Hard-Water Scouting: Find Hidden Big-Buck Sanctuaries Now

There are few things as uninviting as a mid-summer swamp or cattail slough. Swarms of mosquitoes, ticks, and gooey muck await should you choose to enter. It's an invitation most hunters pass up, and that's precisely why deer grow old in such places.

Provided it's still cold enough in your neck of the woods (and the way this winter has gone, it probably is), right now is the perfect time to scout these otherwise tough-to-approach spots, as well as oft-overlooked islands in rivers and lakes. With the snowpack melting and the ice still holding strong, you can easily walk right to some of the best and most ignored fall buck hideouts.

I must offer an obligatory safety warning here by saying that you need to use caution and common sense when traversing early-spring ice, especially if it covers moving water. With that out of the way, take a look at aerial photos of your hunting spots or simply think it through: Where are the wettest areas? Most often, these are the places you--and other hunters--ignore in fall, opting instead to hunt the fringes.

Make a list of places you want to check out and start walking. Note buck sign, like last year's rubs, wherever you find it, of course, but concentrate on small islands of higher cover and potential travel routes along slightly elevated terrain. Look for large beds hidden on the hummocks and big tracks tracing the corridors. Mark them carefully on a map or GPS, because there is an excellent chance that these are the same beds and trails bucks will use in fall when hunting pressure pushes them into these soggy sanctuaries.

The reason smart bucks retreat to these areas is because this terrain is tough to hunt. To have success once the season opens, you need to prepare now by pinpointing the best ambush locations--a small cluster of poplars big enough to accept a hang-on stand, or maybe a patch of dogwood or willows that will hide a ground blind. Looks for unconventional setups as you scout these soon-to-be-flooded whitetail lairs. Come fall, the deer will move into them and if you've got the right plan and a pair of waders, you've got a solid chance at tagging a buck with mud-covered hooves.