When scouting on foot, it can be tough to see the big picture because deer sign confronts you on every turn — or hopefully it does. If nothing else, it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. You get focused on the details before you have a feel for how the story should play out.
Making sense of everything you find when scouting is bewildering, but you can organize your thoughts and come up with a clear strategy much more efficiently by referring to topographic maps and aerial photos. However, it takes practice to figure out how to transfer what you see on paper to prime stand locations in the field.
To better illustrate this process, I have chosen four bucks I shot through years that provide good examples of how deer use different terrain and cover features. I have even pulled the actual maps and photos that show the terrain and cover features I keyed on in each case so you can see it — and do it — yourself.
Narrow Fingers Are No-Brainers
To really appreciate how I arrived at this stand, you have to look at the aerial photo. The topographic map won’t do you much good. In fact, on the topo it appears to be little more than an open valley with nothing to inspire the searching deer hunter. However, look at the aerial photo and you’ll immediately see what I saw back in November of 1995 when I first selected this tree.
I picked the narrowest bottleneck in a quarter-mile long brushy finger. Bowhunting and funnels go together like peanut butter and jelly, and this is a classic funnel. I assumed any deer traveling the open fields would use the cover as they slipped back to the big timber shortly after daylight.
I shot this great buck the first season I hunted this stand, and it immediately became my favorite. I am no longer able to hunt that farm, but during the nine years I did hunt it, I shot three really good bucks from that stand and a friend shot one other. I also messed up on several others. It is one of the best stands I ever hunted.
That first buck from 1995 was following a doe right down the middle of the finger on Nov. 7 — my favorite day of the season. It was right at first shooting light, and the doe was trying her best to get back to the big timber before full daylight. Because the cover is limited and only 30 yards wide where the stand hung, I was not surprised I ended up with an easy shot.
Any traveling bucks in that part of the farm generally ended up following that long, brushy finger. The stand was just as good in the morning as it was in the evening. The afternoon action was mostly due to the attractiveness of the clover I eventually planted in the five-acre field directly to the east of the stand.
Any long finger of cover is a natural buck highway. There won’t be much sign there in early fall, but by November, the bucks will have cattle trails pounded into the ground on both sides.
What to look for
These are by far the most obvious of all good stand sites to find when looking only at an aerial photo. You simply pick out those places where the cover is narrow. Before you grab your stand, take one quick look at the terrain using a topo map. If the brushy finger lies down in the bottom of a narrow valley, it is not as good as it would be on more level ground. You will have problems with swirling winds down low. Just keep that in mind.
Study the aerial photo to determine if there is a way you can sneak in without spooking deer. Where will the deer be when you walk in? How can you get past them? To reach my stand in the mornings, I came in over a ridge of heavy timber to the south — the opposite direction from where I expected to find the deer at that time.
Finally, you need to decide if there is a safe wind direction. Ideally, your scent will blow into an area where you don’t expect the deer to approach. That way, you won’t burn the stand out quickly. The aerial photo will help you plan that part of the hunt also.
Side-Hill Patterns Work Everywhere
I shot this buck in the middle of a 250-acre timber made of a large ravine with a ridge on the west side. If you study the aerial photo, you won’t learn much other than the fact that there are a bunch of trees here. However, the topo map reveals the secrets of the terrain. I hunted this stand often and successfully through the years. Just like the last one, this was one of my favorites. While the last stand I highlighted was influenced entirely by the cover, terrain influenced the deer movement here.
This stand shows the value of using both a topo map and an aerial photo of your hunting area when choosing your stands. Some spots show up much better on one type of map than on the other.
With this stand, I set out to exploit the side-hill pattern. In ridge country, bucks often travel along a trail that is about a quarter of the way down a side hill from the ridge top. Generally, the bucks will gravitate toward the downwind side of the ridge, and that works out perfect for hunting.
I placed this stand just down the hill (to the east) from the side-hill trail. With a west wind, my scent not only blows away from the trail and the ridge, but it also blows over the heads of all the deer that pass farther down the slope. It is one of the best setups I have found. Though I can’t see much on the ridge top (it would be more fun to see better), by hanging just over the edge, I keep my impact low. During the 2001 season, we had two solid weeks of west wind. I hunted this stand 12 of those mornings without any indication I was burning it out.
It was also a morning hunt in early November of 2002 when I shot this curly horned buck. He was following the edge of the ridge, stopping occasionally to rub small trees. It was nearly noon by the time he got to my stand, and he abruptly started walking fast, as if he suddenly remembered he was late for his bedtime. I shot him as he walked past at 12 yards.
Side-hill trails are an excellent pattern in ridge country during the rut when bucks are cruising. They are most productive in the mornings when the bucks are looking for bedded does.
What to look for
These buck hotspots are very easy to find once you get comfortable reading a topo map. First, look for the ridge. You have to study topo maps to understand them, but it is worth it. The top of the ridge will appear as the innermost of a series of parallel, outwardly spreading curved lines. As the slopes drop off on each side, you will see the next lower contour (typically, topo maps have a scale of 20 feet elevation change per line). In other words, each line represents a drop or rise in elevation of 20 feet. Some of the lines have numbers on them (that represent the elevation) so you can quickly tell whether you are going up hill or down hill when cutting across the contour lines. The closer they are together, the steeper the slope.
The prevailing downwind side of the ridge is the best place to hunt because you can easily keep your scent away from the greatest number of deer. Study the map to furtherdetermine if you can find a low-profile route to and from the stand. If you hunt it mainly in the morning, look for a way to approach the stand from the direction opposite the most likely food source.
The End of the Ditch Funnel
Like the stand that produced the buck in 1995, this one first showed up best on an aerial photo; it didn’t jump out when looking at a topo map. The thin strip of cover drew my attention, but after studying it first hand, I found a deep ditch running through the middle for about half of its length. At the upper end of the ditch, there was a heavy trail where the deer were going around the ditch as they traded back and forth between the cover and food sources on opposite sides of the finger.
I love ditch funnels. They show up well on topo maps and are the first place I check when hunting a new area. Deer will go around ditches rather than trying to cross them; that makes the end of the ditch a natural funnel and a great place to hunt. I only hunted this stand in the afternoons because of the way it set up (it would have been hard to sneak in with deer feeding nearby in the mornings). At the end of my evening hunts, I studied the fields with binoculars to see what deer were close by that I would need to sneak past. I then waited until full dark, climbed quietly to the ground and slipped into the ditch.
The ditch is about 12 feet deep and narrow, so it is easy to walk in the bottom without nearby deer seeing me, hearing me or smelling me. To make the trip easier and quieter, I went through in September with a chainsaw and cleared a path through the deadfalls.
I hunted the stand five times in 2005 and never once had a problem with deer busting me when I was sneaking out. The one I shot appeared in the big field to the east of the stand and then worked his way across that field, presumably to check the field to my west for doe activity. He came right around the end of the ditch, walked past the stand at a distance of just a few yards and then offered a broadside, 25-yard standing shot as he stopped in the edge of the brush to study the field.
What to look for
This stand was unique; I ended up finding it (a ditch funnel) using an aerial photo. Generally, you will do much better searching for these terrain-related hotspots using a topo map. Ditch funnels often occur at the bottoms of draws in agricultural areas where the topsoil is loose enough to wash away easily during periods of flooding. The steeper and deeper the draw, the more concentrated the runoff and the more likely there will be an erosion ditch. You can tell when a slope is steep because the contour lines on the topo map are close together.
In the case of this stand, the topo map does offer some value. It shows there is an intermittent creek here. (The dotted and dashed blue line is the symbol for intermittent or seasonal creeks.) Generally, when you find a seasonal creek you have the potential for a ditch funnel or a creek crossing; both are very useful to the deer hunter.
The Open Field Buck Trap
Bucks commonly cross open ridge tops using draws on opposing sides. In effect, they cross from finger to finger in what is often a slight saddle. Not only is this generally the shortest distance across the field, it is also the least visible. Bucks like to stay low, and even a shallow dip makes them feel more secure.
During the 2006 season, I shot a nice buck from a tree located right in the middle of a standing cornfield. This tree offered me two advantages. First, it was within bow range of a good trail that cut through the corn as the deer crossed the ridge top field between a draw on the north side to another one on the south side. Second, it was a very low-impact spot from which I could watch the activity at the far end of the field. The back corner of a field is a natural hotspot, a place where deer pop out in the evenings before heading to feed. They are often hard to hunt effectively in these places because you can’t find a good wind.
By hanging back, I could watch the back corner as I hunted the field crossing — very conservative, just the way I like it. I hoped that if I spotted a buck in the back corner, he would eventually work my way or come to a call. It was also easy to sneak out through the standing corn at the end of the hunt. The only downside of this stand is the fact that it requires some type of east wind for best results; where I hunt, east winds are not common.
The evening I shot this buck, I was watching the back corner of the field like a hawk when the deer showed up to the south. He was out cruising by himself. I don’t know what his plans were because I didn’t give him time to follow through with them.
What to look for
You can find open field crossings on both an aerial photo and a topo map. They are consistent producers of action and always worth hunting. On the aerial photo, look for fingers that extend into an open field. These are most commonly the heads of draws. Where two of them point toward each other across an open ridge top, you have a natural crossing.
You can also find field crossings using a topo map by looking for places where the contour lines on the sides of an open ridge make a sharp turn. The sharp turn indicates a draw or ravine and when they form on opposite sides of the ridge top, you have a great crossing point.
You can easily make sense of the rut by looking at the big picture. Just remember, bucks don’t really know for sure where they will be next. So, it is impossible for you to know. For that reason, specific sign is not as useful as travel routes, and these buck corridors are easiest to find using maps and photos. If you focus on tendencies and think big picture when hunting the rut, you will be much more consistent and enjoy the process more. It all makes sense when you look at it from above.