In western states, hunting a water source is like hunting white oak acorns in the east. Hunters west would say you're missing the boat if you're not building water into your strategy. From speed goats to elk, seasoned western hunters often begin by looking for a water source before anything else. But water-based plans for hunting whitetails have just started to gain steam.
In recent years more deer hunting tactics have included water in some way. When there is so much to look at, it's easy to forget about water during a scouting trip. Water in eastern states is further ignored due to mild weather and vast shaded tracts of timber. But by adding water into your bag of tricks, you're opening far more options to bring you as close as possible to a whitetail.
One of the top features to hang a trail camera on is a scrape. Scrapes catch many deer and have they offer some of the best photo ops. The use of a camera over water is similar to a scrape.
Water sources act as a funnel or a resting place, and most deer in the area will know where to find them. Even dry water sources can help connect a pattern. Deer know the woods you're hunting, and they know when the source is active. That's what you need to learn. Does that source need heavy rains? Does it retain water for a long time or dry up in a day or two? Is it spring-fed, or does it rely on runoff?
A mature whitetail needs water to live, and the following water sources are perfect places for collecting the latest intel. Patterning a buck from the early season through the rut is now better than ever. Cell cams are one of the best tools to help you understand a water pattern, and here's how.
Deep Lake Edges
Deep water edges with thick cover act as a funnel for traveling deer. Active doe bedding along a funnel like this is perfect for a rut setup. Deep water on a lake usually borders hill-type terrain that bucks use to their advantage.
Lakes retain heat longer than the air. That means thermals will rise longer into the evening, giving you a better element of surprise when hunting the upper terrain. Use a cell cam both high and low on a hill if possible, but be sure to focus on the does. When you get pictures of bucks trailing does in lower terrain, you'd better be on stand the next day! Get there early and hunt all day. Set up within shooting distance above the lower funnel the deer are using.
Shallow Coves and Bays
Coves surrounded by heavy cover and plenty of food are the ticket. I'm not talking about oaks or ag either. Shallow water close to patches of nasty thick cover is perfect for bedding deer. Skinny water often means aquatic plants and weeds, making these coves a place deer can't resist.
A mature buck can leave the safety of his bed and be chowing down on lily pad roots or coontail in no time. A trail that leads from bedding to food is a perfect place for an early-season cell cam due to the area's sensitivity. It's possible to check SD card cameras via water access with a boat, but there is less room for errors in a spot like this, which is why the cell cam rules.
Creek or River Crossings
Big river systems are whitetail meccas because of the food surrounding their banks. The spot deer use as a crossing is best for camera placement on a large river. Usually, that tends to be near a bend in the river or on fast skinny water.
A double river bend creates an oxbow and is a great place to look for buck bedding. Throwing small weedy gravel bars into the mix will make those crossings more appealing.
On a small scale, creeks act the same as a river. The difference is that cover plays a larger part in security for a creek. Access is often easier due to a creek's smaller size. More times than not, easy access translates to more hunting pressure.
Cell cams on trails leading from bedding to crossing point will help you pattern a specific deer. Placing them directly on a crossing will explain how local deer use the area as a whole.
The top of many mountain drainages have seen countless bucks making hunters happy. Most hunters know a pinch point like this sees a lot of hunting pressure during the rut. Setting a cell cam on the next crossing or two below the top is a better option to combat the hunting pressure.
These ditches remain cold whether the water comes from a spring or runoff from the mountain top. The cold water will cause thermal currents to race downhill almost all day. To take advantage of these thermals, set up within five to ten yards of the water source. The second perk of this type of thermal is that it will assist in hiding your access, maintaining the element of surprise.
The most hidden and unique water source you can find in the middle of the woods is a water hole. The smaller hole you can find, the better. It's harder to see a small water hole via satellite pictures, making it possible to have a spot to yourself.
Some water holes see daily deer traffic, while others have an ebb and flow related to changing food sources. Cell cams can help define when those food sources are at their peak. Match up changing food sources by watching for busy camera activity. For example, if you're aware of white oaks in the area, hunt the water hole as soon as camera action picks up in early October.
The benefit of the water hole is that it is a second draw for feeding deer. A buck might stay safely out of range in a wide acorn flat. But if you know that he's heading to the water, you'll know where to get your best chance at a good shot.
Cell cams are seen as gadgets that point you to the woods when a deer shows up. But if you're using a cell cam as a tool, it will actually keep you out of a hunting spot until more about that spot is understood. Finding a water source doesn't mean you'll always find the deer. The best way to find out is to "set it and forget it," making cell cams the ultimate tool for you to use an active water source this fall.
Author: Aaron Hepler, Exodus Black Hat Team Member