How And Where To Find Bedded Bucks

Understanding thermoregulation helps you logically find spots where bucks bed. Proper glassing

techniques let you make logic pay off. (October 2006)

To maximize the effectiveness of your glassing efforts, try to keep a high vantage point. When you reach a high point in the terrain, take time to glass the landscape ahead of you. Then break the area into grids and focus in on one section at a time. Don't pan with your binoculars. Keep your glasses stationary and let your eyes move around the frame.
Photo by Christopher Cogley

Modern advances in hunting clothing have provided today's hunters with advantages our ancestors couldn't even dream about. We can add specialized layers to protect ourselves from bitter cold, wind and rain, and then replace them with garments that keep us from overheating when we pursue game in desert climates.

These garments, and the protection they offer, significantly expand our hunting opportunities. But they don't come without a price. Hunters need to make a conscious effort -- as we sit comfortably protected by our layers of Gore-Tex, fleece and Thinsulate -- to understand how changes in temperature and weather affect the movements and locations of deer. To do this effectively, it's important to understand the deer's natural methods of thermoregulation.

HEAT AND COLD AT

THE DEER'S EXPENSE

Just like the monthly budgets that each of us has to manage, deer have energy budgets they have to balance every day. One of the most important -- and expensive -- bills that deer must pay is thermoregulation, to heat and cool its internal body temperature.

To minimize this cost, deer physiologically try to constantly maintain thermal homeostasis -- their ideal core temperature.

Evolution has provided them with several tools to accomplish this, but instinct also tells deer that the more they can take advantage of the natural conditions around them to counteract adverse weather conditions, the more energy they can stockpile for the times when alternatives aren't available. This instinct leads to changes in behavior and habitat preferences.

COLD CONDITIONS

If you've ever picked up a rifle in pursuit of deer, chances are good you've hunted in cold weather. But knowing how to hunt in the cold, and being able to locate deer consistently when the temperature drops, don't necessarily always go hand in hand.

"When it comes to winter thermal cover, look for areas with a closed canopy and a dense understory of thickets," explains Dr. James Kroll, Director of the Institute for White-tailed Deer Management and Research at Stephen F. Austin State University. "Thick underbrush blocks wind, and the closed canopy reduces the amount of snow that accumulates."

The lower the canopy is, the more deer will prefer it because, to a small degree, it can also act like a roof and hold heat closer to the bedded animals. But the thickness of the understory, and the relief from the wind it provides, offer deer the most protection.

"Snow usually isn't much of an issue for deer," says Woody Myers, a deer biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "In terms of cold-weather thermoregulation, wind tends to be the most crucial factor for deer."

Here's why.

A deer's winter coat has two layers. The outer layer is designed to hold the snow on top of the hairs, away from the skin. This prevents the deer's body warmth from melting the snow and also allows the snow to become a second insulating layer. Wind, however, penetrates both layers of the coat and effectively wipes warmth off the deer's skin, forcing the animal to expend precious energy to replace the lost heat. Because of this, when low temperatures combine with wind, deer can almost always be found in thermal cover that offers them protection from the cold wind.

Dr. Kroll says he's also found that in cold weather, deer's movement and behavior are associated with the region where they live.

"When the weather turns cold, Southern deer shut down completely. They know the conditions are eventually going to get better, so they tend to wait it out," Kroll explains. "In the North, the colder it gets, the more they're going to move because they need to move to stay warm, and they know it's not going to get better."

Depending on the latitude in which you hunt, you should adjust your tactics for locating deer accordingly.

"If you're hunting the South, concentrate your hunting efforts during the warm-up following a cold spell," Kroll says. "In the North, you're better off finding thermal cover and hunting the corridors coming out of it."

Thermal cover becomes even more important to Northern deer when the temperature drops dramatically, as it tends to do at least a few times during the late season.

"There comes a point where it's so cold that the deer can't get enough energy from eating to stay warm. When it reaches that point, the deer are best off if they stay put," Myers says. "This typically only happens in extreme cold conditions when we, as hunters, probably won't even be in the field. But if you are, you're best off looking for the deer bedded down."

COMFORT IN THE COLD

Where deer are bedded down depends largely on the types of thermal cover available to them.

"Bedding sites are going to be based on where they can take advantage of thermal conditions," Myers says. "They're going to look for south- or southwest-facing slopes when it's cold, and they're going to bed in places where they can use the landscape to collect as much solar radiation as possible."

When the temperatures fall dramatically, large rock faces and snowfields that magnify the sun's warmth become especially important. If you're hunting on a cold day and spot a large rock face surrounded by dense thickets on a south-facing slope, sit down and glass it carefully. There's a good chance your pot of gold is hiding in there.

HANDLING THE HEAT

Most deer hunting is typically accompanied by cold conditions -- and it seems logical that behavior modifications relating to thermoregulation would occur more frequently when the temperature falls. But unseasonably warm conditions also pose a significant threat to deer's survival.

"From a physiological perspective, early in the fall, bucks are trying to do two things -- build up muscle to get ready for the rut, and pack on fat to prepare for winter," Kroll points out.

Although you never

hear about deer dying from heat exhaustion, having to cool themselves in the early fall requires a heavy cost of energy, just as it does to warm their bodies in the cold months. If they expend too much energy too early in the year, they cannot store enough fat to maintain homeostasis throughout the winter. To minimize this cost, deer will adjust to unseasonably warm temperatures by changing their behavior and bedding sites.

"Early in the fall, bucks have put on their winter coat. But it still gets hot in many places," Kroll says. "Deer simply do not want to move in those conditions."

If you find yourself shedding clothing as the sun comes up, don't spend time looking for deer where you'd normally expect to find them in the fall. Chances are good they won't be there.

The ideal thermal cover for hot temperatures mimics the thermal cover for cold temperatures, with one important variation -- when temperatures rise, deer completely avoid the thick underbrush that's so crucial for providing protection from the wind in winter. In hot weather, thermal cover with a closed canopy provides much-needed relief from the sun's rays, and the open understory allows any wind that's blowing to cool the deer bedded there.

Just as in winter, however, when thermal cover is in short supply, deer will take advantage of the natural landscape and alter their movements and bedding sites accordingly.

"Because they don't sweat, transpiration" -- that is, exhaling body heat through the mouth -- "is the only way they have to get rid of body heat," Myers says. "So they'll try to avoid running unless it's absolutely necessary."

Moving slowly, or even staying still, allows deer to keep their heart rate down and avoid accumulating any excess body heat from exercise. Typically, they will move into bedding areas earlier in the day and stay in their beds longer into dusk. On hot days, beds will typically be on north- or northeast-facing slopes in areas where they can take advantage of whatever shade is available.

"When they're bedded, they will often lay down perpendicular to the wind and splay their legs to increase the amount of surface area that is exposed to the wind," Myers says.

Deer's movement during the day is extremely limited, he continues. Typically, they will voluntarily break this rule for only one reason -- thirst.

"Deer need half a gallon to a gallon of water a day. That amount increases in extremely hot conditions," Kroll says. "The hotter it is, the more they're going to come to water."

It's most advantageous for them to hit water holes before they bed and after they feed at night. But on hot days, their need for water will often outweigh the desire to stay immobile.

"When it's really hot, I have observed that deer are very likely to move to water at midday," says Craig Boddington, executive field editor for Primedia Outdoor Group. Boddington has hunted big game all over the world, including in his home state of California.

"Here in California, our 'coastal deer season' is held from the second Saturday in August, when temperatures swing from the 60s at dawn (if you're lucky) to as much as 110 by noon," he observes. "Typical crepuscular movement is limited to the first hour of light, at best, and the last few minutes (again, at best.)

"On the other hand, I have taken some of my best coastal bucks moving to and from water, at high noon," Boddington continues. "I've observed the same with Coues deer, but this is not universal. Desert mule deer seem to get most of their moisture from their browse and rarely water at all, regardless of temperature."

Also, whether they're heading to water at midday, or moving to and from bedding areas, deer faced with high temperatures might not take the same paths to their destinations that they would during normal conditions.

"Look for them to follow the contour lines, as opposed to going straight up and down hills," Kroll says.

When you're hunting in hot conditions and if all else fails, use the simplest -- and oldest -- method available to you.

"The best way to find deer is to think like a deer," Kroll says. "If you had a fur coat on, where would you be?"

KEEP AN EYE OUT

Locating optimal thermal cover that matches the current weather conditions, or landscape features that deer can take advantage of to maintain thermal homeostasis, gives you a tremendous advantage when it comes to finding bucks in the area you're hunting. But it doesn't mean your work is done.

"It's surprising to me how tight mule deer will hold if they feel safe and how hidden they can be," Myer says. "They bed down in places where they can almost completely disappear, so you really need to look carefully."

Proper glassing techniques and the right optics are always valuable tools for hunters, but they don't always carry the same value.

"When deer movement is limited, this becomes even more important," Boddington says. "Good optics are essential, with the best being powerful binoculars, tripod-mounted."

As with every hunting situation, the optics you carry should match the conditions of your hunt. But when it comes to picking the right optics, some general rules apply.

"Get a binocular that allows you to use it for extended periods (like an hour or more) without eyestrain," advises Pat Mundy, marketing communications supervisor at Leupold & Stevens. "Fine-detail resolution is important, but so is color. A good field of view allows you to work over larger areas more quickly, but only because you can see more when the binocular is up, not because you are frantically panning from side to side."

Tackle the task of glassing as you would paint a house: A flurried, frenzied approach never yields results that are as gratifying as a slow, methodical one.

"I'd say 80 percent of my time mule-deer hunting is spent glassing," Myers says. "If I'm looking for a bedded buck, I'll take a hillside and break it up before I sit down. I'll look for anything obvious, then I'll sit down and get comfortable."

One of the oldest glassing techniques is still the best: Take a large area and break it into grids. Carefully study each grid until you're convinced there's nothing there. After you've examined every small section, go back and look again. Steady changes in light and shadows will often uncover something that was completely hidden the first time you looked.

When you pick up your binoculars or spotting scope, convince yourself that a deer is bedded somewhere on the hillside opposite you, and don't let yourself quit looking until you find him. Resolve that it could take you some time, but that it'll be time well spent.

"When deer mo

vement is limited, it is extremely difficult to simply sit there and glass. But if you know you're in good (deer) country, this is the best solution," Boddington says. "Just be patient and keep looking. All bedded deer get up now and again and shift position. And if you're looking in the right place at the right time, you will see them."

At that point, temperature will be the last thing on your mind.

Good hunting!

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