Know Your Terrain to Find Trophy Deer

The best wilderness hunters may find the occasional rub or scrape. But they put big deer on the ground by reading Maps - not buck sign. You can too.

IF YOU WANT to find a buck, look for rubs and scrapes, right? That works in a lot of whitetail country, but in the big woods, you could look all season and find no more than a handful of torn-up saplings. Bucks are few and far between in wilderness settings; their sign is typically scant and scattered, especially now. When planning to hunt these areas, you have to open your topo map to find basic features of the land that draw deer. Then put on your boots to locate the specific funnels and pinch points that will steer big-woods bucks into your sights. Here are four fantastic places to start:

Dead-end 4×4 Trails
The best of these routes are barely passable and—if you're lucky—lead to an abandoned farmstead. Look on your topo for clusters of small black boxes at trail's end indicating outbuildings, then hike or drive in for a closer look. If you find old agricultural fields overgrown with briers, milkweed, dogwood, goldenrod, Queen Anne's lace, and hardwood saplings, for example, mark the spot on your GPS. Zero in on hedgerows, stone walls, and creek beds as prime buck travel corridors.

Right- of-Way Corridors
New growth attracts deer wherever gas, power, or telephone companies cut wide swaths through the big woods. Look for terrain features that allow bucks to cross the opening undetected: creek beds, furrows, ravines, gullies, or strips of thick vegetation. Scout suspected crossings for large fresh tracks and droppings. And though you shouldn't rely on them for finding big-woods bucks generally, you might find a few weathered rubs along a faint trail that will bring a trophy right past your stand.

Steep Ravines
Wilderness bucks traveling between high bedding areas and low feeding grounds routinely follow the contours of steep washouts. This makes the head of a ravine a nexus for deer activity. Bucks often stage here in the evening after descending partway from their daytime lairs above. During the rut, they'll linger in the morning and visit periodically through the day, hoping to catch an estrous doe on the move. Such a hub is a great spot for a tree-stand ambush, as are nearby slopes that funnel deer to the ravine.

Old Beaver Ponds
In the big woods, beaver dams are perennially built and breached, beaver ponds filled and drained. Those recently emptied ones—with plentiful young, tender growth—draw hungry deer. The best brush-laden beaver flows also border hardwood ridges laden with mast. Where the flow is wide enough, a beaver dam makes a natural crossing and therefore can be an ideal stand location, especially during the rut. Fresh sign on paths leading to or coming from the dam will verify that it's in use and worth hunting.