As the unequivocally best time of the season approaches, deer activity is ramping up across the country, with once-peaceable bachelor groups of bucks scattered in preparation for the rut and sparring more intensely with would-be challengers. But with deer movement increasing and with it, the odds of seeing that monster you’ve dreamed about, is it enough to simply stroll into the woods and climb into your favorite stand? No way!
These precious weeks don’t last long, and the wide-open activity can change by the day as weather, hunting pressure and other factors impact a buck’s daily routine. Hunters need to develop a strategy or, more precisely, pinpoint setups that will put them in prime position to fill a tag—and fill it sooner rather than later. Because bow seasons still rule in most parts of the country at this time and terrain limits the distance of shots in most places, the closer hunters can position themselves to intercept a bruiser, the better their chances are going to be. Closer shots generally mean less distance for things to go wrong as well—from limbs or shot altering winds to less distance for a deer to move or respond to the sound of a launched arrow or booming gun.
Longtime deer researcher Mick Hellickson, who has studied every aspect of what affects buck movement leading up to and during the rut says at the end of the day, he doesn’t worry too much about weather patterns, bedding areas, food availability, etc.
“I disregard most of what I read in hunting magazines,” Hellickson confessed. “What I hunt are bottlenecks created by the terrain. Wherever bottlenecks occur, buck movements will focus there.” Outside of the rut, Hellickson is on food sources, but when it is “game on” time, he locates and hunts the best funnel features in the terrain and disregards just about everything else.
The Funnel Factor
“There is data that shows buck activity is reduced when they are with a doe, but may move as much as 15 miles a day right before then,” Hellickson said. Despite the movement and the frequent sightings of bucks out in the open at this time of year, they still prefer keeping to cover, which means ultimately, they are going to move and move frequently through natural funnels, pinch-points, bottlenecks or whatever else you want to call them.
“Bucks don't get big by being stupid; they want to stay in the timber where they feel more secure. That means they’re going to be moving through pinch-points and that’s where you’re going to find more success this time of year,” said renowned hunter and outdoor television host Alex Rutledge.
Locate Natural Funnels
“Bucks will be looking for does, but they are still going to travel between bedding areas where they feel safe and feeding areas, where they are likely to find does,” said the “Bloodline” host. “I want to evaluate and identify areas between likely bedding and feeding locations. These will give you the best opportunity.”
Key areas to look for include downwind locations such as a narrow point or neck of timber between two larger blocks, a point of timber jutting into a crop field or food plot, a narrow point along a stream or creek that makes it easier for deer to cross, a narrowing in a canyon, a saddle between two steep hills or even a point where a wide river pinches the width of the bordering woodline toward a field or open area. Even gaps in thick cover, such as between two patches of honeysuckle or a hole in a fence make for easy travel as deer move from one area to another. Unless being threatened or pushed, deer, like humans, will always choose the easiest place to cross or travel through. In the South, where clearcuts seem to predominate the pine plantations of the region, the trees left standing among streams provide a perfect travel corridor for bucks to cruise while scent checking does in the rut.
Lockdown Your Strategy
When bowhunting, you need to identify pinch-points that will bring deer into a much tighter area than if you are gun hunting.
“If you’re hunting with a rifle, a pinch-point can be a low-flat area between two hills and can be 200 yards across,” said Rutledge. “That’s not going to help you with a bow.”
Ideally, you want to identify a good stand or blind location that will put you within 30 yards of the best-used or most likely traveled trails through the spot. These should be easy to identify, as they will most often be well-worn and extremely visible.
If you will be hunting the bottleneck in the morning, make sure you are facing north or west to keep the sun at your back; in the evening, do just the opposite. Always make sure the direction you expect deer to travel from is upwind as well.
Never, never, never force the wind. If it isn’t right, don’t hunt that spot. For that reason, you will want to have several locations to choose from—hopefully all oriented differently so as to allow hunting in various wind conditions and times of the day.
Rutledge also offers this advice once you are there: “Be active in your strategy,” meaning be aggressive with your calling mixing rattling, grunting and snort-wheezes to incite curiosity from nearby or approaching bucks. He also advises to create a mock scrape or two out front of your stand.
“Over time, bucks will start using it themselves and it will create an excellent spot to get them to stop as they move from Point A to Point B and give you a good broadside shot,” he said.