Buckmasters Magazine

Too Hot for TV

Too Hot for TV

By Bob Humphrey

An uncensored look inside whitetail bedding areas.

My son and I were slipping around the perimeter of a large bog late one November morning. The early action had subsided and we were slowly making our way out when a deer jumped out of the tall grass and bounded off. There was no chance for a shot, but it provided a good opportunity for a lesson.

“Why was that deer there?” I asked my apprentice. Like a couple of CSIs, we worked out the evidence. The cover was dense, tall reeds and sedges growing on tussocks surrounded by knee-deep water.

It would be nearly impossible for a hunter at ground level to have any chance for a shot, or to walk through quietly. Few, if any, ever did, and the deer likely learned that. But an elevated hunter would be a different story.

“We’re going to put up a stand here, but not until next year,” I told him.

The following summer, we installed a double ladder along the edge, trimmed a few branches and then left the area alone for several months. On the afternoon of opening day, we slipped in slowly and quietly, literally stalking the stand.

It was almost two hours later when a doe stood up in her bed, already in range, and slowly came our way. It was my son’s first deer, and we’ve subsequently taken several more under similar circumstances.

Several things factored into taking that deer, not the least of which was being able to identify a bedding area. Deer spend the majority of their day in bed, and the rest usually not far from it.

Locating and hunting feeding areas and travel routes is a sound tactic, but you might be just as well off sticking close to where most daytime activity occurs. It’s also helpful to learn more about the type of activity that occurs in and around those areas.

TIMING

Deer use different beds at different times of day, and while there is considerable variability, I have observed some semblance of a pattern in a variety of terrain and habitat.

In the place where I first learned to hunt, there was a large cornfield at the base of a range of low mountains. Tracks, heavy trails and ravaged cornstalks showed deer were feeding heavily on the corn, but we rarely saw them in or around the field. We quickly surmised they must be feeding at night.

We found beds just inside the woodline and made our first attempts waiting them out there. But we never saw deer there either. As a budding wildlife biologist, I looked for answers in the textbooks and journals, beginning a quest for knowledge that continues to this day.

The first step was gaining more insight into basic deer biology and behavior. Deer are ruminants. When food is readily available, they fill their bellies as quickly as they can, then head to bed. Once bedded, they regurgitate a bolus or cud of partially digested food, chew it into finer particles to facilitate digestion and swallow it again. Then they remain sedentary, digesting their food until it’s time to eat again. When that occurs can vary.

We know from countless research projects that deer are crepuscular, most active around dawn and dusk. They enter fields around or after sunset and feed until their bellies are full. Under cover of darkness, they’re safe from human disturbance and don’t need to travel far from a concentrated food source, so they often bed nearby.

This partly explained why we never saw deer in the beds closest to the fields. Those were night beds, and knowing their whereabouts was of little use to us.

Research also shows a minor period of activity in the middle of the night. Presumably, with bellies half empty and food close by, deer get up and feed briefly before bedding again, something to keep in mind.

Typically, they don’t go too far. You might even find beds in the middle of a food plot.

Later, with daylight still an hour or two away, they’ll progress to another period of active feeding that peaks before or around daybreak, then tapers off more quickly than the nighttime peak.

Afterward, it’s off to bed again, but location can vary with terrain, hunting pressure and other variables.

BEDDING COVER

During the day, deer are more exposed to potential danger and more inclined to seek thicker cover, particularly away from areas of human traffic.

They look for a place where they feel safe and can take maximum advantage of their senses. That could mean a location with an open view in front and the wind at their back, or dense cover where a quiet approach is impossible.

Again, there is considerable variability. In hilly terrain, they often use elevation as an advantage, bedding on knobs or small rises.

Deer in mountainous terrain often move uphill with rising thermals. That way, they can see what’s in front and smell what’s behind. Then they’ll bed up high so they can smell anything coming long before they see or hear it. However, they usually don’t bed at the top, where they could be ambushed by something just over the other side. More often, they settle on the first bench below the top.

Out West, deer feed in the bottoms at night, and then head straight for the draws and hills around daybreak, where they take advantage of what little cover exists.

Their habits vary slightly in areas dominated by agriculture.

With an abundant supply of quality food, they are less inclined to move farther away to bed. More important, they may not have anywhere else to go if bedding cover is scarce.

BRUNCH

Stand hunters might think their morning hunt is over once deer have finished their dawn feeding and gone to bed. While it’s largely conjecture based on anecdotal evidence and generalities from research, I have observed a phenomenon in enough different areas to convince me there’s a brief period of daytime activity.

Remember that after a peak activity period around and after dusk, deer bed down for awhile. Then, they feed again during a brief period in the middle of the night, and once again around dawn.

Consider that the wait between morning and evening meals is much longer. After a couple hours of rest and digestion, wouldn’t it make sense to take a few minutes to top off the tank?

I believe they do just that, which accounts for a minor activity period an hour or two after daylight. It also suggests whitetails might have morning beds they use before heading for the hills and their day beds.

If my theory is correct, it gives hunters several options. One is to set up between nighttime feeding areas and morning beds for the early-morning movement. The second is to set up between morning beds and day beds to catch the minor, secondary period of morning movement.

The latter might be a better option since you’re less likely to spook deer that went to morning beds before daylight, and more likely to catch deer that head straight to their day beds after the dawn feeding.

Your best bet might be to set up back in the woods around concentrated food sources like acorns, even if you’re hunting in agricultural areas or around food plots.

AWAY FROM HOME

Also consider that bedding locations change for various reasons. One is hunting pressure. You might get away with bumping a deer once. Bump it out of the same bed a second time and you’ll probably never see it there again, especially if it’s an older buck or doe. That’s why they seldom bed in areas of high human traffic.

Notice I used the word seldom. There are exceptions to every rule. While whitetails don’t have the power of reason, they learn from experience and occasionally bed in places where humans literally walk right past them.

Another reason they might shift bedding locations is changing food availability. In economic terms, deer are trying to maximize their cost-benefit ratio, gaining the most energy from food and expending the least in travel while minimizing exposure to danger.

As different food sources become more abundant, deer adjust. In agricultural areas, they might stick close to the corn until it’s harvested, then move to oak groves when acorns start to drop. In the forest, they might hang around white oaks early in the season and then shift to red oak groves later.

Environmental conditions also play a role. In addition to gaining energy by feeding, deer also try to reduce energy loss. When it’s extremely cold or windy, they are more inclined to bed in sheltered locations like south-facing slopes or under the protection of thick softwoods.

Yet another reason is the rut.

Radio telemetry and GPS studies show that whitetails are largely homebodies, spending the majority of their time in small core areas of their home range. The greatest movement occurs during peak breeding periods when both bucks and does make excursions outside their core areas and sometimes out of their annual home range.

We’re still not certain why. Hot does might be driven out by continual harassment from randy bucks, or they could be leading a suitor to a more secluded area.

Whatever the reason, it happens, and if you can find these areas, take maximum advantage of them during the lockdown phase, a week or two after peak rutting activity.

FINALLY

Feeding areas and travel corridors are productive places to hunt, but concentrating your efforts around bedding areas where deer spend the majority of daylight hours also has advantages.

The rub, if you’ll pardon the pun, is being able to hunt nearby without alerting them to your presence.

Remember that every situation is different, and it’s never a good idea to place too much faith in generalities.

Deer in your area might not follow the aforementioned patterns, which is one more thing that makes them such challenging creatures to hunt.

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Covert Ops: Ohio biologist sheds light on how hunting pressure affects deer movement.

This article was published in the October 2015 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

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Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd