Break down buck behavior to know where to set up stands.
It was one of the more educating afternoons of my bowhunting career. From a stand on the cornfield, I glassed a buck in his bed on the opposite ridge. With more than two hours before last light, I was pumped. I had no doubt that he would rise and head my way before dark. My only concern was whether or not he’d feed within range of my stand.
For the next 90 minutes, I studied the buck’s every move. Frankly, aside from shifting his head from side to side a few times, the relaxed buck didn’t move at all. Finally, with about 30 minutes of light remaining, he rose to his feet. After milling around his bed a bit and relieving himself, the deer strolled down the ridge like he didn’t have a care in the world.
About 50 yards out, he stopped, motionlessly studying the does in the field for what seemed like forever. Then he veered off on a parallel trail, cautiously scanning and scent-checking as he went.
Confident everything was right with the world, he pawed at the few remaining acorns and browsed leafy growth until moments before dark. Cautiously approaching the field, he surveyed it once again before letting his guard down enough to feed. Even then, he remained vigilant for anything out of the ordinary.
Many years later, I stumbled across an article discussing how a deer’s life could be broken into bedding, traveling and feeding zones. Thinking back to that buck, it dawned on me how true that was. Though I’ve added a few zones over the years, the author’s basic premise was correct. A buck’s life can be broken into distinct zones, each with specific traits. Taking it further, you can learn to identify each zone and cater hunting techniques appropriately.
The Bedding Zones
Since bedding areas are where bucks spend most of the daylight hours, let’s begin there. Though some beds are used once or twice and forgotten, most are used at least on a semi-regular basis, and there’s no other zone a buck is more familiar with.
And because of his vulnerability while bedding, a buck places a premium on this site providing safety. Most often, this zone provides either a superior view of the surrounding area or nearly impenetrable cover. And you can bet that the prevailing wind protects against approach from the rear. Moreover, there’s no other zone where a buck is less tolerant of human disturbance.
While bumping a buck out of his bedding zone once typically doesn’t do permanent harm, if he returns to find the area stinking of human and littered with cut branches, the odds of him continuing to use it are nil.
The best option is to prepare stands well before the hunt. In many areas, bedding zones change with the seasons. The result is that it’s often possible to set up in a fall bedding zone months before it will be occupied. Even if the same bedding zone is used all year, setting up prior to the season provides time for a buck to get over your intrusion.
Another good choice is to set stands along the outer edge of the bedding zone. The farther from the bed you go, the higher your odds of going undetected.
By now you’re probably asking, “If it’s so risky to hunt a bedding zone, why take a chance?” Simply put, when bucks aren’t moving much during daylight hours, this can be the only setup that produces. The tricks are to get in well before the buck returns and to be prepared for an all-day sit. Even when a buck beds before first light, he will get up several times throughout the day. That’s your best chance for a shot.
As challenging as the bedding zones are, the transition zones are that easy. Transition zones are travel corridors bucks use when moving between other zones. A typical example is the transition zone that connects the bedding zone to staging or feeding areas and watering zones. Conversely, during the rut, the most common transition zones are the routes cruising bucks take between doe concentrations and breeding zones.
While a buck might pause to browse as he travels, he rarely lingers in a transition zone. The result is that he isn’t as aware of the changes that occur in this zone or of hunters perched in the trees.
Whether it’s the feeling of safety while traveling through cover or because they’re focused on getting from point A to point B, bucks rarely use the stop, scan, proceed and repeat technique. That’s a big advantage for hunters. As a bonus, you have a higher likelihood of daylight encounters in transition zones.
The keys to hunting transition zones are to identify the zone and to get the timing right. A buck’s tendency to create rubs along these travel routes makes some easy to identify. These rubs can also indicate when to hunt there. If the majority of the rubs’ peeled surfaces are facing the food source, chances are good that they were made in the morning hours as the buck traveled from feeding to bedding. If they face toward the bedding zone, you’re looking at an afternoon stand.
Also be conscious of the season phase. During the rut, transition zones connecting bedding and feeding areas aren’t usually the best choice.
Staging zones or areas loosely define places where bucks burn the remaining daylight before entering an open food source. Because of the time spent there, they have a higher familiarity with the area. They also tend to be alert for danger.
The buck I observed all those years ago displayed a typical pattern for entering this zone. His wariness went up, and only after observing and scent-checking the nearby field did he drop his guard.
First glance would suggest that transition zones are a better choice to hunt. However, several mature bucks can use one staging zone. Also, a single buck can have several bedding and transition zones that lead to one staging area. In both cases, assuming daylight movement, the staging zone is a better option.
When trying to find staging zones, the first thing to look for is an area with a concentration of seemingly random rubs. This loose grouping results from the bucks lingering in the area. When rubs are absent, the area where a main trail from the food source splits is a good choice. Even when these locations are only set 50 yards from the feeding zone, they often produce more encounters during legal shooting hours than an open food source.
Feeding and Watering Zones
Feeding and watering zones offer a unique set of challenges. To begin with, the bucks are always at least somewhat on edge, and daylight activity here is lower than in any other zone. Complicating matters, bucks are familiar with these zones and aren’t very tolerant of disturbances. Finally, it can be extremely difficult not to spook deer when entering feeding and watering zones for a morning hunt or when leaving after dark.
That said, hunting this zone has advantages. A good food or water source has trails converging from many directions. This makes it a good choice when you can’t seem to nail down a buck’s pattern.
Mock scrapes, decoys and calling can help draw bucks. Also, these are good places to hunt early and late in the season. Of course, water holes can also be good during hot or dry periods, as well as when bucks are chasing does.
I like to hunt watering zones during the rut. Bucks often come to a pond for a cool drink to offset the rigors of a hard day’s work chasing does. Even better, ponds near doe concentrations are perfect for all-day sits. Does often will lead Mr. Big right to you, and bucks cruising the doe concentrations could drop by any time.
That paid dividends for me last season. I was hunting a stand where several points drop down to a creek bottom. The points and the creek’s sharp banks created a natural funnel. Better yet, the pool of water at the creek’s elbow was the only water around.
Just after first light, I saw an 8-pointer trotting down the cut to my right. Pausing at 20 yards to drink, he sucked down the water in greedy gulps. Several minutes later, two yearling bucks trotted down to drink and then began to spar below my stand.
That’s when I caught the first glimpse of the doe. With a monster buck following her, she made her way toward my stand. When she got to the erosion cut between the points, she decided to avoid the young bucks and climb up the other side.
Mr. Big had a different idea. Wanting a drink to quench the thirst built from his night of carousing, he used his rack to nudge her back toward with watering hole. Several nerve-wracking minutes later, the buck was mine.
Whether it’s early in season, during dry spells or during the rut, water holes can be powerful draws. After all, water needs only increase as the physical demands of the rut ramp up. Even late in the season, the ones that remain open can draw deer like bees to honey.
The Pickup Zone
Rutting bucks might seem to be running the woods at random, but they almost always have a method to their madness. In a nutshell, their travels are the act of scent-checking doe concentrations. These doe concentrations are what I call the pickup zones.
The two main pickup zones are doe bedding areas and feeding areas. When does are actively feeding, bucks run the downwind side of the food source. It only takes one pass for Mr. Big to know if a hottie is available and ready. An ambitious buck might completely circle the field. This enables him to scent-check the track of every doe that’s entered or exited the food source. If he identifies a ready doe, all he has to do is follow her track.
In both cases, a stand on the inside corner of the field, preferably on the downwind side, is a good start. Next, because the bucks most commonly circle from between 10 and 40 yards back into the woods, I prefer to place my stand about 10 yards back in. That allows coverage of the circling bucks, as well as those in the field for a short distance. Finally, place the stand so that it’s within range of the well-worn trail that nearly every inside corner has.
The same downwind strategy applies to hunting doe-bedding areas. One skirt of the downwind edge reveals if any hot does are present. Place a stand 20-30 yards off the downwind edge to intercept bucks checking on the does. To up the odds, try to position a stand so that it also covers a heavily used scrape, a pinch point, or the best entrance/exit trail for the bedding area.
In some instances, mature bucks have figured out that it’s best to drive does to specific locations for breeding. These areas are typically void of deer activity and lack hunting pressure.
In the bluff country I hunt in Wisconsin, I know of one breeding zone that’s at the top of a gut-buster of a peak. In Missouri, there’s a small clump of brush in the middle of a large CRP field that acts as a breeding zone. One huge 10-pointer has used the middle of a wide-open field for several consecutive years in Illinois. Finally, an extremely nasty tangle of treetops and regrowth serves the purpose on an Iowa farm I hunt.
In each case, the buck’s familiarity with the area is low, and its guard is almost completely down. Timing is everything. If active breeding isn’t occurring, the breeding zone is a waste of time. However, when breeding is in high gear, it can be the place to be.
Finding these zones is the real challenge. In all of my years of hunting, the ones I listed above are the only breeding zones I am aware of. And I found those mostly by accident. On the bright side, once you find one, it can produce for years.
Editor’s Note: Check out Steve Bartylla’s books: “Advanced Stand Hunting Strategies” ($22.50) and “Bowhunting Tactics That Deliver Trophies” ($30). For personally autographed copies of either or both ($50 when ordered together), send a check or money order to:
1406 Saint Joseph Ave.
Marshfield WI 54449
Read More Articles by Steve Bartylla:
• How To Beat the Lull: When the hunting gets slow, it might be time to break a few “rules.”
• Funneling Bucks: Sometimes a buck needs a little nudge to put him in the right spot for a shot.
• Keep Stands Fresh: Try to remain undetected, even when you don’t see the buck you’re after.
This article was published in the November 2007 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.