Breaking Down the Big Woods

Breaking Down the Big Woods

There are a lot of times in hunting when our eyes are a bit bigger than our stomachs. Just like when you overload your plate on Thanksgiving by stacking up every delicious side dish until you have something that could only be finished by a starving sumo wrestler, hunters often try to take on too much at one time. When you only have a couple of days to hunt and a vast swath of territory to cover, you can end up just like you do at the end of that holiday meal–sweat-soaked, full of regret, and in desperate need of a nap. Never is this more apparent than when you’re hunting whitetails in the big woods.

Big woods deer hunting usually means that you’re hunting a lot of forestland in search of small populations of deer. Unless you’ve done a lot of preseason scouting, finding these tiny collections of deer in so much territory is the very definition of finding a needle in a haystack. If you just hurl yourself into the big woods haphazardly and try to seek them out, all you’re likely to end up with at the end of the season is a big bowl of tag soup. However, if you approach big woods strategically and break them down into the most likely spots to find the deer you’re looking for, you can end up with the buck of a lifetime.

Mapwork and Roadwork

Whether they’re topographical or digital, a good map is the most important tool you can have when hunting a new territory and should be the first thing you look at before taking on the big woods. Maps can show you elevation changes, terrain features, water and food sources, as well as different access points to your chosen hunting area. You can get a good map of almost any territory by either ordering them from the United States Geological Survey or by downloading a mapping app such as onX or Google Earth on your phone or laptop.

The first thing you want to look for on a map of the big woods is ridgelines. These will appear on a map as tight and centermost lines that extend out from peak elevations. Deer use ridgelines for travel and as areas to bed and feed. Ideal areas to look for will be spots where several ridgelines come together to form natural pinch points that connect areas of a deer’s home range. Ideally, these spots will have small benches, bowls, and saddles in between them, which are all relatively flat or gently sloping areas that deer will utilize. These are great spots to start looking over a little more closely.

Aside from high ridges and low spots, you’ll also want to look on your map for any roadways, powerlines, and clear cuts in each hunting area that will help you get closer to the spot for some more in-depth scouting. Once you find a few easy access points, you’re going to want to grab a good pair of binoculars and start putting in some roadwork.

Now this doesn’t mean driving around and hunting directly from or along the road. Rather, roadwork refers to looking over a hunting territory from the road in search of certain terrain features and access points. Drive roads along your chosen hunting area and look for deer trails and clear areas where you can get into any juicy-looking spots on the map quickly and easily. Note your wind directions, elevation changes, and any difficult-to-manage features like large rivers or swamps that you can see from the road so you can plan your approach.

Scout From a Distance

Aside from noting access points, when you’re on the road you’ll also want to start looking over the hunting area for the most likely spots where deer will be found. In the big woods, the forests can seem endlessly nondescript, but there are some very specific terrain features and areas in the woods that can be great places to start your hunt.

While chunks of timber can all look like the same endless sea of trees, areas where hardwoods like oaks, maples, and birches, along with softwoods like spruces and pines come together are very much worth paying attention to. These spots of blended timber provide cover, feed, and bedding areas for deer in the big woods, and big bucks will often use these lines of blended timber to travel from one area to another.

In the fall these blended timber spots are easy to spot from a distance as the bright green conifers and the gray leafless hardwoods will draw very distinct and obvious lines on mountain slopes. This makes post-season scouting the perfect time for picking out these locations. When you see these areas of blended timber from the road, especially in spots that come across a low saddle or gap between ridgelines, they are definitely worth checking out and scouting more thoroughly.

Another spot to look over and perhaps drop a pin on your map near are any open areas you can see from a distance. These can include fields, clear cuts, burns, or swamps that stand out in any thickly wooded areas. In the big woods, it can be extremely difficult to break down any feeding to bedding patterns deer may have, especially when it seems like the deer are just feeding along as they move. However, these open areas can give you clearly defined areas that the deer are using for both bedding and feeding and can at least give you a starting point to start looking for deer sign once you get out into the woods.

Follow Trails

As comfortable as your vehicle may be, to really get on top of deer in the big woods, you’ve got to get your boots on the ground. After finding and marking several areas on your map and looking them over from a distance, hike into the areas and start hunting/scouting them. However, when you’re hunting the big woods, simply marching into a good-looking spot and sitting down on the first patch of deer sign you find may not get the job done.

Big woods deer tend to travel in small groups from one food source or bedding area to the next. This means that the big woods buck you’re looking for can be a bit of a rover, covering massive amounts of ground in search of both food and does. Consequently, any tracks, rubs, or scrapes you see in a certain area may not be visited again for several days if the buck comes back to them at all. So, instead of sitting in one spot for days at a time and waiting for the deer to come back, your best bet for getting on top of where the deer are currently hanging out in the big woods is by following deer trails.

Deer trails can teach you a lot about how and where the deer are moving around certain areas and what sort of food sources they are most likely to be utilizing. Ideally, you’re going to want to follow these trails until you get into areas of heavy concentration where several trails come together. Not only can you hunt these spots, but finding them also allows you to take note of any particular food sources or bedding areas that the deer may be currently using, giving you a better idea of where to concentrate your efforts in the next spot if a specific hunting area isn’t producing.

As with any deer hunting, you’re going to want to look for a “hot spot” of deer activity with fresh sign and obviously active deer. However, in the big woods, it can often seem that most of the deer sign you find is as old as Methuselah and only shows you where the deer were days, weeks, months, or even years ago. Yet this old sign can still teach you a lot about how the deer in a certain area behave and can give a good idea of what you should be looking for, be it a food source or terrain feature, which can lead you to the desired hot spot of current deer activity–even if that spot is several miles away.

A great example of using deer trails and old sign to work for you in the big woods happened to me a few years ago in northern Vermont. I spent several days marching around a good-looking chunk of woods with nothing to show for it aside from a realization that no deer were in the area. All the sign I found was several days old, and there wasn’t a fresh track anywhere in the country. However, I had seen that most of the older deer sign and trails I found were concentrated around and through stands of large oak trees where the deer were feeding heavily on acorns.

Taking note of this, I went to another spot I had previously scouted and hunted a few days before that had had a lot of oaks and acorns but very little fresh deer sign that was a few miles from where I was currently hunting. When I got to the spot, it was completely torn up, and I could tell that the deer had just moved into the area. That evening, I sat down on a convenient stump overlooking the previously deerless spot and just before dark, a big eight-pointer walked right into my crosshairs.

Give Yourself Options

It’s important to remember that the big woods are just that—big. Deer in the big woods have a lot of territory to play around in, and if you just concentrate on one spot or one area, you’ll very likely not find the buck you’re after. At the same time, trying to cover a huge amount of territory in a short amount of time means that any success you have will be purely based on luck because you’ll often be wasting a lot of time in areas without a lot of deer. So, in the end, your best bet in the big woods is to give yourself options by finding several small chunks of woods with a lot of fresh deer sign where you can concentrate your efforts.

Success in the big woods comes from hunting a good spot for a few hours or a few days, taking note of the sign that you see, and then moving on to the next potential spot. By doing this you’re putting yourself in the best places at the best possible times, and you don’t have to worry about what may be over the next ridge and taking on too much territory at a time. For as long as you have a few spots in mind, you can keep going back for another helping of big woods hunting until you get your fill.

Feature image via Captured Creative.

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