Whitetails have a thing for timber. That’s just the way it is. Sure, they may set up camp in some prairie areas, but even those deer won’t ignore a nearby brushy draw or plum thicket. One geographic feature, riparian zones, always has a supply of trees. Rivers and creeks traversing the country leave ribbons of timber that whitetails call home and utilize as travel routes. If you have access to a riparian zone, you have the key to one of the hottest whitetail hunting locations on the map. Hunt it right and you may never want to return to your woodlot treestand.
Slink Like A Mink
River-bottom whitetails know their bedrooms as whitetails do elsewhere, but the nature of their winding homeland means you have to think twice about how you get in and out of your honey hole. Think like a mink and slink in for success.
Strategize your incursion by reviewing satellite images. ScoutLook Weather or Google Earth are great places to start. Zoom in on your hunting property, consider prevailing winds, and note all possible feeding, and bedding areas. Past and future scouting will help you zero in even more precisely on how to access your stand options.
You’ll find that entrance and exit routes rarely are the same as the deer are repositioning and utilizing different habitat throughout the day. In the mornings watch for deer headed back to bedding cover; in the afternoons you’ll meet deer on their way to hot food sources, like a river-bottom soybean field.
Because of that pattern, you’ll need to do the opposite of the deer. In the mornings, enter from a bedding cover direction, as deer will be preparing to leave food sources and return to refuge. At midmorning you can exit through front-door, river-bottom fields as most will be void of deer activity.
For afternoon hunts it’s best to take a front-door approach. Fields or food plots seldom have early afternoon activity, so you can cruise right through them to access ambush sites along river routes leading to food. Because deer will be pouring onto food as darkness arrives, you’ll need to leave via a backdoor that could parallel the now-vacant river bedding cover.
Additionally, look for terrain features to mask your access pattern. I particularly like sneaking along river or stream banks if water levels allow. Side canyons, coulees, irrigation dikes, and even farm trails give you quick and easy routes to follow in and out of riparian zones.
Since many autumn streams and rivers have lower flows, I generally bank hop when I can. That means I drop off the bank and walk the river’s edge in and out, morning or afternoon. Sometimes a pair of hip boots or even chest waders are required, but be careful. One afternoon while trying to put up a new stand in a remote South Dakota oxbow, I donned chest waders and slung a treestand on my back. Wading into the river everything was fine until I stepped into an unexpected beaver track. I took on some water, but clamored to shore before sinking like the Titanic. From then on I always slowed down and never went too deep.
Still-Hunting Still Works
Still-hunting is becoming a lost art as more and more bowhunters take to the trees. Deer managers as a whole frown on traipsing through the woods for fear of bumping a homegrown buck to the lap of a neighbor. There’s a lot to be said for that, but bowhunters who ease through dense whitetail cover at a snail’s pace, taking an hour or more to cover 100 yards, can find success in riparian zones.
A still-hunter’s objective is to sneak through river-bottom bedding cover, peer ahead, and locate a rutting or bedded buck. Not only does it take a slow pace, but proper gear. Outfit yourself with a low-power binocular in the 6X or 8X range. Low power widens your field of view to dissect thick habitat. Look for movement and deer pieces, not the whole animal. Ears, eyes, a shiny nose, the flick of a tail, and the distinct horizontal backline of a deer are dead giveaways of an impending meeting. Once a buck is in view, establish its demeanor and direction for your plan of attack. If the buck is on its feet, slowly angle toward an intercept by moving only when the deer has its head turned or behind cover.
You’ll also want to dress lighter, both in apparel and footwear. To feel every branch or stick beneath your feet, consider stalking boots. You’ll also need to be sneaky, so ditch the bulky parka. An occasional grunt or bleat while tiptoeing through cover also masks any unavoidable sounds, plus acts as a lure to bring a buck to you.
Still-hunting creates the ideal scenario to incorporate all of your calls and even employ a ground-based decoy like those from Montana Decoy. Move a few feet, stop, glass, and grunt. If you think a buck is hiding ahead, look for a good downwind setup site. Deploy the decoy and start rattling to lure a buck into a decoy confrontation. With a savvy setup, the buck will approach upwind of you and concentrate completely on the decoy, which leaves ample time to launch an arrow.
One of my most memorable still-hunts played out on a river bottom on a foggy November morning. After sliding into the thick timber under cover of darkness, I eased along for an hour with no sightings. Eventually I slipped to the edge of a river opening and rattled. It only took seconds for a spry 4×4 buck to charge the call, and he passed behind the trunk of a large cottonwood concealing my draw. When he stepped out from behind the tree, I ended my hunt with a 20-yard shot.
Traffic Jam Stand Sites
Rivers, streams, and creeks offer treestand lovers plenty of trees, and pinch points to set a buck trap. Return to your satellite images to scout from above for funnels and pinch points along river corridors. Now confirm with a closer inspection. Areas where timber necks down, bankside trails, field edges, and crossings all should receive a solid snooping.
All these trap zones have merit, but two that I believe get overlooked are the narrow necks of timber and water crossings. River cover fluctuates depending on river bends, changing channels, and even farming practices due to past clearing. Any narrow necks funnel bucks into areas that increase the percentage for a close shot, especially during the rut when bucks hurry between areas of thick cover to look for hot does. Whether you opt for a treestand, ground blind, or even still-hunting, consider “cutting one off at the pass.”
Crossings are another overlooked ambush opportunity. All riparian habitat isn’t created equal. Many creeks and rivers have steep slopes that make getting from one side to the other difficult at best. Locate gentle banks; deer prefer a path of least resistance. Old beaver runs, bank cave-ins, and sandbars provide whitetails with the stair-step structure for them to cross a waterway easily without becoming mountain goats. A perfect stand location is right where the deer would pop up from the bank. After crossing, whitetails often stop and look over the new scenery before proceeding. Be waiting when they arrive.
Lastly, don’t overlook riparian food sources hidden in the timber. Various browse attracts whitetails, including ash and maple trees. Locate mast sources. Acorns, apples, crabapples, persimmon and the likes provide a buffet of undercover dining. Whitetails may fill 50 percent or more of their daily diet on mast crops when they mature without ever stepping out of river-bottom cover.
One season I found a hot pattern along a dry riverbed paralleling a wild-flowing river. Scrapes sprung up like potholes in New York City, so I snuck a stand in one afternoon to watch the new commuter route. That very evening a mature-looking buck showed up down the scrape line, working my direction one stop at a time. Two scrapes later it landed at a mock scrape I put in below my stand. A perfect 12-yard shot landed me a great river-bottom buck.
Products To Get The Job Done
Stealth Cam G30
To monitor trails, edges and crossings look at the new Stealth Cam G30. The 8MP camera offers video recording complete with audio. It’s fast trigger speed, 30 IR Low Glo Emitters with 80-foot range means never missing a buck. Equip it with up to a 32GB card for frequent visits. Plenty of extras make this camera at deal with a MRSP of $160.
Rattling is a great way to call in a buck from a long distance, but carrying rattling antlers is bulky and can be noisy. Consider the convenient Rack-N-Roll from Primos. It mimics the sound of two 140-class bucks with exact tones and frequencies. Better yet, the Rack-N-Roll is designed for one-hand operation so you can keep your other hand firmly on your bow. MSRP is $25, a real deal.
Code Blue Platinum Standing Estrous
There are so many scents on the market. Consider the Platinum Standing Estrous series from Code Blue. Tested and proven to be 63 percent more effective on a buck’s response because the scent is collected at the exact time a doe allows a buck to breed her. It’s limited, but worth it to take advantage of the ideal scent window. A 1.5-ounce bottle of Platinum Standing Estrous has an MSRP of $40.
Rocky Game Changer Boot
Most rubber-bottomed boots get a bad review as clunky, cumbersome, and less than stealthy. Try Rocky’s Game Changer boot to escape that tradition. Designed around athletic uppers that contour to your foot, the rugged soles grip the ground, dry or wet, and are waterproof. Anti-microbial Scent IQ technology ensures a dry foot and no extra scent. They’re also good to 40 below for stand or stalking opportunities. Find them on the shelves with an MSRP of $185.
The Hoist’N Lok Tree Stand Hoist and Hoist’N Lok Big Game Hoist make getting gear into your treestand a breeze. Both the hoists incorporate a unique and patented locking system that is easy to use with one-handed ease. The Tree Stand version has a capacity rating of 100 pounds, and the Big Game version 500 pounds. MSRP for each is a modest $60.
Montana Decoy Estrus Betty
For portability and realism, nothing beats Montana Decoy whose new Estrus Betty gives you another whitetail decoy to add to your herd. This lightweight decoy portrays a doe urinating in an estrus stance. It could easily work beneath your treestand or in a still-hunting setup where you stop to call. MSRP is $90.