The key to ambushing white-tailed bucks skirting the edges of legal shooting hours is catching them early during their evening journeys.
I live in a portion of northern Idaho where farmland meets big woods. Our property, in fact, sits on that very demarcation. Vast farmland feeding areas (crop fields often comprised of hundreds if not thousands of acres) are located below our house, unbroken mountainous forest situated above. Because I lived in western New Mexico much of my adult life and traveled to find whitetail adventure, I was well versed in Midwestern ambush techniques. This hinged almost exclusively on guarding farm- land edges.
This was how I approached whitetail hunting after arriving in Idaho, setting up ambush points along field edges, waiting for the arrival of deer creating conspicuous and copious sign. I saw plenty of deer, certainly, but I hunted hours and weeks on end without witnessing a respectable buck. Meanwhile, mature bucks appeared on trail cameras like clock- work near those very stands, but only under the cover of darkness. It didn’t take long to grasp the fact that I needed to change my game plan.
The basic problem is Idaho is gun crazy, with rifle season running right through the heart of the November rut, and that open farmland makes bucks vulnerable to long-range sniping. It gets shot flat. Any buck that survives a couple of seasons learns that farmlands are literal killing fields. Sure, bucks still arrive to breed all of those does farmers whine about and which illicit seemingly excessive rifle-hunting pressure in an attempt to curb depredations. But bucks conduct this business at night, holing up in the thick and rough big woods while biding their time.
It took me years of trail-cam snoop- ing to stumble upon the phenomena of buck staging areas — mostly while working cameras deeper into cover while attempting to discover where particular bucks came from. I would target a specific, drool-inducing buck, starting from a predictable capture point, using intuition and obvious funneling features (sometimes track- ing snow) in an attempt to catch bucks a mile or more from a nighttime feeding area. In the beginning my goal was to learn where these bucks were bedding. Logic indicated this would provide solid starting points in an attempt to short-stop bucks right out of their beds before shooting hours passed. It was tedious, trial-and-error work, often frustrating, but what I discovered instead was the concept of staging areas.
WHAT IS A STAGING AREA?
The idea of a staging area is somewhat murky, as one envisions a pack of daily commuters assembled on a subway deck, or commercial-airline passengers piled before a gate waiting area. This isn’t entirely accurate.
What I discovered is that bucks — deer in general if they are inclined to nocturnal movement during warmer early seasons or when pressured unmercifully — will arrive at a certain point regularly, generally ahead of closing hours, and more or less cool their heels while waiting for sunset. Now I’m not saying a group of deer, even a particular buck, arrives on a finite patch of ground at an appointed time, glancing at their watches impatiently. Though this does happen, minus wearing watches obviously, and I will get into that momentarily.
But there are often particular areas, safe spaces, where bucks move through during legal shooting hours, in no particular hurry or generally milling. These places I suspect are not far from actual bedding sites (something difficult to determine in big woods where every square foot is potentially bedding cover, much easier in patchwork woods or finger cover). Staging areas normally provide some small amount of browse.
They are normally located between true bedding areas (thick ridges, swamps, weedy draws or wooded hollows) and true feed- ing areas (or concentrations of does attracted to feed) such as agricultural fields, meadows or orchards, just to offer some quick examples.
In general, these are small openings well inside cover where deer hold up until full darkness and are most useful for evening hunts. These can be created by a natural glade, a small opening in thronged vegetation, or even an intimate food plot carved into a large patch of woods. This is a small spot with a welcoming combination of cover from the outside world, but not so tight deer feel vulnerable to ambush from predators, often with the bonus of a bite to eat or water to increase appeal.
DISCOVERING STAGING AREAS
In many habitat types, intuition guides you to these valuable stand sites. This is actually easier in extremely thick vegetation or rugged terrain, but only to a point. Take my big-woods “backyard” for instance. Due to past logging activities, much of the forest cover is nasty-thick second growth that is often difficult to move through quietly.
Rifle hunters steer away from such areas, preferring to haunt open clear-cuts, wind-swept ridgetops or natural meadows where they can see, walk unimpeded and put their long-range weapons to use. Still-hunting these thick places can be productive (a subject for another time), but entails intense tedium most hunters will not endure. But even in the thickest cover you’ll stumble upon small openings, generally on ridge points, benches or along defunct logging skids or log landings. These are places where deer can pause without fear of being jumped by, say, a cougar.
In Northern habitats, I’ve encountered such openings at the edges of swamps, sometimes a higher hummock where food is abundant but surrounded by disguising brush or reeds. In the South, honeysuckle thickets often provide such combinations. I recall a Kansas spot where a small opening appeared in the middle of a red-cane CRP field, a low spot that flooded in the spring to drown out vegetation, supporting a couple of elms just big enough to hold a treestand. There was no reason for deer to visit that opening, so maybe they just used it as a respite from thronged cane. No matter the opening type, you’ll usually find sign in such places. Deploying a trail camera gives you insight into its usefulness.
In Northern areas, where snow is common, don’t hesitate to invest in tracking missions after fresh dustings. One of my best stand sites, a ridge-point bench in a nightmare ridge of alder, Juneberry and red willow, I discovered by backtracking an obvious bruiser buck track. At that small bench opening I discovered a couple of active scrapes — another common trait of frequently used staging areas. I put an arrow through an 8 1⁄2-year-old buck there, in an area where most bucks don’t make it past their third fall.
CREATING STAGING AREAS
Natural staging areas are great discoveries, but I’ve actually had better luck creating my own. I start by surveying a large swatch of habitat and determining where the thickest, nastiest cover is located — basically places that discourage the masses. I wade right in looking for sign. At some point you’ll discover a bench or point flat where several trails cross or otherwise converge.
I mark it well and return with axes, saws, even chainsaws when feasible. I then create a 25×25- to 30×30-yard opening, removing brush to the ground (often burning it in place when possible, normally on private land with permission). This is done during spring or early summer, and will generally be adopted by deer by fall, if not the following season.
Mini food plots, when possible, make these created staging areas even more appealing. I have tried all manner of “no-till” food-plot seeds, with mixed results. This isn’t a matter of seed effectiveness, but the challenging conditions faced in Idaho. The basic problem is we get zero moisture from late-June through mid- September. So while I might get a lush plot started in spring, it normally withers during hot summer months. Still, the bounty of spring is often enough to get deer into the habit of using the spot well into fall. In poor soil with insufficient moisture I often find wheat does best, seeded late in the summer and shooting up with a minimal arrival of fall moisture. Of course, in better-watered regions with better soil, this doesn’t present the problems faced here.
Creating mini food plots isn’t as simple as tossing seed and walking away. I find the more work I invest, the better they do. In remote areas I use a rake and hoe to loosen soil and remove competing vegetation, spread seed and rake to maximize seed-soil contact. Adding fertilizer is always worthwhile. And, of course, on private lands machinery can be used.
I created one small private-land plot with our small Kabota 3600, clearing an area, digging out root balls with the bucket and tilling to create an intimate food plot set well into the woods. Loading a roto-tiller into an ATV trailer is another option I’ve employed on remote private-land spots. Loosening soil deeply doubles the chances of food-plot success, especially if soil testing is conducted. Whitetail Institute sells soil-test kits that simplify this process.
In states where it’s legal, mineral licks can really make a staging site lucrative. Products such as Nutra Deer’s Antler Builder applied early in the season, when bucks are still in velvet and craving minerals, might not factor during fall seasons but gets deer used to visiting a site. Occasional bait deposits — again where legal — can also enhance staging areas and create more reliable visits.
What is most important in all of this is finding or creating safe spaces, and keeping them that way. Choose spots where wind can be played to your favor 100 percent of the time, or at least on specific bearings, where you can slip in and out undetected, and take great care to avoid depos- iting scent and/or bumping deer while checking trail cameras. Good staging area stand sites can prove to be bowhunting gold and should be managed accordingly. They are your avenues to success on deer that appear only well after shooting hours at more traditional stand sites.
Patrick Meitin is a widely traveled bowhunter and former big game hunting guide. He hails from northern Idaho.