Hunting whitetails in the big woods is like a long, intense workout. It sucks when you’re in the thick of it, but the payoff (when you’re lying on your back after it’s over) gives you an immediate sense of accomplishment that few things in life do. But finding success, much like fitness goals, doesn’t happen overnight.
For starters, you’ll need to e-scout until your eyes fall out, dissect large tracts of land, and get plenty of boots on the ground to determine which spots deserve sits. And that’s just the beginning. While hunting the big woods is definitely type-2 fun, how you approach it isn’t entirely different from hunting typical whitetail country or ag land. You still have to locate bedding, food sources, and travel routes. These factors just might not jump off the map like they do in ag country.
In my home state of Mississippi and other places across the deep South, the monotonous and generally flat terrain presents its own set of challenges. Unlike the big woods throughout Appalachia or the West, a lot of the southern big woods lack apparent terrain features that naturally funnel deer through the landscape. When you’re dealing with open, flat terrain, deer don’t have to move through the landscape in any certain way, but this doesn’t mean they don’t. Instead, vegetation and habitat diversity play a major role in dictating deer movement. This is why edges play a huge role in hunting the big woods down South.
Edges or transitions are exactly what they sound like. It’s where two or more different terrain or habitat types meet and create a defined edge. This could be the edge of a field that meets timber or a monotonous pine stand that turns into a hardwood bottom. Often, these edges stand out on digital maps, especially if you’re looking at aerial photographs captured during the fall. Transitions with clearly defined lines, like old-growth hardwoods that meet a clear cut are known as hard edges. These are definitely worth noting. Deer travel along and through these, but they’re a starting place, not necessarily a destination.
Along and within hard edges, you’ll typically find soft edges or transitions. Soft edges could be a thick patch of cane that extends along a river or the edge of a swamp, large or multiple breaks in the tree canopy, or older select cuts in a forest just to name a few. Soft edges are important because they can provide both travel and cover for deer. It’s no surprise that you find a ton of deer sign in these places.
In the southern big woods, thinned pine stands are a great example. Deer will often bed in these areas with thick cover and tons of browse. For example, if you have a thinned pine stand that adjoins an open hardwood bottom you’ll want to scout just inside the pine stand (assuming it’s not too thick). These soft edges are great staging areas where deer, especially bucks, will browse and mill around before heading into open timber.
I find a lot of areas in flat land actually hold subtle terrain features that don’t show up on digital maps, and deer gravitate toward these. They could be old railroad lines, random mounds in a swamp, logging ramps, busted pond levies, the list goes on. Even though these terrain features might not seem significant, I almost always find deer sign on or around them. If you’re scouting an area and spot a slight bump in elevation, it’s worth a look.
This past year, I was still hunting a new big woods area near a recent clearcut when I came across a random (we’ll call it a mound?) jutting out from the clearcut into the timber. If I had to guess, it might’ve been five or six feet tall, and 75 yards long. It stood out in the overall flat terrain.
On closer inspection, I found a recently worked community scrape at the end of this mound. You could smell the fresh upturned dirt, and the licking branch had been shredded that morning. Multiple trails also intersected near the end of this point. I decided to drop back about sixty yards and give it some time. About an hour later, a small buck circled downwind of that scrape. Another hunt in this same area led to a close encounter with a good buck. If I hadn’t scouted that area on foot, I never would have found it on a map.
Locating the exact edge takes time, but one thing most southern states have compared to other big woods settings is high deer densities. Even if a booner doesn’t cruise by your setup, you have high odds of seeing deer. And if there’s anything that gives you confidence in the big woods, it’s seeing deer.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.