Hunting Bedding Areas — Risk Vs. Reward
June 15, 2017
With first light beginning to break against the eastern horizon, I eased into the creek channel with my hip waders on. Unseasonably high levels of rain the past three weeks had turned the creek's typical ankle-deep trickle into a constant muddy flow, and with some holes reaching as deep as five feet in some places, the typical rubber boots weren't sufficient. I had learned this the hard way a few days prior, which quickly put an end to an evening hunt. Prepared this time, I eased against the creek's flow for about 150 yards and slipped up the steep bank to my stand.
I only hunt this setup on special occasions, and today was one of those times. It wasn't my birthday, anniversary or any other celebratory day of sorts that we typically note on a calendar, it was however, the tail end of the first week of November and a cold front had just barreled through the evening before. For a whitetail hunter, it's a day worth celebrating and I eagerly climbed the stand in anticipation. The rut was in full swing, and this stand was positioned on the downwind edge of a primary doe bedding area, and there simply was no place I would have rather been at that moment.
Deer typically didn't start arriving until the first hour or so past shooting light, and this day was no different. As if I had written the script, a solitary 2-year-old buck suddenly appeared and slowly sneaked beneath my stand. Pausing every few steps to scent check the light northwest breeze, this buck was was obviously in November mode. Even though his 8-point frame still needed a couple years to mature, I still enjoyed watching his November senses work in overdrive as he moved out of sight.
As the minutes ticked past, I began to see the broken outlines of deer trickling in as they made their way to the core of the bedding area. Grabbing my rattling horns and grunt tube, I put them to work. The clash of bone and the rumble of grunts cut through the silence of the cold November morning; and after about 30 seconds of this fictitious woodlot rumble, I traded the horns for my bow. In no time a young 7-point wandered in with head cocked looking for trouble, and he was quickly followed up with a slightly larger 8-point a few minutes later.
Several young bucks and does eased by within bow range throughout the morning but it wasn't until he appeared that I thought my luck was about to change. I knew the buck well and figured that he would eventually make an appearance, so when he eased out of sight I grabbed the horns again and cracked them together. In a matter of seconds he reappeared through the screen of brush; and although trail camera photos told me he was mature, seeing him on the hoof was a different story.
His 10-point frame was solid, and it would no doubt match the 170-inch brute that my cousin killed on the same farm the previous season. With each step he came more into view, and I slowly prepared for the shot. Sixty yards quickly melted into 40, but when he paused his vitals were hidden from view. He stared in my direction for over a minute, and I hoped with each passing second he would take just one more step to open the way for my arrow. However, it wasn't meant to be. With no interloper seen he eventually turned and walked away, leaving me with another red zone bedding area experience to remember.
When locating and hunting doe bedding areas, attention to detail is a must. Ideally, you want to find them well-before the season begins. One of the best times to scout them internally is at the end of the season when alerting deer will not be a factor. This will allow you to note primary beds, travel patterns within, rut activity and possible hazards to avoid when hunting in the future.
Unlike stands located near funnels, ridges or other common travel corridors, bedding areas are more general in nature so it tends to be more difficult to predict how deer will enter them. These dense-covered areas can be as large as a few acres or as small as a back yard, and there's usually no rhyme or reason as to how they will be used during the day. Deer may bed in a particular area one day, and then in a different spot the next based on wind direction, weather, pressure or mood. Because of this, the only safe and effective stand location is on the downwind edge.
Just like the stand location in the opening story, it was positioned mere feet from the downwind edge of a bedding area where two creeks merged together. The banks of the creeks were cut steep, at least 8-feet tall in some places, which forced me to use a root wad to climb the bank to get to the stand. Also, because the stand was tucked next to where the creeks intersected, the deer generally cut the corner when skirting the edge, putting them 10 to 15 yards in front of me.
Ideally, it would be best to hang stands in these locations well-before the season, but if that's not possible, use a strong 20 to 30 mph wind to your advantage to help mask noise and movement, as well as disperse scent. Another option is to go upwind and allow your scent to filter through the bedding area. This will move the deer out of the area naturally, without them actually seeing you in their bedroom.
If it's private ground that receives minimal human intrusion, this will not have a significant impact and they will naturally get back into their same routine. However, it's critical to get in and get out quickly, only penetrate the bedding area downwind edge.
Picking the right bedding area is also critical. Although all bedding areas will hold deer, not all are created equal for hunting. The real chess match is not finding a bedding area that holds the most family groups of does, but finding ones that allow you to get to and from your stand without alerting its residents. Regardless of how good it looks or how big the buck is you're targeting, it will not be a great stand if you can't hunt it, access it or exit it without being detected.
With the use of aerial photos and some boots on the ground scouting, study possible routes to and from bedding areas. If there is no fool proof way to gain access or exit them undetected, move on to the next one. Creeks, ditches and thick ribbons of cover are excellent terrain features to look for when determining which bedding areas to target. Not only do these features hide your approach, but just as important, they also give you an optimal exit route when its time to call it a day.
Keep in mind also that using ditches and creeks as your travel route may require some preseason preparation. Often times these areas are prone to heavy lay-downs, log jams and thick brush that needs to be removed before the season begins in order to keep unwanted noise to a minimum. Also, cleaning them up makes it easier to travel in the dark.
Lastly, when picking the right bedding area, consider where the prominent feeding areas are so you can determine the likely direction the deer will be going during the morning and evening hours. Ideally, you want to approach these stands when the wind is blowing from the most prominent feeding area towards the bedding area. Only hunt this stand when the wind is right and always approach it from a downwind angle so you can slip in the back door.
The most exciting time to hunt a bedding area, and perhaps the best time to anchor a gagger buck, is during the early and late phases of the rut. Bucks will be on their feet checking the downwind edge of multiple bedding areas throughout the day.
Besides the rut, other opportunities occur during the early season, on heavily hunted public ground when bucks tend to limit their daylight movement and when bucks seem to disappear during October. This is when it's best to focus on buck bedding area. Although a doe and buck bedding area can be one in the same, they typically do not bed together and will often have different travel patterns to and from them. Also, mature bucks tend to bed in different bedding areas as well, but the same downwind edge tactics should be used when locating and hunting them.
Finding these buck bedding areas takes a lot of summer scouting, a heavy dose of trail cameras and arial photos in an effort to study every possible detail and travel corridor a buck tends to use. Unlike rut hunts which can take place all day, these tend to exclusively be afternoon affairs because mature bucks will typically be bedded once first shooting light arrives. Furthermore, targeting them after an afternoon rain storm, or any significant weather change, can be extremely effective.
Finally, because there is more inherent risk involved when hunting any bedding areas compared to other stand locations, these setups can easily be over-hunted. Even when taking extreme precautions with stand preparation, scent management, scouting, access and wind direction, these stand locations should only be hunted on a limited basis. Personally, I tend to only hunt them twice during a 7-day period, and in some circumstances once a week will be enough. Your first hunt will more than likely be your best, so use it when conditions are optimal.