Top-tier deer hunters are never satisfied. After interviewing hundreds of these folks on the Wired to Hunt Podcast, this stands out as one of the only rock-solid consistencies among all of these hunters. They’re constantly trying to improve, constantly trying to learn more, constantly trying to fine-tune their approach and, most certainly, their set-ups.
This last example is of particular interest at this time of year as hunters race to set, prep, and enhance stand sites before opening day. When it comes to stand prep the best of the best deer hunters view being in a good location as only a first step. Yes, you want to be where the deer want to be, but you also want to increase the chance of a high-quality shot opportunity once they get there.
“When you see a big deer, the odds are already so low, as they walk so few days in daylight,” Bobby Kendall of The Whitetail Group, explained. “So we need to stack odds so that when we do see them, we can actually shoot them and not just watch them.” One of the best ways to stack those probabilities is to make strategic manipulations to the landscape surrounding your stand sites to encourage deer to travel in the places that are most conducive for shots. Here are three such strategies that elite deer hunters use to up their odds come deer season.
All else being equal, deer prefer the path of least resistance. They’ll certainly jump fences, leap over downed trees, or snake their way through a jungle if they absolutely have to, but they’d much rather take a more convenient route if they can. With this being the case, savvy deer hunters have found that it’s relatively easy to shift deer travel in desirable ways by blocking or opening convenient travel routes. This might be done to block trails that are out of range so that deer will use closer routes, to keep deer from traveling downwind of a stand site, or in more extreme examples, to funnel deer from wider areas into tighter pinch points.
There are a number of ways you can block or shift travel, with the easiest of those being to simply cut and lay down, or hinge, tree tops in a horizontal line to blockade a trail or edge you want to keep deer from traveling along. Steve Bartylla, in his book “White-tailed Deer Management and Habitat Improvement”, recommends making hinge cuts (cutting ~75% through a tree and leaning it over) at alternating heights, some at chest height and some at knee level, to make it especially tough for deer to maneuver through the undesirable area. Alternatively, “in areas where the trees don’t allow for blockades,” Bartylla said, “you can use wooden snow fence with a strand of barb wire on top to fill in the longer stretches where trees just refuse to work.”
I completed a project similar to this myself just this spring. A small food plot of mine has historically had two primary entry points from the adjacent bedding area, one of which is in shooting range of my downwind stand locations while another is 70 to 100 yards away. To encourage deer to enter the plot near my stands on the west side, I cut a series of trees down along the east end of the food plot to plug up that alternative entry. I then enhanced the near-to-stand trail system by removing any down tree tops and brush blocking the way, making it an even more preferable option.
Bobby Kendall and Toby Stay, partners at The Whitetail Group, take things even further in some areas by bringing in a logging crew and felling entire mature trees to create barriers either along field edges or inside the timber to create pinch points.
Take, for example, a large chunk of woods in between two crop fields where the narrowest area of cover is 200 hundred yards wide. In this kind of location, which is too wide to cover with a bow, The Whitetail Group crew might use fallen trees or woven wire fencing to create a blockade across a portion of that 200-yard stretch to strategically squeeze down travel within range of an ideal stand location. “Most of the time we’re just enhancing an area that deer already want to be in,” Stay said. “And then we’re attaching strategy to that spot.” On the flip side, if there’s already an old farm fence running through a property it’s easy to create a perfectly placed pinch point just by opening up a gap in that fence where you want it, either by cutting the wire or tying down the top strand (assuming you have permission to do so).
The Whitetail Group and others have achieved a similar shifting of deer travel within open fields and food plots too, utilizing tree tops or fencing blockades placed out in the field itself. Picture a rectangular food plot that’s 100 yards wide from wood line to wood line with one of these blockades extending partway out from the edge at a 45- to 90-degree angle. The idea here is to pinch a plot location down at a stand site so that rather than this hypothetical 100-yard gap between a tree stand and the opposite woodline, that blockade could push any deer in the plot to come within 30 yards as they walk around the barrier.
Speaking of plots, savvy deer hunters with some degree of control over the land they hunt can significantly influence how deer travel through the design of their food plots. Mark Drury, of Drury Outdoors, calls this “food plot architecture.” The key is to use the shape, length, size, or contents of your plot to encourage deer to travel into shooting range.
The most commonly used method of doing this is with the shape that a food plot is planted. Long skinny food plots can funnel deer along the length of the plot while keeping them within shooting range of an adjacent tree stand, as can boomerang or L-shaped plots that encourage deer to come around the corner to see the rest of the field with a hunter positioned at the bend. A similar effect can be achieved with an hourglass shape which will pinch deer movement down into the narrow middle where a hunter awaits.
The next level of plot design involves the choice of what to plant and where. Hunters such as Mark Drury and Bobby Kendall have discovered the strategic benefit of planting two different food sources that meet at a desired location near a blind or stand site. “Creating a transition between two different kinds of food sources ups the probability of a concentration of does, which ups the probability of a concentration of scent, which ups the probability that a buck comes to bow range,” Kendall said.
The transition of choice for many land managers is a convergence of a grain field (corn or soybeans) meeting a green food plot like brassicas, clover, oats, wheat, or rye. Drury often calls this a “green to green transfer,” where deer have a green food source to transition to after soybeans defoliate in the same area they were already frequenting. When choosing what to plant in that green field, Drury recommends considering the DNA of the farm or personality of your target buck.
“If your best hunting opportunity is going to be the first half of the hunting season, I’d plant deer radishes or clover. If your focus is the back half, I’d generally go with brassicas or last bite (oats/wheat/brassica mix),” he said. Because deer are selective browsers, preferring diversity in their diets to consistency, you’ll most often see deer come out into a larger food plot like this and gradually move their way from one food type to the other, putting them in range of an ambush location near that transition.
If you don’t own or lease ground that you’re able to design and plant entire food plots, but hunt on farmed ground, another option to consider is asking permission from the farmer to overseed some kind of green food source into the standing corn or beans within range of your stands. Cereal rye, radishes, or turnips, can all germinate with a simple topseed application, assuming a rain follows, and can provide a strategically placed lush green food source right where you want it.
A final way to influence deer movement is to create a small focused source of attraction that can bring a buck to a specific location, within a larger area of use, and stop him in place for a shot. Options for doing this include bait (where legal), water holes or, my preferred option, mock scrapes.
While mock scrapes are typically not a destination all on their own they can be used to enhance any existing deer destination in the timber or on a food source. I created a mock scrape with this intention in the earlier-mentioned food plot. The plot is about half an acre in size, long and rectangular in shape, and with stands positioned on the Northeast end and the Southeast corner. I created the hinge cut barrier on the far Northwest side of the rectangle to encourage entry into the food plot near my stand sites to the East, but in order to further ensure buck movement in shooting range, and hopefully a standstill shot, I added a mock scrape tree there as well.
Mock scrape trees are a great option in open areas where natural trees and licking branches aren't present and entail simply cutting down a small tree with adequate deer-height licking branches and using post hole diggers to “plant'' the tree at a desired location and then scraping up the ground underneath the branches. I located my mock scrape tree equidistant between the two stand sites to provide a shot opportunity no matter where a buck might enter the plot, as he’ll likely gravitate to the tree at one point like a bass to a downed tree in the middle of the pond. “It’s good for the tree to be bushy, but don’t hesitate to cut limbs on the opposite side from the stand that could also be used for licking branches,” Steve Bartylla wrote in his earlier mentioned book. “You are trying to position deer for the shot as much as draw them to that location.”
Kendall and Stay have a different approach to mock scrapes, preferring to use a pre-constructed “treecoy” (which they have for sale), using cedar 4x4s to create a T-structure from which a thick scent-absorbing hemp rope is hung in place of a licking branch. To make these even more attractive, Kendall will eliminate other licking branches on the fields he’s hunting to ensure that the mock scrape is the only scrape destination a buck can visit in that zone. Again, stacking the probability of getting a buck where you want it.
Jeff Sturgis, of Whitetail Habitat Solutions, is another avid mock scrape user who makes scrapes at almost all of his in-the-timber stand locations and uses a different approach than all those mentioned already. Sturgis has uniquely found that hanging grape vines work as particularly effective licking branches, so he’ll hang a four to six-foot-long length of vine from a tree branch or a rope tied between two trees to get the bottom of that vine at about waist height above a patch of scraped ground underneath. These become not only stellar locations for shots but also perfect spots for a trail camera to face.
Taking a good spot to the next level is no small task and requires plenty of forward thinking and extra work, but in the pursuit of mature bucks, it’s well worth the effort. Hunting whitetails, especially with a bow, is a game of inches where every little detail might be the make-or-break variable determining your chances of filling a tag or not. “Your overall strategy is like a game of Jenga,” Kendall explained to me. “And every block is a layer of strategy.” If you’re looking to win that game this year, try one of these strategies for getting deer a little closer to where you want them.