By Josh Honeycutt
Good stand locations for ambushing whitetails are derived from many things, but food sources, bedding cover, water sources and deer travel patterns are the core factors.
For me, August is the perfect time to get stands hung. Understanding how deer behavior changes throughout the season helps build a preemptive game plan for each phase and allows you to hang sets for the entire span. Sure, some tweaking might be necessary as fall edges by. But hanging stands early is all about anticipating deer behavior and movement long before it happens.
Don’t have dozens of tree stands at your disposal? No worries. You can still pick out these spots on a map, check them out, mark trees, clear shooting lanes and conduct other prep well in advance.
The Early Season
This time of year brings bachelor groups and predictable bed-to-feed patterns. No matter where you hunt, deer are pretty consistent in their behavior, especially in ag country and areas with a variety of habitat types.
During this phase, it’s all about the food. Often deer — mature bucks included — bed closer to food sources than they will later. Because hunting pressure hasn’t heavily influenced deer yet, they commonly bed in areas that provide both security and comfort, instead of just the former. It’s common to find them bedding in more open areas to catch cooling winds, as well as near water sources where temperatures are several degrees cooler.
Good stand locations thus include places around water sources and close to bedding cover. Also, agricultural field edges and inside field corners adjacent to alfalfa, (green) soybeans and freshly shelled (not chopped) corn fields are solid options. Early- season food plot plants are great, too. Chicory, clover, cowpeas, lablab and sunflowers are good choices.
Don’t bet against pockets of attractive natural vegetation, either. Deer are concentrate selectors, meaning they target the most nutritious parts of many different plants. The biggest percentage of the diet comes from browse. Depending on location, prime examples include blackberry, Japanese honeysuckle, poison ivy, honeylocust and kudzu, but hundreds of other browse plants also can be on the menu.
Toward the middle and end of this phase, disappearing velvet, disbanding bachelor groups, early- dropping hard mast and productive crops of soft mast begin taking effect on deer. As the early season wanes, a change lurks on the horizon.
The Mast Shift (AKA ‘October Lull’)
Deer are beginning to shift away from ag fields, and they’re sticking closer to cover. Deer hunters commonly label this period the “October lull,” but science says it isn’t so. Several studies, including one from Penn State Deer Study Group, have proven daytime deer movement gradually increases from summer through the rut, then tapers off.
What’s really occurring is a period of great transition. It’s a major shift in food sources — from greens to mast crops — which hunters perceive as a lull. Deer aren’t hitting big fields or other open food sources as frequently in daytime. They’re still moving, just in different places, and the current food of choice keeps them inside cover.
Now, deer are spending a lot of time around hard-mast trees. Black, burr, chestnut (oak), chinkapin, live, post, red, sawtooth, swamp, water and white oak trees are the most common acorn bearers within the whitetail’s range. Anywhere these are dropping, deer will likely be.
It’s hard to beat an oak flat in early fall. Just remember, members of the white oak family generally have lower tannin (bitterness) levels than red oaks, making them sweeter. Where both are hitting the ground, deer will likely consume the tastier options first.
Don’t forget other nut-bearing trees, such as beech, chestnut, hickory, pecan and walnut trees. Chestnuts aside, deer don’t like these as much, but they’ll eat them.
Soft mast is the secret weapon, though. It’s generally in shorter supply to begin with and doesn’t last as long as hard mast. Deer know this and target it with a frenzy I’ve never seen with other food groups.
Apples, pears, persimmons, plums, grapes and other such fruits are fair game where they grow and can make excellent spots for stand locations. As soft mast becomes scarcer, it signals the beginning of the next phase.
Testosterone is rising, and bucks are easing into their pre-rut patterns now. It’s time to shift your focus away from certain food sources, but grub is still king. During average mast production years, oaks should still be bearing fruit, but the most desirables, such as white oaks, are getting cleaned up.
Corn fields are being harvested, too, and waste grain ranks high on a whitetail’s list of food preferences. Soybean fields are turning brown (beyond the yellow stage), drying up and attracting deer once again.
Food aside, this is the perfect period to begin focusing on sign. Bucks are laying down enough rut sign to connect the dots on their preferred bedding areas, feeding destinations and water sources. Hang stands close to historical rub lines. Community scrapes that appear in the same spots from year to year and are close enough to beds to see daytime deer activity are now top candidates.
Staging areas are also solid plays. These look different from one to the next, but they’re best characterized as transitional spots between bedding areas and food sources. Brushy pockets, grassy areas, small clearings, habitat transition zones, edge cover, hidden ag fields and micro plots are all possible staging areas. These are key spots throughout the remainder of deer season.
The Rut (Pre-Lockdown)
The beginning of the rut is here, but the bulk of breeding isn’t happening yet. Still, bucks are cruising in search of the first receptive does. Certain stand locations can take advantage of this behavior better than others.
Obviously, food sources are still important. Does are going there, so bucks are, too. (And contrary to popular belief, bucks eat during the rut.) Rub and scrape lines certainly hold merit, as well. However, as daylight buck movement nears its peak, start thinking more about topographical and other land advantages that take advantage of this: benches, thermal hubs, saddles, pinch points, leeward ridges, hilltops, ridge ends, etc.
Of course, not everyone hunts areas with varying topography. In flatlands, focus more on major trails, secondary trails, trail intersections, trails paralleling food sources, secondary food sources, ditch crossings, bottlenecking timber, staging areas, oxbows, buck bedding areas, doe bedding areas, etc. Any place you know local doe family groups frequent should be considered.
The Rut (Lockdown)
Once bucks and does start pairing off, it gets difficult. Bucks hem up “hot” does in spots tucked away from other deer. Sometimes they’ll stay there for 24 to 48 hours. This can make the peak of breeding one of the most difficult times to kill a mature buck.
As such, it’s important to avoid hunting over rubs and scrapes. Deer aren’t following traditional pre- or early rut patterns. Don’t ignore extremely fresh rut sign, though. A scrape with wet soil (fresh urine) or a rub that clearly has just been rubbed can indicate a buck is still in the vicinity. These aren’t sign you can fully anticipate when hanging stands before the season, but they’re something to consider when you find them. In the moment, they can offer valuable intel when you’re trying to choose among a handful of stands placed in August.
For pre-season prep purposes, hang stands in hidey-holes and odd spots where bucks might shack up with does: brushy fencerows, brush piles, ditches, drainages, islands of trees, old home places, rock piles, secluded waterholes, small woodlots, swamps and anywhere that offers cover but won’t hold more than a couple deer.
Post-Rut and Late Season
Mature bucks are worn down but aren’t finished searching for females. A few adult does are left to be bred, and a percentage of doe fawns will soon enter their first estrus. Deep-cover lairs, doe family groups and reopened scrape lines are solid options. Reflect on years past to determine where these features might be located.
Otherwise, setups between known bedding areas (of bucks and does) and major late-season food sources serve as good places to perch. With most does bred, this is a period of recovery for many deer. Food is now of more concern than breeding.
This ushers in the late season, or the final phase of the year. Deer are pressured, beaten, bruised and hungry. They’re seeking security cover away from hunters and are focused on the last remaining high-calorie food sources. Waste grain, standing crops, food plots, winter forbs and woody browse are primary food sources for most deer. It’s a good time to place stands in cedars and other coniferous trees for good scent and visual cover.
Other potentially productive stand locations include cedar thickets, cutover timber, CRP, pinch points along natural barriers, islands, marshes, oxbows, solitary trees, swamps, standing crops and timbered slopes.
Don’t overlook low spots leading into open fields, as thermals suck scent from surrounding areas down into these low-lying field entry points. Often in colder climates and hilly terrain deer spend most of their daylight hours on southerly and easterly slopes.
No matter the time of year, the best stand locations share common threads. You can still score without checking every box, but the more checks, the better your odds of success.
First, all good stand locations have solid access. Entry and exit routes should shield approaches and departures, keeping deer from seeing, hearing or smelling you. It’s a bonus if the prevailing wind blows in the same direction as the entry route. This decreases risk of detection.
Prevailing wind directions also matter independently. Ensure that preferred wind directions won’t blow scent from the stand location to the area deer will likely come from (or go to). Think about these things in relation to how deer travel the landscape, as well as the time of year you’ll hunt the spot.
Planning to target mature bucks? Just-off winds improve your odds. Allowing a deer to think it has the wind advantage — while your scent is drifting just to the side of it — gives the animal a false sense of security. But you have to know exactly how deer maneuver the landscape to get away with it, and your setup must be placed accordingly.
So, you fooled their noses, but what about their eyes? Good stands have at least shoulder-width back cover and don’t leave you skylined. Stand where deer will likely frequent and look up where the stand might go. If you see sky, don’t put one there. And even if you take this precaution, remember that things can change once leaves fall.
Bow stands shouldn’t be right over the top of trails. This produces too sharp a shot angle, reducing the likelihood of a double-lung hit. Instead, hang no closer than 10 to 15 yards — and no farther than 40 — from expected travel routes.
Also, take advantage of directional deer traffic. Set up for close encounters by using natural barriers and funnels such as rivers, lakes, streams, saddles, pinch points, etc. Man-made elements to steer deer can include fence gaps, dams, brushpiles, etc.
Maximizing Stand Locations
Always hang a tree stand so that the platform and seat are level or slanted slightly toward the trunk. Never hang a stand that leans out away from the tree. Also make sure all contact points are cushioned. This decreases noise potential.
Hide stands by adding cover around them. Don’t weave it into the stand itself, but strategically tie off branches and other forms of cover to the tree around it. Additional cover under the platform, to the sides of the stand, and around the tree trunk helps conceal.
Also, if it isn’t already present, and if you have landowner permission to do so, create entry and exit route cover. You can do this by planting screens, such as cedars, corn, Egyptian wheat, switchgrass, giant miscanthus, etc. Rake away sticks, leaves and other debris along these routes, too.
Use practical methods to position deer for the shot. Don’t be afraid to manufacture bottlenecks, create mock scrapes, plant scrape trees, place horizontal rub posts and implement other legal means of increasing good shot opportunities.
Trim shooting lanes, but be sure you don’t cut too much. It’s easy to take off more than necessary when summer vegetation is thick.
And for those who aren’t confident judges of yardage, it might not hurt to add shot-distance markers. Have designated ribbon colors for every 10 yards of range out to your personal limit. Or match ribbon color distance to your bow site pin colors. Placing these at various spots around your stand can eliminate having to range a deer in a fast-paced situation that doesn’t give you a chance to pull out your rangefinder.
Truth be told, we can provide generalized and formulaic (yet accurate and dependable) advice on stand locations and optimization all day long, but there’s still no substitute for in-the-field scouting. Use this game plan as a foundation to build on, then make your own magic happen this bow season. It’s knocking on the door.