How do you pick the right location in which to get a shot at a mature buck? By playing the percentages.
A lot has been written about hunting feeding areas, rub lines, breeding scrapes, staging areas, etc., and many fine bucks have been killed from such setups. I usually spend some time every fall hunting buck sign when the timing and situation are right for it. However, I do not feel these types of stand locations are the most productive, especially during the 25 days of rut activity when mature bucks are on the move during daylight hours.
Each year many hunters become frustrated trying to see, let alone shoot, a trophy buck around traditional buck sign. This is why, when hunting for a rut stand, I do not look for buck sign per se to set up on. What type of stand location do I spend most of my time hunting? I can sum it up in one word: funnels.
Much has been written in recent years about hunting funnels, but I still do not believe the average bowhunter has caught onto their true value. Nor does the average bowhunter have an in-depth understanding of what constitutes a funnel.
I assume that you know funnels, bottlenecks or pinch points (whichever term you use to describe them) are usually traveled for one of two reasons. First, a deer might use a funnel because of its need for security. The location might be the most secure route through the area that funnels the deer through a particular location. Second, a funnel might be a restriction or barrier, either natural or man-made, that restricts parallel game movement and re-routes it through a more confined area, whether around the restriction or through a gap in it.
The Iowa hunt described in the introduction to this section is a good example of a setup in a funnel. As stated, there was no buck sign within sight of my tree stand when I set up there. While that did not concern me, it is the reason most other hunters in the area would not have had a shot at this world-class deer. They simply would not have picked a spot void of buck sign.
I chose this location because of two restrictions that funneled deer through a 30-yard-wide area. One of those restrictions was man-made, the other natural. The man-made restriction consisted of a rectangular hayfield that extended for nearly a mile. My tree stand was at one of its back corners. I knew that any buck with gray in his face would prefer not to expose himself in the field in daylight and thus would more than likely skirt the opening.
The natural restriction was a drainage that started getting deep 30 yards from the field corner and extended over 100 yards from the field. While some deer will break this type of restriction, many others will not. Older bucks that get stiff in their hip and leg joints because of their age and increased travel during the rut like to take the easiest route that is secure.
There were big rubs and scrapes at other locations in the area I was hunting, and I could have set up on them. However, it was the phase of the rut when big bucks were on the move. It is during this time that many hunters waste precious hours setting up on buck sign. Many times a cruising buck will stop and make some impressive rubs and scrapes, never to return – at least, not that season. The hunter setting up on this fresh sign during the rut is often hunting behind the buck; that is, he is waiting where the deer was, not where the deer will be. Every rub and scrape you find you see after the buck has left the location. Conversely, hunting funnels during this period will put the hunter in front of the buck. Hunting funnels when mature bucks are on the move has served me well over the years, and it will you as well.
The Funnel Advantage To help us to understand the overwhelming value of hunting funnels, let’s look at a typical scenario, using a simple illustration. This will not be a real-life example of deer movement on any given day in a certain area; however in my opinion, it is better, because it is a scenario that shows an average.
As bucks cruise during the 25 days or so in which they are engaged in rut move
Our hypothetical property has a strip of woods 600 yards wide. (See Figure 1.) Let’s assume we are hunting there during the 25-day period when mature buck movement is best. We also will assume that during this span, six mature bucks each cruise through this property once during legal shooting hours.
In this illustration, there are no funnels in the section we are hunting. As a result, no one stand location in our scenario has a better chance than any other of producing a close encounter with a mature buck. The reason is, when bucks are traveling cross-country during their rut craze, they do not walk trails; nor do they go out of their way to visit scrapes or rub lines. Many times traveling bucks do not even know where the scrapes, rubs or trails are in the cover they are passing through – nor do they care. There is usually no rhyme or reason to the exact routes they take, unless they are influenced by physical restrictions or security concerns. As the illustration shows, the odds of any of these six bucks walking within bow range of a stand are not very good, even if we are on stand all day every day during the 25-day period in which all six bucks move through. And, most of us cannot hunt that many consecutive days anyway.
In this illustration, the only physical change to the woods is the presence of a deep drainage that influences deer to travel around it, rather than through it. Now the percentages shift heavily in favor of the bowhunter who sets up in a single specific location within this entire woods: the funnel at the tip of the drainage, where deer traffic is channeled. Illustration by Allen Hansen.
Now let’s look at the same hunting land and the same six bucks in the same time period, but this time with a 200-yard-long restriction (Figure 2, above). In this illustration the restriction is a steep drainage, but it could also be a body of water or cleared field. On average, this restriction will funnel three bucks to within a few yards of each other as they move around the end of it before they continue on their course. Now how does any one location look for a stand site? As you can see by looking at this illustration, a stand at the end of the restriction (as marked) will offer much better odds of success than would any stand location if there were no restriction to funnel traveling bucks.
Hopefully, by studying this second illustration and understanding this principle you can see how some of us have shot old, heavy-horned bucks while hunting in locations most other hunters would pass by because of a lack of buck sign. The time of year when the big boys are on the move during daylight hours is when we must hunt them. This is also the time when they pay little attention to how they move through an area unless forced to do so by restrictions or security needs that funnel them. When I hear a bowhunter comment on seeing 20 to 25 deer from his stand in a day’s hunt, my question always is, “How many of those deer could you have arrowed?” If the answer is “only two or three” (as it most often is), I know the chances of that hunter arrowing a trophy, should one pass through the area, are slim. Whether he knows it or not, he is betting on luck.
On the other hand, a funnel hunter will many times see fewer deer, because the nature of a funnel sometimes restricts the distance that the hunter can see. However, the hunter set up in a funnel and seeing 10 deer a day, with the majority of them moving by in bow range, will have a much greater chance of success than will the hunter who sees 25 off in the distance.
It is a great advantage to have in your hunting arsenal the ability to find, recognize and hunt funnels. I believe that at some time each day, each deer’s movement is influenced by a funnel of one type or another.
Identifying Funnels Having discussed why it is in our best interest to hunt funnels, let’s take a closer look at their makeup. How many deer a restriction funnels depends on several factors, among them: how many deer are in the area; how hard the restriction is for deer to break; how much area the restriction covers; and how much of a need there is for security cover. These are some of the main factors I can think of that determine the number of deer that will move through a given funnel.
The more deer a restriction funnels, the more likely it is to funnel bucks when they start traveling. While traveling bucks pay little attention to trails, features that funnel other deer onto certain trails also will funnel bucks that are traveling through the area during the rut. Many hunters are hunting funnels without realizing it. If you are hunting a setup where three or more trails come together into one and travel together for a distance before branching back out into individual trails, more than likely you are hunting a funnel.
The bowhunter who wants to put the odds in his favor on a mature buck will hunt as hard as his schedule will allow during the time of year when the big boys are moving in daylight. At this time, bucks pay little attention to their exact travel routes unless forced to do so by funneling features.
If you look the area over, it might become apparent what is funneling the deer together. Then again, it might not be a physical restriction. It might be caused by a buck’s need for security. A mature buck will most of the time travel the path that offers the greatest security cover. This is why narrow strips of woods connecting two larger woodlots are good stand locations. The strip of woods offers the buck security, while the open area does not. The need for a secure route is also why an inside corner of a field is a good stand location. A security funnel might be a strip of undergrowth that gives the buck a feeling of safety as he passes through otherwise open woods.
The author’s brother, Wendell, shot this old Tennessee buck in a funnel in the early 1980s. The deer was being funneled along a roadbed that cut through heavy cover.
Also, you will find a lot of deer traffic along overgrown fencerows, drainages and other cover in otherwise open farmland. If there is no cover available and a buck needs to cross through a large open area, such as a field, he will many times use a low spot in the field as his route. A security funnel also can be caused by the way the air moves across the landscape, due to eddies or thermals. The air movement on a given day might cause a buck to walk where he does.
Some productive funnels divert deer for only a few yards. The funnel could be nothing more than a roadbed through thick cover that offers deer an easier route. A fallen tree deer walk around is an example of a small funnel and can be a very effective place to set up in a larger funnel, such as a primary ridge backbone. Also, with the landowner’s permission, I often make small restrictions to further refine movement in a larger funnel. This can be done by clearing the travel corridor I want deer to use and arranging brush and limbs to block the trails I do not want them to use. I have often used this method to move deer to a more refined spot close to my stand. I also have many times pulled an old fence out of the leaves and propped it up to further refine a funnel. The factors that influence where a deer walks can be very subtle.
Some funnels, such as streams, creeks and ditches, can cover long distances. Deer walk the banks of these types of restrictions and cross at the point where it is easiest. One of the simplest ways to find a productive funnel is to walk the bank of such restrictions. Deer will cross the restriction at the same location you will. Look for a low spot in a ditch or creek bank were several trails come together to cross. Sign in the way of trails and tracks will confirm your suspicions. Also, a “U” bend in a creek is a good funnel. Deer will tend to walk around the outside of the bend, instead of unnecessarily climbing up and down the banks and crossing the water twice.
A bluff line in mountainous country offers another great opportunity to find a productive funnel. A child walking a bluff line can find the gaps in the rocks that he would use to pass through, and deer will use the same gaps. This type of funnel is often used as an escape route. Bucks that are being pressured, either from above or below, will move through a gap in the bluff because of the security the change in the landscape offers.
Another type of funnel you will find is a ridge that is cone-shaped with a steep point on top. Instead of unnecessarily climbing all the way up and over the very top of the cone, deer will move around its side and continue on their way. There will be a good trail formed at the location where deer are moving around the side of the ridge top. You sometimes will see this in hilly farm country where there are cattle. In such a situation, notice how a cattle trail travels around the very top of a ridge peak and not directly over it.
When you find a lake or pond on your hunting land, you have found a funnel. A buck would rather wade than swim when he has the choice. He also would rather walk on dry land than in water. Use this logic to help you decide how the buck will travel around the body of water. Of course, trails, tracks and many times buck sign will confirm your suspicions. Hunting close to water also offers you the chance to ambush an old rut-crazed buck looking for a drink to quench a thirst worked up during his ramblings. A buck in rut will many times go to water in late morning or midday before bedding down for an hour or two.
Some funnels are so obvious that many hunters overlook them. One of the best I ever saw was in southern Iowa, and it was on public hunting land. This section of land had at some time in the past been fenced as a cattle farm. In some locations, the old fence was still standing and in fairly good shape. At one spot where two ridges merged, there was a 200-yard piece of the old wire fence still standing. Near the middle of the fence was an open spot where a gate once stood. An old, dim road passed through this open area. Deer trails were coming from all directions and passing through the former gate opening.
I cannot tell you the number of bucks I watched pass through this opening in the few days I hunted there. I often wonder how many hunters over the years have come to this fence and walked along it until they found the opening to pass through, never realizing the significance of what they had just done or found.
While scouting, look for a low spot in a ditch or creek bank where several deer trails merge to cross it. Sign, in the form of trails and tracks, will confirm your suspicion that it is a funnel.
A location where two or three ridge backbones merge into one or cross each other is an outstanding funnel for rut hunting. Also, all ridge backbones on longer primary ridges are funnels. This is why a ridge receives so much deer traffic, especially during the rut. Look at a typical ridge on a topographical map. A deer traveling the side of most ridges down below the crest would be continually traveling up and down the sides of drainages and hollows that run off the ridge. This type of travel requires a lot of energy and also puts the deer in blind spots. For these reasons, deer walk down the backbones of ridges, just as we do.
When scouting for a stand location on a ridge, look for a narrow spot where draws come up to the backbone from both sides. There are three advantages to hanging a stand in such a location. First, the draws will push the deer to the middle of the ridge backbone, funneling them into a smaller spot. This will give you a close shot at any deer traveling an otherwise wide ridge. The second reason this is a good location is because the two draws coming up each side of the ridge form a saddle. It will be the travel corridor of least resistance for any buck that wants to cross over the ridge.
The third advantage to hunting a ridge location where draws run up to the ridge backbone is that sometimes the older bucks do not travel the ridge tops. These old monarchs will sometimes travel around the ridge down from the top 30 yards or more. Over the years, these older bucks have learned that traveling down from the top offers them a security advantage to escape danger from either below or above. However, when they come to a draw with steep sides, they will usually move around the draw where it fades out up toward the top of the ridge before continuing on their way. If you are set up in a location where there are draws coming up the sides of the ridge to the backbone, you also might get the opportunity to shoot one of these older bucks that is accustomed to traveling down from the top a few yards.
When selecting a stand location where you have both a saddle corridor and a ridge backbone travel corridor, set up where you can make a shot at either travel area. A stand in a setup like this doubles your chances that a cruising buck will move past your stand.
Sometimes a primary ridge top is too wide for draws to narrow the deer travel corridor down enough for a bow shot at every deer that travels on it. Hunting this type of ridge can present a problem. However, a section of a lot of the wider ridge tops is farmed. If you find a section that is farmed, you have a funnel. The field will compress the majority of the deer as they travel around it to stay in cover. There should be a trail just inside the wood line.
In this setting, do not hunt the deer trail parallel to the center of the field. Instead, move to one end of the field. At this location there will also be a trail crossing the other trail. This trail will be used by deer that are crossing over the ridge while moving around the field. A stand positioned at this location (the inside corner of the field) doubles your chances that a cruising buck will move past your stand.
Another example of funnels is an old game trail in a hilly or mountainous landscape. This is the exception to the rule that mature bucks typically do not walk trails during the rut. These old game trails are not unlike the human footpaths of days long passed, which became wagon trails and later roads. These old trails were formed from generations of deer travel. Notice how they funnel across the terrain. They use the path of least resistance as they cross over saddles, move around drainages and follow backbones of ridges. These paths do not receive a lot of use by the local deer population; however, family groups might sometimes use sections of them before they branch off to their bedding and feeding areas. These old game trails are known and used by mature bucks that pass through while traveling cross-country during the rut. They can be hotspots at this time of year.
Note how this cow trail travels around the very top of the ridge peak and not directly over it. Deer do the same thing when traveling a ridge with a sharp peak.
These are a few examples of funnels you might encounter in the deer woods. Do not underestimate the significance of these or other types of funnels you find. Understanding the factors that influence a buck to walk where he does is the single greatest way to put him within range of your arrow.
Finding Funnels Now let’s look briefly at a few points on finding funnels. Of course, some of the examples I have just described would be easy to find during a casual stroll through the woods. On the other hand, some of the best funnels are subtle and hard to recognize, especially for the hunter who is not accustomed to looking for them.
A very effective way to begin your search for funnels is to study topographical maps and aerial photos. Sometimes as you study them an obvious funnel will jump out at you. Of course, you will still need to walk over the area to confirm your suspected funnel locations and to find funnels you might not have seen on the map. (This needs to be done far in advance of when you will hunt.)
When scouting for funnels, study the lay of the land. Learn to see the landscape in three dimensions and recognize the path of least resistance. And, learn to recognize obstacles that re-route parallel movement around them and force parallel movement together. The best time for me to find funnels – especially those I might otherwise overlook – is following a snowfall of two to five inches. (If the snow is much deeper than this, normal deer movement might not take place.) If there is still some rut movement occurring, all the better, but this is not a necessity. My technique is fairly simple. Two or three days following the snowfall, with a map, compass and good walking shoes I head out looking for a deer track to follow cross-country. I do not always follow the first track I see – I would rather follow a buck track that has some size to it – but I do not waste a half-day looking for a large track.
I backtrack the deer, because I want to observe its pattern of natural movement. As I walk, I look for other tracks that come into the travel corridor of the one I am following. If several merge to within bow range of each other or cross the track I am following before branching off again, I know I have found a funnel. I then will study the lay of the land and try to figure out what has funneled the deer together. Usually with a little observation this can be done. I will count the number of deer whose tracks are funneled to within bow range of each other and write this number on my map of the location. I will continue to follow the track to the next area where tracks merge and do the same thing until I run out of land I can hunt. Then I will move to my next hunting area and repeat the process.
You would be amazed at what a few days spent in the woods under these circumstances can teach you. If and when the next snowfall takes place, I will do my best to spot-check each funnel and again record the results on the map.
When it comes time to decide which stands to hunt, I will add up the total number of funneled deer in each area, from each trip, and also consider air movement and access to the area. I will use those variables to help me decide which funnels to hunt during the rut. If I need to trim shooting lanes or make small restrictions to funnel the deer into a closer area, I will do it in the spring, not in October or November. If I am hunting a particular buck, I will look for funnels in his territory, especially between two or more areas where his sign is located. Also, if I know the area well and know where the local does bed, I will try to find a funnel between the buck’s sanctuaries (his secure bedding areas) and the does’ bedding areas.
Conclusion In any given hunting area, there is one tree that more mature bucks walk by than any other, and I will bet you that it is in a funnel. If you are serious about arrowing a trophy whitetail, it will be well worth your time and effort to find the features that influence deer movement in the area you hunt.
Trophy Whitetails, published by North American Whitetail magazine)