Hunt Swamps and Water for Early Season Whitetails
September 20, 2016
Three miles north of my home acreage was a 600-acre State Waterfowl Production area with 400 acres of slough where duck hunters congregated.
Pheasant hunters worked the tall grass along the edges of the swamp and a few deer hunters would drive the 20-acre patch of timber for whitetails during shotgun season. I spent a lot of time there, trapping muskrats and mink, and occasionally hunting it for deer.
There was one buck I found in that area often. A 150-class 10-pointer, I knew him well as he could be seen feeding in the surrounding soybean fields on summer evenings, and occasionally that fall I would see him running across the open CRP fields during the daylight as the rut heated up.
The buck was shot by a bowhunter the following year on opening day of the bowhunting season. He was a beauty and I was disappointed that I didn't get him myself.
When I learned where he had been shot, I nearly fell off my chair. The hunter shot him in the swamp, while sitting on a 5-gallon pail, as the buck exited a small island. I hadn't even considered that one-acre island as a place where a buck might be found.
This took place 20 years ago, and I now live a couple hundred miles from that slough, but I looked at it on Google Earth as I was writing this piece and I can see a trail leading from the land to the island through the cattails. Some things never change.
Water is critically important in the everyday lives of whitetails; in fact, far more so than most hunters realize. This is particularly true during the early bow season when the weather is warm. Most deer bed near a source of water, and have a drink soon after rising to make the trek to their feeding area in the late afternoon.
Small secluded ponds can be dynamite locations to waylay a whitetail buck. And they have one great advantage. A scouting camera placed on the water's edge will reveal an incredible wealth of information about the comings and goings of the local deer population. It will not only inventory every buck using the pond, but it will tell you when they arrive and where they walk into the water to drink.
These small ponds can be natural or man-made, and they are deer magnets, possibly one of the most effective ways to shoot a buck during daylight in the early season.
Sometimes they are laid out perfectly for a treestand in exactly the right spot, but that never seems to happen to me. It seems like the tree that looks great for a stand is always in a spot where the evening thermals will carry my scent to the pond's edge.
You might need to get pretty creative on some stand placements and even altering the area to make it work. A ground blind placed well before the season can be the answer.
If the deer like to drink in an area where it's hard to make a shot, you can block off that side of the pond. I know one hunter who used a 4-wheeler to drag a dead tree to the water's edge to guide the deer into his shooting range.
These ponds will be visible with online aerial photos. Take the time to search for them when hunting a new area, and then check them out in person to look for tracks along the pond's edges.
Sometimes deer will spend a lot of time right in and near the water in a cool swamp. They like to bed in cattails. Water is at hand any time they need it, and they can move to a small island or hummock to lie in a dry area if they want to.
Trails will develop in these areas over time. Getting in and out of these places without alarming deer and setting up an effective ambush can be really tough. It might take some offbeat tactics, but like the friend who killed the big buck mentioned earlier, being inventive can pay off big.
I have found that streams and small ditches can be excellent places to waylay an afternoon buck early in the season. Bucks will work towards creek crossings and pause for a long drink when they arrive. Find a creek crossing between their bedding area and their feeding area, and you have found a place where you can sit for long hours in warm weather with a lot of confidence.
If you cannot find water where you would like it to be, you may be able to get constructive either on your own land or with permission from a landowner. I've known hunters to place small plastic child's swimming pools in areas where they will be used by the deer. Filling them with fresh water periodically keeps the deer coming back. When looking at a property to purchase, locations where you can build a pond dam should be taken into consideration.
Last fall while hunting with a friend in Kansas, I witnessed creativity in the extreme. When scouting cameras showed that the bucks were getting to the feeding area well after dark because of a mile-long detour to a watering hole, he brought a huge cattle tank out on a trailer and filled it with hundreds of gallons of water. The very next evening, deer were at the water before dark.
Not everyone has the equipment to go to that extreme, but you can find water where you hunt and use it to your advantage. You have probably been overlooking some excellent early-season honey holes. Keep an eye out for small ponds, creek crossings and swamps the deer have been using. They might be the location you shoot your next buck.