By Beau Martonik
Gently closing the tailgate, I grabbed my bow, threw my pack onto my back and headed into the darkness. Temperatures had plummeted below freezing overnight, resulting in a crystal-clear, star-covered sky. With my headlamp guiding the way, it just felt like my day. It had been a long season up until that point, but the conditions were right for something big to finally happen.
Once I reached the bottom of the valley, I crossed a small creek and headed to the tree where I had a hang-on stand. The setup was ideal for the weather conditions and time of year: I was hunting a feeder-stream creek bottom that ran north-south and, eventually, into a bigger creek in the bottom of the basin. My tree was butted almost up to a beaver pond on the north side, with two trails crossing the creek directly in front of me and trails on either side running parallel to it. The wind thermals created by the topography and water blew down the valley right in my face and hit the beaver pond behind me, taking my scent upward. The water was warmer than the air, causing this ideal scenario and making it almost impossible for me to get winded.
My calling sequence finally paid off around midday. The legs of a deer appeared beneath the limbs of some hemlock trees on the other side of the creek, just below the beaver pond. I was pleasantly surprised to see a big mountain warrior thrashing a tree and looking for a fight. His neck was swollen, one of his G3s was broken, hair was missing from his back and he was heading straight for the opening in front of me.
I tried to calm my nerves as I waited for him to pass the last hemlock, then I drew my bow. As he hit the opening, I was already locked in and settled my pin for a 37-yard quartering-away shot. The buck ran about 80 yards and piled up in the thicket on the opposite side of the creek.
I picture that outing when I think about hunting creek bottoms during the rut in the big woods of Pennsylvania. In my opinion, hunting creek bottoms can be one of the most effective ways to kill a big buck during the rut, but recognizing the right conditions is crucial to having the opportunities.
Creek Bottoms 101
Deer need water to survive throughout the year, but hydration becomes even more important for them when they are on the run during the rut. There are a few different types of streams running through the forests, but I’m referring to bottoms around feeder streams (streams usually 4-6 feet wide that flow out of the smaller valleys into a bigger creek) and smaller creeks (10-20 feet wide). Hunting larger river bottoms is an entirely different topic, so I’ll stick to what you will experience most often in the big-woods regions of the Appalachian Mountains, as well as public land throughout the Midwest.
These smaller streams and creeks wind through a variety of terrain features, creating natural funnels and trail crossings along the way. For example, beaver ponds within the streams will make the edges of the valley smaller and funnel deer movement around them. For another, trail crossings usually occur near a turn in the stream where the water is lower than the surrounding areas. You will have the potential for deer movement parallel and perpendicular to the stream in these locations.
Wind can be your best friend or your worst enemy when hunting creek bottoms, but before getting into the specifics, let me give you a brief background on thermals. Basically, morning thermals are caused by cooler temperatures that carry the wind down mountains, hills and valleys. As the sun climbs higher and warms the forest, thermals begin to rise and will continue to do so throughout the day. When the sun sets, the thermals switch back to what they were doing in the morning — going downhill.
This is a great rule of thumb, but it isn’t the end-all, be-all for figuring out thermals. Every location is different — different topography, different vegetation, different wind speeds, etc. I’ve come to find that, on cool to cold days during late October/early November, the wind next to a creek will keep blowing downstream almost all day. Wind in creek bottoms also tends to swirl in narrower valleys, creating some risky hunting setups.
I mentioned beaver ponds earlier; they can even create their own thermals. The water in a beaver pond is mostly stagnant, allowing it to become warmer than the rest of the stream. On a cold, frosty morning, the water is warmer than the air, which means the air over the water is rising instead of falling like the air over the rest of the valley. (More on that later.)
Lastly, there can be additional food present in creek bottoms during the season. Grasses thrive in openings along creek bottoms, as do my personal favorites, apple trees. So, we have food and water in the same area — sounds like a great combination!
Scouting for Setups
As with all of my scouting, I start examining a creek bottom by looking at onXmaps and Google Earth. I focus on rut-hunting locations where bucks may be cruising; I want to find travel routes between doe bedding areas or, potentially, directly below them.
With onX, I turn on the “hybrid” layer to see an aerial view with a topographical overlay and search for areas with valleys leading into a small stream or creek. I’m looking for these valleys because they provide travel routes from the tops of the hills and from other drainages. Think about how you hunt ridges; you look for saddles for travel routes, right? Well, those saddles lead down to the valleys and creek bottoms below. On the floor of the valleys, you will sometimes find beaver ponds, grassy openings and creek crossings. Bingo! I mark those locations because, more often than not, they contain travel corridors.
Aerial scouting is invaluable when it comes time to hunt the area, but if you have the opportunity to do so, getting boots on the ground will help you put the pieces of the puzzle together. If you notice conifer trees near some of these crossings, chances are good that there are scrapes underneath some of them — use trail cameras to see what caliber of bucks are cruising through the area. Scouting these locations to plan potential treestand setups, looking at travel routes and understanding how the wind works in that area should be your focus.
How to Hunt ’Em
The rut is, by and large, the most effective time to hunt creek bottoms. Not that it can’t be effective at other times of the year, but if you are trying to play the odds game, the rut is your best bet. I like to think of creek bottoms as the interstates of the big woods during the rut.
So, we’ve talked about looking for trails, creek crossings, beaver ponds, doe bedding areas, etc., but how do you set up on them to actually fill your tag?
Topography is something that will determine the beginning phases of your setup. Steep hills and narrow valleys create great deer funnels, but there are tough winds and thermals to deal with as a result. In steeper areas, I usually stay away from the creek bottoms or set up near the head of the valley, at its widest point but where it still acts as a funnel. Creek bottoms that feature some level terrain before heading up an incline are key areas.
Topography leads us into how does generally bed. In steep terrain, does are usually toward the top of a hill, which makes it tougher to rely on the bucks using the trails running parallel to the creek to scent-check those bedding areas, as the bedding areas are much higher. In gradual, more rolling terrain, does will bed almost in the creek bottoms or on the first bench. This is the ideal situation, because bucks will cruise the creek bottoms all morning scent-checking these bedding areas. In this scenario, it is important to understand how the thermals work in the area you are planning to hunt, as you will need to know when they will switch to blowing uphill.
The next two things go hand-in-hand: beaver ponds and creek crossings. Once you find an area with a creek crossing, trails running parallel to the creek and a beaver pond, you can be in the chips if you set up correctly. Referring back to wind and thermals, the wind is most likely going to be coming down the valley and hills in the morning, and potentially right next to the creek for most of the day. In addition, on cold mornings, the warmer water from the beaver pond is creating upward thermals in the cool air.
With that being said, you will want to set up on the upstream part of the beaver pond off to one side with the creek crossing out in front of you. This will keep you virtually undetected from a buck’s nose for most of the day, as the air will hit you in the face, rise above the water and then disperse. Even bucks coming from downwind won’t be able to detect you hanging above them in a tree.
Don’t be afraid to do some calling on one of those cold November mornings, either. Seven of the last eight deer I’ve killed have been called in with a grunt tube and bleat can. Sitting that close to a creek can make hearing tough, so always keep your eyes peeled on those long, dark-to-dark sits — it is mentally exhausting but worth every second when your plan comes together.
That’s just one example of a setup that can work, but there are many others that can also be successfully implemented. If you learn how the wind works, understand its travel paths and put some time in the tree, I’m confident that you can put your tag on a rut-crazed big-woods buck this season!