August 18, 2021
Putting yourself in the best position to kill a deer doesn't always mean overlooking a lush, knee-deep food plot or sitting in a stand near an oak dropping acorns. Those are great stand locations if you have access to them, of course, but they're dream spots—the hot table at the trendy restaurant, the catered skybox at the football game.
For every hot stand, there are countless ugly ducklings that can produce just as well. These are the overlooked pockets, the places no hunter in camp wants or dares to go to. Maybe the walk is long and arduous. Perhaps the woods are overgrown, or maybe there are no woods at all because everything was recently timbered.
We're talking about the hunting places where your buddies refuse to hunt and laugh at you for trying…then wonder what you knew about it when they're admiring the handsome buck on your tailgate.
Plenty of deer live within city limits and thrive there. Urban bowhunting management programs have been in existence for a couple of decades now to help thin overpopulated deer herds in cities and parks.
These programs usually require hunters to undergo a safety course and shooting proficiency test, and typically have requirements such as killing two does before a buck.
The common thread between these urban programs and you, who is seeking perhaps one special buck, are the small woodlots, overgrown retail or industrial sites and small but public parcels owned by a state entity that are not already involved with an urban management program. Though you might be turned down many times before getting a green light to hunt one of these spots, gaining access can be accomplished. Perseverance pays off.
These small tracts often offer something that bucks, especially big bucks, seek. Here, they can find security, easy access to escape routes and food—or possibly some combination of the three. Depending on how hard you look, you may be able to identify multiple hunting spots like this. Finding one is great; finding multiple is golden.
Many hunters ignore these areas. You shouldn't. Land ownership records can be found online, but don’t be afraid to knock on doors; it will likely take shoe leather to secure access.
Scout early. Hang a stand and figure out your ingress and egress routes. During the season you may need to arrive earlier than you normally would to get settled, and definitely have the landowner's written permission and phone number with you when you hunt. Finally, don't wear out these small spots. They can be gold mines, but they aren't motherlodes.
THE WET STUFF
There are few things in deer hunting more exciting than hearing a buck sloshing through a swamp and headed your way. However, few deer hunters know this excitement since most seek the comfort and convenience of dry ground over the rigors of hunting a sloppy swamp or slough.
Swamps and thick, overgrown marshes represent sanctuary areas for deer. Older, wary bucks seek out high spots in a swamp, like a hillock or longer ridge that may be only a few feet (or even inches) above the water’s surface. The more of these a swamp has, the better for you.
When looking for access into a swamp or marsh, scout the edges on foot for potential entry-exit points. Alternatively, use satellite maps to get a general idea of where to begin your search. Keep in mind that deer are much like humans and will opt for convenience when possible. Additionally, look for nearby bedding areas, travel corridors and agricultural fields or other food sources. These are key areas deer will visit when they take leave from their soggy sanctuary.
CLOSE TO CAMP
On a hunt several years ago, my buddies and I were shooting our bows between our host's home and barn. Behind the barn was an open swath of sedge-covered pasture several hundred yards wide that bordered a big stand of cedars. To the east was an open pasture with a cedar-studded, three-strand fence that ended by a cluster of antler-scraped trees and a road.
While looking around after we finished shooting, we discovered that a buck had torn up the lone tree behind the barn. Our hosts said they had seen "a nice 170 or so" that occasionally made a loop through there. I saw it three days later as it chased a doe away from my stand overlooking a pasture out behind the barn. It was a monster, and I couldn't help but wonder how many hunters had passed on that spot because it was "too close" to the buildings.
Whitetails tend to become accustomed to the sights, sounds and smells of hunting lodges, barns and camps, so don’t overlook these spots. Deer pattern human movement just as we try to pattern theirs. They're also curious, and activity in a barn or a clanging gate eventually will be ignored.
If you're hunting the fence line by a gate or sitting in or near a barn, you could score. Walk around the barn or shed and watch from afar with a binocular in the morning or evening. Walk the fence lines looking for crossings and old scrapes on any trees or posts.
THICK, UGLY CUTOVERS
The denuded appearance of a timbered hardwood tract, also known as a cutover, is horribly ugly. What was a gorgeous stand of trees now is a mess of stumps, splinters and limbs strewn about.
Three or four years later, it's likely to be waist-high in briars, thriving sweet gum and whatever else reclaims the ground following the cut. Add another couple years and it’ll be so thick that it would seem nothing could enter or move around there, but deer, in fact, use grown-up cutovers. They feed in them, travel through them and bed in them, and you should hunt them, especially in the second to fourth years when all that tasty vegetation is sprouting. What looks to us like weeds is tender growth that deer love to eat.
If you have access to a cutover, now’s the time to put boots on the ground. Yes, it's hot, humid and the bugs, ticks, wasps and snakes are out. Prepare accordingly with a backpack loaded with insect repellent, water, map and bino.
If the tract is adjacent to unharvested woods, look for travel routes. Scan the growth or walk through to see where these routes go. If the growth is too thick, walk the edges. Pick sites to hang stands overlooking the best spots. Think about the late season, too, and where the sun's rays will hit after it rises. On frosty mornings deer may seek those first sunny areas to get a bite to eat.
An unlikely stand produces according to plan.
About 15 years ago I was in central Georgia for a media event with the Quality Deer Management Association (now the National Deer Association) at a reclaimed former state wildlife management area. The tract had gone fallow before being purchased by an Orlando developer who wanted the QDMA to use it for an educational and testing farm.
We toured the property, looking at hinge cuts, gorgeous hardwood stands, new growth from prescribed burns and a big hub-spoke area of strips of planted plots between thick, overgrown native vegetation behind the cabin. The vegetation provided cover; the plots provided food and shooting lanes.
That's when I saw an overgrown mess near a thin strip of oaks, maybe 30 to 40 yards wide, connecting two larger blocks of woods.
The brushy area was a wet-weather swamp just a few hundred yards from the cabin. A ladder stand was located in the strip connecting the two bigger blocks. I went to bed thinking about a buck slipping through there the next morning.
We left the lodge in the pre-dawn darkness. I easily found the stand, climbed up, hauled up my rifle and got settled in. Thirty minutes later I had to triple-check that the buck on the ground was dead, not believing what had transpired. As I thought might be the case, the buck was using the narrow strip of woods to move between the two larger blocks. It wasn’t a giant, but it was satisfying because the plan had come together.