Worn from seven days of rising early for the 1.5-mile trek to my public-land stand, I sat overlooking a whitetail runway along a wooded Kansas river-bottom. For two days I’d hunted from dark to dark, which proved tiresome because mature bucks were locked down. Winds had calmed, the river sang a sweet serenade, and mid-morning rays carried temperatures high into the 60s. I basked in the Sunflower State’s November serenity and drowsy effects lingered, but the mere possibility of a rutty buck warded them off.
Buck grunts and splashing water suddenly interrupted the tranquility. I grabbed my bow as two does — trailed by a good buck — bounded into view, heading directly toward my 30-yard lane. They squeezed through, and the buck slammed on the brakes at the sound of my mouth grunt. Fortunately, I’d pre-ranged the spot where he now stood. My 30-yard pin floated on his ribs as I released. He fell less than 100 yards away.
I noticed my lifeless trophy drenched as I approached him moments later, which reminds me of two central reasons why my brother selected the tree from which I killed the buck. First, whitetails habitually cross river shallows — especially stretches with sandbars — to travel between bedding and feeding areas. Second, whitetails often travel parallel to rivers due to cover and negotiable terrain features. In particular, bucks can scent-check more river crossings for estrous does in less time by paralleling the river.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
Of course, all rivers and creeks aren’t created for top-shelf deer action. If you plan to travel for bucks, be sure to research and scrutinize potential areas before settling on one and making the trip. There’s nothing more frustrating than wasting precious PTO days on a dud road trip. Extensive research reduces the likelihood it will happen.
I begin by visiting multiple online forums where hunters spill the beans, though I never rely solely on that research. My intent isn’t to move right in on top of other hunters; I simply want to know the area is capable of producing good-quality bucks and solid deer numbers. From there, I follow up with phone calls to local game wardens, wildlife biologists, archery store owners and the like. I want to hear promising things from multiple sources before I commit to an area.
You’ll find locals are often willing to provide solid advice because they welcome out-of-staters for economic reasons. Deer hunters spend money on fuel, groceries and lodging on traveling hunts, and locals usually appreciate that. There are exceptions, but people are generally helpful. You just have to ask. Again, any old river-bottom won’t do. You have to mine for the really productive ones.
WATCH: Tactics for Hunting Water Sources
HUNT RIVERS ALL SEASON
Hunters often misconceive that rivers are most effective as deer-hydration sources during bone-dry conditions. Deer certainly drink at rivers, but you must note that rivers create natural funnels and pinch points that facilitate deer travel all season long. That’s right, river stands are effective big-buck traps, regard- less of timing and conditions.
I don’t own or lease premier whitetail property. I primarily hunt on public lands. If you’ve hunted public lands yourself, you know consistently taking mature bucks from them can be very difficult. I’ve nabbed numerous high-quality bucks — including a 150-class Oklahoma bruiser — from public land river-bottom stands. My success proves that well-placed river stands level the playing field throughout the season. But you must follow a plan. Here are several considerations that’ll help you deploy your own river-cruiser ambush.
A common mistake hunters make is hanging stands in the wrong places. Stand placement spells the difference between seeing and actually killing mature bucks. Sightings are great, and if you’re a rifle hunter you can typically reach out farther and broom off a distant buck. In contrast, bowhunters must discriminate when selecting a tree in order to regularly get 20- to 30-yard shot opportunities.
Whitetail strategies become more effective through aerial-image and topographical-map study. River hunt- ing is no exception. Spend time at the PC or Mac, and comprehensively study your river location of choice. Acquire familiarity with present terrain features that might steer deer through tight gaps where they’ll present a close, broadside shot. Like the above mentioned Kansas ambush, intersections where deer parallel a river before crossing its shallow stretches are often productive, especially during the rut. However, river crossings alone can be dynamite all season long.
One example is a Nebraska public-land bowhunt where I arrowed a beautiful 135-inch buck on opening evening. I hung a stand in a 100-yard- wide timber belt paralleled by a creek to the north and a cornfield to the south. I located a hoof-pounded creek crossing with mature buck tracks, and hung a stand 40 yards from it where multiple trails converged.
I hunted the stand opening evening despite a poor wind direction — an aggressive move I rationalized by reviewing the forecast and detect- ing better winds weren’t coming during the remainder of my hunt. The gorgeous early season buck appeared at last light, and my arrow busted him before he busted me.
Inevitably, buck travel routes change throughout the season. During September, you must choose wisely to orchestrate a close shot at a quality buck. Studying tracks is fundamental. Of course, mature buck tracks are large and distinguishable.
Foliage is very thick in September, so you must buckle down on river crossings with obvious mature buck tracks. Bucks typically travel shorter distances during early season than during the rut. One reason is the thicker foliage offers greater security. The other reason is because they’re not frantically searching for does.
Early season stand placement is the key to daylight encounters. When scouting for the ultimate river ambush, don’t traipse too far off fields or you’ll bust deer from their beds. If a river or creek runs parallel between bedding and feeding areas, deer absolutely will cross it, so walk parallel along its banks on the same side as the food source during midday. Again, try to find crossings with mature buck tracks — these are usually more discreet — and give one a shot. Always set your stand downwind from the crossing.
The rut adds a new dimension to river hunting. While early season bucks can be taken on their buck- specific travel routes, November finds them cruising rivers to mine for estrous does. River routes during the rut usually parallel the water source rather than cross it. This allows bucks to cross many doe/fawn trails efficiently and in less time. Hunters often misconceive that bucks become completely stupid during the rut. This is unlikely on pressured public ground. Mature bucks prefer security cover, so locate brushy or timbered strips that parallel the river and offer security.
Again, alter your river strategy according to the time of season. When deer are on early season feeding patterns, they’ll more likely cross rivers while traveling between bedding areas and food sources. When the rut heats up, they’ll more likely pinch through funnels that parallel rivers as they search for estrous does or chase them.
HUNT ALL DAY
All day sits can be grueling, but they yield more deer sightings than a siesta on your motel mattress. My brother, Joe McDougal, arrowed an outstanding public-land Kansas buck by staying in his river stand while other hunters exited theirs. Around 10 a.m., crunching leaves materialized into a tall-tined 150-class buck cruising parallel to the river. He was prospecting for estrous does. A well- placed 30-yard shot quickly brought the big buck down.
Joe has encountered many other bucks at midday and early afternoon when hunting water, including a moose-like, double-beamed monster at noon on a 100-degree day. You simply cannot catch a midday monster if you’re watching TV in the motel room. Hunt long and hard during the rut. A bruiser could as easily appear at 1 p.m. as 8 a.m. But you won’t know it unless you’re there at show time.
HUNT THE BREAKS
So far, I’ve discussed only tips for hunting smaller rivers and creeks. What about larger ones, such as the Missouri River or Mississippi River? Here are my thoughts and experiences.
Large rivers usually have terrain breaks in the form of draws and canyons. These are often firearm-friendly whitetail haunts, because picking the right trail in the right canyon for a close bow shot can be difficult. I’ve extensively bow-hunted the Missouri River breaks, and success never comes easily.
That’s why I welcomed the opportunity to rifle hunt them last November. The canyons around the Missouri River are deep, thick and arduous to negotiate; these factors make them perfect whitetail habitat. In fact, they’re usually loaded with deer.
I found success by hunting crop fields above the canyons. The river provided the breaks, the breaks provided the cover, and the field provided food. Does poured out from the canyons into the fields during the first evening I hunted, and a 150-class stud appeared right before dark. I hit him with a 150-grain bullet from 205 yards away. Again, the rigorous terrain and the somewhat unpredictable deer that inhabit it, make it a firearm-hunter’s paradise.
SEE DIFFERENT DEER EACH DAY
During the rut, you’ll commonly see different deer each day you hunt a given stand. As I mentioned earlier, bucks often parallel rivers to sniff for does, and it’s often a race to cover ground. This increases possibilities of daylight encounters. During my week-long Kansas hunt, I saw many different bucks from my river stand, most of which were immature due to lockdown. Still, it left me guessing what would appear next. The uncertainty makes for exciting times.
Brother Joe has hunted the Kansas river-bottom I referenced more extensively than me, and he’s encountered many different bucks from day to day. In a place such as this, where the buck-to-doe ratio is in check, bucks must travel farther to find does, and are liable to travel for miles along rivers until they find a receptive one. That’s why it pays to hunt the same stand on multiple consecutive days. You might not see a buck you want one day, but one might show up the next.
Everything you’ve read so far probably has you intrigued regarding what a well-placed river stand can capably produce. Now, employ the tips I’ve covered here and buckle down on a river with obvious deer activity. Your efforts might be rewarded with a jaw-dropper buck.
Big bucks make big tracks! Look for those river crossings deer are using on a regular basis and then look for signs that mature bucks are among them.
BONUS: RIVER RUT
Do river stands burn out with hunting pressure? In most cases, yes. However, the rut changes this rule. As I mentioned in the main text, rutting bucks travel for miles up and down rivers while hunting for does. Spooking one buck doesn’t void the area of buck activity. Instead, new bucks will move through on almost a daily basis during the rut’s seeking phase. My brother and I took our Kansas bucks from the same stand, two weeks apart. The commotion he made while retrieving his deer obviously didn’t sour the area.
If you have only a week and you’re hunting public ground, be aggressive and hunt your best river stand repeatedly. If you’re encountering bucks, it’s basically just a matter of time until you’ll get an opportunity to take one.
— Darron McDougal is a driven white-tailed deer hunter and full-time freelance outdoor writer from Antigo, Wisconsin. He annually hunts white-tailed deer across multiple states, primarily on public lands.
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