July 05, 2016
Reminiscent of a nerve-wracking scene from the blockbuster movie "American Sniper" — minus the threat of return fire, that is — I watched the river crossing from my elevated, grassy hide on an adjacent riverbank.
The wide river flowed fast in some reaches, dawdled in others. The crossing below me was one of the slower stretches and crisscrossed with sandy shoals. Ice chunks drifted with the current. The sandbar provided whitetails the footing, and confidence, to cross there.
I'd watched this spot the previous season and knew at any moment a deer from the far side of the river could emerge from cover, ready to wade across to a different venue.
Falling in and out of hunting focus, I finally picked up my Nikon rangefinder and pinpointed a handful of likely shooting locations, thinking out encounter scenarios to pass the time.
As I laid the rangefinder back down in the grass and propped my prone body a bit higher for another routine scan of the crossing, the outline of a buck disappeared into the bankside willows. Was that wishful thinking...or had I really just seen a buck preparing to cross?
ALL SORTS OF CROSSINGS
Whitetails funnel toward dependable and speedy crossings to get from point A to point B. Water crossings are some of the most consistent for channeling them into an exact location, but don't ignore other possibilities on a property.
Fences and even the paths taken to cross busy human byways can be used for ambushes. Trails are great, but your best bet to put a buck right in the crosshairs could be to hunt a crossing of some description. Let's discuss some of these in more detail.
When of the sort described above, water crossings can offer ideal ambush hotspots. Unfortunately, too many times the terrain doesn't provide rugged enough topography to funnel deer through well-defined locations.
Gentle banks, shallow water and generally easy travel let whitetails cross without difficulty. Your mission is to find crossings that are more sharply defined.
Look for areas with steep, muddy inclines and then find the path of least resistance whitetails use to access the other side via water crossings. Old beaver trails, bank cave-ins and sandbars often provide them with the stairstep structure to access crossing sites without bailing off a bank like a skydiver. Deer will use these terrain features to lead them to safer, easier crossing locations.
Fresh tracks and years of wear evidence seen in deep grooves in the bank support that deer prefer specific crossing locations. When you stumble across such a spot, scout it and determine prevailing winds.
A downwind location and a tree or other ambush site allowing you to shoot soon after a deer pops up from the bank is ideal. Whitetails often stop and look over the new scenery right after crossing, then proceed on. This gives you a short window for a shot before the deer starts traveling again.
If you can't find a single heavily used crossing, look for waterway features deer might seek out for comfortable crossings. As you study river and creek behavior, you'll notice that as water flows it sweeps around corners with increased speed, creating erosion and a generally deeper channel.
When the flow then straightens out, it slows and starts to deposit the eroded material, resulting in shallower stretches. Deer look for these areas to avoid being swept downstream or having to swim, rather than wade.
Whitetails, like most other mammals, don't mind a swim now and then. Many of you have witnessed them swimming across rivers, lakes or ponds. There's even documentation of whitetails seen swimming five miles out in the Atlantic Ocean. Still, they prefer easy travel, and a serious dog-paddle workout isn't at the top of the "easy" list.
One of my favorite locations to home in on is a beaver dam. These miracles of beaver busyness create a deep end of the pool on the backside of the structure, but the opposite side has a shallow, sometimes dry character perfect for deer crossing zones. You might even stumble across a dam that's been in place for years and is packed with enough mud to form a trail-bearing platform deer will cross.
Survey these carefully. Look for all trails that converge at the site and focus on those having the highest abundance of traffic. Steep banks, dense brush and openings all provide pinch points to push whitetails into ambush hotspots.
I hunted one property for a dozen years or more, and my go-to tree stand was right above an active beaver dam. Deer routinely crossed the face of the dam and the shallow water immediately below it. Even if they didn't cross, they always seemed to converge near the location, as if waiting to see which other deer might show up at the crossing throughout the day.
I've lost count of how many bucks I bushwhacked with bow and rifle at that spot. I'm always scouting for beaver dams on new properties.
You've undoubtedly torn at least one new pair of camouflage pants while crossing a barbed wire fence on a hunt. It's hard not to, with some estimates placing the miles of barbed wire at 52 billion. With that much wire crisscrossing North America, we all should pay attention to where whitetails slip past these perimeters.
"Whitetails funnel toward dependable and speedy crossings to get from point A to point B. Water crossings are some of the most consistent for channeling them into an exact location, but don't ignore other possibilities on a property."
Although barbed wire is often used for security, agriculture still accounts for 90 percent of its use. Fences surround most fields, and they often extend well beyond a field's edge into the forest or adjacent pastures. Whitetails evolved in a forest environment, but despite their seeming ability to jump anything and everything in their way, they still seek out the path of least resistance.
Are you seeing a pattern here? Now look for the pattern of fence-line crossings.
Deer have no issues with jumping a fence, but as they roam from forest to field and back, they look for easy ways to get past tightly strung wires. These crossings come in a variety of forms, and you need to put your fence detective game into play.
Begin by walking fences on your hunting property in the pre-season. You'll be looking for any fence damage and associated trails indicating deer have discovered it. Whitetails seek out fences with missing/sagging wires, gaps underneath and gate openings. Some of these might be seasonal, while others are all but permanent, such as forgotten pasture fences no longer needed to restrict livestock.
If you review maps and satellite images, such as those on popular programs such as ScoutLook Weather, note the location of field edges, rugged terrain and waterways. Of course, whitetails will be traveling to fields for food, and any fence irregularities could create a consistent crossing pattern.
Rugged terrain such as coulees and gullies almost always result in a gap at the bottom of the draw where whitetails can easily slip under without expending extra calories to catapult over a fence. And waterways have the tendency to wash out fences during the rainy season, thus leaving a dry travel route when water recedes.
If a gate blocks the opening to a prime food source, one simple solution to attracting whitetails to a particular crossing is to open it. (First ask landowner permission, obviously.) Deer have no aversions to jumping, but they don't mind walking an extra 40 yards to cross through a gate if it leads to their final destination. And if you can't find any good options, ask the landowner if you could wire up a fence.
By simply tying a wire up and another down, you can create a hole large enough for any deer to slip through. Do this by a major trail and it's almost a guarantee deer will start using the hole instead of jumping the fence. Do so in the preseason and monitor the site with a trail camera to confirm high usage.
In Montana's Big Sky Country, it can be mind boggling trying to pattern open-country whitetails. Outfitter Bill Perkins pointed me in the direction of a fence to narrow down the selections.
Whitetails often coursed from the nearby river with no apparent rhyme or reason as to where they'd show up, but they all funneled to a nearby alfalfa field, which was guarded by a tightly strung fence to keep cattle from devouring the crop.
One part of the fence had been damaged by a fallen cottonwood limb weeks earlier. Lackadaisical deer had discovered the downed wire and were using this new crossing consistently. It took three days of intensive surveillance, but finally a mature buck stepped from the cover and headed for that crossing. I ended his journey before he could pack away any more pounds of alfalfa.
Scouting for crossings is physically demanding and time consuming. But there's one type of crossing that doesn't take nearly as much time to find. In fact, you can do it while on your way to work. Your goal is to find deer crossing signs near your hunting property or land you hope to hunt in the future.
Why? You don't really believe highway department personnel put up deer crossing signs at random intervals, do you? No. Signs are placed in consistent locations of car-deer collisions, and where highway crews routinely collect carcasses from recent collisions, often not reported.
And you'd better take advantage of these signs soon. Despite an annual tally of 1.26 million deer-car collisions per year (as reported by State Farm Insurance), most drivers ignore the signs. Research by many states suggests the signs don't effectively reduce driver speed. As a result, some states — Minnesota for example — are even phasing out the signs.
They can be effective for hunters, though, for they clearly point out crossing locations that have proved consistent over time. Some of these sites might be obvious, but others are missing telltale terrain features indicative of whitetail travel routes.
Hollows, coulees, rivers and creeks rank high on the department of transportation sign detail. Whitetails follow these depressions for ease in travel and concealment within ribbons of cover. A good indicator of this phenomenon is clearly seen along major highways. In fact, along South Dakota's segment of Interstate 90 almost every roadside low spot includes high fencing to halt deer from crossing on traditional trails.
Every so often you'll see a deer crossing sign in the middle of nowhere and question its placement. But remember: government workers follow rigid guidelines. Deer might be traveling to a food source, bedding cover or even following an irrigation canal that doesn't register to the eye.
Regardless of why deer are ending up as hood ornaments, scout signed areas for hunting potential. But should you set up a stand in the right of way? Depending on the amount of traffic along a route, you'll likely want to move into the woods and away from commuter distractions. Deer often hasten to cross once they near a road, thus possibly causing you to rush a shot. If you set up 100 or 200 yards away from the pavement, the deer might actually pause to assess what's going on ahead with traffic.
BACK TO THE RIVER
Having caught a glimpse of that buck from my river bottom sniper perch, I went on high alert. The shadowy apparition disappeared back into the willow thicket without crossing. Would the specter show again?
Before I had a chance to consider the possibilities, a doe shot from the willows. I figured she was the reason for the peek-a-boo buck. Sure enough, a second later he was back. Through the scope, I assessed him as a shooter.
Darting back into cover, the buck virtually disappeared; all I could make out was the tips of his rack. Just then, the doe decided to escape his harassment by crossing the river. Again he bolted from cover to cut her off, but this time he stuck his neck out too far. I belted him with a 180-grain Hornady SST bullet.
The happiest possible ending to the story would involve me walking up to the mature buck lying dead in the willows. And it almost happened. But when I toppled him, he fell at the head of a slippery beaver trail that led to the crossing. As a result, in a death kick he splashed into the icy river below before I could get there. Still, I had to smile at my crossing success.