Whitetail Hunting Strategy: Waterholes Produce Big Bucks
From the warm, early days of the autumn bowhunting season to the frenzied peak of the rut later on in the year, an often overlooked tactic by some whitetail hunters is that of guarding a waterhole with bow or rifle in hand
In the early days of autumn bowhunting seasons across the land, one of the most tried-and-true tactics to try and harvest a big whitetail is to pattern Mr. Big as he saunters nonchalantly into an evening food source.
With thoughts of filling his belly occupying such a trophy buck's early-season mind, the tactic of hanging a treestand around a green-field food source or an oak tree beginning to rain down big white oak acorns is certainly one crack in an early-season whitetail's woodsy armor.
But it's not the only weak spot in that armor, mind you, especially when the weather is warm and dry.
And when it is, many savvy bowhunters and muzzleloader hunters can find success by using a hunting tactic taken straight from the canvas of Windmill Whitetails, a superb sporting art print painted by the late, great Texas sporting artist John P. Cowan.
What does the beautiful work of wildlife art depict? Well, in addition to showing a lot of fast-flying dove swirling around a late-afternoon waterhole, the print shows a big Lone Star State buck getting ready to slake his thirst at the dwindling Brush Country stock tank.
In a state as hot and dry as my home state of Texas can sometimes be in the early days of the annual archery season, guarding a waterhole can be a great way to fill a tag and to necessitate making a speed-dial phone call to the local taxidermist.
Just like Vernon, Texas, bowhunter John Wright did back in 1998 when he tagged a then state-record Pope & Young Club typical buck despite hunting in blistering hot conditions on the very first day of the early archery season.
Sitting near a Wilbarger County watering hole and hoping the day’s searing heat would lure in a parched whitetail monarch, Wright was more than ready when a big 9-point buck obeyed his thirst.
While hunters often think of chasing bucks around wet spots in the parched Great Plains and Texas, even in the deer-rich Midwest, whitetails are easily attracted to waterholes throughout the season. (Lynn Burkhead photo)
"I stood up to release the ache off my knee and I eased back into thicker brush and noticed a deer drinking on the west side of the pond," Wright recalled. "He was about 25 yards away."
The archer came to full draw, got into position for a shot and let his arrow fly. The shot was true and the rest, as the saying goes, was history, as in Pope & Young Club state-record history.
So much so that when the Wright buck was officially measured after the mandatory 60-day drying period the P&Y Club requires on all record-book entries, the big deer stretched the tape to an amazing score of 173 7/8 inches.
But Wright isn't the only hunter to find the right buck – sorry, I just couldn't resist the pun – while guarding a whitetail waterhole.
In fact, on the other end of the Great Plains, Outdoor Channel bowhunting guru Michael Hunsucker and the rest of the Heartland Bowhunter television crew utilized the same tactic to their advantage a few years ago as they chased early-season velvet-racked whitetails.
"(One of) the biggest bucks I've taken was in North Dakota on August 29," said Hunsucker. "It was close to 100 degrees that day and I killed him over water."
With warm and dry weather occurring in several portions of the nation's white-tailed deer hunting country during the early season, there's little doubt the tactic will result in more than a few good bucks being tagged before autumn's big chill arrives.
If you find numerous whitetail tracks around a waterhole, don't be afraid to hang a stand in a nearby tree. (Lynn Burkhead photo)
"In a drought year, there is not a lot of water in place in the natural potholes and water resources that typically have it," said Hunsucker.
But as valuable as hunting early-season whitetails over a waterhole can be during the first couple of weeks of the early-fall deer hunting campaigns, don’t make the mistake of believing waterhole hunting is a tactic only limited to late September and October.
Texas deer biologist Ty Bartoskewitz, a former Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife professional, who has regularly appeared on the Outdoor Channel’s Bow Madness program, learned waterholes can produce big whitetails, even later on in the season.
While chasing South Texas whitetails several years ago, Bartoskewitz and a hunting pal battled unseasonable heat that was searing the mesquite and prickly-pear-filled flats and senderos of the region during the heart of the rut.
Over the course of their bowhunt and filming session, Bartoskewitz and his friend witnessed three or four different bucks come in for a mid-day drink at a particular stock tank.
After quickly setting up a ground blind next to the waterhole, the pair of hunters then sat back as a steady stream of thirsty deer came to the pond including one bruiser of a Brush Country buck.
“It was in the middle of the day, in the middle of the rut, and it was around 94 degrees in December,” said Bartoskewitz. “That deer came running in panting and jumped in the water to cool off.”
Like a scene from a western elk hunting video, when the deer emerged from the stock tank, Bartoskewitz’s hunting buddy took aim and let his arrow fly.
The shot was true and a mature South Texas 8-point buck in the 150-inch class was soon hanging in the ranch's walk-in meat cooler as it wore the enterprising bowhunter's buck tag.
While waterhole whitetail hunting can be particularly valuable, keep in mind similar wet spots can be deer magnets in other states too.
While the tactic of guarding a waterhole works well during warm weather of the early season, don't discount the strategy later on in the fall as the whitetail rut arrives. (Lynn Burkhead photo)
I found that out several years ago while bowhunting the monster whitetails at Rick Wombles’ Hopewell Views Hunting Club (hopewellviewshunting.com) in famed Pike County, Illinois.
While doing some mid-day scouting as my stay in the deer-rich Midwest wound down, I found two small, isolated ponds whose banks were literally covered with countless deer tracks.
Those deer hoof prints included some massive tracks left behind by a hefty buck, perhaps from the 170-inch plus Boone & Crockett bruiser that cruised by just out of bow range on one of the final days of my hunt.
While I wasn’t able to put that discovery to good use on that particular trip, you can rest assured I have not forgotten to check for other whitetail watering holes when I travel out of state to hunt.
Frankly, it won’t take the sight of a couple of Midwestern or Great Plains ponds littered with deer tracks to remind me of a whitetail’s need for water.
Especially since I have a copy of Texas' outdoor writer John Wooters’ 1977 Winchester Press book entitled Hunting Trophy Deer resting on my bookshelf.
In that classic volume, Wooters wrote on page 97: “To a deer, weather is reality, often bitter, which literally threatens his life at times and always controls his life to a degree we humans have thankfully forgotten. That’s a useful thought to file away in the back of your hunter’s mind and remember when plotting strategies, particularly as a part of deciding when and how to hunt.”
So whether the calendar reads September, October, November, December, or even early January, guarding a waterhole is a good, sound whitetail hunting tip.