This is a year of transition in the atmosphere and the result will have major implications for hunters across the West. We’re coming off a super-El Nino event that dominated the Pacific Ocean last fall and winter – one of the strongest on record – and could be diving right into a super- La Nina event by the time fall 2016 big-game seasons get underway.
By way of review, an El Nino event is an extended period of above-average sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. It typically increases easterly trade winds and allows strong storm systems to roll into the West Coast of the U.S. with abundant moisture. The storms then usually roll across the Southwest and southern states before hooking northeast up the Atlantic Coast. The 2015-2016 event was incredibly strong and of an intensity seldom seen. This resulted in a changeup pitch for meteorologists by bringing storms ashore farther north and moisture was abundant across Washington, Oregon, Idaho and northern Nevada. Colorado and Wyoming got a lot of snow late, thanks to a couple of whopper snowstorms during the spring. While the Southwest benefited from above-average precipitation last October-December and received some relief from drought conditions in the region, the bulk of precipitation during the last half of winter shifted north and left the Southwest with a deficit once again.
La Nina weather patterns across the U.S. are opposite from those of an El Nino and that’s what’s in store September through December of this year. Most of the forecast models have us entering a La Nina event over the summer and project a strong La Nina to be in place by hunting season. This should cause a large ridge to form in the atmosphere over the Gulf of Alaska and western North America. That pattern would result in a cold and snowy winter from the Dakotas to the Northeast but keep weather milder and drier than average this fall west of the Rockies and south of a line from San Francisco to Denver. Such a pattern would also mean a wetter-than-average hunting season in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and western Montana.
The last time we had a significant transition from El Nino to La Nina over a summer into fall was back in 2010. Looking at what weather was like across the west during the 2010 hunting seasons provides partial clues about what weather may be like across the West this fall. Taking all this information into account, here is a state-by-state look at how things are shaping up for weather to impact wildlife and antler growth across the West.
Washington: La Nina weather patterns usually bring the southern branch of the Pacific jet stream ashore between northern California and British Columbia. Think of the jet stream as a fast-moving river of air high in the atmosphere that steers storm systems, meaning the main storm track will be aimed at the Pacific Northwest during fall 2016 hunting seasons. That means a lot of rain and snow (depending on temperatures and elevation), especially between the Cascades and the Pacific. All of Washington in that area already has above-average soil moisture, as does the southeast corner of the state. Normal soil moisture conditions across central Washington entering the summer season should ensure that the drought much of the state endured in recent years is over. With adequate to surplus soil moisture across the state, plants of all varieties should thrive all summer long with early hunting seasons presenting hunters with a lush green environment in forested areas and much lower fire danger in traditionally drier parts of the state. Forage for game animals will be plentiful and crops across Washington should do well this year, allowing for ample nutrients needed for good animal health and antler development. With food and water everywhere, hunters can anticipate having to do a lot of stalking to find the trophy bucks and bulls they seek. If animals are pressured or disturbed in one area, there is nothing to prevent them from literally moving on to greener pastures. For success, hunters will need to understand and know animal movements within their tag areas intimately and that means a lot of time spent scouting, checking trail camera footage and mapping out how game is moving within the zone. The key will be anticipating where your trophy will be during the hunt and getting into position before he arrives. If you should jump him and not get a shot, that’s where all your pre-hunt research will come into play because you’ll have a good idea as to where he’ll be heading. Do plan on hunting in rain or snow and outfit yourself with the best waterproof gear head to toe. One good thing about hunting in wet conditions such as those forecasted is that the sound of falling rain will muffle the sound of your approach, as will the moist, soft ground. Visibility may not be the best in fog and drizzle, so be ready to take a quick, close snap-shot if one is presented. It may be a bit drier due to the rain-shadow effect just east of the Cascades for a few miles. If your tag allows, consider hunting anywhere along a line from the Columbia River northeast of The Dalles, Oregon to Palmer Lake near the Canadian border.
Oregon: This state is entering the summer months even wetter than Washington. The drought is over and NOAA classified conditions across much of the state east of the Cascades as having “extremely moist” soil conditions in mid-May. Parts of the state north of a line from Salem to the southern Wallowa Mountains had near normal soil moisture. La Nina weather patterns favor wet fall and winter seasons for Oregon so there will be no shortage of food and water for game animals with La Nina already showing signs of developing in May. That bodes well for excellent antler growth and game animal health. Your hunt will be a bit more challenging that recent years when you could set up an ambush next to a water source and wait for your trophy to come to you. This year, he can drink from every water source around and the chances are your buck or bull might even know of a few you don’t. That’s why the extent to which your hunt will succeed this year will depend on pre-season scouting and research. By fall the weather should be much wetter and cooler that it has been across the state in recent years. You’ll need waterproof outerwear and footwear. There’s a high probability you’ll face low visibility in rain, snow, fog or drizzle at some point during your hunt so make sure your optics are up to par to prevent fogged lenses. I expect snow to come early this fall to the higher elevations from Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson all the way south to Mt. Mcloughlin and that may push deer and elk to lower elevations earlier that the last few seasons. If this La Nina event is strong, and indications are that it will be, then it’s likely to be wetter in the north half of Oregon this fall than the south. The area between North Bend and Grants Pass west of I-5 could provide some great opportunities. East of the Cascades, consider the Harney Basin – especially the area between Highway 97 on the west, Highway 95 on the east, Highway 20 on the north and the Nevada state line. With precipitation shifting north as fall progresses, the rolling terrain in the area I’ve described may not be as hard on you or your gear while still affording a chance for a wall-hanger. With preparation and patience, you will prevail.
California: While La Nina patterns bring abundant moisture from Washington south into far north California, they typically leave the southern two thirds of the state drier than normal. Even with good snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Range over the winter and spring, drought conditions still persist in southern California and are forecast to continue or intensify this fall and winter. You may have seen new stories about increased contact between humans and wild animals across southern California recently as coyotes, bears, mountain lions and even wild hogs move in on suburban areas in search of food and water. The environment south of a line from San Francisco to Mammoth Lake will be challenging for wildlife from a weather perspective as everything dries out this summer. Fire danger will increase and what game there is will be easy to locate near whatever watering holes are left by summer’s end. La Nina’s development should bring better hunting opportunities to far north California, north of a line from Mendocino to Lake Tahoe. Your best shot at a trophy will likely be as close to the Nevada and Oregon borders as you can get north of I-80 and east of I-5. That’s where drought conditions won’t be as severe and the prospects for rain during the fall will be better. But if your tag is for central or southern California, try to find water sources and monitor them with trail cameras during the summer. With so much snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains heading into spring, your best bet south of the areas I mentioned is likely to be east of the Central Valley near the base of the higher mountains on their west slopes. Game will likely be coming down to follow what runoff remains by fall and seek food in the orchards and farm fields adjacent to the hills where there was enough water to produce a good crop.
Nevada: The state associated with gambling will carry that reputation into the hunting realm this year. In spite of generous winter and spring snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, U.S. federal agencies still classify the western half of the state as being in severe to extreme drought conditions. Odds tip further away from optimal conditions when you consider a typical La Nina pattern in the Pacific usually means above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation for Nevada. But the Northeast quarter of Nevada is not currently listed as being in a drought situation and for those willing to stake a hunt’s success on a bet, the actual transition period between El Nino and La Nina patterns underway now could keep conditions green enough to supply game animals with needed nutrients and forage to develop good horns and antlers. As of this writing, the NOAA outlooks were trending toward near-normal rainfall north of I-80 from the Black Rock Desert across the Santa Rosa and Independence Mountains to the Utah border during late summer and fall. Everything will depend on how quickly the atmospheric transition takes place, but were I a betting man wanting to know where the best odds for a successful Nevada hunt this year are, I’d gamble on the high country east of the Independence Mountains, the northern Ruby Mountains or the northernmost ends of the Eagan and Schell Creek Ranges. These are forecast to be the areas least likely to be severely impacted by drought this year and most likely to contain decent browse and forage for wild game. If the coming La Nina repeats the weather pattern of 2010, there’s even a long shot gamble the places I just mentioned could get above-average rainfall this fall. Regardless of precipitation, the fall should bring above-average temperatures so be ready for some warm days and cool nights as you plan your gear. As to game location, spending some time on high ground with a spotting scope this summer should reveal animal movements in the later day as they head down in search of water. Be mindful of the switch to downslope thermally induced winds though. They’ll usually kick in 60-90 minutes before sunset and could betray your location if you worked up a sweat getting to the high vantage point. I suggest scent-suppressing garments even during pre-season scouting in order to keep game guessing as to the whereabouts of the area’s apex predator.