate New York. Chasing them in the bottomlands of Mississippi or stalking elk high in the Rocky Mountains.
Hunting downwind means you’re facing the wind as it blows from the direction of the game you’re stalking.
Hunting with the wind
A phrase I learned a long time ago in the Arkansas woods came from my grandpa. He would sometimes say, “Give it a little Kentucky windage” when someone in our hunting party took a shot at a fast-moving rabbit, or more often, a bird in flight. It meant one of two things.
On a windy day it meant accounting for a crosswind that might move your bullet a few inches with the wind. On a calm day it meant leading the animal so they ran into the bullet from the side as it arrived.
A half-century later, I deal with another style of “windage” when I’m hunting on the windswept plains of Wyoming.
A strong crosswind, and we routinely get wind 30 to 50 mph, can alter the flight of a bullet enough to miss a large target such as a deer or antelope from as close as 300 yards.
Wind Carries Scent
The slightest scent of a human can spook that monster buck. He’s lived this long and grown such a majestic set of antlers because he learned long ago to recognize the smell of a hunter.
You can be as silent as you wish, step over, or around every twig that might give your position away, and wear the latest, greatest camouflage gear, but if the buck smells you, it’s game over.
Hunting downwind takes practice, patience, and the ability to know the terrain you’re hunting in intimately. Scouting is big when it comes to hunting trophy species while aware of the prevailing winds.
If you’ve scouted an area, you know where a trophy buck or bull has been hanging out all summer. Before the opening of hunting season, you can plan your approach accordingly.
Walking blindly into an area where you spotted a bull or buck through your spotting scope from a long distance away without being aware of the wind direction is a roll of the dice. A roll of the dice that house, in this case, that trophy deer or elk is going to win almost all of the time.
Do you hunt upwind or downwind?
Given a choice, you should always hunt downwind. Upwind hunting is sometimes unavoidable, but if you have a chance, take the extra time and work around it until you have a stalking position with the wind in your face.
Hunting upwind means all those unique human aromas, from the smell of the shampoo you used this morning to that gasoline drip on your boots when you filled up the truck, are available for a wary big game animal to pick up.
Upwind doesn’t work on ridiculously blustery days. When the wind is howling 40+ miles per hour, there is little chance for an animal to pick up a scent. On the same token, they’re not likely to be out in a position for you to get a shot either.
In a strong wind, big game animals will seek shelter on the leeward side of rocks, heavy timber, or any other structure, even barns and sheds to get out of the wind.
Upwind on a day with a light breeze blowing across you towards the game is when they’ll detect you immediately. The best blinds can be thwarted by poor wind management.
How do you determine downwind?
Learning from the past
The indigenous people that lived on the Great Plains for eons before the arrival of the white man lived with the concept of upwind or downwind. If you watch an old western, the arrangement of teepees is often haphazard. In reality, they were all arranged in the same direction.
In Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas, every Oglala, Arapaho, Crow, or Cheyenne teepee had the opening facing southeast. The prevailing wind in those states is always from the northwest. This position allowed the Native Americans extra protection from the elements while greeting the morning sun each day. A perfect alignment.
Know your weather patterns
The weather patterns haven’t changed. If you’re hunting an area, you need to study the prevalent wind patterns. If it blows from the north or northwest, plan your hunt accordingly.
Information at the National Weather Service (NOAA) can provide that information for you with a few clicks through their website.
If you are a serious hunter you’ll spend hours poring over topographic maps, marking trails, and studying river drainages. You need to set aside a little extra time to determine which direction, and what the average wind velocity is in the area you’re hunting.
A simple rule to follow is if the wind blows from the west, you should begin your hunt from the east. A prevailing northwest wind means you start on the southeast corner of your hunt area and move to the northwest.
It’s a trite phrase, but many professional big game guides say it often to their clients, “Follow your nose into the wind.”
A straightforward method of finding upwind vs downwind for hunting is to use a wind checker. This is a small squeezable bottle with unscented micro powder inside. Squeezing the bottle will release a puff of powder into the air that will carry on the most subtle wind current. This is a very simple but effective method.
There are also more modern battery powered wind checkers that release smoke, like the dead down wind scout.
We have to get out of our civilized mindset when we take to the field to hunt. Wild animals don’t recognize or honor the precepts of modern life we’ve established for ourselves.
If it’s easy for you, odds are it’s not an effective method of hunting.
Working against the prevailing wind can be a challenge. You’ll get dirt, dust, even sand in your face, and your eyes. You’ll probably get a little wind burned while you’re at it.
Stealth pays off
The reward is stealth. Take the easy way with the wind comfortable at your back and you’ll broadcast your presence well in advance of any noise you make.
Scent is invisible but to carry it further than a few feet requires the wind. Let that wind work for you, not against you.