As my headlights lit up the gravel road in front of me, I could hardly believe my eyes. It was the opening morning of rifle season, and standing in the road — right next to the property I was about to hunt — was a tremendous buck! He turned, gracefully jumped a barbed-wire fence, and disappeared into the darkness. Thirty minutes later, as the eastern horizon was beginning to brighten, another buck moved through the same area as I watched from my stand. Then, less than an hour after sunrise, the biggest buck of the morning approached my position from the opposite direction.
You might think I was just lucky that morning, but I know differently. I had done my homework, and I was sitting in the middle of a well-used deer funnel. The three bucks I had seen were using that funnel to move through while they searched for hot does that morning.
We all know that hunting funnels are key ingredients to solving the deer-hunting puzzle. When you find a funnel in the deer woods, you greatly increase your chances of seeing and harvesting venison. To take things a step further, if you want the opportunity to harvest a true trophy buck, you must pay special attention to several important “funnel factors.”
FUNNEL FACTOR NO. 1
WHY DEER USE FUNNELS
It’s important to understand exactly why deer choose to travel through funnel areas. To begin with, a funnel is usually the easiest or most convenient path for deer to follow as they move from point A to point B. This does not always mean that it is the fastest or most direct route, though.
For example, if a deer wants to travel from its bedding area on one side of a ridge to a food plot on the other side, it probably won’t walk straight up and over the ridge, even though that would be the quickest and straightest route. Instead, the deer most likely will find the easiest path, while also being careful not to compromise its safety. In most cases, this means skirting around the peak and traveling through a saddle or bench on its way to the other side.
When we turn our attention to mature bucks, though, there is much more involved than simply following the easiest path. For the big boys, security is usually the most important factor that determines where they will — and will not — travel. For trophy bucks, this means that the funnels they follow will almost always consist of protective cover. In addition, these travel routes will often lead the animal into the predominant wind, at least slightly, so that the deer’s keen sense of smell is always in play as it moves from one area to another.
When all of these factors come together — an easy travel route, the presence of good security cover, and a travel path that utilizes the deer’s keen sense of smell — another key piece of understanding about funnels becomes clear: Deer will use these same funnels time after time, season after season, generation after generation. If you are fortunate enough to hunt the same property each season, you already know what I’m talking about. When you find an area that funnels a deer’s travel movements, it’s a spot that will probably produce results for you time and time again.
Identifying these deer highways is not only extremely helpful when it comes to hanging a stand and ambushing a buck, but it can also be very beneficial if you conduct deer drives and want to position a shooter in the best spot possible. Deer will travel through funnels when they are not pressured, and they usually choose to follow a funnel — especially if it provides cover — when they are pressured. But how do you find a promising deer funnel? Start by looking at a map.
FUNNEL FACTOR NO. 2
One of the most useful things you can do in the off-season to locate deer funnels is to get your hands on a good topo map of the area you’ll be hunting. Even if you’ve hunted the same area for years, get yourself a map if you don’t already have one. This will save you some actual scouting time later on because you won’t be stumbling around your entire hunting property in areas that probably won’t produce big bucks. Another big advantage is that when you’re sitting at home scouting with your map, you’re not spending too much time in the woods spooking the buck you hope to tag when the season opens. A map is also a great place to make observation notes and record areas where rubs, scrapes and other signposts are prominent.
Several different things can create a deer funnel, but the most obvious factor is the topography of the landscape. Ridges, gullies, rivers, flats, benches, swamps, depressions and other topographical features all dictate where deer will and will not move. I’ve already mentioned that deer will travel on the easiest route possible, if it does not compromise their safety. The three bucks I mentioned at the beginning of this article were all moving through a low spot that separated two ridges. It was a relatively easy route for them to take, and it was also relatively secure. After you have your topo map in hand, sit down with it at your desk and begin looking for features in the terrain that might guide or funnel deer movement. Here are some features to look for on your map: 1) saddles between ridge peaks; 2) long, narrow fingers that gradually descend to a valley; 3) a steep cliff that lies parallel to a stream or lake; 4) a bench on the side of a ridge; and 5) a simple low spot that cuts across an otherwise flat area. Pay special attention to the low spots and depressions that you notice. It seems that when given the choice, deer — especially big bucks — instinctively opt to move through a low spot or depression, instead of traveling on higher ground.
Study your topo map carefully and use a highlighter or pen to mark promising features. Then concentrate your scouting efforts on these areas when you enter the field. Before you begin to make too many conclusions about where to hunt based on your topo map, though, you need to spend some time thinking about vegetation.