How to Kill a Whitetail Buck Hunting Water

How to Kill a Whitetail Buck Hunting Water

As someone who mostly hunts public land, I’ve realized that a lot of the destination food sources that factor into my hunts are on private land and off limits. Or, they are on public land but are so obvious and easy to hunt that they get a ton of pressure. Although deer still use these food sources, the better play is to kill them on the way there rather than on a field edge.

This realization led me to focus on other attractions, and while a white oak acorn drop or a loaded-up apple tree can be a huge draw, the consistency with mast just isn’t there. The same goes for browse, which is often a total crapshoot on public land. Eventually, due at least partially to my love of early-season hunting, I settled on water.

This probably isn’t revelatory to a lot of hunters because we all know deer need to drink. How much they need to drink is influenced by a litany of environmental factors as well as the size of the individual deer, but it’s safe to say any buck worthy of a taxidermy bill is going to need at least 3 or 4 quarts of water per day. Obvious as this may seem, not enough whitetail hunters focus on exploiting this weakness.

Deer seem to prefer watering in specific spots. Does it really matter why a buck loves to drink out of a small, muddy pond on a ridge versus a clear trout stream winding its way through the valley below? Yes and no.

The key to finding the right water to hunt mostly involves finding water that is located where deer want to be. The cattle pond out in the middle of a grazed-to-nothing pasture might be a watering hole for some deer, but they’ll likely use it at midnight.

A better bet is to find a water source, no matter how small or stagnant, that is located in cover. This is possible through satellite imagery. In fact, before heading to hunt any new public land, I scour onX for possible water sources as a starting point. Even tiny ponds in the woods are usually fairly visible. If the public land you’re hunting has cattle on it, you can usually zoom in and see spoked-out trails leading to the water source.

If that water source has good bedding cover nearby, or is positioned between likely food sources and likely bedding, you’re in business.

You can make an educated guess through digital scouting on what water is going to draw the most, or biggest, whitetails. But an educated guess is still a guess. Sneaking in to look at the area and take note of tracks, droppings, and buck sign is the real key to figuring out if a waterhole is worth sitting.

If the sign isn’t there, which is more common than a lot of hunters think, it’s time to move on. Just finding water in a place you want to hunt isn’t good enough. You’ve got to make sure it’s the kind of water bucks will consistently stop by in the mornings or evenings.

In some situations, which are often highly regional, this can be a zero-sum game. If the rain has been coming down consistently and the weather is cool, you might not be able to find a stock tank or pond that is worth hunting. This happens to me just about every season, and it’s just the way Mother Nature operates. Sometimes the bucks just have too many options and you’ve got to adopt a different hunting strategy.

Occasionally when this happens you can still use water to your advantage.

Finding water that whitetails drink is about as predictable as finding water whitetails cross, especially with creeks, streams, and rivers. I recently killed a buck on North Dakota public land because I patterned him crossing a river every night. While he had plenty of places to drink, he made a 500-yard beeline for the river because that’s where he wanted to go to feed. This routine ended up putting him right in my lap on the bank of the river, but it was due to the terrain instead of thirst.

When you’re around moving water, you’re usually around solid whitetail cover that is accessible in a variety of ways. Tight corridors are a goldmine for bowhunters, which is exactly what you’ll find near creeks and rivers. Get into these areas and locate beds within nasty cover and you’ll probably be in a buck’s bedroom. If you don’t want to hunt him there, there’s likely a river crossing nearby that he’ll use religiously.

So, while you might not be playing off a buck’s individual needs for H20, he still might be drawn to specific water for other reasons, which is a weakness. With either a thirsty deer or a traveler, there are opportunities to fill a tag around water.

Feature image via Matt Hansen.


Transfer Pack
Save this product
First Lite
The Transfer Pack is the Whitetail hunter’s workhorse. Purposefully engineered to efficiently pack and unpack every piece of gear you’ll need in the woods, including a tree stand, climbing sticks, and your bow. The Transfer Pack's versatility is perfect for anyone hunting out of a saddle or a tree stand, as its bucket-style design and multiple hanging configurations allow the hunter complete access to extra stowed gear and accessories throughout...
Phantom Tree Saddle Kit
Save this product
If you are looking for a nimble and effective way to hunt deer this fall, the Phantom Saddle Kit is the ticket!
Men's Wick Short Sleeve Crew
Save this product
First Lite
Whether you're scouting before the season or find yourself in an early season heat wave, the Wick Short Sleeve Crew will keep you dry and comfortable.
Razor HD 4000 Laser Rangefinder
Save this product
Vortex Optics
The angle compensated laser rangefinder features four targeting modes (Normal Mode, First Mode, Last Mode and Extended Laser Range Mode) for any ranging environment. The primary HCD (Horizontal Component Distance) range mode provides key angle compensated range information required by the vast majority of shooters in a simple, quick to read display. The Razor HD 4000 also has a LOS (Line of Sight) range mode and scan feature.
Get the latest in your inbox
Subscribe to our newsletters to receive regular emails with hand-picked content, gear recommendations, and special deals.
Our picks for the week's best content and gear
For the whitetail obsessed, with Mark Kenyon
Redefining our connection to food, with Danielle Prewett
Your one-stop for everything waterfowl, with Sean Weaver
Get out on the water with the MeatEater Fishing crew
Technical hunting apparel
Purpose-built accessories for hunting and fishing
Quality elk, turkey, waterfowl, and deer calls
Save this article