Question: I’ve never hunted in a big marsh before. My question is: how can I go into this big new area and find a good location without wasting a lot of time doing so? — Nathan Lane, North Fond Du Lac, Wis.
GOING IN COLD
I’ll take this on two levels. First, I’ll talk about your specific situation with the marsh and then I’ll tackle the broader issue of how to hunt areas you have never seen before.
I know several guys that do well in marshes. The key is to find the small humps and high ground areas where the deer bed. They won’t bed directly in the water, so if they are living in the marsh, there has to be high ground somewhere. If the hummock or island is large enough, you might consider hunting it. If not, consider hunting trails leading to and from the high ground bedding areas. I know a guy that drags in a small waterfowl layout blind (they are very popular now) and sits in that to keep out of the cold water. Trails are easy to find since the reeds will be matted down in these areas.
You can even make trails by walking repeatedly along a certain route to pack it down, but do that at least a few weeks before the season to give the deer time to start using your trails as their own. I even know a guy that puts in cedar fence posts for the deer to rub on along these homemade trails. He brings the trails within range of a small hump that he sits on within a blind.
You have three options for finding the high ground bedding areas, one takes a long time and is very accurate and the other two are quicker but either more expensive or less accurate. First option: you can follow the trails and see where they lead. Let the deer tell you where they are bedding. Second, you can purchase a topographical map and look for humps on the map (the contour lines tell you where the elevation changes). This won’t be real accurate because the topo maps are often designated in increments of 10 feet, so it is unlikely that most humps will show up. The best way is the most expensive way, hire someone to fly you over the marsh and locate all the high ground, trails and feeding areas from above in about one hour. Take photos or video so you can find it all back fairly quickly.
Another option, come to think of it, is to try the aerial photo services from Bing and Google and see if you can see these features on current photos of the area.
You can learn enough to hunt an area without actually scouting it and educating the deer that live there. Take full advantage of the following resources; use what you learn to build the ultimate game plan.
Aerial photos and topo maps: If I had just gained access to a new farm the middle of the summer, the first thing I would do upon arriving home is to get the aerial photos and topographical maps of the place. For me, the hunt would play itself out on my living room table as I studied these pieces of paper. The website MyTopo.com is a great place to find aerial photos and topographical maps of any property in the United States. I’d as soon hunt blind-folded as go into a season without a stack of maps and photos.
What you learn from an hour studying these overhead pictures will change the way you hunt. Nearly all the information you need is right there: cover type and amount, terrain, most likely travel routes, even the probable food sources and bedding areas. When hunting an area for the first time, these maps and photos may be your single greatest tool. They are also an excellent way to stay ahead of changing travel patterns even in areas you hunt every year. Whenever you learn something new about your hunting area, which is probably every time you hunt it, you should go home after the hunt and try to make sense of things by studying your photos and maps.
Word of mouth: Never underestimate the importance of information you receive via the landowner and others who live near your hunting area. Even though they may not happen to hunt deer themselves, they still notice when a big buck crosses a road or an open field. Farmers know deer patterns better than most hunters. Find out everything you can: when each sighting took place, the time of the day, the direction of travel — everything.
Even if you have hunted an area for years, never take for granted that you know all you need to know to be successful there. You won’t ever become as consistent as you want to be without learning things every year and observation by local residents is one of the very best ways you can stay on top of the game.
Sightings that seem to be isolated are not isolated when you start putting them together. Terrain or cover may be influencing the patterns of traveling deer in ways that you never anticipated. Only actual sightings can reveal this mystery. I’ve taken several nice bucks through the years as the direct result of advice received from farmers. It usually goes something like this: “I always see that buck crossing the field right in that corner over there,” or “Whenever I drive back to feed the cattle there’s a buck down along the creek.” When confronted with such great information you don’t have to do much more than put up the stand and start hunting.
Know the wind: Changing winds have the ability to mess up your day and your hunting area quicker than any other factor. A weather radio is a valuable tool when trying to stay one-step ahead of the wind. U.S. Weather Service forecasts usually provide a two-day wind outlook, providing enough information to make any stand adjustments needed for the next day’s hunt. You can find weather radios in mail order catalogs such as Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops.
The Internet is another very good source for wind direction information. During the fall, I use a site called wunderground.com at least twice per day. You can access all current conditions as well as receive a detailed forecast (including wind direction).
Road crossings: I hunted an area of Kansas a few years back that was comprised of narrow creek bottoms winding across open wheat fields. The land was broken up into mile square sections so I had visual access to all the deer tracks following these creeks every mile. I spent many hours slowly crisscrossing these creeks on backcountry roads until I found big fresh tracks in the dust or mud. I learned which mile of creek had the highest deer densities and where the biggest bodied deer were living (judging from track size). This is important information when choosing a specific stretch of river or creek bottom to hunt or trying to decide which wood lot has the most potential. I learned enough to pick the best areas, and I did it during the middle of the day from the seat of my pickup truck — impact was absolute zero.
Scouting edge cover: Walking field edges is another way you can learn enough to pick good stand sites without ruining your hunting area. By staying on the downwind side of the woods, you keep your presence a secret as you study the field edge for tracks, and the wood line for rubs and trails. Again, this information will help you to determine the
highest concentration of bucks. Just finding the bucks is the first half of any successful hunt.