Some maps lead you to treasure, others send you on snipe hunts. I didn't know what to make of the one in my hand. Scratched on a piece of paper 2 hours earlier by my buddy Don, the map led me across 10 miles of Kansas prairie to a spot I'd have driven past any other day. Don is a rancher, not a deer hunter, but when he handed me the map he'd issued a work order: "There are two big bucks hanging out here," he said, jabbing his finger into the pencil lines. "Go shoot one."
I've seen my share of whitetail cover, and this was slim pickings, even for western Kansas. Scattered cottonwoods, some prairie brush, a handful of cedars … at first glance, the kind of place that would get a pheasant hunter—not someone after a mature buck—excited. But as I readied for a quick scouting session, I noted harvested corn and milo fields nearby, as well as two decent CRP tracts. "OK," I thought, trying to talk myself into things, "they've got food and a little bedding cover. Is that enough for a tiny place like this?"
I got my answer less than 100 yards from the truck. I practically stumbled into a creek, a clear-water rill I could have hopped across. But deer tracks peppered its banks and deep-gouged crossings looked like they'd been cut by cattle hooves. Five minutes later, I bumped a bedded buck that was surely one of the deer Don had spotted. I hunted that little creek-bottom in the middle of nowhere for the next 3 days and was slack-jawed at the number of whitetails it held. I was within bow range of a monster buck on three different occasions and, although luck saved his hide each time, I count that hunt among my most memorable.
I'm convinced water is what made that little patch of prairie shine. Like most hunters, I've devoted endless time and energy to finding food, cover and buck sign through the years, but water was barely on my radar. As I've discovered on deer hunts across the country, however, water is a huge draw for whitetails. And any time I've been fortunate to find a key water source, I've experienced good hunting.
I grew up believing whitetails weren't big on drinking and got most of the H2O they needed from the plants they consumed. As a kid I read articles about the subject and accepted it as Gospel, because one of my early goals (before I was old enough to hunt) was to actually see a deer drinking. I was so wet behind the ears that when I finally spotted a young buck sipping from a stream, I figured I'd witnessed a Marlon Perkins moment! Things didn't improve much when I started hunting. I cut my deer hunting teeth in central Wisconsin, where you can't walk a quarter-mile without encountering a lake, creek or swamp. Since deer there don't have to work hard to find water, I almost ignored water unless I was crossing a stream to get to one of my stands.
Though deer certainly obtain moisture from feed—especially during summer—they'll drink heartily (and often) if water is available. And in many instances, such as extended periods of heat or drought, water becomes critical to deer and they'll go out of their way to find it.
But you don't have to visit the desert to find thirsty deer. Once the chasing phase of the rut begins, whitetails get very serious about drinking. It took my friend Ted Marum, owner of Buffalo County Outfitters, to teach me about the importance of re-hydrating to rutting whitetails. "Think about it," Ted explained to me. "You're wearing a fur coat that can keep you warm in sub-zero temps. You're running after does for hours every day. If you don't drink water, you're gonna tip over. It doesn't matter where bucks live; once the rut kicks in, they're gonna look for water." Consequently, Ted has focused much of his energy hunting near water sources, and the success rates of his hunters have risen exponentially since he made that decision.
Drinking isn't the only reason whitetails gravitate to water sources. Many of their favorite browse and plant species grow along water courses, making a stream bank or lakeshore the equivalent of a salad bar. Even better, plants growing near a wetland are typically the first to green up and the last to die off, so deer searching for moisture-rich foods come fall will likely wind up near water. And it's no secret that wet areas are often surrounded by dense brush and trees that whitetails prefer for bedding. When I look back at the dozens of deer drives my cousins and I made during the high-pressure circus of the Wisconsin firearms season, I remember our most successful pushes occurred in the thick growth along the creeks, lakes and swamps on our property.
Finally, and of no less importance, water sources serve as natural travel corridors for deer. Whitetails—especially big-running bucks—have a very simple criteria when they move from Point A to Point B: They want the easiest, fastest route, and they want cover that hides them as they move. River systems meet those requirements perfectly. If you doubt this, visit an unfamiliar property (or even one you've hunted for years) and walk along a river bank or stream course. In addition to the dozens of crossings you'll find, there'll be at least one heavy trail paralleling the water; an easy, secluded thoroughfare for whitetails.
Getting Your Feet Wet
Naturally, not all water sources are created equally. Tagging a buck near any micro-habitat involves knowing when he's most likely to visit the area, and that includes both the time of year and day.
That whitetails are cover-oriented, light-shy critters is one of the first lessons of Deer Hunting 101. These traits mean you can rule out most water sources in open areas. I hunt a farm with a nice, spring-fed pond that sits at the intersection of a pasture and a cultivated field. Those pond banks are positively littered with deer tracks, including some obvious buck prints. But, most of those deer aren't reaching that water until the last shred of light during hunting season. I've found this situation holds largely true regardless of region. Unless you're hunting a prairie area and your pond offers the only drink for miles, don't count on deer hitting it until well after nightfall.
Conversely, water sources surrounded by woods or those situated close to other security cover will be visited by deer throughout the day, especially when the weather is warm or during the rut. Marum has gone out of his way to discover, and set his hunters near, such protected water sources. "Once I started doing that, our opportunities on mature bucks skyrocketed," Marum said. "If I can find a pond or other water source near a bedding area, I know I've got a hotspot that will produce the entire fall if I hunt it right."
Ted is so sold on this tactic he'll create small "push-up" ponds on properties. Once he's located a prime location (usually a wooded ridgetop where he can count on consistent wind directions), he hires a CAT operator to dig out a 10-square-feet knee- to waist-deep waterhole. "We dig until we hit clay, so that way we know the pond will hold water," Marum said. "And then we just let the rain fill them up. If you have sandy or rocky soil, you might want to add a liner."
If you want to create a pond but can't afford a dozer, there's a cheaper route. Buy a landscaping pond or hard-rubber livestock tank, dig a hole big enough to set the tub in and backfill around it. I have another hunting buddy who's done this in several locations on his farm and has seen impressive results. "I felt a little silly on the first one I put in," my friend admitted. "But on the opening day of archery season I watched six different bucks come into that tub!"
The key in any such setup is to pick your treestand or blind location first, then dig the pond. And before you hunt it, determine a silent entry path that will allow you access without spooking bedded deer. Discipline yourself to only hunt there when the wind is correct, and you should have a hotspot that will produce until the water freezes over.
Of course, you don't need an excavation project if there are prime natural water sources available. Just as I found on my Kansas hunt, any water situated close to good deer cover can provide outstanding hunting. I've enjoyed fantastic hunts on a small ridge that separates two small lakes in Wisconsin, along a river that winds through Nebraska farmland and on the banks of a large reservoir in south Missouri. Wherever I spot fine deer cover meeting H2O, I get very excited.
If I had my druthers, however, I'd pick smaller water sources over large ones. My experience has been that smaller bodies of water tend to focus deer activity, a situation that is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing comes in the form of concentrated deer sign and more obvious setups; a huge deal if I'm on an out-of-state hunt and have only a few days of opportunity. The curse occurs when you realize these micro-habitats require much more careful hunting. If a big buck doesn't show up in the first sit or two, alerting other deer and "polluting" the spot is a real concern.
Larger water bodies—lakes, reservoirs and large rivers—obviously attract deer, it just takes a little more effort to pinpoint prime locations. Typically, I like to study an aerial photo and determine structures along the banks or surrounding uplands that will funnel deer. Examples of these include a big bend in a river, a peninsula jutting into a lake or a gentle ridge slope leading from the shore to uplands. Of course, nothing beats burning some boot leather to truly understand how whitetails are accessing or crossing larger bodies of water.
Finally, don't overlook less-glamorous water sources like swamps and marshes. All the attractants that make creeks, rivers, ponds and lakes appealing to deer exist in these boggy habitats as well. In fact, I'd argue they offer an even greater draw: winter bedding and feed. When cold and snow push deer from other aquatic habitats, swamps and marshes will positively fill up with whitetails.
While I haven't given up on nailing down the richest feed, the hottest buck sign and the thoroughfare trails I've always searched for, I now concentrate most heavily on the very thing I used to ignore. Water is hot stuff!