Hunting The Hardwoods - November 2009

Question: How do you pattern a deer in the hilly hardwoods where they seem to eat, bed and move randomly? -- John Arwood, Horn Lake, MS

John, I grew up hunting the hilly hardwoods along the Mississippi River much farther north than where you hunt. There are many things you can look for to narrow their travel patterns. Most importantly is the terrain. The lay of the land influences how deer travel in a consistent way. The other thing, of course is the food sources. In many hardwood areas, choice food will be mast (soft and hard). Soft mast is persimmons, apples, pears, and berries. Hard mast is most commonly acorns. If there are agricultural crops around, these are also obvious feeding areas that will concentrate deer in the evenings.

You will have to scout the area thoroughly to find all the food sources, but I can help you get a bit of a jump on the terrain-related funnels through my experiences hunting this kind of terrain most of my adult life. Here are a few tips on hunting the hills.

I've highlighted seven common terrain features in the following sections. I hope to describe what they look like on a topographical map and on an aerial photo. I'll also offer a few suggestions to help you hunt these locations effectively.

You can identify a subtle saddle easily on a topographical map but it is impossible to see on an aerial photo. On the topo map, look for a gap between two opposite bends in contour lines at the same elevation. The contour lines on most topo maps are 20 feet apart. Often you can see saddles when scouting after the season when the vegetation is gone.

A wooded saddle is a subtle feature that many deer hunters might overlook when studying a map. However, this is a great stand site during the rut. The saddle provides the incentive for a rutting buck to use it as he crosses a ridge top to investigate bedding areas on the other side for does.

The field crossing saddle is another classic travel route. Many people call such spots swales. It is a saddle in an open ridge top field. Wooded ravines on both sides of the ridge extend toward each other creating the ideal place for a buck to cross the ridgeline. A buck wanting to travel from one ravine to the other during the rut is likely to use this crossing point in order to keep a low profile.

You can see a bluff in both an aerial photo and a topographical map, but it is much easier to see in the topo map. The contour lines are very close together signifying a very steep slope.

Deer follow edges. They also try to reduce the amount of work involved in getting from Point A to Point B. Any deer (bucks included) moving along a side hill, or going around a field edged by a bluff, will funnel right along the bluff edge. Very rarely will they drop off a near vertical slope unless someone is pushing them.

Bluff stands are among my favorites because they offer some incredible advantages. You can place your stand near the edge of the bluff and then hunt it with the wind blowing out over the bluff and there is no way that a deer will be able to smell you. If you can climb the bluff from below, you have the ultimate stand setup, one where the deer never detect your entry or exit and they never smell you while on stand.

The bottoms of draws and ravines often have ditches in them. Such places are natural funnels. Wherever there is a ditch, the deer will detour around the steepest sections and use the gradual crossings. You simply need to do the same thing. Often there will be a few such crossings over the length of a ditch and any one of them can be good when bucks are cruising during the rut. However, I like the crossings near the upper end of the ditch best because the wind direction is more consistent. It will swirl more down in the ravine.

Walk any creek and look for places where the deer are crossing it. During the rut bucks will use these crossings heavily as they cruise around looking for does. You can also see them on a topo map or aerial map by focusing on the S curves. The middle of the S generally has shallower water and shallower banks than either bend, so this point often designates a crossing.

I love to hunt wooded ridges in the morning during the rut. Does bed on wooded ridges consistently and the bucks come looking for them shortly after sunrise. I could spend the whole season hunting a good ridge top and the rest of this article telling you how I would do it. However, I'll just leave the fine points for you to discover.

Generally, speaking, the does will tend to bed on the downwind side of the ridge. This permits them to smell anything behind them and see anything in front of them. Further, they like to bed on secondary points extending from the main ridge. You can see these secondary ridges as dimples in the contour lines of a topo map and as shaded areas in an aerial photo.

During the rut, there are few better places to be than in a stand between two places where does bed. A ravine serves as a classic funnel between these bedding points.

The ravine will bottleneck deer for one of two reasons. First, there will likely be a ditch in the ravine. If so, the deer will funnel around the top of the ditch. If there is no ditch, the head of the ravine will still serve as a funnel, but a subtler one. The deer will naturally follow the contour lines around the head of the ravine as a means for taking the path of least resistance. I already mentioned how this works in the last section.

Bucks cross open ridges where it is most secure rather than going all the way around the end. Good crossing locations include saddles and cover related features such as brushy fence lines.

If bucks suddenly stopped making sign, it might take me a year or two to even notice. That is how much time I spend scouting sign. I focus my scouting time nearly 100-percent on learning the terrain and figuring out how deer use it to stay out of sight while traveling. During the rut, there are few things about a big buck's movement that are predictable. About the only one I have been able to find is their tendency to relate to terrain features the same no matter where you find them. Take the time to learn the terrain in your hunting area and you will shoot more and bigger bucks.

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