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Understanding Edge Habitat and How Whitetails Use It

Edge Tactics: Locating and hunting habitat seams can turn the odds of tagging a buck in your favor this season.

Understanding Edge Habitat and How Whitetails Use It

Suitable trees to accommodate treestands are not always available on prime edge habitat. When candidate trees are scarce, consider fashioning a ground blind from native brush. (Photo by Bob Robb)

I didn't hunt as a youngster, but fished all the time with my dad and grandfather. Bass was the game, and I quickly learned that the most fish are found along discernible underwater edges.

Later in life, when the hunting bug had consumed me, I learned that the most whitetail activity occurs in and around edge cover as well, lessons learned from both experience and reading scientific studies that weren’t even thought about when I was a tadpole.

You also know this, but that’s schoolkid education. Go to graduate school, and you quickly discover not all edges are created equal. Move away from the obvious—food plots or crop fields that border woodlots, for example—and look for less obvious edges outside manicured settings, and you’ll be well on your way to better deer hunting in places often overlooked by others.

WHAT, EXACTLY, ARE EDGES?

An edge is simply some sort of transition in the local flora and/or terrain. I classify them into two basic types. The most obvious is where two different types of flora meet in a distinct line, or edge. The second is a topographical feature that naturally funnels deer movement.


Edge cover is essential for whitetails. Not only do edges provide security, but an edge also represents new growth and, thus, is a great place for deer to find tasty new plants to munch on. They use edges all year, and the smart whitetail hunter seeks them out when looking for high-percentage ambush locations.


Examples include where a crop field meets the woods or where mature brush and other cover meets new growth. Edges also include where CRP meets hardwoods or a bean field, a short line of cedars and a line of standing timber in a cutover next to freshly cut trees. Where different types of tree lines meet, like where a stand of hardwoods meets a stand of cedars or pines, is also considered an edge.

Another often overlooked edge is a topographic feature that naturally funnels deer movement. Examples include high bluffs that run one side of a creek or river, drainage ditches, creeks and rivers, cliffs, fencerows that split large ag fields or pastures, narrow and shallow creek crossings and so on. These are natural deer runways that can direct deer movement regardless of the season.

WHEN DO YOU HUNT EDGES?

In a nutshell, all season long. Over the years I seem to have had my best luck hunting edge cover during the period when deer are easiest to pattern. That occurs during the early season prior to when the pre-rut starts in earnest, and in the late season from the end of the rut until the season closes. These are the times when you can most easily pattern deer movement from bedding thickets to preferred food sources.

Of course, all bets are off during the rut. That’s when I like to hunt more traditional funnels and pinch points—especially those that have some sort of edge cover leading to a pinch point, saddle or funnel. Such locations are gold.




I’ve come to realize that deer—and especially old, wary bucks that are just not comfortable showing themselves into an open field during daylight hours—like to stage in these edge areas. It isn’t unusual to find one up and moving with plenty of shooting light left in an edge cover staging area just outside its bed, or 50 to 100 yards inside the cover off the edge of a food plot or ag field.

HOW DO YOU HUNT EDGES?

It's really not rocket science, even on unfamiliar ground. You can shorten the scouting game by using topographic maps, aerial photos, Google Earth or a hunting app to get you in the game. Once you narrow down edge areas, you can do some “boots on the ground” scouting. You may also set out some trail cameras to help visually determine where the high-percentage stands sites will be.

One thing to keep in mind is that deer in general, and older bucks in particular, may travel an edge just inside the cover line. An example would be a powerline cut through thick woods. If you look closely, you might find deer trails set a few yards back inside the tree line that parallel the cutover area. It takes boots on the ground to discover these travel routes.

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TURN IT UP

Want to kick it up a notch? Look for well-used bedding thickets near transition or edge cover. At the same time, locate the preferred food sources the deer are targeting. If you can add a consistent water source where deer can drink going between the bedroom and the diner, you’re starting to get warm.

There will be deer trails where you can hopefully find fresh tracks and droppings. Determine prevailing wind directions and take care to keep stand locations out of hollows where thermal currents can spook deer.

For an added bonus, search for rub lines running along edge cover. Rub lines represent many things, including a visual indication of a buck’s preferred travel route. This is especially true if there are rubs that are many years old along the line. When I come across a traditional rub line like this, I like to walk it, looking for a place where another rub line intersects.

When I hit a spot with all these features—defined edge cover, a rub line intersection and trails leading from thick bed cover to an acorn ridge or cultivated ground nearby—I cannot set a stand fast enough.

BIG-FIELD EDGES

As a rule, I avoid big-field edges simply because mature bucks—especially in pressured areas—avoid these open areas during legal shooting hours the way Dracula avoids the sun.

However, there are exceptions to this rule. One is the early archery season when bucks are still in velvet and running in small bachelor groups.

Another is the rut, when all bets are off and you want to be where the most girls are. And, finally, the very late season, when bitter cold drives bucks to seek out high-calorie foods like corn and late-season food plot crops.

Deer sign
The age of deer droppings indicates the timing of edge movement and helps narrow stand-placement options. (Photo by Bob Robb)

SCOUT SMART

Scouting is the key to making this work during any phase of the season. Glass from afar and conduct in-the-field scouting only when absolutely necessary. If you glass up a candidate to wear your tag, get the wind right and move in before his pattern changes.

No deer in sight? Strategic on-the-ground scouting is required. Look for trails while keeping an eye out for secondary trails favored by bucks, and hang a camera or three. Edge cover that acts as a funnel can be the key.

Also, afternoon hunts are the only hunts that make sense when hunting big fields, the exception being rifle hunting giant fields where you know the deer will enter/exit in the morning opposite your stand site. Great care must be taken to silently access your stand in the dark. If there’s any chance you’ll spook the deer, hold off and hunt the afternoon only.

EASY UP

Three top climbing treestands for run-and-gun edge hunting

Deer Tree Stands
From left: Summit Viper Pro SD, Ol' Man Alumalite CTS, Hawk Ultra-Lite Climber

The Hawk Ultra-Lite Climber ($329.99; hawkhunting.com) weighs 20 pounds and has a 300-pound capacity. It features a 20-by-27-inch-wide standing platform and a very comfortable hammock-like net seat, and it folds flat for easy packing. The Hawk climber has padded arm rests, easily adjustable cables and all-welded construction for quiet operation. Neoprene backpack straps make it easy to carry long distances without fatigue.

Ol’Man made one of the first flexible cable climbers to hit the market. The Alumalite CTS ($339.99; millennium-outdoors.com) weighs 21 pounds and has a 300-pound capacity. The 18-by-32-inch platform offers plenty of foot space, while the seating platform features a patented 21-inch-wide, nylon-webbed, trampoline-style seat, pivoting spreader arms, oval tubing and an improved cable system that makes set up quiet and simple.

Another long-time leader in climbing treestand technology, Summit offers the Viper Pro SD, which weighs 22 pounds and has a 300-pound capacity. The Viper Pro ($479.99; summitstands.com) has a giant standing platform, taping 20-by-36-inches and features Summit’s all-new cable system for a super-fast and easy attachment to the tree, as well as quick-connect triggers that make cable adjustments simple. Summit’s very popular rapid stirrups are used on the Viper Pro to keep the hunter’s feet secured while ascending and descending. Sound dampening material is injected into the treestand to fill noise-making voids and keep climbs quiet.

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