How to Explore Terrain Features for Whitetails

Pinch points, bottlenecks and funnels are all the rage among pothole chasers.

Simply locate a terrain feature that forces deer movement, spend plenty of time standing in November, and get ready for your grab-and-grin photos. Of course, if it were that easy, bowhunters in most states would have a much higher success rate.

They don’t because it’s not easy. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to train yourself to effectively explore the right terrain features. This. Learning to find the places deer like to walk and then figuring out how to hunt those places is an age-old strategy that just works.

This strategy is best achieved through a specific long game approach. It is often made up of three parts, the first of which involves electronic scanning to establish a “maybe” stack of potentially beneficial terrain features.

From Digital Scouting to the Real World
One reason some whitetail hunters seem to dominate public ground deer no matter where they travel is because they deeply understand e-scouting. They can look at satellite images overlaid with topographic lines in onX and make an educated guess about how the terrain exists in that exact spot. This comes from a lot of experience exploring and hunting in different types of habitat.

These people recognize the importance of looking at the woods and fields from a bird’s eye view, and then going inside to see what their finds look like first-hand. This allows them to hone their e-scouting eye because following up in person shows them what they did right and what they did wrong.

If you do this long enough, you’ll start to see patterns emerging in the areas you normally hunt. This applies to everything from steep slope washouts to slightly higher soil spikes that divide swamps from lowlands. But that’s just the beginning. If you don’t explore to understand how to hunt in a certain location, you’re missing out.

Conditional Stand Sites
Let’s say you make your decision, walk, and then see that the trails are bumpy and the dollar sign is thick. It is obvious that you succeeded, but what do you do then?

You find out how to hunt it.

An amazing funnel is of no use to you if you don’t consider conditions like wind direction and seasonal weather to determine when and where it should be set. Is there a perfect standing tree located 20 yards from the main trail? Can you only hunt with a north wind? Are all trees too small? Could you build a natural blind spot or bring in a popup to counteract these issues?

What does your focus look like? If access is in doubt, is there a better way to get in? Ask yourself what could possibly go wrong with the way you’re planning to search for your new access point. Will it be accessible when the corn is standing but leave it wide open after harvest? What is the probability that the wind will swirl into their valley floor crossing, or perhaps be seen when deer approach from above, when their line of sight is right on your setup?

The more questions you ask yourself about a place while you’re standing there, the more likely you are to anticipate potential issues with the setup. This is a crucial step because it takes you from thinking like a deer scout to thinking like a deer hunter, which brings us to the final stage of understanding the features of the terrain.

What the deer show you
While preparing for our One Week in November shoot last year, I found a series of pinch points along a ravine in southwestern Wisconsin that convinced me my work was done. Except when I hunted there in the heart of the grind, I only saw a few scrappers use the crossovers. It didn’t make sense until I came back in January and hiked the entire ravine.

Then I found a much better junction, one that I had completely missed in my initial scouting efforts. That trail is more subtle, but it also makes a direct route for the males to get from one side to the other. It’s more challenging to access, but that’s probably also why deer use it. I will have bleachers on both sides by next September. Even then, I could still be wrong.

If so, I’ll keep adjusting the settings. Eventually, through enough electronic scouting and actual hunting, things will fall into place, just as they will for anyone taking the long-game approach to learning how to scout and hunt the terrain features that force deer movement.

Featured image via Matt Hansen.