Buck beds are trendy as hell and the hype very well might be deserved. These earthy ovals in the dirt are truly valuable pieces of sign. But finding a buck bed and actually using that intel to kill a buck are two very different things.
The trick to taking action on a bed is to move beyond just seeing one to instead learning to read the information it provides. This involves not just observing a bed, but actively exploring why, when, and how it’s used. Answer these questions and your buck’s life story will unfold from there.
Why? The first step in reading a buck bed is to ask the simple but powerful question: “Why?” Why is this buck bedded here? Why is this the spot?
Bucks choose their beds for specific reasons. The more years that buck has been alive, the more carefully those locations are positioned. A bed must provide security—whether that be through sight, smell, or sound—and be relatively close to food and water. Your job as a whitetail detective is to examine this bed and determine how it checks the boxes for those criteria. This will not only arm you to hunt the specific buck but will also help you uncover patterns that can be applied to future experiences, too.
When examining your buck bed, first consider how this location provides the deer with security. Is it situated high on a bluff, providing views down into a valley the deer wants to monitor? Is the bed isolated on an island surrounded by water? Is it tucked into the thickest patch of underbrush in a forested area? Take note of the characteristics that make this spot so advantageous for the buck, consider how he’ll use these defenses to avoid you and other predators, and store that knowledge away for a later date.
Next, you need to ask what food or water sources are nearest and at what times of year they’ll be there. Is there a green soybean field, a clear cut, or an apple orchard? How about a creek, river, or water hole? Some of this can be ascertained by studying a map but you’ll need to explore the area surrounding the bed on foot, too. Add these features to your mental map and rank how attractive each might be at different times of year and under different circumstances.
You now have the beginnings of your buck bed map. The bed is at the center of the wheel, the hub of this buck’s daily patterns, and the nearby food or water sources are the ends of spokes that extend out from there.
Where? The next question to ponder is where and how this buck will travel once he leaves his bed. As noted already, in most cases a buck will travel to food or water sources, unless it’s the rut, when he’ll be visiting doe bedding areas too. Your job is to determine exactly how he’ll reach these locations. Think of this as drawing the lines on your map that connect the bed to those end-of-the-spoke destinations.
This process begins by examining the terrain and cover between the bed and those destinations and looking for any features that might direct deer travel or signs indicating where travel has already occurred. Is there a big rub line leading away from the bed? Is there a saddle in the adjacent ridge that drops down to the crop fields below? Is there a well-used creek crossing at the only low-bank stretch of an otherwise cliffy waterway? All of these signs can point to how your buck is traveling between Point A and those multiple Point Bs.
A few simple rules can help you narrow things down further. First, mature bucks prefer to stay in or near the best cover if at all possible. Second, mature bucks, like most other deer, prefer the path of least resistance if it doesn’t endanger them. Easy creek crossings, gaps in a fence, or easy openings in a stretch of deadfall will all funnel traffic. Walk concentric circles around the buck bed looking for any such features and start filling in your map accordingly.
How? Finally, you need to determine how to actually kill the buck that’s using this bed. You have most of the puzzle pieces in place now, but not all. You know where the bed is, you know the likely destinations from that bed, and you know some of the likely paths this buck will take in between the two. But there’s more.
When will this buck be there? When should you hunt nearby? How close can you actually get to this area without spooking the deer?
All of this begins with understanding what wind directions a buck would use this bed during. As a rule of thumb, bucks prefer to bed with the wind to their back and a visible area ahead of them. With this being the case, and imagining the wind at this hypothetical buck’s back, what areas would he be able to smell when bedded here? Alternatively, with what wind directions do you think this bed would lose its advantages and lead to a buck using a different area?
Next consider what time of year the bed is likely being used. When is the cover in this area optimal? When are the nearby food sources most attractive? All of this can help you pinpoint when he’ll be here and when you can actually hunt him.
Finally, you’ll need to explore how close you can get to this location when hunting. Folks like Steve Bartylla and Dan Infalt recommend doing this by getting in the bed and seeing what that buck can see or hear from that position. Think about how much leaf and grass cover will be present come October or November and how that may or may not shield your access. Consider how your boots cracking branches might echo or how splashes might reverberate. And, most importantly, what will your wind be doing on the days the buck wants to bed there?
With all of this information now in hand and your buck bed map filled in as thoroughly as possible, you can finally decide if and how you’ll hunt this buck. Is this a bed you can actively hunt on top of or is it simply a piece of scouting intel that aids in other setups? When should you hunt it and how often? The answers to these final questions require a synthesis of all the gathered information and are rarely simple.
Questions? I know, I’ve offered far more questions than answers. But this is on purpose. Learning to ask the right questions of yourself, rather than depending on another person’s answers, will serve you far better in your future hunting efforts.
Like any good book, a buck bed is layered, nuanced, and full of riddles to be solved and questions to be answered. My advice is to study the subject at hand, read between the lines, and take notes along the way. A memorable ending awaits.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.