Pre-Rut Strategies: Bucks By the Water
Water attracts and directs whitetail movement, a key factor in mid-fall deer hunts.
I heard the splash before I ever saw the deer. That telltale sound sent a burst of adrenaline to awaken my buck fever, and I hadn’t even seen antlers. Staring into the brush, I soon caught sight of antler tips above the willows to confirm the reason for my rattled nerves.
The water crossing I chose to watch connected to a trail that led right under my stand. A quick wind check confirmed I was still in the game as I gripped my bow for a possible shot opportunity.
This hunt played out in October, a time period many of you cuss due to the changing and irregular pattern of bucks. As Halloween nears, the pre-rut begins to aid your success, but oftentimes the weeks leading up to spook day tax you like the IRS. One singular component has the answer: water. This chemical compound has the power to attract and direct whitetail movement, plus it can be a boon to you if you need to escape hunting pressure.
I NEED A DRINK
Based on the latest data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the 2017 average global temperature was 1.51 degrees above the 20th-century average. It’s getting hotter according to NOAA thermometers; your past seasons likely reflect warmer hunting days. That data and the fact that a whitetail requires 2 to 4 quarts of water per day, depending on body weight and activity, signals that you should hunt water.
Like you, the majority of a whitetail’s body is composed of water, and in the fall, whitetails sport more body than ever. October bucks are putting the finishing touches on adding at least 20 percent or more to their mass in preparation for the rut and winter. They’ll lose that amount or more within a few weeks, but as they gorge themselves, they require water to process the greens and combat heat.
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Some properties may simply have too much water for you to target. Even so, scouting doesn’t hurt because just as you have a favorite watering hole to hang out with your friends, whitetails also have favorites. High-visitation areas include hidden water, like springs or seeps, in timber between bedding cover and feeding areas. These hydration sources provide convenient filling points without exposure. Other sources to target include any water adjacent to food. Before, during and after eating, whitetails have the urge to top off with easy accessibility. Trail cameras can help you with scouting chores, and wireless units that send images straight to your smartphone might be a wise investment, especially to monitor water sources near refuge cover.
It’s worth repeating. Whitetails are creatures of the edge. Water has edges. Add the two together and you have a new boundary to scout for whitetail interception. A tiny stream hidden in timber might not be the edge of choice, but lakes, reservoirs, rivers, steep creeks and wetlands all have the potential to funnel deer along their edge.
It’s likely at least one of these geographic features exists on land you hunt. Take a closer look. You can start scouting riparian and water edges from home with Google Earth, or better yet, use a hunting app like Scoutlook Weather that offers customized features for deer hunters.
Zoom in on your hunting property and identify any winding riparian corridors, or large bodies of water that create edges. Note the prevailing winds and then mark any obvious funnels and pinch points.
Waterways that snake through open agricultural fields and pastures offer ambush potential. The associated timber and brush provide bedding cover and travel concealment as deer duck into the narrower zones for security. The same is true of a marshy wetland that whitetails could be using for escape cover. Scouting the edges and identifying preferred food outside of the water neighborhood gives you a possible meeting place for a secretive buck not fully committed to rutting yet.
Before you set up on the edge, consider moving into the cover associated with the water. A whitetail buck’s testosterone peaks in the last half of October. Research indicates that every day leading up to Halloween, bucks increase their movement. This means that even nocturnal bucks add minutes to their dawn and dusk schedule. They may not appear on edge-placed trail cameras until after dark, but a setup just inside the cover could give you an opportunity in a brief moment as shooting light starts, or wanes.
CROSS TO THE PROMISED LAND
As you scout the edges of any water sources, be on the lookout for crossings that lure whitetails with waypoint precision. All riparian habitat and water-saturated country is not created equal. Creeks and rivers could run deep, or steep. Marshes might include dry ridges or islands. Even the dam bank of a reservoir could provide a bridge between habitat zones for whitetails searching for the path of least resistance.
Calm waters run deep is a common phrase dating beyond the frontier. Keep it in mind as you scout along deep water. Sandbars, ripples and small rapids all indicate shallow water that whitetails prefer over a swim to the other side. The same is true of steep banks. Livestock, beavers and natural cave-ins might create easier paths for whitetails to navigate while descending or ascending in a riparian zone. And any dry ground in a wetland setting is sure to attract the attention of deer using the phragmites and cattails to disappear.
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A dam-bank crossing a steep ravine attracts whitetail traffic, but if that is missing on your property, look to the natural dam builders: beavers. Established beaver dams on rivers have ample material to support the traffic of many species of wildlife, including whitetails.
A packed pathway littered with muddy tracks distinguishes consistent deer use over the occasional crossing. Hidden crossings are a boon since they allow deer veiled travel without exposure on field edges. Once you mark a spot on your hunting app, you need to identify the downwind side for the time you’ll be hunting and look for a tree suitable for a stand. Staying close to a crossing has benefits. First, you can see deer ambling down a trail to avoid being surprised by their sudden appearance. Second, deer oftentimes stop to survey the path ahead before and after the crossing. This gives you a natural pause for a stationary shot.
HOPEFULLY MOSES DOESN’T HUNT HERE
A final benefit of some waterlogged areas is the access challenge they pose to your fellow hunters. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 72 percent of adults aged 20 and over struggle with being overweight, including obesity. That’s nearly three-fourths of the nation’s population. Regardless if you hunt private or public land, your goal is to always separate yourself from the crowd. Getting to the other side of a water source could be the answer.
During your satellite-assisted scouting be watchful of any water barriers on a hunting property you can use to leave the overweight and uninspired crowd behind. Any water that requires calf-high rubber boots or more oftentimes meets that definition. Few hunters enjoy packing waders or hip boots in to wade across water, especially in the dark. Even less have the initiative to stage a canoe or raft in the pre-season to row across a body of water for admission to a secluded hunting location. One year I used a rickety old bridge to separate myself from others; however, test all options for safety.
Two of my most memorable hunts occurred along riparian zones in late October leading up to the rut. One took place along a slow-moving river in South Dakota. To get to the back of an oxbow, I had to don chest waders and pack a treestand across the river that nearly overwhelmed the capabilities of the height of the waders. The second hunt took place in Kansas on a narrow strip of backwater, public land. Hip boots were the footwear of choice, but I never saw another hunter back in the mucky corner of the property. Both ended in success with the sweat-equity access for seclusion.
As for my opening encounter, the situation grew tense. Although I saw antlers briefly in the willows, their failure to reappear had me thinking the buck took a detour. That thought didn’t help my blood pressure. That’s when the swaying of one willow answered the question. The buck had apparently stopped to rub a tree to calm his testosterone explosion.
When the shaking quit, I was positioned perfectly, and the buck didn’t disappoint. His 5-by-5 rack appeared below, and as he passed, he hit a splash of Golden Estrus I left along the trail before climbing into my stand. The broadside position couldn’t have been Hollywood-scripted any better as the G5 broadhead buried into the buck for the closing chapter of that hunt.
STOP THEM FOR THE SHOT
With anyluck, your target whitetail will pause on its own along your water ambush site. Don’t take that gamble. Help them pause naturally by using quality deer urine.
One of my favorite methods is to carry a spray bottle of a product like Wildlife Research Center’s Special Golden Estrus, and mist vegetation along a trail in a shooting lane before I settle in for a sit.
You can also dispense scents over a real or mock scrape via a temperature-controlled dripper that only disseminates during the warmer daylight hours. The 30-year veteran Wildlife Research Center Magnum Scrape-Dripper is an ideal choice to keep a scrape active, whether you’re hunting or not. Since it only releases scent during the daytime, bucks are most apt to visit it then, while the scent is fresh. It can operate with 4 ounces of scent for two to three weeks. MSRP: $12; wildlife.com
SMOKE ON THE WATER
Whether you hunt near water or food sources in October, muzzleloader seasons in many states give hunters their first crack at a good buck. The Traditions Vortek StrikerFire LDR has a 30-inch chrome-moly barrel and a two-stage TAC2 trigger set at 2 pounds to extend effective range. It also features a re-engineered recoil-reducing buttstock and a sliding cocker instead of an exposed hammer. The .50-caliber LDR weighs 6.5 pounds, and in package form comes with a3-9x40mm scope. MSRP: $424-659; traditionsfirearms.com