Strategy to elevate your odds of success.
Most deer sign is found in low-lying areas, and because of that, many hunters set up there. However, the author has found that most of the time, you're better off spending your time on a nearby ridgetop.
Thinking back on the many successful whitetail hunts I've recorded over the years, there's little doubt ridges have been my main accomplice. When I go afield, it's to do two things: enjoy nature and kill deer with my bow. In all kinds of places, and in all shapes and sizes, ridges have helped me accomplish both those goals.
There's nothing like time spent high on a mountain, looking over God's great creation. Ridges provide me with all the tools needed to execute a successful hunt. They give me good stand locations with dependable winds in a place where deer (especially big bucks) spend a lot of their time during legal shooting hours. Ridges also are a place where mast crops drop just as farm crops are disappearing and breeding season is accelerating.
Furthermore, ridges provide me with places that are hard to get to (think low hunting pressure), scenic and quiet. In such places, rutting bucks feel free to romp around at ease.
Wow, I'm getting excited just talking about it!
What is it about big old bucks and ridges? I'd bet heavily they appreciate the lack of human intrusion and dependable, all-day updrafts that can quickly alert them to any approaching intruders. Then again, it could be the countless escape routes available from a ridge. Or could it be the way they can lay under a shade tree in the summer as the breeze sweeps insects far from their massive, velvet-covered racks? I'm getting excited again!
Aerial photos and topographic maps are a great way to identify promising ridgetop stand locations without actually disturbing an area. Do your homework, and don't forget to use powerful online tools such as Google Earth.
Hunt Where They AreIf you're privileged to bowhunt in areas with plenty of elevation changes, suffice it to say you have some excellent ambush spots at your disposal.
Sure, valleys usually contain the lion's share of deer sign (tracks, trails, rubs and scrapes). Ridges do not. Valleys are easy to access (roads, trails and flat ground can be found there). Ridges are not. Valleys usually provide many sources of rich food for deer, in the form of crops and rich browse. Ridges do not. So, with all the advantages seemingly in the valleys, why not hunt there?
Well, are you hunting deer, or deer sign? I know for many years in my early hunting career, it would have been safe to say that I spent more time hunting deer sign than deer.
And believe me, my success showed it -- I killed little but time. What I'm getting at is this: deer do most of their moving under cover of darkness. So, most of the sign we get excited about is laid down at night. I don't know about you, but I'd rather spend my hunting time in an area where most of the deer (especially the old bucks) are during the day.
As for the extra work required to access prime ridge stands, well, who's afraid of a little hard work? Killing big bucks ain't supposed to be easy. And did I mention you're likely to encounter significantly less hunting pressure?
A good mast crop can make a good ridgetop stand location even better. Learn the mast-bearing trees in your area and pay attention to when deer visit them most. A ridge can be extremely productive early in the season if nuts are dropping.
Next, we've got the food issue to address. Generally speaking, valleys provide a better (more dependable, longer-term, richer) source of foods for the local deer herd. But once again, when do deer spend most of their time feeding? After dark, and we can't hunt then, can we?
I'm not saying you can't or won't find some success in the easy-to-reach lowlands. But if you're going to hunt in a valley hotspot, be sure to have several stand locations lined up so you can hunt them on a rotational basis. It doesn't take long to burn out a good, core spot by sitting it for an extended period of time. The unpredictable, ever-swirling winds of valleys will make sure of that.
Speaking From Experience
If I still haven't convinced you that ridges rock, consider this real-life success story I experienced a few years back:
After parking my truck in the back of the farmer's pasture, I shouldered my backpack, grabbed my bow and slowly made my way through the darkness of a frosty November night. The crescent moon hanging overhead provided just enough light to find a route down to the small creek in the distance. Carefully wading across at a shallow ford, I slipped quietly across the wide creek bottom and soon found myself at the mouth of a wide ravine. Ahead and above loomed the jumbled slopes of steep uplands that watched over this rich mosaic of habitat.
Standing in the quiet darkness that surrounded me, I took a couple deep breaths and allowed myself a moment to fantasize about the big-antlered bucks I knew were making their rounds nearby. It was the peak of the rut, and the creek bottom I'd just crossed was a prime area where the local deer herd spent the nights feeding and socializing -- previous days spent scouting had made this very clear.
This is the big "ridge runner" buck author Eddie Claypool describes taking in the article. A little extra effort getting to a promising ridge stand location paid big dividends.
Big rubs and scrapes abounded, and many spots I'd passed could easily be considered prime hunting locations. I'd been greatly tempted to throw up stands at a number of locations -- but I knew better.
Years of experience had taught me all those stands, and all that work, in all those "hotspots," wasn't necessary. Heck, it wasn't even the best way to go. No, all
I needed was one stand, a good work ethic and a lot of patience. And that one stand was going to be far removed from the fertile Eden I'd found streamside. Pointing myself up the ravine, I began the long, rough climb to the top of the high ridge that loomed in the distance. In a short time, the cold night air was no longer a bother.
Twenty minutes later, having finally reached the saddle at the top of the ravine, I quietly dismounted my pack and unstrapped a treestand. I reached inside and removed some steps too. The eastern sky was just beginning to lighten, giving me a firm sense of direction.
Ocassionally, you'll find a big rub on a ridgeline. Take such sign seriously. Although you typically won't find as much sign on a ridgetop as a valley, these spots can be more productive overall
Knowing the prevailing wind for the day was going to be from the north, I moved to the south edge of the saddle and scanned for the right tree; one quickly jumped out at me. In short order, the stand was in place and I was pulling my insulated clothes from my pack and preparing for the day ahead. Excited about the possibilities the day held, I hurried into my lofty perch.
Soon after settling in, a beautiful sunrise flooded the scene and vanquished the dreariness of the night. The world was coming alive around me, and it was good to be part of it. Far below, the hustle and bustle of farm life was starting. I knew most of the bucks that had spent the night prowling the lowlands would be quickly heading for higher ground. Little did they know, but danger awaited them.
Around 7:30, the first whitetail appeared -- a 120-class 8-pointer. As the young buck hurriedly made his way past my stand, I silently gave him my blessings and invited him back for a return visit in three or four years. A short while later, action really picked up, and it wasn't long before I had lost count of the number of deer moving around my hiding spot.
About 9:30, I noticed some movement about 150 yards away, on one of the fingers that intersected the main ridgeline. Grabbing my grunt call, I gave a few short blows and strained to see what was going on in the distance. After a few seconds, I glimpsed a fast approaching deer. Grabbing my bow, I quickly prepared for whatever might be in store.
Catching a quick peek at a good-sized antler, I came to full draw while the buck was still 50 yards away and settled in on the buck as he approached. When I finally got my first good look at the buck's rack, my mind instantly went into "shoot" mode.
Aggressively striding within 20 yards, the old-timer had no clue of his fateful mistake.
Claypool took another good buck from the same ridgetop stand location the following fall, proving that a good, remote ridgetop ambush point can be productive year after year.
A few minutes later, I knelt beside a beautiful animal. As the oak and maple leaves filtered down around me, I wondered how many times my trophy had eluded hunters in the fields far below. Inside, I knew he had long since been conditioned to the importance of spending his days high on ridges, safe from most threats. Then along came a certain, scrawny predator -- a guy who came unannounced and unexpected. This guy wasn't shy about getting up two hours before daylight, hiking a long ways and working hard.
This was a guy who would slip into a brand new area -- a spot he'd viewed only on a map -- and put up a treestand in the dark. He would sit all day, for many days, if necessary. He was determined to give time ample opportunity to work in his favor.
Snapping back from my dream, I breathed deeply as the adrenaline of a good hunt surged through my veins. There were pictures to be taken and meat to be de-boned. This day would play out just as it had begun -- as a labor of love.
Yes, I was high on ridges, in more ways than one!