December 08, 2022
It was very late in the deer season and I had a tag to punch. I was hunting some well-managed lands controlled by Alabama deer and turkey hunting legend Larry Norton (a two-time world turkey calling champion). During that hunt, Larry said something that stunned me. "Bob, it's warm out, and the deer aren't moving. We need to go hunt their bedroom."
Are you nuts? I remember thinking, but when in Rome ... So, that's what we did. We made a quick midday "stealth scout" with a stand and some ladder sticks in tow, found a fabulous spot where three well-used trails intersected about 100 yards from a known bedding thicket, hung the stand and I climbed aboard. Six hours later—right at dark—I saw a big-bodied 8-point slink out of the brushy swale right down my trail. I arrowed him at 10 steps.
That was 30-some seasons ago, and at the time, even thinking about invading a deer's bedding area went completely against all deer-hunting dogma. That was just one of many lessons I learned from Larry, and I've been using it ever since. Truth be told, you can hunt right up against a bedding area, if you do it smartly.
WHERE ARE THEY BEDDED?
Step one, of course, is figuring out where bucks are bedding. Late-season, post-rut bucks are tired and they mostly want to be left alone. They also need to eat, eat, eat, to replenish all that body weight they dropped during the chase phase. I begin my search backwards. That is, I locate the high-calorie foods deer prefer this time of year, then check them for fresh buck sign like big tracks and droppings, or I glass them from afar on the cusp of daylight.
Agricultural fields and food plots filled with corn, soybeans, winter wheat, turnips, radishes and winter peas are all prime deer magnets now. However, don't overlook fruit trees like apples and persimmons that might continue to bear some fruit. And never, ever forget about acorns. If it's been a good year and there are acorns left on the ground, the deer will find them. Natural browse like honeysuckle, dewberry, dogwood, blackberry cane and Oregon grape are all examples of regional species that are highly favored by deer and often available into the late season.
Once fresh deer sign is located, use your knowledge of the property, supplemented with topographic maps, aerial photos and/or a hunting app, to find likely bedding thickets close to the food source. Don't forget to include water in the equation when sleuthing out travel routes. With this information in hand, you can plot perceived travel patterns that will require on-the-ground checking. Once likely bedding areas are located, mark them on your maps and apps.
IS IT HUNTABLE?
Where bucks bed depends on the type of terrain, but always remember that a mature buck's bedding area will have at least one good escape route to get to other nearby secure locations. They like to bed along a barrier—a patch of thick brush, a blow-down or a waterway, for examples—and face an open area. They will often rotate in their beds as the day goes on so they have the wind at their backs and they stay out of the sun. They are often able to hear or smell an intruder long before they see it, and leave undetected.
Regardless, the area must be huntable. Rest assured, there are some bedding areas that are basically unhuntable, depending on where they're located. Unless you have an ingress/egress route that permits you to be a stealth bomber, it's best to stay back and hunt the staging areas between food, water and bed. If a bedding area is in a hollow with an ever-swirling wind, pass it by. On an elevated ridge with the deer bedding on the point? Definitely not.
HOW DO I HUNT IT?
The very best way to hunt a bedding area is to find it long before the season ever begins, then go hang a stand or three so you can hunt them with minimal noise and disturbance months later. Set as many stands as is practical for you and the ground you hunt. That way, when it's time to go hunting, you can assess the prevailing environmental conditions and choose a stand accordingly. It's exceptionally difficult to set a stand within a hundred yards of bedded deer quietly, but if you need to hang a new sit, use the quietest gear made.
Pad all metal parts and buckles, wear soft garments and soft-soled rubber boots. Take your time. Stealth and silence are everything. Alternatively, you can opt for a climbing stand if an appropriate tree is available. If you choose the climber route, make sure you take your time climbing, going slowly and quietly.
Knowing every little terrain feature on the property will help you sneak in undetected. Move on cat's paws when approaching or departing a bedding area. If you're heading for an evening stand, glass as you go. The best conditions for approaching a bedding area include a steady wind that both keeps your scent out of the bedroom and masks the sound of everything you do.
If the ground is wet, so much the better. If the ground is dry and crackly and there’s no wind, it’s best to wait for another day. Plan on taking a lot of time to cover that last hundred yards to the stand. If you accidentally snap a twig or kick a rock, stop. Deer hear these sounds all the time, so by itself it's not fatal unless it's accompanied by the sound of a person walking. Once on stand, forget the deer calls. You're hunting the bedroom because the deer are already here, or on their way. No need to make unnecessary noise that might spook them.
HUNT EARLY OR LATE?
When deciding whether to hunt mornings or evenings, consider these points. If you hunt mornings, you need to be in your stand at least an hour before first light so the world has a chance to settle down before the buck shows up. Also, be cognizant that bucks often circle downwind as they approach their beds.
Afternoon hunts are more difficult now because deer—your target buck and potentially others—are already bedded there. While approaching and getting into an evening stand is exceptionally difficult, I still like hunting evenings for one simple reason: These mature, pressured deer are already nocturnal, or nearly so. More than once I've seen them either stand up in their bed or move toward me with a few minutes of shooting light left. If you’re back another 200 or 300 yards—waiting for them to make their way to you—they'll never get to you before it's too dark for a shot.
AM I TOO CLOSE?
When hunting bedding areas, how close is too close? That depends on many things. Personally, I think 100 yards is about as close as I want to get, though I have gotten closer. And when I thought I was at the 100-yard mark after hiking in the dark, I’ve had deer come and bed within spitting distance of me. It’s a game-time judgment call based on a hatful of factors. What if you bust deer out of the bedroom? Well, if you hunt bedding areas long enough you will. Chances are that the party is over, but not forever. If the buck was spooked and didn’t identify a human as the culprit, it just might come back. That’s because he’s bedding there for a simple reason—it’s kept him alive for several years. You might give it another go in a week or so, and certainly next season.