So with increasingly more options on the landscape, how do you rate the water sources for your first-, second- and third-choice hunting locations?
First, consider proximity to bedding cover. Deer, pronghorns and elk all like to go to bed hydrated, and during above-normal periods of heat they likely visit water soon after rising. In elk and deer country, especially timbered landscapes, Johnson targets water sources near shaded bedding locations where elk and deer escape daytime temperature spikes.
“Heat and water shortages go hand in hand, and game suffering from heat will seek shade,” he says. “I like to locate water near timbered, north slopes. They seek out these areas to stay cool rather than trying to bed near a major food source. Before they bed they’ll water, and right after they get up in the afternoon they’ll generally water. That leaves them the cool, nighttime hours to travel to a food source, but they also stay cool and hydrated during the day.”
For pronghorns and some open-country mule deer, Fedinec sees almost the opposite occurring. In many cases, particularly during the early season, he targets water near reliable food sources.
“I believe that food being near water is more important,” he says, “and if you think about it, areas that have good water generally have a food source nearby, like irrigated crops. I don’t think cover is as important as food in more open-country environments. When these animals head to water they look for food nearby and vice versa. That’s why you see the craze, especially in whitetail country, of hunters placing 50-gallon fish ponds adjacent to feeding areas or food plots. You can target water before and after a big-game feeding frenzy.”
Whether you put in your time on a water source near bedding cover or a reliable food source depends on terrain, the animal pursued and what your scouting efforts reveal. After you put a water source at the top of your list it’s time for tactical planning, and that centers on your ambush location.
Every location varies, as will your tactical approach for a setup. In open country you may be forced to use ground blinds or natural hides, whereas timbered settings could allow treestands or natural cover to conceal your form.
For Johnson, treestands offer the best answer to a variety of dilemmas so he employs them whenever timber allows. Johnson and Fedinec agree on one behavior characteristic: Western big game seldom looks into the trees for danger. Johnson’s approach to a water hole setup begins with determining the prevailing winds for a downwind setup whenever possible. He then inspects all trails coming to and going from the location. This provides him ideas on all shot angles possible for approaching and departing game. He doesn’t want to set up a stand that only offers a high probability of a frontal shot, especially when guiding bowhunters. Next he looks for a tree offering ample shade to avoid the rising and setting sun creating blind spots.
“Shade keeps you cool, keeps you from being backlit and keeps the sun out of your eyes,” he says. “It’s a winning combination to keep your presence secret.”
Both outfitters use trail-cameras to pre-scout any site, but Fedinec also knows you can’t have a trail-camera on every water source. Oftentimes he uses old-school tactics such as raking out the dirt and dust around a water source. When he returns he estimates animal density, direction of travel and even the sex, or at the very least the size of the tracks.
After a setup is in place scouting again plays a critical role in determining whether the location merits morning or evening monitoring, or both.
“The time period when animals use a water source varies from year to year,” notes Johnson. “Elk and deer often water first thing in the morning and leave before legal light. I then usually see a bump in activity between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and of course later in the afternoon near dusk.”
Johnson adds that when extreme temperatures linger, elk, deer or even pronghorns may water at any time of the day and especially if rutting activity is taking place.
Fedinec agrees, but also sees patterns when it comes to pronghorns.