Food plots get all the love when it comes to attracting whitetails, but water can be an even bigger draw. While deer get a portion of the liquid they need from eating succulent plants, you should never underestimate their need and desire for drinking water. Indeed, on some properties that seem to have everything a whitetail wants, a lack of dependable water sources can be the barrier that prevents a good property from being a great one.

The good news is that adding water is rarely a big hurdle. If you want a permanent pond, digging one with a skid steer or hiring a dozer-operator isn’t terribly expensive; depending on your area and availability, a $500 pond is pretty realistic. But if you really want to save, you can simply visit your local farm or garden store and buy a livestock watering or landscaping tub. These are usually sold for $150 or so, and less if you shop carefully. For the ultra-budget minded, a simple kiddie pool can suffice, though they’re typically less durable.

But before we get too far into the nuts and bolts of creating drinking ponds for deer, let me get this out of the way: As effective as water holes can be in some areas, they are super helpful in all areas. If your hunting property is low and swampy, chances are deer have little problem finding water and will not view any new puddle on the landscape as particularly attractive. The same can be true for properties laced by creeks and streams and or dotted by lakes and ponds. But even in places like this, if you have good deer sign in upland areas away from these water sources, putting in a small pond within shooting range of a stand or blind can still be a huge draw, provided you choose the right spot for it.

I’ve lost track of the number of deer that have been arrowed over my own pond sets. I can tell you that my dad has taken three nice bucks (including a 130 and a 155) over the same push-up pond since he turned 88 (he’s now 92), and a couple of buddies have taken their biggest bucks ever over different water holes I’ve put in, including a 160-inch buck. There’s no doubt in any over our minds that it works. So, let’s get to it. Here’s a step-by-step guide.

Step One: Pick the General Area

photo of deer at water hole
A doe and two fawns visit one of the author’s home-made water holes in summer. Scott Bestul

As noted, the best locale for a pond is where water is the most scarce. In my country, this is typically a ridge top, as water sources mainly occur as trout streams that flow on valley bottoms. Ridge tops, or relatively flat blocks of timber, also offer the advantage of a consistent wind direction, which will be important when it comes time to hunt the spot. You should also put your pond fairly close to security cover, if possible. You want deer to feel comfortable visiting the spot in daylight, and the presence of nearby brush, dense timber, or young growth will put them at ease.

I look for an area with a reasonably dense tree canopy, as this will reduce evaporation from sun and wind. Having a slight slope helps, too, as you’ll want your pond to catch any run-off from rain showers. Every year I’m amazed at how quickly a 2-inch rain will fill up a 100-gallon tub if it’s well-situated. Finally—and this can take some probing with a shovel or pick—avoiding areas full of rocks and large roots will make your digging job much easier.

Step Two: Choose a Stand Tree or Blind Location

Before I make a final decision on the precise tub placement, I like to select a stand tree. While decent cover is always nice in a stand setup, it’s critical in a waterhole set. Before a whitetail relaxes and puts his head down to eat or drink, he’ll be on high alert for danger. Deer know they’re vulnerable as they consume food and water—which is why you’ve likely seen feeding or drinking deer eat a bit or take a sip, and then snap their heads up periodically. You’ll want to have plenty of cover around your stand so deer won’t spot you. I like to consider the prevailing winds in an area, then choose a tree downwind of my pond site that has multiple trunks, or at least a hefty fork and limbs, that will help conceal me when I’m hunting the spot. 

Step Three: Tote In the Tub

photo of deer drinking
Put you tub one a slight slope, if possible, so it collects rainwater. Scott Bestul

I put in three livestock tanks as water sources last year. One I was able to haul one in using my pickup. Another I strapped to the back of my ATV. And for the third, I enlisted my retired (and pretty darn strong) brother-in -aw to help me drag in through the timber to the site. These were medium-duty tanks that were pretty easy to handle. Still, if you’re going any distance, plan on taking your time and taking a rest now and then.  

Step Four: Get Digging

Place the tub in the exact spot you want it, and then use your shovel to trace a rough outline of its shape and size. Then slide the tub to the side and start digging to create a hole slightly larger than your outline. If it’s rocky, you may need to pry the worst offenders out with a pickaxe. Once the hole is close to the proper size, slide the tub in and check to see that the bottom of the hole is relatively level; this will help your pond retain more water than if it sits at a slant. Make sure there are no large rocks on the bottom that can damage or puncture the tub. Not only is water heavy, but deer will also stand in the tub and their sharp hooves can puncture any weak spots created by rocks or sticks. Once your confident the tub is fairy level and not in danger of being punctured, backfill dirt into the gap between your tub and the ground and, if your tub is on a sidehill, heap enough dirt on the uphill side so funnels water into your tub.

Step Five: Add Water and Wait for Deer

photo of a buck at water hole
A huge-bodied buck nicknamed “Bruce” hits another of the buck water holes as the rut kicks in. Scott Bestul

If you are smart enough to check the weather and do your digging ahead of a nice rain, your tub should fill nicely by itself. But I’m typically too impatient for that and haul water to the site. I usually just fill up half a dozen 5-gallon bucket with lids and make a few trips, carrying a pail in each hand. That usually gets enough water in the tub to start attracting deer. (This is actually more strenuous than hauling the tub itself, so take your time or enlist help). If rainfall keeps the “pond” full, perfect; otherwise I’ll visit the site periodically to make sure there’s sufficient water to keep deer interested. Expect visitors fairly quickly, as whitetails (and other wildlife) seem to smell water in a hurry and will start using your pond on a frequent basis.

I also like to bring some rye seed and rake it into the fresh dirt on the edges of the pond. This will not only help stabilize the soil in the event of a heavy rain, it will give deer something to nibble on, increasing the attraction. Finally, lean a heavy stick that extends from the edge of your pond to the bottom. This will allow rodents and squirrels to escape when they hop in your pool for a drink. I’ve learned the hard way that drowned critters can stink up a pool in a hurry, and that deer don’t care for the smell any more than I do.