As a born and bred Michigan whitetail hunter, I was raised on the gospel of deer hunting swamps. Grandpa solemnly preached the virtues of seeking out the black-booted bucks that called these wetlands home and implored me to become a “swamp stomper” as well. I listened, and I've experienced the wisdom of those words in the years since.
Mature bucks always flock to the deepest, darkest, nastiest swamps around. Fortunately for us hunters, there's a “cheat code” for finding and hunting them there.
Why Swamps? Data backs up what Grandpa said. One of the best examples comes from a study conducted by the University of Delaware and the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife. The researchers captured and collared adult bucks and does, collecting data over four years across the southern part of their state. One takeaway stood out above all else: mature bucks, 5.5 years or older, are creatures of the swamp.
"Mature bucks barely ever left the swamps until the cover of darkness," the authors of the study said in a National Deer Association review. This is (as you might assume) because swamps are great for hiding from hunters. "Bucks that used wetlands and swamps survived, and those that didn’t died. It really was as simple as that."
I've seen this play out in my own experience, especially in heavily-hunted areas. I look at swamps as one of the only habitat features that will allow a buck to reach maturity on my home turf. If I can find swamps, I know there's a chance for a good buck. Otherwise I won't count on it.
Typically, bucks feel safe and sound in their swamps because most hunters don't want to barge through thick nasty cover or wade mucky water. But for those who are willing to brave the wilderness, the payoff can be worthwhile.
“Some of the biggest whitetails in the country are taken from cattail marshes, bogs, and unforgiving tamarack swamps,” Wisconsin bowhunter Curtis Zabel said. “If you’re willing to keep a positive attitude, put in the work, and stay patient, you’ll eventually find yourself smiling ear to ear.”
The Cheat Code The cheat code for hunting swamps is e-scouting with aerial maps. More so than with any other habitat type, online aerial maps lay out the secrets of swamps like a picture book.
"The advantage [of swamps] is that it's one of the easiest habitat types to identify transition lines, bedding areas, and isolated food sources without ever touching foot on the property," experienced swamp hunter Garrett Prahl of DIY Sportsman said.
A typical swamp has little to no mature timber, leaving much of the terrain comprised of grasses, cattails, open water, or shrubs. Without thick tree canopy blocking the view, you can see deer trails, beds, hubs of movement, and more—right from your computer screen.
When you view a swamp or cattail marsh on an aerial map you can often literally see trails etched into the ground. You’ll be able to see where those trails come from and go to. You can see where several trails intersect in hubs or funnels, as well as areas entirely devoid of deer movement. It could take days, weeks, or even seasons on a landscape to learn something like that in person. But you can do it in an hour online.
Another feature to look for when e-scouting swamps are transition lines. Deer are attracted to the edges where two habitat types meet, according to Mario Trafficante of The Hunting Beast.
“Changes form a break in the monotonous terrain which typically attract deer for the purpose of feeding, navigation, safety, and bedding,” he said. “I look for edges or transitions from low elevation to high elevation, cattails to dogwoods, or swamp grass to hardwoods.” All of these features visually pop on maps, as indicated by changes in color, texture, or topo lines.
Bedding areas are another easy find with swamp e-scouting. Transitions play a key role here as well. “Transition lines will often weave in and out, creating lots of deer bedding potential,” Prahl said. “Points of hardwoods jutting out into the marsh and thick inside bends can hold bedding.”
One final swamp habitat type to note are islands of high ground. “These might be as small as an acre in size, or it could be dozens of acres,” Prahl said. “I find that islands which appear to have trees with large mature canopies on the aerial photo can hold food. Islands that appear brushier on the aerial photos are much more likely to hold bedding.”
The "Everyone Else" Caveat Pull up an aerial view of a swamp and you can see it all spelled out clear as day. Here’s the island with bedding, here are the transition lines where they’ll travel and feed, and here are trails crisscrossing throughout showing exactly how they travel between it all. It’s almost too simple. And therein lies the one Achilles heel of swamp e-scouting: If you can see it this easily, everyone else can too.
For that reason, it’s important to temper your e-scouting excitement just a bit. Remember to verify your online findings in person. Both Prahl and Trafficante advocate boots-on-the-ground time to make sure the map matches reality and that other hunters haven’t invaded before you have.
That said, swamps still represent one hell of an opportunity. If you don’t want to take it from Zabel, Prahl, Trafficante, or me, that’s fine. But you can’t deny Granddad.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.