October 06, 2016
Clambering up the steep bank was the last push needed to put me into a whitetail honeyhole after a long and arduous hike. The trek included walking on thin ice, slipping into frigid waters and now eating dirt crumbling from the eroded bank above.
Scouting prodded me to make the risky journey and I felt confident my new, downwind position put me in a location to intercept whitetail traffic that stands out in river corridors. As shooting light developed, I could see distant whitetails slipping my way. Was I about to get a shot at a buck?
Whitetails and meandering riparian zones have partnerships stronger than Batman and Robin, or the Lone Ranger and Tonto. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are nearly 4 million miles of streams and rivers that wind through the nation. It's a spider web that includes small streams, creeks, rivers and super rivers. They supply water to cities, nourish crops, and create a habitat zone that whitetails have used for centuries.
What's the connection? In all corners of whitetail country forested riparian zones represent travel routes that deer follow with a passion. These riparian zones form the basis of some of the most food-rich ground a whitetail could call home.
Over the ages, meandering rivers and streams carved out fertile grounds that collected and dispersed soils from eroded uplands. Annual flooding dispersed nutrients across the valleys and today many of these waterways comprise America's richest, and most productive farm grounds. You can see this clearly by following the path of any major watercourse in the country. Whitetail densities increase the closer you get to these farm-rich riparian zones.
If for some reasons crops are lacking or the farming doesn't take place between the meanders, whitetails still have the rich browse varieties available in these waterway zones. Any shrubbery, saplings and grasses have immediate access to moist conditions and partial shade to create a myriad of browsing opportunities. Plus, riparian zones attract herds of deer in winter due to combinations of cover and food, making them great locations for late-season hunting.
In brief, these riparian zones provide whitetails with everything they need to survive. They provide one-stop shopping that includes food, water and escape cover. Don't ignore such a whitetail attraction.
CREEK AND RIVER CONUNDRUMS
Despite the rosy whitetail picture painted about waterways, you may encounter a few conundrums when it comes time to hunt. The ribbon-like character of many waterways creates its own style of problems for the hunter, whether he totes a rifle, shotgun, muzzleloader or bow.
To begin, you can't just blindly charge into a riparian zone. Whitetails have no aversion to wading or swimming most waters. Mornings can create the biggest access issue. Oftentimes you'll only have deeded access to one side of the river and that means accessing your favorite spot via the front door. Unfortunately, most front doors have fields of crops paving the way and whitetails passionately feed on those fields at dawn and dusk.
Barging right through a field on a dark morning means pushing the deer into sanctuary before shooting light. It also means alerting them to your later deeds and possibly creating a future, nocturnal pattern. Getting into a stand before daylight isn't out of the question. It just takes a savvy approach.
One solid strategy involves darkness and creeping along the riverbank. Park your vehicle far enough away not to spook feeding deer and then use terrain and darkness to get to the riverbank unseen. If the river is low enough, jump down off the bank and walk along the river's edge using the bank to conceal your form. If the water is too high, walk right along the bank's edge to get to your ambush site. Noise from moving water, the screen of timber, and deer busy browsing should work in your favor to gain access. Oh yes, and a downwind approach absolutely is required.
An even better option, if you have access, is to come from the opposite side of the waterway in a downwind fashion. You won't have to risk skirting field edges to get around deer feeding in the dark and the timber will screen any entrance. Some creeks and rivers may allow you to cross in your rubber boots or waders. For others you may have to utilize a raft or canoe. Be safe. Crossing water in the dark opens up a new set of dangers, especially in frigid, icy conditions.
If you can't find a morning solution then the best thing to do is abandon it and focus on the afternoon hunt. Deer will be in their beds. Fields will be vacant. The front door will be wide open to walk across any field and take up a field-edge stand.
But hold on. Now you have another problem. Once the field fills up with feeding deer at dusk, how do you exit without blowing those deer out?
One tactic is to set your stand up just inside the timber on a highly used trail. You'll still have opportunity as deer file to a field or browse location, but you'll also have a screen of brush to cover your escape to a backdoor exit such as through a nearby hollow.
Another option, although not as sneaky, is to familiarize deer to a vehicle so you can have someone drive along the field edge and pick you up in the dark. Several outfitters I know use this tactic with a high degree of success. Most of the deer simply step aside and allow the vehicle to pass.
With your plan slowly coming into place it's time to consider tactics for hunting waterways. Rivers, streams and creeks give treestand aficionados plenty of trees, and pinch points, to set a buck trap. Return to your satellite images using programs like ScoutLook Weather to scout from above along waterway corridors. Now confirm with a closer inspection. Areas where timber necks down, bankside trails, field edges and crossings all should receive a solid snooping for the best stand placement.
All narrow terrain zones have merit, but two get overlooked. Take a closer look at narrow necks of timber and water crossings. Riparian cover fluctuates depending on river bends, changing channels and even farming practices due to past clearing. Any narrow necks of habitat will funnel traveling bucks into areas that increase the percentage for a close shot.
This particularly holds true during the rut when bucks hurry between areas of thick cover looking for hot does. Even if you're not a fan of tree stands you can still cut a buck off at the pass with a ground blind or even sitting on a bluff overlooking the habitat funnel.
Crossings are another overlooked ambush opportunity. All riparian habitat isn't created equal. Many streams, creeks and rivers have steep slopes making passage from one side of the waterway to the other difficult at best. Your snooping should focus on locating gentle banks that deer prefer when searching for their path of least resistance.
Old beaver runs, bank cave-ins, and sandbars provide whitetails with the stair-step structure for them to cross a waterway easily without performing mountain-goat antics. It may take an intrusion or two to discover the perfect location for a stand, but you'll know it when you see it. Crossings also offer an advantage in the form of a standing shot. Whitetails oftentimes stop and look over the new scenery after crossing, and before proceeding. Be ready and steady when a buck shows up at a crossing.
One last riparian zone to consider isn't necessarily in a funnel setting, but it does attract deer. Various browse plants, trees and bushes can attract whitetails. You also should locate any mast sources in a riparian zone. Acorns, apples, crabapples, persimmons and the like provide a mast buffet for whitetails for undercover dining.
Whitetails may fill 50 percent or more of their daily diet on mast crops when they mature without ever stepping out of river bottom cover. It's an easy way for them to stay fat in fall.
If sitting around sounds boring, consider the lost art of still-hunting. If the local forecast offers breezy conditions combined with some moisture, any riparian zone can become the perfect setting to slip around and shop for a buck. Outfit yourself with a low-power binocular in the 6X or 8X range.
I use a Nikon Monarch 7 in 8 power. Low power widens your field of view to dissect thick habitat. Look for movement and deer pieces, not the whole animal. You'll want to ease through dense whitetail cover at a snail's pace. It should take an hour or more to cover 100 yards.
Still-hunting also offers an ideal scenario to incorporate all of your calls, including rattling. Find an opening, set up behind some cover, and begin a calling sequence to imitate bucks battling over territory or a hot doe.
That's exactly what I did once I felt confident I had a good shooting window after climbing that steep bank. My rattling sequence lasted less than a minute and within three minutes I had the attention of several bucks. Three converged on my location at once, but only one had the dimensions of a mature buck.
As he passed behind a large tree I slipped the safety off and when he stepped out I grunted. He stopped and I made it permanent with a shot behind the shoulder. Riparian hunting had paid off again. It's the reason I return to waterways every chance I get throughout whitetail country.