Finding Bowhunting'™s Hidden Edges

Sometimes, bowhunting the edge can be more complicated than "Woods meet brush." Our expert explains how to find and hunt edge cover for success this fall. (August 2008)

This hunter set up along the edge of two different plant types and arrowed this big doe when she came through just at dark with a group of smaller deer.
Photo by P.J. Reilly.

"How in the world are we going to hunt this?" I asked one of my hunting buddies a few years back.

We had just gained permission to bowhunt a 200-acre section of woods that we knew was loaded with deer.

But the land was flat as a pancake. It had no streams running through it, and it didn't border any crop fields.

It was just one big chunk of topographically featureless woods -- and it seemed as though the deer could be anywhere in it.

"Well," my buddy replied, "I guess we're just going to have to sit in our tree stands and see what we see. And then go from there."

The first night we hunted, I chose to sit in the middle of a rectangular stand of tulip poplars.

They were like a sea of tall telephone poles. There wasn't another species of tree in this particular block.

One side of it was bordered by a strip of pines that had been planted decades ago. On the other side was a mix of saplings, tall gnarly maples and greenbriers -- obviously the result of a selective timber cutting several years before.

I picked that stand of tulip poplars because from within that block, it was easy to see a good distance. I figured that if any deer cut through the stand, I'd spot it instantly.

That night, I saw two processions of deer. One string followed the line where the tulip poplars met the pines, and the other group followed the junction between the poplars and the old timber cutting.

None of them ventured into the middle of the stand of tulip poplars where I was sitting.

Well, nobody had to hit me over the head with a board to get me to change locations.

The next evening, I selected for my climbing stand a tree on the edge where the poplars met the pines.

Just two hours into the hunt, I arrowed a nice 8-pointer.

LIVING ON THE EDGE
Deer live on the edge. That's no secret to farm-country bowhunters. For decades, they've been ambushing deer from tree stands and ground blinds set on field edges, where a stand of timber meets a crop field.

But aside from obvious edge cover in a whitetail's world -- such as the border of woods and fields or areas where standing timber gives way to a fresh clearcut -- there are plenty of subtler edges that savvy bowhunters would do well to key in on.

EDGES OF TERRAIN
Mountain Country
In many parts of the whitetails' world, the terrain varies. There are peaks and valleys and benches and hillsides. Any place where the terrain changes can be considered an "edge" that whitetails are likely to frequent.

Climb any mountain and you'll hit a ridge at the top. Whitetails like to cruise two parts of a ridge. They'll walk along the crest, right where it breaks downhill, so they can sniff rising thermals for signs of danger.

Or -- provided the grade is not too steep -- they'll cruise just downhill from the top to keep out of sight of any predators or hunters who might be working the crest.

Play the wind to key in on which side of the mountain the deer will be working on any given day. Typically, they'll choose the side that's forcing the wind uphill. Like other prey species in mountain country, deer prefer to watch for danger downhill. And they like it when the wind is carrying to them the scent of any predators.

The other place in the mountains you're likely to find deer is the edge at the bottom of a slope, where it meets flat ground.

But should you hunt the high edge or the low edge? Well, in mountain country, the standard advice is to hunt high in the morning, and low in the evening.

In the mornings, deer tend to move uphill, along with the rising thermals that climb the mountains on warming air. In the evenings, they usually move downhill, along with falling thermals that are descending the mountains on cooling air.

Of course, I've seen this old rule of thumb work in reverse in areas where farm fields lie on top of the mountains. It's also reversed in a lot of farming areas where the tilled ground is mostly flat, except where creeks cut through to create wooded depressions. In this country, the deer tend to move up the hills to feed in the evening and then, during the daytime, drop downhill into the timber to bed.

I can recall hunting one year with an outfitter who insisted on taking me to an island of trees in the middle of a pasture on top of a mountain. When we walked to the stand in the dark, we saw tons of deer scattering out of the field and then after daylight, I had very few encounters.

Well, after two days of this, I insisted the outfitter take me to a stand below the field, at the bottom of a hollow.

And my hunch proved correct! Around 8 a.m., I got a shot at a nice 10-pointer.

Unfortunately, I missed.

In this situation, remember that in the morning, your scent is going to waft uphill on rising air currents. Try to put a site for your stand away from where you expect deer to descend, but which will let you ambush them once they hit the bottom.

In the evenings, of course, hunt the field edges on the high ground.

NATURAL BARRIERS
Not too far from my house, there's a lake that I fish from my bass boat religiously each summer. The lake's part of a state park that's open to public hunting, but I've never ventured there during deer season.

One summer, while fishing the lake with my brother-in-law, we were working a weedbed just off the end of a long peninsula jutting out into the middle of the lake.

"You know what?" I asked my brother-in-law. "I'll bet you if somebody sat in a tree stan

d at the end of that peninsula during the rut, they'd get a buck without any problem."

I never acted on that thought -- but my brother-in-law did. The following November, he rowed his canoe across the lake from the boat launch and set up his stand at the very tip of that peninsula. First thing in the morning, he missed a 6-pointer. But that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because about three hours later, he killed a 130-class 8-point.

Both bucks, as he later told me, were searching for does by walking nose to the ground, all the way around the finger of land at the water's edge.

Lakes, streams, boulder fields and canyons you find in the woods all create natural edges in a whitetail's world. As with other edges, the deer will work the lines created where these natural features meet the adjacent timber or brush.

Unlike many other types of edges, natural barriers tend to channel deer movement. Not that a deer can't cross a lake or field of boulders, but under normal circumstances, when the animal hits the edge of such a land feature, it's going to walk along it, rather than dive in and swim or jump up on the rocks.

I hunt a public park with a large lake in it, where a limited-access, controlled deer hunt is held every year. Hunters gain entry through a lottery drawing. In the years when I've participated in this hunt, I've always set up right along the lake's edge. Invariably, as hunters fan out across the park, some of the resident deer find their way to the lake's shore and will walk up and down it.

I've had great action early in the morning, when I've been able to get to my spot ahead of most of the other hunters. After the deer run up and down the lakeshore a few times, eventually they'll jump in and swim across to escape the pressure.

But the first thing in the morning, that shoreline is a fantastic place to be, because it's a predictable place to find deer.

How many times have you seen deer dash across a road or opening and keep on running 20 or 30 yards into the woods on the other side before they stop?

MANMADE BARRIERS
In addition to natural barriers, deer country often is dotted with a number of artificial barriers -- fences and roads, primarily.

Like their natural counterparts, these structures tend to channel deer movement.

If you find a fence in the woods, odds are you'll find that deer cross over it in only a few places. Maybe there's a low spot where it's easier for them to jump across, or a place where the bottom is high enough for deer to slip underneath easily.

Find those crossings, and you're in business.

The same goes for roads. Deer can cross a road anywhere, but yet there are usually a handful of "deer crossings" that they prefer. Heavily worn trails in the ground will help you identify such places.

If you're hunting a deer crossing, don't set up next to the road.

Deer approaching from your side will get cautious as they draw closer to the pavement. They will have their guard up. They'll be prepared to bolt if they spot the slightest movement from you as you draw your bow, or if you make any noise.

When you're drawing on a relaxed deer, you have a chance of getting away with such disturbances. An alert deer is a different creature.

Also, if you're on the same side of the road that the deer are crossing to, they're likely to sprint right past you if you're too close to the road.

How many times have you seen deer dash across a road or opening and keep on running 20 or 30 yards into the woods on the other side before stopping?

You don't want to be in that sprint-through zone. Set up back from the road about 70 or 80 yards, along a trail that leads to the crossing.

Whether the deer are approaching your stand to cross the road or have already just crossed it, you should be far enough away that they won't be road-shy. Yet you should still be close enough to take advantage of the road's channeling effect.

On the wall of my office, there's a 9-pointer that I chased in a suburban area for several weeks back in 1995.

Through the early weeks of my state's archery season, I played the cat-and-mouse game with the buck several times. I'd see the deer working one section of a 40-acre woodlot between two houses, and I'd move my stand to that area.

While hunting from that spot, I'd see the buck working through another section of the woods. I always seemed to be one step behind him.

Whenever I hunted that woodlot in the morning, I noticed that the buck -- after crossing a busy road and one of the neighbor's lawns -- almost always entered the woods at the same spot. I'd been trying to intercept the buck deeper in the woods on one of his preferred trails.

But he had so many trails to choose from, and I always seemed to pick the wrong one.

One day, I decided to hunt on the edge of the woods where the buck usually entered. It was still a bit dark when I heard cars slow down.

I spotted their moving headlights coming to a halt on the road 50 yards away, and figured they were stopping for a deer in the road.

Sure enough, within a few minutes, the big 9-pointer appeared on the trail under my stand.

There was just enough light for me to lock my 20-yard sight pin behind the buck's muscled shoulder.

Lakes, streams, boulder fields and canyons you find in the woods all create natural edges in a whitetail's world.

CHANGES IN VEGETATION
In deer country, perhaps the most abundant type of edge you're likely to find is the meeting of two varying types of vegetation.

This can be a spot where a stand of timber abuts a brush thicket, or where a stand of one type of trees meets a stand of another species, such as the junction of planted pines and tulip poplars that I described earlier.

In the woods, deer will frequent this type of edge above all others. They live in these edges and use them to transition from feeding to bedding areas, and vice versa.

In most places in the woods where two types of vegetation meet, there's usually a line of thick cover that acts like a security blanket for wary deer.

They'll feel safe in these edges. And the thicker those edges are, the better they like it.

Select a series of places along a change-in-vegetation edge to place your tree stands and/or ground blinds.

That way, no matter which way the wind is blowing, you can ambush a deer traveling the edge.

Naturally, in the evening, you'll probably want to set up near a food source and away from the bedding area. In the morning, do the opposite.

During the summer of 2005, on a farm that I hunt, I found a branch-laden black locust growing at the edge of a stand of open timber and a fairly small three-acre laurel thicket.

I knew the deer loved to work this edge. The branches stretching out from this black locust's trunk seemed perfect for hiding me in a tree stand, so two months before archery season opened, I set one there.

During the season's early weeks, I sat in that stand only when the wind was blowing from the thicket into the open woods.

I saw a lot of deer, including a few bucks, but none worth shooting.

The morning of Nov. 11 found me perched in that stand once again, with a perfectwind. I'd been there for only about an hour when I made a series of doe calls, followed by a few buck grunts. Within seconds, I heard footsteps to my left.

Looking down the edge of the timber and the laurel, I spotted a heavy 8-pointer plodding along with his nose buried in the leaves.

The buck walked right to the base of my tree. I drilled him with an arrow at a distance of about three yards.

On Dec. 7, almost exactly one month later, I was sitting in that same tree -- this time, with my muzzleloader. In the state where I was hunting, a deer license allows you to shoot one buck with a bow and another with a firearm, and I was taking full advantage of that rule.

Around 10 a.m. a herd of deer came tearing through the open timber and ran into the laurel thicket. One by one, the deer -- all does -- slowly filtered past my stand.

The last deer in the bunch, however, was a 140-inch 9-pointer. I anchored him with a shot from my .50-caliber at five yards on the opposite side of the tree from where I'd arrowed that 8-pointer a month earlier.

One tree, two bucks. Both within 10 yards of my stand. That's what I call having "an edge."

Scour your favorite deer woods this year and see if you can't find an edge of your own. When you do, be sure to clear some space in the freezer because you're going to need it!

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