What hunters call obstacles, trophy deer consider prime habitat.
Hunters take few deer, especially mature trophy bucks, standing broadside in wide-open spaces. We probably harvest a majority of our meat locker does in open food plots out in plain sight, but not usually the bucks.
Seriously, how many nice wall-hangers have you seen outside of deep cover? During the rut, maybe, but chances are even pretty slim then, too.
Boone & Crockett record book bucks, or “Booners,” rarely expose themselves, except by accident.
That being the case, where can deer hunters realistically anticipate finding trophy class bucks hiding out?
After talking to dozens of seasoned buck hunters coming through the check in station annually at the Big Buck Contest at the Mississippi Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Extravaganza, I can tell you the list is surprisingly long.
Water hazards, creek banks, swamp edges, narrow funnels formed naturally by nature, forested margins and borders, timber cutover thickets, roadways and highways, grown up fence lines and fenced field corners, and other such barriers created naturally by Mother Nature or inadvertently by man.
Big bucks love these barrier type habitats because they offer a bit of a sanctuary hidden away from most human intervention or contact. They find security in these areas and can move around with relative freedom, and where they can find what they need to get bigger, food, water, and bedding.
Fences and ponds
Angelia Rustin killed a 200-pound buck a couple years ago, and an overgrown fence line and two ponds helped her get her trophy in the second week of January.
“The rut was on so bucks were looking, the seasoned archery hunter said. “I was hunting a dual field set up with a long overgrown fence line running between the two pastures. The field on the left was planted in rye grass around a standing water pond. The other field on the right side only had a small food plot, but it also had a small pond.
“The water sources always attract deer, especially does, and in the rut, where you find does is where the bucks will be. I always thought that fence line was the key to these fields, in addition to those two ponds. Bucks liked to slip out of the surrounding cover, then cruise over to the grown-up fence line between those fields to stand and watch the does out in the open fields. They could hide there just motionless watching and wind-testing for the does.”
“For sure the fields attract the does for the food plots and the ponds for the water, but the bucks use the fence like an observation post. That barrier between fields was not really an obstacle for the bucks to overcome, but a hiding spot for them to keep track of the does. The whole scenario played into my hands just right finally giving me a shot on one of the biggest bucks I had ever seen.”
Chad Winkler of Brandon saw how growing areas of cutover timber started changing the dynamics of his hunting property.
“The deer lease where we hunt is an active timber land with lots of cutover in various stages of regrowth,” Winkler said. “As the landowner got older he had to cut more and more timber to pay his bills. As the cutovers got to be 2 and 3 years old, they offered lots of cover and food for the deer.
“The dynamics of the hunting property then changed. Deer did not come to our food plots as much keeping to the timber harvest areas offering new, fresh growth to browse.”
But, at a point, advantages of cutover timber become disadvantages.
“Now, hunting a cutover in the early years is great, but once the regrowth starts to get high then it becomes a challenge,” Winkler said. “Actual deer observations start to decline, despite our knowing the deer are there. The good part though is that this is where the bucks like to hang out. We just have to keep after it.
“Large swatches of cutover tend to reduce deer sightings. In time we learned that as the rut comes on full blast then the bucks start showing more and more. To overcome the visibility of deer we put up even higher stands overlooking these timber cut areas. We also start adding small food plots out in the middle or along the edges of the cutovers.”
Winkler said the club took more steps to increase visibility.
“The next step we took was to start working on cutting lanes through the cutovers to give the deer a place to feed where we could see them,” he said. “The close-by cover is still there, but then more deer could be seen coming out into the lanes or crossing them. This naturally included seeing more bucks.
“A timber cutover might be a barrier to the hunters, but it is not to the deer at all. These slash cut areas provide great new browse, mini-trails for the deer to slip around, and plenty of security cover. Hunters just have to adapt to placing taller stands to see into these thickets, open up the areas with more visibility lanes, and staying on our toes. It works.”
When I asked Charlie Garretson of Ellisville if he ever hunted deer barrier areas like swamps, thickets, nasty places and such, he didn’t hesitate a bit.
“Yes, as a matter of fact as a bow hunter, I look for those types of places to hunt; that is where the big boys hang out,” he said. “Thickets, bedding areas, swamps, anywhere that bucks seek refuge or bed down is a good place to hang a stand. The key is getting in, setting up, and playing the wind to avoid detection.
“The big one that I killed was bedded in a thicket and I hung my stand right on the edge. He was within 15 minutes of doing exactly what I thought he would do that morning when he got up to move around. I was ready, arrow nocked and bow drawn.”
Garretson hones in on the busiest trails.
“I look for trails leading in and out of these areas, and then I look at specific tracks,” he said. “That will generally tell you what size deer are using them. I also look for rubs, scrapes, and all the usual signs of buck activity. Trail cameras are a must in helping you figure out what is moving around. However, they are not 100 percent. The only way to know for sure is to go and actually hunt a spot like that. Give it some time before giving up. All-day sits may even be necessary.
“I personally think hunting the wind is the single most important factor to hunting, period, especially hunting these barrier areas. For that reason I always carry a powdered wind checker to stay on top of slight changes in wind direction. I also use the Scout Look app to figure wind direction for specific areas. I save all my stand locations and can check how the wind might impact each one.”
Upland timber thickets
Janice Wallace hunts in Smith County, where she sets up on the edges of thick timber barriers spying for deer movements along natural worn trails where deer slip along hoping not to be seen. That strategy produced a trophy buck
“It was the first day of the fall gun season,” she said. “I walked into my area about a quarter mile just at the break of a chilly morning. Before I could even reach my stand I heard a deer blowing. I took my seat and watched the sunrise in my face. At about 7:30, I looked up to see two 8-point bucks coming down a trail in the thicket right toward me. I pulled up my Browning .243 and took aim on the buck with the widest spread.
“At the shot this buck just walked off into the thicket and I listened for him to fall. He did. The smaller buck kept coming back to check on his buddy to see what was wrong, but he finally gave up and moved on. Had I not been hunting over that timber thicket, I would have never caught those two bucks moving. These forested thickets are where the bucks hang out.”
Deer hunting barriers are not really buck impediments, but are unique habitat areas where bucks live and thrive. Whether it is a swamp, a cutover, or a timber thicket, successful buck hunters focus on these hotspots.
You should, too.