Terrain and Deer Hunting | Hunting Deer By Using the Terrain
It's 4 A.M. on November 13th and the skies are dark as you leave the comfort of your pickup truck to navigate into one of your favorite rut hunting spots along a creek bottom. A steep ridge funnels deer movement through a 60 yard flat between two bedding areas and it’s only a matter of time before a big buck comes cruising through with his nose to the ground. The spot constantly produces year in and year out because the terrain naturally dictates where deer want to travel. Now, let’s back track to when you found this spot as you scouted from the friendly confines of your computer den as you perused the thousands of acres of public land on your HuntStand app. What stuck out? What makes this spot so good? Are there any other areas with similar terrain features?
If you're like most hunters, the amount of quality scouting you can do on apps and other computer programs has changed dramatically over the last decade. What once was only found with the help of a compass, plat book, and boots on the ground scouting can now be easily scouted on the screen of your phone or computer. In this article we will be diving deep into how you should be hunting and scouting specific terrain features in order to improve the quality of your fall hunts. We will look at the benefits of hunting hilly terrain, along with showing examples of preferred terrain features you should be targeting in your scouting efforts moving forward.
HILL COUNTRY TERRAIN FEATURES
When someone mentions the words hill country or even the word "terrain" in reference to a hunting spot, ridges immediately come to mind. Ridges are almost always the most predominant terrain feature wherever things aren't flat. Even in flat land regions, ridges can play a crucial role in how deer travel and bed, it's just that sometimes these so-called ridges aren't what we typically think of when we think of a ridge. In flat land areas or swamps, ridges can be as little as a one foot rise, whereas in hill country, they often are associated with 40 feet or more of elevation change. Not to mention, they are easily identifiable on a topo map.
In order to effectively hunt ridges, you've first got to be able to identify and scout them appropriately. For many, the first step to scouting hunting land happens on a computer or smartphone. Do yourself a favor and download the HuntStand App if you haven't yet. The app will save you tons of time and works seamlessly between your smartphone and desktop computer. One of the most useful features for online scouting is HuntStands ability to toggle from an aerial map to a topo map with a simple click. This is extremely useful for identifying areas to walk before you head out to ground scout.
Although aerial imagery is getting better in terms of displaying a 3D landscape, a topo map will be the best tool to identify ridgeline runways. Bucks prefer the easiest travel routes when they are out cruising for does, thus, they prefer to run the flat tops rather than traversing up and down hilly country. Also, the end of ridges or ridge point is where most deer will travel up and down since it is likely the most gradual slope connecting the brushy ravines to the ridgetops. Another main advantage of hunting ridgetops is the wind is much more constant. Once you start dropping into gullies and ravines the winds often swirl, therefore giving the advantage to a mature buck.
Spurs or feeder ridges as they are sometimes called are smaller points that stem off the main ridge line. Spurs often take a back seat to main ridgelines when it comes to hunting terrain features, but it’s critical to understand how deer utilize these features. Ridge lines are the primary travel corrridors, but spurs are often the primary buck bedding areas.
In hill country, you’ll often find a mature buck bedded on a leeward side of a slope, often 2/3rds of the way up and on a secondary point. Before jumping into why bucks tend to bed in these areas, it’s important to understand what the leeward side of a ridge and spur is. The leeward side is the downwind side of a ridge top or spur. It makes complete sense as to why a buck would bed here for multiple reasons. First, they aren’t going to bed at the top of the ridge because they would be silhouetted from both sides, thus, they typically bed just over the crest from either side about 1/3 of the way down. This specific part of a ridge is often called the military crest because this is how soldiers used to travel to prevent from being silhouetted while still being able to see danger below.
Spurs make for an ideal bedding location because it allows a buck to see what is below him in three separate directions. Now, with the wind coming over the top and the buck facing downhill, he’s able to smell any danger coming from his blindside and has a great vantage point looking down the sides of the spur. If any danger presents itself, a buck can escape accordingly. In addition to bedding on the leeward side, mature buck beds will often have cover to their back that they like to bed up against – be it a downfall or a big mature tree.
By understanding how bucks prefer to bed in hill country, you can make a sound plan of attack without ever even spotting the buck and hunt accordingly because you’ll know the wind he’ll be there on and just how far he can see.
Most hunters know what a valley is, but nonetheless they are important features when it comes to scouting and hunting mature whitetails. Valleys are the low areas that sit between two paralleling ridges. They can be as narrow as a few yards or as wide as several hundred yards depending upon the severity of the terrain. Almost every valley will have a creek or river running through it somewhere as this is where all the water from the surrounding hillsides flows to. We will touch on creeks, rivers, and ditches specifically later on.
Valleys can be tremendous hunting spots as deer feel very comfortable travelling in these low areas for several reasons. First, valleys are often full of dense vegetation and cover due to the increased soil moisture. Secondly, the wind is rarely constant down in the valleys due to the effects of the surrounding ridges. When wind comes blowing over the top of a ridge it often creates a swirling effect in the lower regions, especially if the valley is somewhat narrow. The swirling winds create a huge advantage for deer as they can detect scent in just about any direction warning them of any nearby danger. Lastly, valleys are strongly impacted by thermals. When the sun rises in the morning, the thermals carry scent up and out of the valley. In the evening, the sun dips and things begin to cool down again causing the thermals to be sucked back down into the valley. For this reason, valleys are often better suited for morning hunts as a way to prevent deer from catching your scent.
When it comes to scouting and hunting valleys effectively, it’s imperative that you understand how the wind moves through them in exact locations. The best way to understand the wind in valleys is to drop milkweed seeds and watch them react as they float through the air. Just because the wind might feel constant where you are standing or hunting, doesn’t mean it won’t shift 180 degree just a few yards away. Watch and learn with the milkweed and you’ll be a much better hunter as a result. This is true no matter where you set up, but especially in valleys.
Draws feed into valleys and are similar in the sense that they are the low spot between hills and they channel rainfall. However, draws are tucked between feeder ridges and connect the main ridge to the valley. As you can see on the map image below, draws can be identified quite easily on a topo map by looking for the sharp “V-shape” in contours between the softer “U-shape” of the feeder ridges.
Draws serve two primary purposes when it comes to deer and hunting deer. First, they act as primary bedding locations, especially in farm country where every surrounding ridgetop is planted. Often, it’s the steep draws that dictate where a tractor can plant, thus, they serve as the last remaining cover leading up to the food source. While bucks will occasionally bed in draws, it’s often the larger doe groups that bed along the draw’s hillsides. By bedding in a group, the does can survey all directions. Mature bucks on the other hand are solitary creatures, thus they tend to bed further down on the point of a feeder ridge as a way to watch over the surrounding draws and valley from one location.
In addition to serving as bedding areas, draws play a strong role in how deer move about the landscape. Due to the steepness of many draws, deer prefer to travel around them versus through them. In fact, draws create some of the most predictable funnels in the deer woods, and the best part is they can usually be hunted without much risk. The best place to start scouting is at the head of the draw (a.k.a. the top). This is right where the draw begins to taper out and ease into the ridge. If there are deer on the property, there will be a trail that runs perpendicular to the draw as means for the deer to get around it and continue down the ridge. During the rut, these are often terrific funnels and cruising trails to target as the bucks scent check their way down the ridge. If you need more proof, just look for the sign, as scrapes and rubs especially are often present near these funneling hubs. Let the sign dictate which draw you should be hunting near, as it can sometimes be challenging to figure out which is the best one to hunt in a sea of hills.
A bench is exactly what it sounds like – a flat spot or cut into the side of a hill. Deer, especially mature bucks like to bed on small benches, particularly one’s that provide some back cover like a bluff or even a fallen tree. The flat surface, along with back protection creates for a comfortable bedding location in which a mature buck can observe the entire sidehill. If a bench extends itself beyond just a small area and actually parallels a ridge on the sidehill similar to a walking path, there’s a good chance deer will use this as a travel corridor versus a bedding location like on the secluded benches.
When it comes to map scouting benches, they can be a bit more difficult to discover because of their discreteness. The biggest thing to look for on a topo map is a larger than normal gap or spacing between contour lines. The larger the spacing between lines, the more gradual the slope is, which will often lead you to a bench. Due to their discreteness on a map, identifying benches usually comes from boots on the ground scouting. Also, don’t overlook the presence of old overgrown logging roads, as a lot of times a dozer cut into the sidehill during a prior logging operation, thus creating a man-made bench of sorts.
Saddles are the lowest spot on a ridge and are referred to as such because of the similarity in shapes. If you think of the ridge top like a horse’s back, the rear and front shoulder areas sit higher, while the middle back area dips or has a slight sway – ultimately creating the perfect contour for a saddle to sit on. A saddle on a ridge top is no different, it’s simply the little dip along the ridge. While saddles can sometimes be pretty drastic, they most commonly dip down only a few feet from the actual ridge top height.
Finding saddles on a topo map is quite easy as you’re looking for the area between the two contour circles or points. By taking a look at the image below, it’s much easier to show than it is to explain. Hunting saddles on the other hand is fairly easy explain – simply put, deer prefer to travel over the lowest point of the ridge. Find a saddle and there will most likely be signs of transecting deer movement. Hunt one side or the other depending on the wind and you’ll be set up over a prime rut cruising hub.
Creek crossings are great stand locations in general, but especially during the rut when bucks are on the move. When using aerial imagery to scout for creek crossings, look for any bends, loops or oxbows in the creek and there will likely be a crossing there. Why? When a creek bends, the water cuts into the bank on outer side of the bend and leaves a tapered edge on the other making it easier for whitetails to cross at this point. We illustrated a solid creek crossing location below.
The red line illustrates the likely travel route and crossing a buck would use when heading to the food. The bright green lines denote the steep parts of the creek bank and as you can see, the crossing occurs between the two steep cuts. Depending on the wind direction, you can set up on either side of a crossing and be within bow range of a post rut buck making his way to the food.
The Path of Least Resistance
You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again – deer prefer to use the path of least resistance. They’re just like humans and will routinely use terrain features to their advantage when trekking across the country side. Whether it’s a shelf, ridgetop, creek crossing, or saddle, a hunter can utilize these terrain features to understand bedding locations and travel patterns to get within bow range of mature bucks.