Whitetail hunting is almost synonymous with ag country—where food sources are plentiful and deer movements are predictable. Much hunting media is catered toward those hunters, often at the exclusion of whitetailers in Appalachia, the North Woods, and Rocky Mountains. For those of us who don’t live in the Heartland, good whitetail hunting still exists, just not on oak ridges and the edges of cornfields.
Hunting vast tracts of unbroken timber requires a much different approach. Although daunting, you can still find success on these unforgiving landscapes.
Finding Deer in Big Woods
When faced with thousands of acres of uniform public lands, the burning question is: Where do you start? The key is to look for features that will concentrate deer activity, just as you would in classic whitetail country. First and foremost, it is important to locate the best available food source. This may come in the form of mast crops, fruit trees, or grasses and forbs. In Western states, burn areas and clear cuts often produce the best food on the mountain.
Next, you want to identify terrain features that will further channel deer movement. Examples include benches, saddles, terrain funnels, and water. According to Beau Martonik, Pennsylvania mountain buck hunter and host of the East Meets West Hunt Podcast, you want to focus on what ecologists refer to as “edge effects.”
“Big woods bucks often relate to edges, whether that be a terrain edge or vegetation edge,” Martonik said. “The same places that house other wildlife, like varmints and songbirds, are going to hold whitetails in the mountains.”
In an ideal scenario, Martonik will find these terrain features in close proximity to a known food source. From there, he’ll work to identify trails, sign, and buck beds.
Hunting Deer in Big Woods
During the rut, funnels and travel routes are king. In the mountains, deer density is often low, forcing rutting bucks to travel further distances to locate receptive does. Because of the terrain, deer will seek the easiest route of travel, making pinch points a great place to intercept cruising bucks.
And just like in the Midwest, scrapes, licking branches, and rubs are crucial, whether it be early season or peak rut. Early in fall, deer will regularly visit licking branches even when the scrape hasn’t opened up yet. As you approach the rut, rubs and scrapes can be key to finding a buck moving in daylight.
“I want to find a cluster of sign,” Martonik said. “I like to focus on large community scrapes or places that have multiple scrapes in sight. This will indicate multiple bucks are in the area and spending a significant amount of time there. Usually these are found on the edge of bedding in thick cover.”
Conventional wisdom says that you should only hunt bedding areas during the rut. Contrarily, Martonik targets buck bedding throughout the entire season. There are few constants in a mountain buck’s life, but bedding location can be one. Martonik finds that bucks commonly bed on the upper third of a hill, where they can maintain a visual advantage over danger approaching from below.
Although these can be tough places to hunt, you need to strike when you know a buck is nearby. It might be the only mature whitetail for miles—so don’t let conservative tactics keep you from making a move into his bedroom.
Learning Thermals and Swirling Winds
Hunting in mountainous terrain also presents another level of intricacy that food-plot whitetailers don’t deal with: thermals and swirling winds caused by rugged topography. Navigating these unpredictable scent streams is crucial in the big woods.
As a general rule, you should access your spots in the morning from below. Early in the day, thermals should be pulling downhill, masking your approach. For an evening hunt, the opposite is true and access from above is better.
An advanced tactic that Martonik uses is locating places that offer what he calls, “thermal cover.” These are areas where the thermals do not act the way they should given the time of day, and blowing instead in the opposite direction. These thermal anomalies give hunters a rare advantage.
One example Martonik gave is a community scrape located on a bench uphill of his treestand. Immediately below the bench is a steep ravine chock-full of brush and dark timber. This large area sees very little sunlight, making the air cooler and causing the thermals to pull downhill for the majority of the day. Any buck using this bench will travel with confidence, expecting to smell danger from below. But by utilizing this thermal deviation, the advantage goes to the hunter.
You can also find success beating thermals by utilizing a beaver pond, stagnant creek, or any source of relatively warm water. The idea here is to set up near the pond on cold weather days when the water is warmer than the air. In this scenario, the water will be warming the surrounding air and creating its own thermals. These thermals will be rising directly toward the sky. By setting up near the pond, your scent should be carried upward and away, virtually undetectable to passing deer.
Pursuing whitetails in the big woods can be intimidating, but the mountains are rich with opportunity for deer hunters who like a challenge. Although you won’t find big grain fields or manicured shelter belts, the places these deer live include lots of public lands and hardly any hunting pressure. Do your aerial imagery homework, get your boots on the ground, study the wind, and enjoy the adventure.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.