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.
FUNNEL FACTOR NO. 3
Although topography plays a huge role in dictating deer movement, so does the vegetation that is present wherever you are going to hunt. We all know that mature whitetails survive by hiding in and moving through thick cover, so paying attention to the vegetative cover is extremely important. Remember: the thicker the cover in a funnel, the more likely it is that a mature buck will roam there.
Two seasons ago while hunting a funnel that wasn’t created by topography, but instead by vegetation, I
harvested a 12-point buck that grossed 150 inches. My stand sat in a wooded corridor that was only 50 yards wide. To the east of my stand were two harvested crop fields, and to the west were a large pond and a huge open field. But running to the north and south was a section of timber and brush that would provide cover for any animal that wanted to stay out of sight.
Hunting season had been open for a week, and there was very little chance that the buck I harvested was going to leave the security of cover to enter one of those open fields during shooting hours. Sure enough, that mature animal carefully remained within the cover of the forest as he cruised for does that morning.
By obtaining and studying an aerial photo of your hunting ground, you will be able to notice the funnels that are created by trees, brush, tall grass or other cover. If you are hunting an area that is primarily open, whether it’s open prairie or open forest, finding a section of heavier cover usually means you’ve found a funnel for buck traffic. Spend some time looking over the aerial photo of your hunting land and highlight or circle the funnel areas that are caused by thin strips of cover that deer might utilize as they travel.
Another interesting thing about funnels created by vegetation is that you can often manipulate the habitat to create your own deer highways. If you simply cannot find any funnels of cover on the aerial photo of your hunting ground, you might want to consider constructing some of your own. You can do this in a number of ways, but it usually boils down to either planting security cover or cutting down some existing cover.
If your hunting area lacks any real protective cover, think about strategically planting some thick stuff that can funnel buck movement in the years to come. The most important thing to consider before you start planting is this: Where are the deer moving from, and where do they want to go? Once you answer this question, you’ll know where the best place to create a funnel of vegetation will be. Then, simply select whatever type of cover best suits the situation, and plant it. The best vegetation might be a selection of warm-season grasses, pine seedlings, blackberries or whatever else you feel is most appropriate.
The second option, clearing out some cover, is best suited for areas that have an overabundance of cover. If you are hunting a large, overgrown field that is full of thick growth, consider cutting the majority of it while leaving one or two strips of funnel cover. Sometimes, though, it is even better to leave almost all of the cover so that the deer continue to feel secure, but clear a small path through the heart of the vegetation so that the animals can walk through the midst of it while passing directly by your stand.
I recently read about a hunter who commonly used his machete to clear a path through the densest thicket he could find. When he did this, the bucks continued to live and move in the area due to the security they felt, but they were much easier to hunt because they now had a travel path that guided their movements in and out of the thicket. If you know of a spot like this, simply pick your stand site and then clear a narrow walkway through the cover that passes within shooting range.
FUNNEL FACTOR NO. 4
IDENTIFY THE SUPER FUNNELS AND HUBS
You’ve found a promising hunting location when you find a spot where the topography alone creates a deer funnel. You’ve also found an area of good potential when the vegetative cover guides deer movement. But the most promising areas, of course, are spots where both the topography and vegetation work together to funnel deer movement. I call these areas “super funnels.”
Before you even enter the field in the pre-season to scout, place both your topo map and your aerial photo image side by side and see if you can locate one or more areas where the terrain and the cover work together to form a funnel. If you can find a spot like that, you should enjoy a lot of action come hunting season!
There is also one other way to use your map research to identify one of the greatest hotspots of all: the “hub.” A hub is an area where multiple funnels converge. It might be in a creek bottom where several valleys come together, each with its own deer trail. Or it could be at the end of a ridge where multiple fingers branch out in different directions. The bottom line is that it’s a spot where deer coming from several directions will all pass through. If you find a location like that, make sure your bow or gun is sighted in and ready to go, because you should have some great shot opportunities when the season opens!
FUNNEL FACTOR NO. 5
IT’S UP TO YOU
So you’ve found a spot or two where the topography and vegetation work together to create a super funnel, or you have identified a hub area where multiple funnels converge. The next step, of course, is to get out of your house and into the field to check them out. As you begin your scouting efforts for the coming season, focus your initial attention on those potential hotspots. More than likely, your map homework will have paid off and you will have found some great areas to hang your stands in. But if for some reason the actual deer sign in those areas is not that impressive, simply move on to the next funnel area you’ve noted on your maps.
Of course, keep the seasonal tendencies of the bucks you’re hunting in mind as you pick stand locations. In the early and late portions of the season, bucks will most often be found using travel corridors that move from bedding thickets to food sources. Throughout the rut, these food-related funnels will lose some of their appeal, and the animals will focus their travels through funnels that put them in the best positions to scent and see does. Regardless of the seasonal timing, though, funnels draw lots of deer.
Dr. Larry Marchinton, one of the country’s prominent deer researchers, says, “Regardless of the time of year, the best place to take a buck from a tree stand is in a funnel area. Even if you’re hunting during the rut, you’ll see the most deer and have the best chance to bag a buck if you can find a funnel that has scrapes on both ends of it.”
Once you’ve found a promising area with lots of good deer sign, the final funnel factor to remember involves something that you can control. It goes without saying that you cannot harvest a trophy — or any deer — if you’re not in the field to see it, so make sure you’re in your stand as much as possible once the season opens. When the wind is in your favor, sit in that funnel as long as you can. You’ve done your homework, and you understand why bucks use these travel corridors like they do. Once you’re in your stand, remind yourself that it’ll only be a matter of time before the topography and the security of the cover in that funnel will bring Mr. Big right to you!