November 18, 2021
This month, I’m going to focus on my three favorite deer stand setups. These are the stands where I can be found 90 percent of the time during the season. I will keep this simple and focus on two all-day stands and one evening stand.
I am going to start with stands located on small openings in thick cover, since this has become my all-time favorite stand setup and the absolute best for all-day sits. Unfortunately, not every property has the features required to create such a stand, but it is an absolute no-brainer wherever and whenever possible. For instance, I no longer own my hunting property, and while the area I now hunt has several spots that would make ideal openings with only a little work, I would have to get the landowner to go along with my ideas. He probably would, but I am not the only one hunting there and I would have to compete to hunt these spots once the others figured it out. Maybe I will do it anyway at some point.
During recent years, I have killed more nice bucks in small openings inside the timber than any other stand location. As you may have guessed, I hunt them both morning and evening. I am sure they would also be good in the middle of the day.
These openings work so well because they are in the cover close to where deer bed. The deer hit these openings shortly after they get up in the evenings and will linger in these places well past daylight in the mornings before going to bed. In other words, these are the first places deer visit when they begin their nightly rounds and the last places they visit before heading back to bed.
Some of the openings I have hunted were natural, but most I “encouraged” by cutting out a few scattered saplings to enlarge them. Even if you only hunt on land by permission, this is something you can easily do with the consent of the landowner. Just removing a few trees (as close to the ground as possible) and killing the grass, weeds and underbrush will produce the raw material for your No. 1 killer spot. The next step is to spread lime, fertilizer and clover seed on the ground and let the rains beat the seed down through the dead foliage.
These spots are so good I can’t think of anything else you can do to improve your hunting area more dramatically than just creating a couple of these small openings.
Anything bigger than about 20 yards by 30 yards is big enough to attract deer. Size is not as critical as location; the closer to thick cover, the better. Ideally, you choose to improve a spot you can approach from a direction that keeps you away from the likely bedding areas.
Last year, I sold the farm I had hunted for 18 years. During that time, I created seven of these small openings. Of those seven, I only needed a chainsaw to produce five of them. You don’t need a lot of equipment or a bunch of money to take advantage of this strategy. Like I said, many landowners will not object if you enlarge a small, natural opening by removing a few valueless trees.
During the time I hunted that farm, I killed several nice bucks and many does in these openings. I spent more than half my stand time hunting secluded openings, and I was always in the game.
First, I want to share a bit about the philosophy of stand placement. This is simple, but it bears mentioning and should be your guiding light whenever you are trying to decide about a certain spot. You always want to hunt where the deer are going and not where they are. In other words, try to be ahead of them at every move. In the mornings, deer are heading to their bedding areas. So, that is where you should be waiting.
Early and late in the season, many bucks will already be close to their beds when shooting light arrives. Going in after them means you must be there super early, and even then, you must be in exactly the right spot to see action. Plus, you need to be able to sneak out at some point without bumping anything bedded nearby.
Given all these variables, the odds of getting something wrong and educating deer in the process are high. That is the main reason I don’t hunt mornings early and late in the season — it is very hard to get ahead of them, and the price you pay for messing up can be very costly as the deer become educated and much harder to kill.
The rut is different. Because bucks are covering more ground, they often don’t arrive in the bedding areas until well after daylight. So, you can easily get ahead of them. Also, since they spend more time cruising the bedding area itself, looking for does before they bed down, there are many spots where you can kill them.
This greater degree of daylight movement means you can find stand locations that work in your favor — ones that are easier to enter and exit without alerting any of the does and smaller bucks in the area. This fact alone means you can hunt the area regularly without burning it out.
So, early and late in the season, it makes the most sense to either skip mornings and focus on the afternoon hunts closer to food or only hunt mornings in areas you can afford to burn out and cast aside.
I used to think of bedding areas as morning-only stand locations, but really the deer are there up until about the last hour of legal shooting time, when they start to move off toward their feeding areas. So, in the strictest sense, bedding area stands are good for almost the entire day, especially during the rut when a buck can get up and mill through a bedding area at any time.
Recognizing bedding areas and deciding how to hunt them is the next challenge.
Ridges: If you hunt where there are ridges and valleys, this is a no-brainer. The best morning stands in your area are found up on those ridges, and the farther you get out on the ridge away from the fields on top, the more beds you will find. It doesn’t matter that they are probably doe beds. In fact, that’s a good thing. That is where you will find the bucks cruising during the rut.
Hunting ridges is not straightforward; there are a lot of places that will work. Since bucks will be cruising these areas, you can be successful in many spots. So, look for those that give you an edge. Most often, bucks will walk along the downwind side of the ridge, just over the top. Keep that in mind as you select stand sites.
I like to focus on spots I can hunt with the wind blowing away from the nearest feeding areas. Then I look for a spot where the ridge narrows down because of a draw that comes up from the side. That will cause the deer movement to bottleneck in that area, producing some small advantage by concentrating buck movement. These spots are also easy to sneak into and out of by walking up and down the draw, keeping you out of sight for as long as possible.
High Knobs: The same way deer bed on ridges in bluff country, they will bed on any high knob or slight rise in otherwise flat country. They like to spend the day where they have a vantage point to see potential danger most easily. Like ridges, bucks will cruise these knobs, so there is no “best” location. However, the same goal exists — select a tree on the downwind side that allows you to sneak in and out without being seen.
River/Creek Bends: If you hunt in an area with a creek or river flowing through it, one of the main bedding areas will be the inside bends of the waterway. Generally, these are places that have the most cover and, as they get close to the water’s edge, deer find security in knowing not much danger will approach from the water.
They tend to bed on the little benches that lay next to the water along those inside bends. If deer numbers are high enough, they will spread out and bed all along the creek bank, wherever there is something to hide behind.
If the creek or river is shallow enough, wade across to your stand site with the wind blowing in your face. That will give you every opportunity to sneak in undetected as the deer filter back into these corners from their nearby feeding areas. If the water is too deep to wade, consider a small boat to slip quietly across. The element of surprise that comes with approaching through the back door is worth every effort required to pull it off.
Thickets: The hardest bedding areas to predict (short of just walking and looking for beds) are in areas where the terrain is flat and there is cover in all directions. In those places, deer can bed anywhere. However, you will find more beds around the downwind fringes of thickets.
Non-Traditional: I hunted open country quite a bit when I was a boy (mostly for pheasants), and we found the deer often bedded in the strangest places: brushy fence rows, grassy sloughs in standing cornfields, high ground in swamps and small patches of cover in farm fields.
I bowhunted these spots some as a boy and shot a nice buck from a small woodlot, but I didn’t spend enough time in this kind of country to get good at it. My point is, don’t overlook non-traditional cover as long as it is thick and secluded. Deer will use these sorts of spots regularly.
Most everyone who hunts whitetails knows the best afternoon stands are near food sources. That is where the deer are heading at the end of the day, and where you should be waiting. The only exception to this occurs during the peak of the rut, when the does hide in the deepest cover and non-traditional places to avoid being constantly badgered by bucks.
The very middle of the rut is the classic “lockdown” phase when pretty much everything comes to a halt as breeding is in its fullest swing. I wish I had some good advice on how to hunt the lockdown — I don’t. Not only could I share that advice with you in a future article, but I could apply it myself to make my own mid-November hunting more productive. Unfortunately, I have always struggled during this time.
Prior to this one-week lull in the middle of the rut, and again after it, the best evening action is near the food. Rather than go into details about where to hunt, I am going to discuss the best way I have found to set up an afternoon hunt.
It is hard to hunt a feeding area if you set up right where the deer come out of the woods. It works much better if you can find a small corner and hunt the opposite side, so the deer must come out into the feeding area before they are close enough for a shot.
This only works if the corner is small enough (like you often find at the end of a ridgetop field). Then you can hunt with the wind blowing from the feeding area to you so the deer that come out early won’t smell you. Yes, it may take a few hunts before something you want to shoot walks far enough out into the field to offer a shot, but at least you aren’t blowing the field every time you hunt it.
This won’t work, however, in areas with moderate to high hunting pressure, because the deer (especially the older bucks) won’t come out into the open before dark. In that case, you are better off staying in the bedding areas all day and forgetting the feeding areas, or possibly you can find a spot somewhere between where they bed and where they feed.
Now you know my three favorite stand setups. I was considering profiling my three "actual" favorite stands, with aerial photos, but that might have been too narrowly focused to help most readers.
If you spend the time, you should be able to find examples of these three stand setups where you hunt. Odds are, this is where you will find your best action. Good luck!