Looking back at all of the deer I’ve killed over the years, I’m amazed at how frequently water played a role. Recognizing that has made many of the more recent examples less coincidental and more intentional. Water is often an important part of my hunt plan, and if it’s not already, it should be part of yours as well. Here’s why.
Water is an attractant, and the more arid the climate, the stronger the attraction — just ask anyone who has bowhunted in Africa or Texas. Even in temperate regions, deer are attracted to open water. This is true during times of drought as well as other times of the year.
Where I live, the average annual rainfall is more than 50 inches. Water is abundant, yet deer regularly come to certain water sources to drink, especially during the early season. Temperatures are warm then — sometimes downright hot — and it is typically the period of lowest rainfall. Find the preferred watering hole and you’ve nailed half of the “right place, right time” equation.
The other half isn’t too hard to figure out, either. Deer most often visit water before or after feeding. Find a water source between bedding and feeding areas and you could have it knocked.
Early season isn’t the only time to hunt water, though. Deer will come to water throughout the fall and winter. If you live in the northern part of the U.S., once daily temperatures drop below freezing, open water again becomes scarce, and deer will seek it out.
Water is also important to deer nutrition. Deer eat plants. Plants need sunlight, soil nutrients and water to grow. Sunlight is fairly consistent, but where you find the greatest concentrations of the latter two, you find the greatest quantity and quality of food, and thus, the largest concentrations of deer.
This makes sense, but I put it to the test a few years ago. I took the existing records from the Biggest Bucks of Maine Club (which recognizes bucks with a dressed weight of 200 pounds or more) and the Maine Antler and Skull Trophy Club (which uses antler score) and plotted them on a map of Maine, a state where fall food and surface water are generally in good supply. A conspicuous pattern emerged. Dots were scattered all over the map, but the greatest concentrations coincided very nicely with major river drainages. If you’ve ever seen maps showing the distribution of Pope and Young and Boone and Crockett bucks across North America, you’ll notice a similar trend.
The relationship between water and trophy bucks isn’t just about food. Places where vegetation grows the thickest provide the best cover. Deer, especially the older, wiser ones, seek out cedar swamps, alder swales, brush-choked hardwood bottoms and riverine thickets as bedding areas. It may be intentional or merely because humans seldom venture into these miniature hearts of darkness, but by lying in ambush along their perimeters, we can still utilize them.
Water also has some negatives that can be used as positives by the hunter. Too much of anything isn’t good. In addition to being an attraction, an overabundance of water can be an obstacle. Deer can swim but would just as soon not if they can help it. So, they often travel along waterways and around water bodies.
This is especially true in the Midwest, partly because the riparian zone along rivers and streams is often the only cover. As a result, river corridors become deer highways. Deer still cross rivers, but they often do so at the narrowest or shallowest points, which effectively turn such places into funnels to deer movement. Deer can and will swim across ponds and even large lakes, but they prefer to go around. The top and bottom ends of long, linear lakes make great funnels, as does the downstream side of a beaver dam.
There are countless other ways hunters can use water to exploit deer preferences, concentrations and movement patterns. Water is the essence of life, but for the savvy deer hunter, it can also be an integral component in the death of their quarry.