There are a lot of ideas out there on where to hunt. I have seen illustrations in magazines that laid out where to hunt near a field, where to hunt on a ridge, where to hunt near an urban area, etc. Unfortunately, none of those illustrations actually look like the place where I hunt. It is frustrating trying to figure out how to apply generic tips to specific properties. The fundamentals sometimes tend to get lost in the shuffle, but the fundamentals of what makes for a great stand site are really all that matter.
While the fundamentals may not seem very sexy, and they may appear simple enough on the surface, applying them is a true art. This month, I will help you apply the fundamentals of stand placement with the goal of finding the very best stand in your hunting area.
Two things dictate a great stand — and a great season.
Only hunt stands where you won’t be detected: This is the single-most important thing to consider when hunting whitetails. You have to be able to get to and from your stands without bumping or educating a single deer, and you need the wind advantage and adequate cover when you are on stand so you can remain undetected. Finding such stands is not easy. There are not many of them in any hunting area. On my farm, I have four or five no-brainers that I can hunt whenever the wind is right and not worry about educating any deer. I spend most of my time in one of those five stands.
You will find your best stands by working backwards. Forget about the sign and start by dissecting your hunting area in the continual search for low-profile walking routes you can use to sneak in and out. Regardless of how much sign a stand overlooks, it is not a good stand if you can’t sneak in and out undetected.
Typically, you are looking for cover you can sneak behind or terrain you can use to keep hidden when going in and out. Creeks and ditches are obvious terrain features. Being below lay of the land, these features are normally out of sight from deer bedded in the area.
In the absence of creeks and ditches, try to find low areas where you can stay off the skyline. I also mentioned cover. If you control the property, you may even go so far as to plant trees, brush or even tall annual grasses and crops behind which you can sneak. Standing corn is an awesome screen to use when entering and exiting your stands.
Once you have found the access route, it is time to select a stand location where the deer can’t smell you somewhere along that route. You can do this most easily by having a “safe area” downwind that works for the same wind direction you need to sneak in undetected. Perfect stands are few and far between, and this becomes a really fun off-season puzzle to solve. Get out your aerial photos and topo maps and start thinking.
You will likely end up on the edge of a ridge where your scent can blow over the heads of downwind deer, or you might be on the upwind side of a natural barrier such as a river, pond, lake, open field or even someone’s backyard! If deer can’t get downwind of you, or if the deer that do get downwind of you can’t smell you, the spot is worth keeping. It is not an easy task, but fortunately you have a few months to put the puzzle together.
There has to be a reason for deer to go past: Most bowhunters start by finding high-traffic areas and then looking for a tree to hang a stand. This is actually the last step instead of the first. You don’t have to be hunting the very best sign to have success. But you do need to keep from educating deer so they are moving naturally (during the day) for as long into the season as possible.
During most of the season, deer focus on food. If you find the food, you will find the deer. Trails often give away the routes the deer use to and from these areas. So, look for trails. It is that simple. Hunting near the food source itself is also a great strategy but often complicated by the need to sneak out after legal shooting time without bumping deer. Either focus on hunting small “staging area” food plots that the deer vacate shortly after dark or arrange for someone to drive into a larger area and move the deer off naturally, so you can sneak out. Pretty simple, right?
During the rut, the travel patterns of bucks are less obvious. Many of these routes have much less to do with food and much more to do with finding does.
Your morning rut stands should overlook doe bedding areas or the routes between two of them. You may not find any real sign in these areas when you first set up there, but by the end of the rut, there will be solid trails. So, when scouting for rut travel routes, forget about sign and food sources and focus on the areas where does concentrate. Remember, the bucks are trying to stay out of sight as they take the most direct path between these doe areas. When you start plotting those on your maps, the potential stand sites will jump out at you.
Summertime Map Scouting
Here are some tips you can use to find these routes bucks use during the rut. Again, feeding pattern travel routes are obvious enough — just find the food and then look for trails leading to it. Since it is summer, we need to focus on map scouting.
- Aerial photos: Aerial photos specialize in showing the cover, and bucks definitely relate to cover when they are traveling — especially when traveling across open areas. This is why brushy fence lines are such great stand sites during the rut.
You can also see areas where the cover necks down to create a pinch point, such as the inside corner of a field embedded into the timber, the places where the corners of two blocks of cover touch and even the places along creeks where the cover narrows. Study aerial photos by first marking the doe bedding areas and the likely doe feeding areas. The potential funnels between them will start to jump out. But remember, they also need to be close to your low-impact entry and exit routes. Ah, back to solving the puzzle again.
- Topo maps: Deer also relate to the terrain when they are traveling. There is no easier way to get a good feel for the terrain in your hunting area than to study a topo map. The contour lines show the elevation and with some study, you will see the actual terrain these lines represent. Specialized hybrid maps (I have found good ones from Hunterra) show the topo lines superimposed on shaded aerial photos. It all makes much more sense when looking at these maps. Terrain features like dips, ditches and creek crossings, swales and saddles are all an open invite to traveling bucks.
- Traditional scouting: Summer is not a good time to scout for sign because you won’t see much of it. However, you can learn where the deer are likely to feed come fall. Study the ag fields, but also pay attention to mast sources (Are the oaks carrying acorns? Which ones? Any apple trees, pears, persimmons?)
- Glassing: You can watch the open feeding areas during the summer and see many bucks. This gives you a starting point for your fall patterning, but a buck’s summer range is not always the same as his fall range, so don’t view summer scouting as the most critical step — it is merely a place to start. Some of these bucks you may not see again until next summer.
- Trail-camera photos: Without a doubt, the best source of information regarding the whereabouts of specific deer comes from trail-camera photos. The photos can tell you where a nice buck lives and even when he is moving in daylight, but they can’t tell you exactly how to hunt him. Trail cameras are a great scouting tool, nonetheless, but summer ranges aren’t always the same as fall ranges, so view the information with a grain of salt.
Putting It All Together
There are a lot of pieces in this puzzle that you need to snap together to find a great stand. First, you find the low-impact entry and exit routes. Then figure out if there are spots near this route where the deer will likely be traveling this fall. Feeding patterns or the rut may motivate them. Either will work at the right time. Now, you have to find a place for your ground blind or stand where deer can’t detect you that is also within bow range of the travel routes. Finally, you need to focus on those areas where a potential shooter lives.
The fundamentals sounded simple enough when we started, but once we unpacked them we found the door into a new way of thinking — the real challenge of stand hunting for whitetails is solving this puzzle. Good luck!