Growing up in Southwest Michigan I didn't have much experience hunting hill country until I started hunting out of state. Like many others, destinations like Southern Iowa and Western Illinois had me dreaming, looking at maps and reading everything I could get my hands on. This information was all a great start, but these strategies I am about to cover were learned largely by getting in the hills and learning the hard way through mistakes — a lot of them, in fact — and a little bit of success.
First, let me make something very clear. In no way are any of these tactics or strategies meant to be taken as gospel or proven fact in every situation. I can confidently say something we can all agree on, are the terms "always" and "guarantee" go out the window when it comes to chasing whitetail, especially mature bucks. There are exceptions to every rule and deer have minds of their own and go wherever they want to go, regardless of what they're "supposed to do." If you aren't sure about that, give it time.
The Leeward Side
Some common phrases you often hear when it comes to hunting hill country are "hunt high in the morning," "wind in your face, you're safe," and "deer love to bed on South faces." There is some truth and some consistency to these points and others, but a key thing to remember is that although these reminders may work for deer, it is far from this simple when targeting mature bucks and understanding how they navigate hillsides and ridges.
One thing I've learned from a lot of — or ground truthing as I like to call it — is it's great to hone in on the key terrain features of a ridge to locate the concentrated deer sign, but it's important to take it a step further when dealing with mature bucks. It's no secret that bucks like to have every advantage when traveling through an area, especially in daylight.
To get the drop on a cruising hill country buck on a ridge top, your best bet is to find a trail, scrapes, rubs or all three on the leeward or sheltered side of the hill. It will likely be on the top third of the hill just down from the flat or crest of the ridge. They like traveling in this location because they will be in position where the wind direction will be coming over the top of the ridge so they can smell everything to one side and partially above them and they can keep the hillside and bottom below them in plain sight.
As for the setup, I've learned over the years that you can get away with being just on the upwind side of the trail or bench if the hillside is steep enough. This way your scent will be cast out over the deer and they won't be able to bust you. This can really put the odds in your favor because it gives a mature buck the illusion that the wind coming over the top of the ridge is completely in their advantage and their sightline will be primarily focused on the hillside and bottom below searching for does and predators, ideally giving you a great element of surprise.
You could discuss wind strategies and approaches for weeks and just scratch the surface of the topic. So even though this won't begin to cover it, hopefully it will offer some general insight into how wind and thermals relate to hill country buck travel. One of the best analogies I have ever heard that refers to understanding wind and thermals in hill country came from Dan Infalt, a Wisconsin hunter and big-buck killer I have learned a great deal from over many years of reading, watching and listening to his content.
He said the best way to understand wind and thermals is to imagine it as flowing water. The way water meanders and flows around boulders, an eddy on a bank and follows the contour of the terrain is incredibly similar to the way the wind behaves in hilly terrain. Talk about a lightbulb going off.
In the hill country, the similarities to flowing water are nearly identical. In relation to the way current creates an eddy with a riverbank, the wind hitting a hillside creates swirl. If you ever take a milkweed pod into the timber and release a few tufts from an elevated position, it's amazing how far you can watch them float between trees, following a ridge line or along a ditch edge. The wind will react one way or another with virtually any obstacle or contour.
Understanding this information can be vital to your rut setups because it can inform you how bucks will be utilizing the wind in your area to travel, scent check doe bedding areas and approach food sources. Knowing how the wind reacts with the terrain around you is a major factor in putting you in the game while letting a cruising buck think he has the upper hand.
Ditches and Drainages
I'm a huge fan of ditches and drainages in hill country for many reasons. They're great for undetected stand access, funnel movement and can concentrate how and where deer get from point A to point B through one specific crossing point.
I love setting up on any contour where it creates a natural funnel between a ditch and the bottom of a ridge or drainage where the deer must travel through the bottleneck. It's even better when you get these features in route or close to a food source or doe bedding area that bucks will be frequenting during the rut. These natural ambush locations can provide high odds for cruising bucks.
Boots On the Ground
There's no question those late nights as a young hunter reading article after article about hill country bucks and strategies on how to kill them laid a good foundation. But if you truly want to take the challenge of hunting hill country bucks head on, get a good pair of boots, pay attention to detail and tack on the miles. It's the best education you can get.