Targeting Rutting Whitetails in Twisted Terrain

When topography and foliage mix perfectly, the coupling creates natural funnels that concentrate rutting buck movement.

Targeting Rutting Whitetails in Twisted Terrain

The scrub-oak draws and tangled thickets below my view were captivating. It was my first rut hunt in South Dakota’s Missouri River Breaks, and I hadn’t previously hunted anywhere like it. My vantage point of the area had me anxious to take my bow, dive in and find a battler buck amongst the jumble. I was too green at the time to understand that terrain features dictate buck movement, especially during the rut’s cruising days. You see, I’d grown up hunting agriculture in central Wisconsin. Nearly all of my previous hunting experiences had centered around alfalfa and cornfields on flat land.

After momentarily admiring the expanse, the landowner showed me to a draw that sloped down into the rough river breaks. He told me it was a good spot, but I wasn’t sold until he pointed out a couple rubs and a fresh scrape. That’s all my young eyes needed to see. Without hesitation, I selected a tree for my Lone Wolf stand and climbing sticks.

I arrived well before dawn the following morning and settled into the stand. I’ll admit that I became slightly impatient not long after daylight and dug my rattling antlers from my pack. It was November 2, and I knew my timing was good for calling.

I finished the simulated buck fight, then secured the antlers on a hook and grabbed my bow. Within a couple minutes, I heard footfalls behind my stand. One look confirmed it was a big, mature buck. According to his posture, he’d obviously heard my rattling and was coming to fight. He stopped and pawed out a scrape, then turned and walked directly at my tree.

By now, my nerves were frazzled and my breathing deep. In fact, given the pin-drop-silent conditions, I feared the buck — that I could’ve drooled onto — would hear me breathing. I had to do something. I slowly lifted and drew my bow, but the buck caught the movement peripherally and bounded. I mouth-grunted to stop him, rushed the easy shot and flubbed it.

My 19-year-old body was a quivering mess. And while I was upset with myself, I learned something valuable that day: Terrain features create natural deer funnels that can be utilized to orchestrate a top-pin shot at bucks during the rut’s cruising stage.

In the plains states, a narrow swath of trees running through the otherwise-open prairies makes a great bow stand with easy, low-impact access and productive all-day hunting.
In the plains states, a narrow swath of trees running through the otherwise-open prairies makes a great bow stand with easy, low-impact access and productive all-day hunting.

Terrain Makes Productive Stand Locations

It’s no secret that deer use terrain features as part of their daily lives. And, there are reasons they do. First, terrain features often connect necessities such as food, water and shelter. Not only do certain terrain features facilitate easier travel between destinations, but they typically provide security as deer travel.

Hunters can exploit these tendencies. We can find terrain features that funnel whitetail movement and use them to orchestrate high-percentage shot opportunities well within our effective range. Further, because funnels are merely travel routes between necessities or congregating areas, stand access is simplified. As long as we don’t bust through a food source in the predawn, or a bedding area early in the afternoon on our route to these funnel areas, we’ll spook few deer. And if we play the wind just right, we can often sit these stands, if necessary, for a few days straight with little to no impact on deer behavior.

While deer use terrain features all year, a mature buck’s focus shifts with the rut’s onset. Throughout September, he was concerned with calories. Now, as he begins cruising, estrous is the name of the game. He’ll pass through terrain features that connect doe bedding areas, as well as ones that intersect multiple high-traffic doe trails. Let’s identify some examples of such locations.

The author does most of his bowhunting near creeks or river systems. Often, river corridors feature terrain that facilitates regular deer traffic. Runways that parallel multiple creek crossings are heavily traveled by bucks during the rut’s cruising days.
The author does most of his bowhunting near creeks or river systems. Often, river corridors feature terrain that facilitates regular deer traffic. Runways that parallel multiple creek crossings are heavily traveled by bucks during the rut’s cruising days.

What to Look For

Mapping is a critical component to any consistently successful whitetail strategy, so I use onX Hunt well before my hunt to pin possible terrain features that I believe pinch or funnel deer through a relatively narrow location, and that I can cover with my bow. Although I believe there can be merits to focusing on several terrain funnels and pinch points in a relatively small area, I drop lots of pins within a 50-mile radius. I do it because it’s wise to have backup plans. It’s common to find that certain spots are unhuntable for one reason or another when you arrive to scout and hunt.

With onX, I prefer the hybrid base map, which shows both aerial and topo. Most of my whitetail hunts are conducted on or near rivers and creeks, so I naturally study for narrow stretches of trees along a river or creek that connect to larger bedding timber on both ends. Bucks traveling parallel with the river rarely will cut across open ground, and if the river is deep, they won’t often swim unless they must. Instead, they’ll most often use those skinny tree belts for security. Spots like this can be money at the right time of year. Not only do they provide closer shooting opportunities, but they’re often easier to access with little impact if you can avoid going through the large blocks of timber en route. And, because most deer will approach your stand from only two directions, it simplifies playing the wind.

While I love creek funnels and pinch points, I don’t discount other terrain features that make sense to hunt, too. A wooded draw amidst wide-open prairie habitat provides good security and can be worth hunting. Or, the top or bottom edges of deep erosion ditches can often be good bets, particularly if the top edge borders a field or pasture, and the bottom levels out onto a bench or creek bank.

Saddles are another timeworn option that can produce encounters  with mature bucks. Any terrain features that constrict deer movement through a tight area can be good. Again, though, my favorites are those that parallel creeks and rivers and intersect many doe crossings.

Get your bearings on possible funnels through virtual scouting on onX Hunt or a similar map-based app, but then visit the location in person to determine if it is indeed huntable.
Get your bearings on possible funnels through virtual scouting on onX Hunt or a similar map-based app, but then visit the location in person to determine if it is indeed huntable.
Twisted terrain often means twisted trees. The goal isn’t to hang your stand high, but with a backdrop that breaks up your outline. Also, choose the tree that provides maximum shooting coverage of the funnel.
Twisted terrain often means twisted trees. The goal isn’t to hang your stand high, but with a backdrop that breaks up your outline. Also, choose the tree that provides maximum shooting coverage of the funnel.

Sign Optional

A myth that died hard for me is that buck sign automatically makes a good hunting location. For years, I hunted food source edges littered with rubs and scrapes. It kept me optimistic, but I encountered few mature bucks from these sets. Rubs and scrapes don’t constitute a good setup just anywhere. You see, when sign is blatantly obvious, it’s commonly in locations where mature buck activity transpires at night.  

Most funnels, especially rut funnels, aren’t always trampled with tracks, scat and other signposts found on field edges. As humans, we’re wired with the tendency to see before we believe, so it can be hard to hang treestands in locations with little to no deer sign. Again, this was a concept that took me a while to understand. In fact, a friend and fellow Whitetail Journal contributor, Bernie Barringer, explained it to me over the phone while I was hanging stands during an Oklahoma bowhunt.

Earlier in the day I’d hung a stand in a funnel that adjoins a river-bottom and prairie habitat. I planned to hunt it the following morning, but as evening drew near, I was losing confidence in that stand location. In terms of constricting deer movement, it looked great. But in terms of deer sign, it lacked. Bernie assured me that sign is unimportant in such a location. He was right, because I arrowed my largest buck to date from that stand the next morning.

Acceptable Winds

Let’s discuss winds as they relate to funnels. Often, terrain-created funnels mean erratic winds. For that reason, I prefer funnels that allow me to position a stand in the safest spot possible relative to the prevailing winds. In some cases, these are like finding needles in a haystack.

It’s common for trails to run through the funnel on both sides of the best tree, which means you’ll probably have deer downwind regardless of wind direction. In this case, I determine which trail is the primary one, then hunt the stand when the wind is blowing toward the secondary trail. Let me explain.

Let’s suppose I find an east-and-west-running strip of trees that connects two big timber tracts. Most deer will travel east or west, so hunting the funnel on an east or west wind is taboo — my scent will blow to one block of timber or the other, and deer will likely smell me long before I see them. Two trails run parallel with the funnel, and the only tree suitable for a stand is between them. The trail north of my stand is the primary trail. I’ll hunt this stand on a north wind, and because deer are liable to also travel the trail south of my stand, I’ll point my Ozonics unit directly south. I believe it’s the best-case scenario in this situation.

Obviously, it’s best if there is only one trail through a funnel. In this case, you could possibly find suitable trees on both sides of the trail, which would afford you the option to hunt on either a north or south wind. This expands your opportunities to hunt hot funnel locations, but you must be attentive to find them.

Hunt All Day

To get the most out of a terrain-funnel rut hunt, you must be willing to log some hours, all day, if possible. You’re as likely to encounter a buck at 1:30 p.m. as you are at 9 a.m. Cruising bucks dart through funnel after funnel while scent-checking trails and bedding areas. Be there or miss your opportunity. 

Finishing Touches

Several seasons ago, an outfitter acquaintance generously allowed me to hunt one of his leases. The property had rolling hills that sloped into steep terrain breaks. Among them were winding creek beds that created ideal deer travel routes. My brother, a guide, had hung a portable treestand along one of these natural funnels that pinched deer between two embankments. The trail was 27 yards from the stand.

At 9 a.m. on November 9, the cold, dreary morning heated up — in terms of deer movement at least. A doe appeared first with a brute-bodied but broken-racked buck on her heels. The two deer pinched right through the funnel 27 yards away. Perfect, I thought; if only a larger buck would do the same. That wish immediately became reality as a trailing, heavy-antlered 4x4 appeared on the same exact course.

Murp!”

He stopped on a dime in my shooting lane, and my Hoyt sent a sharp carbon stick through both lungs. It was a testament to the type of rut hunt a terrain funnel can produce.

The author nailed this heavy-duty South Dakota 8-pointer as it pinched through a terrain funnel 27 yards from his treestand.
The author nailed this heavy-duty South Dakota 8-pointer as it pinched through a terrain funnel 27 yards from his treestand.

Terrain hunts are far from guaranteed, but they’re generally a safe bet for access, and they boost your odds for a close-range shot. Further, rutting bucks cruise them often. If you do your homework, hang your stand in the right tree and hunt all day, you could experience one epic rut hunt. After all, some of the largest whitetail bucks are taken each deer season in natural funnels created by all types of twisted terrain.

Sidebar: Ozonics Orion

I’ve had extremely good success with an Ozonics HR300 in-the-field ozone generator, and now the company has introduced the Orion, which is built on the HR300 platform, but with notable updates that make it even better. An upgraded battery configuration doubles battery life — 10 hours in standard mode, 8 hours in XL mode and 6 hours in Hyperboost mode. The Orion’s new Hyperboost mode produces 25 percent more ozone when you need it most — think marginal winds or when rutting whitetails are approaching from unexpected directions. A sound-dampening rubber overmold provides positive hand traction as you handle and mount the unit. The Orion is fully compatible with all existing Ozonics accessories and can be used afield or in before- or after-hunt applications to remove unwanted odors just about anywhere.

MSRP: $549.99

CONTACT: www.ozonicshunting.com

Hunting images by Darron McDougal

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