September 13, 2011
I cut my teeth deer hunting on the steep bluffs along the Mississippi River in eastern Iowa. Even today, I consider that terrain some of the most intimidating whitetail habitat in North America. Some of the world's largest deer have come from the Mississippi corridor, and some of the largest whitetails never to fall to a hunter's bullet or broadhead still roam those hills. I learned early on that to successfully hang a trophy on your wall by hunting this part of the country, you can't be afraid of hard work and you need to have plenty of buddies with strong backs and open schedules. Here are some whitetail tactics for bluff country!
ON THE SHELF
I was shed hunting in early spring when I discovered the shelf. I had just finished crawling -- literally crawling -- through some of the thickest, thorniest cover on the property, and I had come away with a fine, 50-inch shed antler, but not without sacrificing any exposed piece of skin.
"It's no wonder the deer love that stuff," I muttered to myself as I began climbing the hill toward the ridge. Within minutes, the near-vertical climb toward the ridge had rendered me essentially exhausted, but as I staggered a few more feet upward, the ground began to level up. The ridge was still well above me, but I had discovered a few feet of level terrain running parallel to the ridge and only midway up the incline.
I elected to remain on this shelf for the time being, hoping to catch my breath. As I coursed along the winding shelf, I noticed that the trail beneath my boots was well worn and situated a few yards from where the decline dropped off toward the creek bottom below. Clearly, I wasn't the only animal using this route.
The trail basically hugged the contour of the bench-like feature as far as I could see. I began finding beds, and in a matter of 150 yards, I picked up half a dozen sheds. It dawned on me as I followed the trail that the deer could easily see down into the bottom while keeping an eye on the hillside above. They had the security they needed to feel comfortable, along with a relatively easy way to travel them ridgeline without exposing themselves. I was instantly building a plan on how to hunt there the following fall.
Ridge tops are traditional deer highways for good reason. Deer of all ages and both genders take advantage of the security provided along these travel routes because they can generally see downhill on both sides of their path, while paying attention to what is directly ahead of them. They can also adequately keep their nose into the consistent winds in an effort to detect predators. Likewise, ridgeline travel routes are another fine example of deer taking the path of least resistance.
You will often find the busiest trail down the center of the primary ridge; this is by design as it allows quick passage from bed to food or visa-versa.
The same applies to the bottoms. Deer often prefer to move along rivers or bottoms that allow them to use their senses as a defense against ambush. By finding the perfect combination of cover to move through and open enough terrain to adequately survey what is ahead, it is easier for the deer to maintain their safety.
Where these two dominating terrain features meet is known as the "shelf" or "bench." Understanding how the deer use this terrain feature during their daily travel habits is essential to selecting productive stand setups in timber scenarios. But it's not as simple as picking a nice tree within easy bow range of a heavily used trail.
In farm country, a shelf could be a busy trail that runs along the length of a drainage or ravine, and it might be just a yard or two wide. In larger timbers it could be as wide as a road and very well defined, stretching for miles. Abandoned railroad beds are a perfect examples of what these will look like. Bucks can easily move along these terrain features while searching for does, approaching a destination food source or simply to traveling from point A to point B.
These travel corridors are typically found near bedding areas; therefore the pattern that exists is fragile and the deer won't tolerate intrusion. If you are overly aggressive in scouting or hunting a bench near a bedding area, chances are it won't be worth hunting for anytime soon. Your entrance and exit strategy is imperative when your setup involves a stand on or near a shelf, and particularly when it is situated near bedding areas. Ideally, sitting dawn to dark during the peak of the seeking and chasing phases will be most effective in these setups.
Shelves or benches often correlate directly to a creek or river bottom, which means it has tendency to meander. As a result, the wind will usually play a critical role. Regardless of predominant wind directions in your general area, terrain can influence wind direction. When hunting terrain characterized by river bottoms and ridgelines, remember that the wind will usually run through the draw, following the course of the bottom feature, usually a river or other drainage. Likewise, it's key to consider thermals, or pockets of rising or falling air that can carry scent up or down a ridge.
Calm conditions are difficult to deal with, as your scent will drift in any number of directions. A mild breeze is manageable, but swirling wind is not uncommon when hunting shelves or benches. I prefer to have moderate to strong wind with some degree of consistency, as that allows me to determine my stand placement with confidence. The wind will never be perfect, but if you can minimize the amount of ground that is downwind, your odds of connecting with a mature buck will improve. Do not neglect scent control.
THE PERFECT SET
Ideally, I will pick a tree that is several yards uphill from the shelf and situated towards the back of an inside turn as the shelf wraps around a bluff or ridge. In this situation, the wind will take the bulk of your scent behind you and up hill. The majority of your shots will be towards the bench and down the hill. In this case be sure to range your potential shots, as sharp angles can be very deceiving.
If accessing your set from the uphill side of the timber, keep the wind in your face and slip down into your stand. If the river or creek runs through the bottom, I would suggest considering a small boat as your means of transportation. If you are approaching from the bottom, it will be in your best interest to take the shortest route from the riverbank to your stand. Because unique conditions will accompany each set, adapting your approach to the terrain will take some planning and an intimate knowledge of the land.
Whether the travel pattern is forage-related or the deer simply pass through the area during their daily routine, the phase of the rut will ultimately impact the amount of traffic you encounter while on the shelf. Experiment with different sets until you have tweaked your setup just right to cut off a mature buck as he is looking for love.
Learn how, when, and why the mature bucks in your area are utilizing the terrain for travel, and you can put yourself in position to capitalize. And make sure you've got a couple strong backs on your speed dial in case you kill a giant. After all, there is one certainty when it comes to hunting a shelf: the drag will humble any hunter!