As Tom Indrebo bounced his ATV up a soggy woodland road on a steamy summer day, he slowed to squeeze past a stretch of muddy, water-filled tire ruts gouged the previous day by the neighbor's tractor.
Then Indrebo stopped to closely inspect that western Wisconsin ridgeline. Everywhere he looked, fresh deer tracks had sliced, pocked and slid through the wet, slippery clay. The tracks seemed especially thick around the tire trenches, which still brimmed with rusty-brown water. After spotting no magnum-size tracks, Indrebo resumed bouncing up the two-track.
Two days later he again bumped and jostled up the woodland road, and again slowed to sneak past the soggy tire ruts. Muddy water still filled the deepest troughs, but more deer tracks than ever dotted the moist clay for yards around. This time Indrebo shut off the ATV's engine and dismounted. He circled that well-chewed section of road, trying to discover what the deer found so attractive. In subsequent weeks, Indrebo regularly checked that shady spot and finally saw a distinct pattern. Each time it rained, deer activity increased in that little depression. Further, the more fresh clay the tractor tires tore up and flung around, the more deer tracks Indrebo found.
But as the muddy ruts dried, deer activity ebbed. Finding no evidence of natural salts or other minerals, Indrebo figured deer must like freshly scoured dirt, muck and muddy water. He watched the woods' mud-prone areas with more interest that autumn, and he eventually concluded that deer can't resist fresh mud puddles and drinking their murky waters. There was only one problem: Most such sites offered few good stand setups.
Soon after, an idea formed: Why not bring water to the deer? After fine-tuning the idea during winter, Indrebo hired a bulldozer in late spring to scrape out a couple of woodland waterholes. He strategically built those first ponds between a couple of time-tested bedding and feeding areas on his farm.
By the time his new ponds froze shut that November, Indrebo's log entries documented that stands overlooking his waterholes outperformed those near scrapes, food plots and rub lines. "I expected they would draw bucks during the rut when they're chasing does around, and they did," he said. "Rutting bucks often head for water before bedding down. Then before heading out to look for their next doe, they grab another drink. When the rut's on, we see them at waterholes at every hour of the day."
His logbooks confirmed an unexpected bonus the following year. Those waterhole stands were even more productive during the early archery season, especially on hot September days when steady winds dehydrate deer and blow-dry overnight dew.
"I didn't really expect that," Indrebo said. "But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. When we had hot, calm days in September and early October, deer didn't hit the waterholes. The deer were getting all the water they needed at night when crop plants are coated in heavy dew. But when it's hot and windy, there's no dew at night. That's when deer head for water, and I make sure we're hunting our waterholes."
Therefore, Indrebo believes in hunting waterholes from early fall until they freeze for good in late fall or early winter. "We don't give up hunting them until deer give up trying to punch through the ice with their hoofs," he said. "If you build your waterholes where deer want them, they'll keep showing up."
What makes a good waterhole setup? Indrebo suggests walking a property's high ground or hilltops and locating deer travel corridors along slightly-tapering slopes just below the ridge's crest. Deer tend to bed high so they can watch below while their nose scent-checks air currents flowing over the crest behind them.
Therefore, good waterholes should be about the same level, so deer can conveniently use them when leaving or returning to bedding areas. Just identify the site's predominate autumn winds, and be sure the pond isn't downwind from bedding areas.
"As long as deer can walk a few steps for a drink, they'll go to the pond for a quick, warm gulp of brown water," Indrebo said. "I don't know what it is, but deer like mud and fresh dirt. If they have a choice between a mud puddle and a clear-running creek, they'll drink from the puddle every time. A good woodland pond is just an oversized mud puddle."
Make sure nearby hillsides, the banks and brush around the waterhole don't box it in. The contour leading down to the pond must be gradual, not steep. You want a shallow, tapering edge around the waterhole, not a cliff face plunging to the waterline. Deer must have a clear view of their surroundings when lowering their heads to drink. Steep banks cut off their ability to see, hear and scent-check their surroundings.
It's vital that deer feel comfortable when drinking. If they feel nervous, they'll likely avoid the site or move through too quickly to offer good shots. But if they're comfortable when drinking, they'll often browse for acorns, leaves and other foods that collect there.
When choosing a waterhole site, make sure the hillside above has just enough pitch to carry rain runoff into the waterhole's basin. It need not be steep, and ideally, the soil contains heavy clays. A skilled bulldozer driver will scrape out a bowl-shaped basin that's about 20 yards in diameter and 4 feet at its center, and then build a berm to trap runoff. He'll then spread the remaining clay across the basin to create a nearly impervious bottom.
Many landowners make the mistake of building waterholes in shallow hilltop gullies where hillsides intersect. Although they quickly collect water and seldom run dry, they seldom survive the first heavy rain.
"They always overflow, and then they quickly erode and wash out," Indrebo said. "Stay out of the gullies. Get away from there and build a three-sided berm along the hillside below the crest. You want a waterhole, not a dam. Even if it dries out some summers, it usually refills once things cool off in early fall."
In many hilly environments, the farther you go out on ridgeline points, the sandier the soils become. Sand isn't good for building ponds. Water seeps right through it. Prime clay deposits are usually farther down the ridgeline or sidehill. Before locking in on a site, poke around with a shovel to verify you have a clay base.
If you have no choice but to build in sand, you must install a liner beneath the waterhole, which means added expense. Just remember, you're creating a waterhole, not a lake, so you don't need the world's largest liner.
Waterholes should also be surrounded by mature trees, which must be large enough to hold your stand and offer concealment. Trees that meet those criteria tend to have large canopies with enough summer foliage to shade the pond. That's vital, because shade slows evaporation and reduces ground brush, so drinking deer don't feel claustrophobic.
When possible, build ponds inside oak groves. Few things attract deer like muddy water and fresh white-oak acorns. Don't bother planting food plots around woodland waterholes. It should be too shady to grow quality food plots. And if plants do grow in summer, they'll usually get covered with leaves and choke out once leaves start dropping in fall.
If you're lucky, you need not build a full-fledged waterhole. In some cases, you can dig a serviceable trench or glorified mud puddle with hand tools. After all, judging by the way deer flock to water-filled tire ruts, they will drink from any water source they find.
Old farm ponds might also be an option where dairy and cattle farmers needed long-lasting water sources for livestock. These ponds draw deer in the right situations, but they're often in fields beyond bow range, at sites where deer feel vulnerable in daylight.
How about a farm pond surrounded by standing corn? Don't bother setting up a ground blind. Deer seldom use waterholes that are closely surrounded by tall, thick cover. These situations aren't much different from a woodland waterhole boxed in by a steep bank or cliff. Remember, deer feel vulnerable when lowering their heads to drink, so they won't take the chance when surrounded by thick walls of standing corn.
If the setup is more open, such as near the edge of the woods, consider planting soybeans around the pond instead of corn, sunflowers or other tall crops. That might lure the deer out of the woods to drink. They'll have a good view of their surroundings, and they can drift back and forth between the water, soybeans and woods.
When approaching waterholes to hunt, play the wind and come in from uphill whenever possible. If you come in from below, deer bedded above can spot you. If you've done your job scouting, you should be able to avoid their bedding areas or risk your scent stream blowing into the bedding cover.
If you leave your stands in place, put at least one on each side of the pond so you're "safe" in any wind direction. Also, make sure the stand is downwind of the pond.
When hunting woodland waterholes, never forget you're on a travel corridor near a bedding area. Deer could come through at any time. Try to place your stand so you can shoot before they enter the waterhole's clearing. As deer reach the edge of surrounding cover, they usually pause before making their final approach to water. Take the first good shot they provide. Don't expect to shoot them at your leisure.
When bucks are chasing up and down the hills and moving field to field looking for receptive does, they drink whenever possible. Indrebo's trail cameras often document the same bucks returning to the same waterhole two or three times daily during the rut. They're thirsty and overheated, and they sometimes walk into the water to its deepest section to cool off. So stay alert.
No matter how large or small your waterholes, one thing is certain — they age quickly. Because they rely on runoff for their water, they quickly accumulate sediment that settles out of the water. In addition, leaves, branches, twigs and other debris collect. Therefore, if you needed a bulldozer to build the pond, you'll probably need one every few years to remove its "loon poop." Likewise, if you hand-dug a small pit or trench, you'll probably have to re-dig it every other year to keep it functional.
Also, if your waterhole requires a plastic liner to retain water, even the best liners can suffer punctures. Buy the best you can afford and work with the bulldozer operator to cover it beneath six to 10 inches of soil to protect it from deer hoofs. Realize that deer, especially fawns and yearlings, love running and splashing in waterholes.
So, yes, waterholes aren't self-maintaining. But compared to food plots and other habitat improvements good hunting lands require, waterhole maintenance is relatively minor. And when you consider how consistently they draw deer, you probably won't find a more efficient use of your time, money and effort.
As the owner and operator of Bluff Country Outfitters in western Wisconsin, Tom Indrebo has made waterholes a key ingredient in his hunting operation.
"I haven't found a more reliable way to see different bucks than spending entire days sitting over a woodland pond," Indrebo said. &"In one stretch, we shot six different Pope and Young bucks off the same pond in two years. I'm convinced you can't overhunt these hotspots during the rut."
Waterholes attract bucks that are rutting, but they also attract bucks that have been mortally wounded. When deer suffer rapid blood loss, intense thirst sends them to water. In November 2011, for example, Indrebo dropped off a bowhunter near a waterhole in the pre-dawn darkness and returned to camp to coordinate a search for a monster buck another bowhunter hit the previous night.
Soon after arriving in camp, Indrebo received a phone call from the client he had just dropped off. "Tom? I found that buck. He's lying dead up here beside the pond." The buck gross-scored 190 inches.