If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times. Heck, I’ve written it myself: Stay out of bedding areas. For most of deer season, that warning is sound hunting advice. Start messing around in a whitetail bedroom and those deer immediately become ultra-wary and eventually relocate. But when you find yourself getting down to the final stages of the season, and you’re running out of tomorrows, it sometimes pays to go for broke and get in bed with a deer.
Where to Look
Bedding areas can be easy to identify or nearly impossible to find, depending on the terrain. But there are a couple of maxims that can help narrow your search: Whitetail deer prefer to bed in thick cover and, given a choice between bedding high or bedding low, they will almost always seek elevation. It stands to reason, then, that if you’re in an area short on cover, finding the places in which deer prefer to bed is fairly simple. Poke around in the heaviest stuff that is available until you find a thicket with plenty of trails, droppings, tracks, rubs and beds. The same holds true when high ground is a scarce commodity. It doesn’t take long to stumble into a bedroom if there are only one or two ridges within sight.
On the other hand, if an area is one massive thicket or a maze of valleys and ridges, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Using a quality map as your guide, systematically walk through everything that looks like it might be the kind of place deer bed. This certainly isn’t fast or easy, but it’s the only way to find active bedding areas on properties where deer could be bedded practically anywhere.
In either situation, you can make your search more efficient by waiting for the right weather to roll in. After a fresh snowfall I follow deer tracks from food sources until I march right into the deers’ beds. With a little more sleuthing, the same thing can be accomplished after a substantial rain.
Let’s assume that you’ve identified an active bedding area and you’re down to the last day or two of your hunt. How do you get a crack at the buck you figure is holed up there? Every bedding situation is different. I can’t tell you with absolute certainty which tactic will work best for you, but I can share my experience with four that have worked for me.
Taking a stand in a buck’s bedroom and waiting him out takes a full-day commitment to one stand, which is more patience than most hunters can muster. Many hunters talk about sitting in a stand from dark to dark, but few actually pull it off.
In the most likely scenario, you’ll catch a bedroom buck sneaking home in the pink light of dawn. But if you don’t see him it doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t return. Assuming you correctly identified the animal’s daytime sanctuary, one of two things has probably happened: The deer either detected your presence and made himself scarce, or he sneaked in while it was still dark and bedded nearby. In my experience, the latter is usually the answer.
In fact, the biggest non-typical I’ve ever seen is my most painful reminder of what I call the “Terrible Power of Doubt.” With one day left on a bowhunt in western Illinois, I waited until dark and slipped into a non-typical’s bedroom when I was sure he was off on his nighttime prowl. I hung my stand high on the trunk of a towering cottonwood. I was in that stand a half-hour before first light the next morning.
The morning was absolutely miserable, with a horizontal rain turning to sleet at dawn. It was tough to hear over the racket of ice pellets peppering my raingear, but I thought I detected the sound of a buck doing his best to destroy every sapling in the terrible tangle of stunted willows and red osier nearby. The sleet stopped, the wind blew, the temperature dropped and the buck never showed. By 10 o’clock I was cold, stiff, bored and close to convincing myself that whaat I had heard was nothing more than the wind playing tricks. By noon I was sure of it. I stuck it out one more hour out of sheer stubbornness and then I climbed down.
When I hit the ground I took a stroll over to where I thought I had heard the buck earlier that morning. I had given up on the hunt, but I still had a nagging feeling that what I had heard had been real. It had been. The buck, wearing a wide set of massive antlers, with stickers and drop-tines going every which way, exploded out of his bed, splashed across the creek and lumbered up the ridge. Had I had a rifle, shotgun or muzzleloader, he would have been mine. But with nothing more than stick and string in hand, all I could do was watch him go, cursing under my breath.
When you stand-hunt in a bedding area, there are three prime times to get a shot at a resident whitetail. First light is your best chance. But if the deer does not show at dawn, don’t give up like I did. Deer almost always get out of their beds in late morning or early afternoon to stretch, relieve themselves and browse a bit. They don’t move far, and if you’re in the right place, they won’t have to.
Then there is dusk. Big bucks, in particular, become “nocturnal” late in the season. All that really means is that they don’t show up along trails and at feeding sites during shooting light. However, those very same bucks are on their feet and moseying around their bedding areas well before shooting light fades. If you’ve got the stamina to sit on stand all day you might be rewarded with a last-minute opportunity.
Pulling off a sneak on bedded whitetails is a tall order because they like to bed in places where they can see, smell or hear predators approaching. But there are times, when conditions are perfect, that a patient hunter can slip up on a deer in its bed. Moving quietly is not a problem after a rain or soft snow if you wear clothing like wool or fleece. Play the wind, move no more than two or three steps at a time and glass every inch of cover ahead and to the sides. Most hunters rely on binoculars strictly for long-range work, but good glasses allow you to pick apart heavy cover. Don’t look for deer, look for deer parts — a patch of hair, the tip of an antler tine, the wet glint of a dark eye or black nose. Finally, wear as much camouflage as the law allows, including a face mask or camo paint. That holds for gun hunters, who seem particularly reluctant to wear face masks.
Spotting-and-stalking is a tactic generally associated with mule deer, Coues deer and blacktails, especially the Sitka subspecies of coastal Alaska. But there are times when you can stalk whitetails as well. The tactic does not work in the heavy cover typical of most of the South and East, but in the Midwest and the West, whitetails often bed down in grass instead of timber.
While hunting the prairie land of southeastern Colorado with outfitter Tom Tietz recently, I was amazed to see the whitetails shun cottonwood-studded creek bottoms and bed on open grasslands, often a mile or more from the nearest tree. I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I’ve watched deer near my home in southeastern Minnesota, where there is plenty of wooded cover available, bed down for the day in a slough, grassy waterway, CRP field or along a fenceline.
To locate deer in these nontraditional habitats, set up on a hill with a quality pair of binoculars and spotting scope or cruise the back roads during the first hour of daylight. Spy on them from a distance and most deer will go about business as usual. If the deer you’re after beds down, pinpoint the location, take into account the wind (or thermals) and plan the route of your stalk to make the most of what might be your last chance.