November 11, 2022
By Steve Sherk
When I think of deer hunting, I picture myself in a tree stand on top of a ridge, overlooking valleys of trees that are bursting with the colors of fall. Hunting in the mountains during the fall months is an amazing experience. Just viewing the scenery is enough to satisfy most deer hunters. However, mountain buck hunting is in a league of its own. The mountains create a variety of challenges that even experienced mountain hunters struggle to understand. Also, mountain bucks are just as tough as the environment they live in.
I grew up and live in the Allegheny Mountains of northern Pennsylvania. The only kind of whitetail hunting I know is in the mountains. To me, mountain buck hunting is the ultimate whitetail challenge. In my opinion, if you can kill mountain bucks, you can kill bucks anywhere.
MENTAL AND PHYSICAL CONDITIONING
I believe the most important key to success in the mountains is your conditioning, both mentally and physically. The land I hunt is only open to foot travel, so preparing yourself for long hikes and steep climbs is a must. The more you’re able to endure, the more success you will likely have. Mature bucks have learned over the years that there’s less hunting pressure in areas that are harder to access. They pattern hunters better than hunters can pattern them. However, these deer don’t always live miles deep in the mountains. They may live several hundred yards from an access road, but the terrain will be steep and rugged. They’ve learned through time that most hunters avoid those kinds of areas.
You don’t need a gym membership to prepare for mountain buck hunting. In fact, that’s the last thing I would do. The best preparation is year-round scouting and hiking. It’s a much smoother process, and it conditions you months in advance. Eventually, those brutal hikes will feel more natural to your body. Physically, you’ll feel more connected with the environment. You’ll notice less pain and effort the more you get out there. I’ve always felt that I’m killing several birds with one stone during my off-season conditioning and scouting. I can get exercise while scouting whitetails. It’s also my prayer place. I feel most connected to God when I’m in the woods.
The mental challenge of mountain buck hunting can be exhausting. Mountain bucks are extremely hard to predict and pattern, and I often find myself questioning my strategies when bucks aren’t showing up. It’s very easy to lose your confidence when the mountains aren’t productive The key is to develop a mindset that never gives up, despite the outcome of each hunt. Most mountain ranges hold very low deer densities, often less than 10 deer per square mile. So, a great stand location usually doesn’t produce a lot of action. You have to create your own vision of success and focus on it. In many places, seeing deer will help pass the time. But when you’re not seeing deer, that’s when you have to focus on your vision and your task. You imagine success happening, or else those long sits will drive you crazy. Convince yourself that eventually you’ll get an opportunity.
Mountain ranges offer the benefit of massive amounts of land to hunt. However, mature bucks often use small portions of that ground, at least outside of the rut. In over 20 years of hunting mountain bucks, I’ve learned that the absolute best place to kill a mountain buck is near his bedroom. Most bucks prefer to bed on the higher parts of the mountain. They love hillsides that offer thick cover, and they usually prefer the side of the hill rather than the top. This is where they can take advantage of rising and dropping thermals that will carry scent from other deer and predators.
I believe they also prefer upper hillsides because they get away from predators faster in these locations. If there’s danger from above, they can use the steep terrain below to get away and out of sight fast. If there’s danger from below, they can slip up over the top of the mountain and still get away quickly. Through my efforts, I’ve learned that most bucks will bed where there’s a food source within their bedroom. They love to get up and eat throughout the day; however, they don’t always choose a primary food source in combination with bedding. Most often, it’s browse sources. This makes clearcuts prime for buck bedding.
Cuts that are less than 10 years old usually have great browse, while still providing the right amount of cover for buck bedding. Many times, I’ve found a buck using a clearcut for bedding, but his primary feeding area was on another ridge. This happens a lot when you have a good acorn crop. The main feeding area will be a ridge loaded with acorns, but he will only feed there at night. His security is more important to him than being near his primary food source. He will use a secondary food source during the daytime.
You should also think about hunting pressure when searching for buck bedding. They will not bed where there’s a lot of pressure. With that being said, some mountains have a lot of road access in higher elevations. Even though most bucks prefer to bed up high, they will move lower to avoid pressure. Bedding is all about security. You can throw out all habits and tendencies when hunting pressure is involved. The top priority to any whitetail is to avoid hunting pressure.
OVERLOOKED TERRAIN FEATURES
The best part about mountain hunting is that you can use the terrain to help predict deer movement. Many people know that mountain deer generally seek the paths of least resistance. This makes saddles and benches prime targets for stand sites and predicting deer travel routes. But since I hunt nothing but public land, I’ve learned to key in on features that most hunters are overlooking. Not focusing on the same features as everyone else has helped me get away from hunting pressure. With satellite imagery being widely available, everyone is looking through the same set of eyes. But if you can focus on terrain features that aren’t often keyed in on, you can have more areas to yourself.
One of my favorite terrain features to hunt is the head of a valley. This is where I find most of the buck bedding. Unfortunately, this is where you’ll find the most inconsistent winds, but I believe that’s why mountain bucks are often bedding there. It seems like mature bucks prefer shifting winds. They like to get a whiff from different directions every now and then.
The head of a valley is often shaped like a bowl. These areas also have major thermal currents. Some of the oldest bucks I’ve encountered bedded in these bowls. Once a buck finds an area where his senses work at peak performance, he’ll use that area often. My second favorite terrain feature is ridge-top mounds. These mounds create superb buck bedding locations. Most hunters overlook how mountain bucks choose bedding locations where they have a visual advantage. A ridge-top mound is often where they’ll have the best view, and bucks take advantage of these spots. There you’ll often find multiple buck beds, since a buck will get up and feed from one bed to another throughout the day.
If I’m hunting a highly pressured mountain, I’ll rarely set up on a point or a bench. These are the most common places hunters set up. I like to look for hillside ravines. Generally, somewhere inside of a ravine you’ll have a shelf that goes through it; that’s what I’m looking for. That shelf will usually host a well-beaten deer trail. These are great rut locations to catch cruising bucks looking for the easiest way to get from point A to point B. Also, the top of the ravine can be another great pinch point. This is what I call a three-way intersect. Deer will use the sides of the ravine like a ridge; and the top of the ravine is also a major crossing, because deer will circle to the top of it to avoid crossing through the middle. Deer use the top similarly to how they use a bench.
WINDS AND THERMAL
The most frustrating aspect of mountain buck hunting is dealing with unpredictable winds. If you can’t have a consistent wind, you will have a harder time killing mountain bucks. In many areas, the wind will blow opposite of how the weather report predicted. This is caused by how the wind swirls and drifts through mountain ranges. If you were to set up a fan inside of a hallway that had various turns, the air current would likely follow the walls no matter which way they turned. That’s what happens in the mountains. The walls of the mountains channel the wind.
What I often do is note how the wind blows in many of the areas I hunt. A north wind might flow through a valley, making it turn into a west wind. You can start to pattern what the wind does in many places by paying attention to what it’s doing when you’re there. I also find more consistent wind at higher elevations, especially on ridge tops. This is where air can blow more freely and avoid obstacles which alter its direction. But the lower you go, the less predictable the wind is.
I see a lot of inconsistencies in how mountain bucks use the wind. The reason why is because mountain winds blow inconsistently. It’s almost impossible for bucks to travel using only a specific wind in the mountains. I’ve seen mature bucks move with the wind on their backs and faces, as well as with it to their side. Mountain bucks have learned that they can’t always rely on the wind for safe travels.
Thermals are another element that mountain bucks take advantage of. And thermals tend to be more consistent than the wind. A lot of buck activity correlates with the thermals. In the evening, bucks will likely drop to lower elevations as the thermals are lowering. In the morning, they’ll follow the thermals up the mountain as they rise. This gives them an advantage to smell what’s behind them while using their eyes to see what’s ahead. This is likely another reason why bucks prefer to bed up high. They can have thermal currents blowing scent to them for most of the day. Once the thermals shift and start dropping, that’s when they move down low.
Overall, I love the challenges that mountain buck hunting offers. To me, the challenge is more fun than the harvest. Mountain buck hunters will tell you that once you become a mountain buck hunter, you’ll never have it any other way!