December 06, 2016
When I was 15, my father and I got permission to bowhunt a dairy farm in southeastern Minnesota. At the time, I owned just one treestand, so I hung it and took it down every time I hit the woods. What I lacked in deer-hunting savvy at that point, I made up for with sheer energy and willingness to look over new ground.
One of the very first days I hunted the farm, I dipped down from a cornfield edge into a wooded valley and immediately noticed plenty of deer sign. I hung my stand and listened as white acorns pinged through the branches and settled into the leaf litter.
Soon I saw a buck, a young 5-pointer with a very distinct rack. To me he was a giant, and after bleating to him and missing him three times in an embarrassing meltdown, I watched him wander off through the woods. I saw other deer that night, and while I eventually hunted throughout the farm, I ended up coming back to that spot.
I didn't know it at the time, but when I finally hung a stand in a specific oak tree that sat right in the middle of all the deer traffic, I was setting what would become my favorite spot to sit. It was a serious deer producer, and it didn't matter whether we sat mornings or evenings.
Two years after we started hunting there, my father arrowed a buck that weighed 225 pounds field dressed and sported a very unique, 8-point rack that looked an awful lot like that young 5-pointer I had whiffed on.
Plenty of other deer met their fates from that tree over the years — until the landowner logged the property and took down our stand tree. It took us a few years to fine-tune the setup after that, but when we did my father scored again on a great buck. The spot doesn't look like anything special; but it is.
It's a valley that is centrally located between several agricultural fields and high bedding ridges. In other words, it's a serious travel corridor. And better than that, it is ideally situated for deer to stage at both first and last light.
When you stumble across a place like that, it truly is a gift! To have the confidence you'll see multiple deer with each sit and possibly run into a bruiser makes the whole process of hunting much more enjoyable. Finding such a perfect stand site isn't easy, however. And truthfully, such a spot might not even exist on your hunting grounds.
While that's to be determined, it's a good idea to think about rock-solid ambush locations in five different categories. What follows is a rundown of those spots, which should at least provide a starting point for finding one or more stand sites that will produce when all others are stale.
I travel a lot to hunt public land in other states, and the first thing I look for when trying to find decent deer ground is a river. Or a stream. Or a tiny meandering creek. Whatever ribbon of water is laced through the landscape, I'll start there when looking for deer action.
Even on small creeks or shallow, larger rivers, there will be places where deer like to cross. With the quality of aerial photos available today, you can almost pick these spots out without having to walk the banks. Oftentimes, depending on what part of the year the images were taken, you can see rocks periscoping from the surface and read the flow of the water.
This is a start, but walking the water is a better idea. Carved trails leading to the water's edge on opposing banks will show you everything you need to know. Deer drink every day, and in many places they'll cross a river every day.
Better yet is the fact that some of the best cover is located along moving water, and that means quality stand trees. Unless you're on a highly managed place, the best spot to look to kill a big buck is where he has to — or chooses to — cross the water.
Six years ago, I found just such a spot on a section of public land along the Little Missouri River in North Dakota. Every time I've hunted the crossings there I've shot bucks, including a couple of big, mature bucks. Consistency in action is never more reliable than on a water crossing. Find them, and you'll find bucks.
All Other Water
Every other water source out there besides moving water can provide serious deer action. My second favorite place to sit and wait for deer all season long is on ponds or small seeps.
Last year, I planned to head to some walk-in land in South Dakota that I'd never set foot on. Halloween weekend called for warmer-than-average weather, so I hit the aerial photos and found three separate ponds tucked into the hills.
The second one I scouted was littered with buck rubs and scrapes. So, I hung a stand. Three hours into the first morning, I was standing over one of the coolest non-typical bucks I've ever arrowed. Water is key, but not all water sources are created equal.
A little waterhole located out in the middle of an open pasture is not ideal. Find a similar waterhole secreted away in a wooded draw, however, and you're in business. It doesn't need to be a pond. Seeps on a hillside in bluff country will draw thirsty bucks, as will small depressions that hold water during wetter periods. Deer, like bird dogs, aren't picky about where they slake their thirst.
Unlike certain food sources, deer will hit water daily. They have to in order to survive. Even if you hunt in an area with water everywhere, there will be certain spots bucks like to hit more often than the rest. I discovered this years ago while hunting in northern Minnesota.
Water was not in short supply, but all the deer on the ground I was hunting would hit up a small cattle pond on the edge of a cattail slough. Two poplar trees provided the only chance for a treestand. Every time I sat there I had action.
Look for the water on your hunting ground that deer prefer. Once you find it, set up and get ready. And as an added bonus, you can hunt these spots when the conditions say the deer shouldn't be moving, such as those days when it feels like beach weather and not hunting weather.
I've killed a disproportionate amount of mature bucks on truly hot, miserable days simply because I'm such a fan of hunting water sources. This can be a killer tactic if you hunt public land or heavily pressured private ground.
We tend to only think of deer funnels in terms of the rut. Conventional wisdom says to find a place where the terrain forces deer movement and then wait out a cruising buck. Simple enough, but neglecting funnels for the rest of the season can be a big mistake.
Depending on where you hunt, there may be spots on your ground that force deer movement every single day of the year. This will depend on two things, however. The first involves just how steep your deer hunting spots are. The hillier the better for finding places that force deer movement.
Washouts running perpendicular on a wooded hillside will almost always force traveling deer to take the high route or the low route.
If your deer ground is flat, the best bet for a season-long funnel will involve cover or more specifically, what we think of as a pinch-point. Where the cover necks down, such as where two woodlots are connected by a thin strip of timber, will be a place where the deer choose to walk.
They don't like to leave the cover in daylight, which is especially true with mature bucks from October on, so find that place where they choose to stay in the cover but the cover doesn't amount to much. Those areas are tailor-made for bowhunting.
When you're looking for the best spot in the woods, remember it might not be in the woods at all. In most situations, if there are trees available there will be treestands and concentrated hunting pressure. This doesn't go unnoticed by the local ungulates, and oftentimes they'll relocate to areas where airborne hunters simply don't exist.
In my neck of the woods, this means wetlands and sloughs. In yours, that might mean an old homestead with no old-growth trees, or it might mean a giant CRP field that is dotted with plum thickets or patches of sumac. These places are tough to hunt, which is why the deer will be there.
Since there are no suitable trees, the best bet is to set up a ground blind and hunt the bucks at eye level. I've become a much bigger fan of hunting out of pop-up blinds in recent years and it has everything to do with spots such as these.
Get in well before the season and brush your blind in like you mean it. Do whatever you have to in order to ensure your blind looks more like the local foliage than a camo cube sitting in the wide open. It takes deer a while to get used to blinds, but once they do, it's game on.
Since these areas are more open than wooded terrain, entrance and exit routes play a serious role in how good your hunting will be. Plan how to get in and out with meticulous detail, and then follow through with it. Play your cards right and you'll have the deer all to yourself in a place others simply believe can't be hunted. That's a huge benefit that can result in a hefty taxidermy bill.
The Super Spot
So, what if you don't have a couple thousand acres to roam in search of unreal stand and blind locations? I know the feeling, considering a lot of my spots are smaller than 30 acres. In that case, conventional scouting doesn't cut it, and neither does roaming around until a killer spots appears.
In this case, it's up to you to create the best spot out there. To do this, I start with a few simple rules. The first involves the wind, and just how I'll be able to hunt a particular area when it's blowing from specific directions. The next involves the ability to sneak in and out. Without the option to play the prevailing winds and get in undetected, it's no good.
Provided a spot allows for both, it's time to think about natural food. If there are oaks or maybe an apple tree in the area, set up close. If not, or even if so, think about planting a small kill plot. It doesn't need to be anything huge; just a little area cleared out and planted as an added attraction.
If you can legally install a little ornamental pond, go for it. The sky is the limit here, and it's a small-property strategy that can pay off. This type of hunting isn't for everyone, but for hunters locked into tiny parcels it can be a great option that results season-long deer activity — provided you're cognizant of just how much pressure you put on the specific spot.
Somewhere out there is a great spot waiting for your stand or blind. It'll produce quality action when other areas are deer ghost towns, but it will also require your A-game. Don't expect to be sloppy in your efforts and maintain the pulse-pounding action you're hoping to have during every sit. Do your part, and nature will do the rest.