These four hunts demonstrate how bottlenecks help you see more deer, including bucks.
By Peter Schoonmaker
Photo by Mark S. Werner
Every autumn, I begin bow season in a large white pine tree overlooking a woodland meadow that is home to three old apple trees. Deer travel a good distance, particularly in forested regions like the Adirondack Mountains to dine on this seasonal delicacy. At 23 yards, one particular trail comes from a point of alders and dogwood on my right, passes the apple trees before me and continues back into the towering softwoods at my left.
Like the hub of a spoked wheel, woodland trails converge on this cluster of apple trees. As long as they bear the red food and the ground is strewn with dropped fruit, wildlife just keeps coming.
Mountain Edge Cover
As the sun descended on a late September day, a buck approached the apple trees. Within the security of the long pine boughs, I eased into a better shooting position. The buck moved in and started chomping on apples. Then something to my left caught my eye. Whoa! A rotund black bear was approaching the buffet from the opposite direction.
They fed to within 30 feet of each other, never breaking eye contact. The extremely preoccupied deer stepped clear at 23 yards. My arrow double lunged the buck, and it bounded away with a sloshing water jug sound. The bear, on the other hand, circled out from under the apple tree and sat down 11 yards away behind the trunk of another pine. It studied the situation for 15 more minutes. It was all but dark when I finally said, “Hey, big guy, what’s it going to be?”
A large head and snout peered around the tree and focused on me. The bruin left quietly, keeping the big tree between us. I wasted no time finding and field-dressing the deer in the dark.
Wolfe Island Funnels
In early October, my father and I traveled to Wolfe Island, Ontario, to hunt with Brown’s Bay Hunt Club. Dad was going to experience the phenomenal waterfowl hunting, and I was returning to bowhunt whitetails on this island where there has never been an open gun season.
Head guide Duncan MacDonald is one of the finest funnel finders and stand setters for bowhunting that I have ever encountered.
My first evening stand was in a narrow band of woodlands with a bay behind me and overgrown fencerows surrounding an uncut field. Eight deer passed by, including a 6-pointer that stood at the foot of my ladder stand and rubbed its preorbital glands on apple tree branches. From narrow creek bottom borders that led to a cornfield and woodland points at the end of long farm field drainages, I sat in well-placed stands and saw numerous bucks throughout my hunt.
One treestand was in a 2-acre chunk of mature hardwoods and cedar trees surrounded by a soybean field on two sides, dense bullwhips on one, and an inland canal on the other. The stand was 20 yards off the soybean field near a corner of converging terrain.
At 6:50 a.m., I rattled antlers. Five minutes later, I saw an 8-pointer just below the sunrise/shadow line on the sloping field. The buck circled to my left to get the wind to its advantage. It was a dandy, but not one of the caliber that I knew dwelled on the island.
On the last evening, I returned to that stand, as Duncan felt it was worth another try since a heavy beamed 10-pointer had been seen in the area. At last light, I saw the haunches of a large deer moving under the autumn leaf canopy. The next leafy opening revealed the very antlers Duncan had described.
As the big Wolfe Island buck stepped into a shooting lane at 16 yards, I picked a spot on its shoulder and squeezed the release. Instead of the welcome hollow “tuuump” sound of a double lung shot, there was a “whack!” like I had slapped it with a whiffle ball bat. The short version of a long story is that Duncan called a few weeks later to ease my frustration. He’d seen the healthy 10-pointer on three occasions running with the 8-pointer I rattled in earlier in the hunt. Yes, I am still scratching my head.
Iowa Saddle Action
L.D. Wayne had been anticipating his Iowa bowhunt for many months. As Randy Travis’ lead guitar player, it had been a long year of touring following the success of the huge hit “Three Wooden Crosses.” L.D. would be hunting with friends Bruce Watley and Keane Maddy of Bug Out and Rattler Brand Outdoor Wear.
Keane’s brother, Jason, had suggested that L.D. try a stand along a creek bottom where he had the good fortune to arrow a 182-inch buck the previous year.The wind was perfect as L.D. harnessed in at 3 p.m. along the wooded creek bank. The stand was 30 yards from the water, a third of the way up the slope. At 3:30, an 8-pointer came through a saddle in the ridgeline above. A 10-pointer soon followed through the same saddle and passed the elevated hunter at 15 yards. L.D. resisted temptation and ranged several trees for distance.
The bowhunter perked up when the sound of fighting bucks rattled down the creek bottom. At 4 p.m., he spotted a buck with huge antlers at 60 yards walking the edge of the waterway. The headgear was as massive as L.D. had ever seen while bowhunting. The whitetail just wagged its tail and turned to follow an attentive doe back down the creek.
Ten minutes later, L.D. heard an incredibly deep grunt. He turned to see a large white set of antlers coming up out of the bottom. This buck was following a doe up the ridge toward the saddle. L.D. was at full draw when the buck walked past an oak 30 yards distant. At that very moment, a branch dropped from the tree and hit the ground. The 11-pointer stopped broadside, giving L.D. the shot he needed.
During the half-hour wait before he picked up the blood trail, L.D. witnessed firsthand how whitetails use saddles and staging areas. More than 30 does and bucks strolled onto the creek side slope through the saddle in the ridge. They milled around and fed on acorns until dusk, when the entire group crossed the creek and headed into an alfalfa field.
L.D. was delighted with his exceptional buck and his opportunity to observe how deer use saddles as safe highways and while staging.
Wyoming River Bottom Flats
The pronghorns skirt the dry river bottoms of eastern Wyoming, while the nomadic mule deer hang out there before exiting onto the plains at the first sign of danger. The whitetails, however, really live in the bottoms, where flat thickets meet narrow river bends, and steep, towering bluffs constrict travel.
Last November I returned to bowhunt with 88 Ranch Outfitters. A morning hunt in a dense stretch of river bottom produced one small buck chasing a doe, handsome twin mule deer bucks and a wandering antelope. During midday, owner Mike Henry’s oldest son, Garrett, showed me a 250-yard long open flat, dense with Russian olive trees and stands of cottonwoods. Trees in the bottom were rubbed to shreds. Thirty yards from a steep bluff, Garrett had just set a new ladder stand in a multi-trunked, towering cottonwood.
Starting at 3:15, the procession of whitetails was non-stop. Two bucks sparred for more than 30 minutes. At 5 p.m., I caught a glimpse of a large bodied deer cruising the far bend of the bottom. It stopped in an opening in the river bend. My binoculars revealed a heavy beamed, high-racked buck. My mind raced. If the deer appeared this big at 250 yards …
The extreme cautiousness of mature whitetails is amazing. This buck had never been hunted, yet it took 15 minutes for it to carefully scan the entire river bottom. Finally, it moved toward five does feeding in front of me. When the big buck, and I do mean impressive, finally passed by at 30 yards, I settled down and made the shot.
Finding a Bottleneck
Webster describes a bottleneck as a narrow or congested passageway. Identifying bottlenecks to encounter autumn deer is an acquired skill that comes with exposure to good and bad stand setups. Topographical and aerial maps are two excellent ways to determine narrow passages in the landscape. Getting out and scouting those narrows for whitetail activity will determine their potential for stand placement.
The four following types of terrain commonly produce bottlenecks.
EDGE COVER is where agriculture meets forest, where swamps border woodlands, or where vegetation and terrain collide (like the old abandoned apple trees). Deer are attracted by food and cover in close proximity.
FUNNELS are concentrated passages in the terrain. Narrow strips of timber pinched between water and meadow, edge cover along ravines, creek bottoms and waterways, and entrance and exit trails from open fields and agriculture where multiple trails converge.
SADDLES, or depressions between two heights of ground in hill or mountain country, provide travel lanes that give deer the option to head north, south, east and west to follow the sun or shade throughout the day for feeding and bedding purposes.
FLATS can be found on the side of a terraced mountain, along a fertile river valley or a meandering dry creek bed on the high plains. Deer travel and sometimes live along these narrow corridors.
Finding natural corridors that control or constrict whitetail travel lanes is essential for good bow setups. The most important aspect of any stand hunt is locating spots where the intended game is most vulnerable.
Whether it’s edge cover, funnels, saddles, or flats, taking a stand in a natural bottleneck will enhance your bowhunting opportunities.
This article was published in the July 2005 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.