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Make-or-Break Stand Setups

Make-or-Break Stand Setups

Interestingly, the best and worst places for your stand during the rut are almost identical. The lure of the wrong spot almost can be overwhelming. Like ships to the siren’s call, we, too, often break our seasons on the rocks of this forbidden island. Knowing the difference between these two stands can save you frustration and greatly improve your odds for success this month.

The Best Place for Your Stand
Funnels, funnels, funnels: The rut is all about concentrating as many moving bucks within range as possible. When the rut is on, individual buck patterns become a headache to unravel. It’s a waste of time. The bucks themselves don’t even know what they’re going to do next. How can you hope to figure them out?  The peak of the rut isn’t a time for complicated strategies. Start simply by looking at what the bucks are doing. There’s only one thing they do consistently: They look for does. To be most successful during this exciting time of the season you only have to find the places where the does concentrate at each time of the day and then hunt the funnels between two of them. Park yourself there for as long as you can. 

The buck I took during the peak of the 1995 rut is the poster child for the value of hunting funnels. He was one of the first truly mature bucks I had ever taken. The circumstances of his demise have become typical of many other successful hunts I have had since. The buck came past my stand in a classic bottleneck—a thin strip of trees maybe 20 yards wide at the point where my stand hung—and 400 yards long. The thin strip widens into a large wooded draw. On the other side of the bottleneck, the strip of cover connects to a much larger block of timber. Bucks travel between the wooded blocks all day long during the first three weeks of November. On Nov. 7, the buck in question followed an obviously hot doe right down the center of the narrowest part of the funnel and right to my stand. 

Just three seasons later I shot another really good buck from that same stand, again in early November. Spots like this are easy to find and usually pretty easy to hunt. You don’t have to worry about bedding areas, feeding areas or staging areas. All you need to know is how to find a corridor that a buck traveling quickly from Point A to Point B might use to make his trip safer and easier. Look for creek bottoms, saddles, benches, fence lines connecting two large blocks of cover, long draws, narrow fingers of brush or trees, and many other forms of bottlenecks.

When hunting a stand along a rut travel route, try to stay out for the whole day if you can. If your patience won’t last that long, consider moving to a different stand late in the morning to break up the monotony. But don’t waste a lot of time because you could be missing the action. You may not see a lot of deer midday, but it is a good time to see a really big one.

Many of the bucks you see when hunting these stands during the rut are just passing through, so you can get in and out easily without bumping nearby deer. For this reason, you can hunt this stand much more often than you could a stand located at one of the end points: doe bedding or feeding areas. It is pretty surgical stuff. Just hunt it with the wind blowing 90 degrees to the funnel and it is very hard for any deer to pick you off. You can hunt such a stand in a classic bottleneck two or three days in a row during the peak of the rut without any worry of burning it out—something you should never try when hunting bedding or feeding areas.

Funnels come in many forms. Anything that blocks a deer’s natural progress will result in a nearby funnel. Lakes, ditches, steep slopes and even man-made obstacles are common examples. When the deer bypass the obstacle, they naturally form a funnel at the point where they can finally go around it.  Other common funnels include creek crossings, open gates, narrow bands of cover (such as brushy fence lines), the corner of a field as it juts into the timber (called an inside corner), saddles in a ridge line, low spots in open fields and even the mowed edge of a suburban yard.  Find a good funnel between two doe concentration areas and you have the recipe for a great rut hunt.

The Worst Place for Your Stand
Now that “funnel” is firmly etched into your rut-hunting consciousness, it’s time for a warning: Not all funnel stands are created equal.

I’ve got a friend, an experienced hunter, who had to learn the hard way. Not that I could blame him; I’d been sucked in myself. There is a spot on the farm we hunted where four heavy trails come together to cross a small creek at the bottom of a ravine. I found the spot first and set up a stand. With high expectations, I sat in the stand twice before pulling it out of the tree. Jim found the spot the next year and set up a stand near where I had removed mine. I warned him against it, but he wouldn’t listen. As I predicted, deer kept catching his scent even though he thought he had the wind direction right. 

Finally, Jim tossed a light synthetic wind floater into the air. The wind was perfect. Several minutes later he was shocked when a wind floater moved in the opposite direction. He hasn’t hunted there since. Then Dan discovered the spot and eventually abandoned it. At last tally, our friend Jack had his stand in the same spot!

Even the most experienced deer hunters fall for the lure of heavy buck sign found in the bottoms of narrow ravines and valleys. Bucks love to travel these places so they can tear up the moist earth for their scrapes. These spots often separate two adjacent ridges where does bed. Rutting bucks love to check these spots and move back and forth between them often. In these low, moist areas, even modest trails look like cow paths when made in the slow-healing soft earth of a ravine. On the surface, ravines look like the best places in the world for a rut stand, but in reality, they are some of the worst.

I am going to change gears just a bit to develop a simple season-long philosophy that can guide your deer hunting. Let’s say you’ve got a 250-acre farm to hunt. There are several bedding ridges, a few fields and a nice creek bottom. The creek bottom will have the most sign—almost guaranteed. And that’s going to be the place everyone wants to start, including you. So on the first day of vacation you go and sit in that stand. You see many deer but don’t get a shot. You can’t wait to get back because you have finally found the spot. The next day far fewer deer are using the ravine, and again you draw a blank. Figuring it was a fluke, you try one more day. You see almost no deer. You have just educated nearly every deer in your entire area at the very start of your vacation. 

Deer hunting success comes down to keeping the deer from knowing they’re being hunted long enough for you to score. That means spending lots of time in ravines is the worst possible strategy. Sure, you can get lucky and pick off a big one the very first day, but the odds don’t favor it. If you really want to hunt a stand in a ravine, it would be far better to stick with a more conservative stand where the wind direction is more predictable at first and save the high-impact ravine stand until the last day or two. Or you could hunt from a ground blind to keep the wind from picking up your scent.

Keep in mind that air flows over the terrain much the way water flows over a creek bottom. Wind flows predictably over high ground and level stretches, but it swirls into any areas that are protected from the direct flow. It is like a stream’s current that eddies into portions of its bed that are protected from the main flow. High winds swirl more than light, steady winds just as fast current eddies more violently in a stream. As wind flows over a ridge or past its end, the breeze is pulled into the quiet pocket of still air. The farther into the ravine you go, the more pronounced the swirling becomes. At the very bottom, the wind will be going in every direction seemingly at once. 

It’s not as if deer that travel up and down ravines never come out of them. They actually spend most of their time on adjacent ridges. They usually prefer to bed on high ground and that’s a much better place to hunt them. You can find all the funnels you need there.

But even though I know this lesson as well as anyone, I’m still tempted to break the rules. It happened again in 1998. The year before I shot a heavy-antlered 10-pointer from a stand located along a creek crossing right below a ridge. It was a risky spot and I knew it, but I had gotten lucky and drew a still morning. I took him the first time on stand. I hoped for a repeat in 1998. No dice! Nearly every deer that came past winded me on the swirling winds that kicked up shortly after dawn.

Finally, admitting defeat, I took my stand down and carried it to the ridge above, looking for a shallow saddle in the ridge where I could hang it. The creek bottom oozed buck sign, making the ridge look dead by comparison. But the high ground did offer a steady wind, and that was worth giving up a little sign. I soon learned just how good a “dead” spot could be. From the first day, the new stand became one of my favorites.

Funnels are the key to simplifying your rut hunting. As long as there is doe concentration on either end of the travel route, you can trust that when November rolls around, there will be a heavy trail passing through any bottlenecks between them. They are easy to find, easy to hunt and highly productive.

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