Big Timber Hot Spots Part 1

By Steve FloresFebruary 19, 2013

LAST UPDATED: May 1st, 2015

Imagine trying to arrow a mature whitetail buck in tough, unforgiving terrain that tests the determination and stamina of even the most gristled bowhunters.  Imagine trying to pinpoint his bedding and feeding areas, which by design, can change as often as the direction the wind is blowing.  Now, imagine trying to select the one tree, out of a possible thousand or more, that will put you within a stones-throw of this particular buck.  Sound difficult?  If you can see that scenario in your mind then you’ve most likely experienced the trials and tribulations of bowhunting “big-timber” whitetails first-hand. If not, you don’t know how easy you’ve got it. (mountain whitetails)

The Light Bulb
For many years, I struggled with the task of pinpointing locations that offered the highest odds of success on these elusive animals.  With so many spots to choose from, and so many variables affecting each one, the idea that I could somehow come to a conclusive decision about where to hang a treestand seemed drastically out of reach.  However, I eventually learned that in order to locate good hunting areas I simply needed to employ the process of elimination. 
You see, while the vastness of “big-timber” may seem intimidating, the truth is, there really are only so many areas a mature buck will occupy.  The trick is to understand what those areas are, how to go about locating them, and ultimately, the most effective method for hunting them.  Do that, and your days of falling short in the mountains and eating tag-soup will be over. (treestand options)

Focus on Funnels
When you’re dealing with “big timber” and the task of locating preferred whitetail travel routes, you should concentrate heavily on one thing…..the terrain; more specifically funnels.  Funnels are nothing more than terrain features that naturally force deer movement into a smaller, more clear-cut area.  Along with hunting pressure, the lay of the land will greatly influence where and how a buck travels.  Funnels will also shrink that area of travel down to a manageable size.  This may sound like elementary advice, but unless you know what terrain features to look for and how they influence stand placement, you’re really just guessing when it comes to selecting a good mountain stand site.

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There is nothing more challenging than trying to locate and harvest a mature buck in this type of terrain; or any descent buck for that matter.

Favorite Funnels
Perhaps my favorite funnels are those that are created when steep and gentle terrain collides with one another.  When that occurs, a perfect “pinch point” is formed.  Furthermore, if I can locate a gentle slope which is sandwiched between steep terrain above and below, then there is an even better chance that deer will use that particular funnel.
Other funnels and pinch-points include saddles, bench-flats, and drainage ditches.  Saddles are simply low spots along a ridge-line that deer use to cross from one side of the mountain to the other while expending the least amount of energy and keeping a low profile in the process.  Depending on how wide or narrow the saddle, deer movement can literally be squeezed down into areas of 30 yards; often times less. 

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Understanding the different types of funnels formed by terrain is vital. Above are several examples of my favorite funnels located on a standard topo map.

In mountain terrain, drainage ditches are formed from years of water runoff.  These drainage ditches sometimes create steep side-hills that act as barriers to traveling whitetails.  The exception to this rule, and the one most important to bowhunters, is that deer will (most often) only cross these “ditches” in areas that have a briefly formed, gentle side-hill (perfect for crossing), or at the very top where the “cut outs” end and the topography returns to a gentle slope.  Either condition will funnel deer movement; allowing for an easy bow shot. (make your own funnel)

While natural terrain funnels greatly increase your chances of success, those that are found adjacent to doe bedding areas will cause your odds of punching a tag to skyrocket.  This is simply due to the fact that bucks will already be cruising through the area looking for estrus does.  Your odds of encountering one are never higher than during the rut, while perched in a treestand, overlooking a natural funnel adjacent to a doe bedding area.

Mapping Funnels
When using the lay of the land as a guide for stand placement, the first thing you need to do is realize that there are 2 types of terrain features….Positive and Negative.  Both will influence deer movement.  Topographic maps, when used properly, make it easier to determine which types your area holds and how the deer are going to respond to them.  To get the most out of this scouting method it is important to understand what a Topo Map is as well as familiarize yourself with positive and negative terrain features that are found on them.  Let’s start with map details.

To put it simple, a topographic map is essentially just a map showing the 3-Dimensional lay of the land.  It accomplishes this by using contour lines. The first thing you will notice when looking at a topo map, is the large amount of contour lines.  At first they may appear mind boggling; even useless for providing any worth-while hunting information.  However, with a little practice, you will soon be visualizing (in 3D) your hunting ground before actually stepping foot on it.  It is an advantage for sure. (topo resources)

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Some GPS units come with built-in topo maps. These are excellent tools for the mountain bowhunter; allowing you to store and take a tremendous amount of information with you anywhere you go.

Topographic contours are represented using brown lines with varying distances between them.  For instance, lines that are in close proximity to one another indicate a steep slope.  Lines that are widely separated represent a slope that is of gradual incline.  In other words, contour lines that are close together signify abrupt terrain and tough climbing.  Contour lines that are further apart….a gentle rise and easier walking.  Locating funnels is as simple as looking for these features and the areas where they collide with one another. The fastest way to familiarize yourself with these terms is by first-hand observation. Take your map and head out to the woods.  During the initial learning phase it is best to practice in an area other than where you plan to hunt, especially if the season is near, as to keep disturbance to a minimum.

Upon arrival, locate certain land features and then try to find them on your map.  Visualize the lines as they begin to come alive.  Contour lines that resemble a “rounded V or ^” represent a point jutting out from a ridge top.  Saddles (low spots along a ridge-line), will take the shape of an hourglass.  When starting out, remember to be patient.  Eventually, you will start to see your hunting area differently; most likely the same way that the deer you are pursuing see it.

Positive and Negative
So, now that you are familiar with contour lines and their various appearances, let’s move on to the positive and negative terrain features that will likely influence how the deer in your area roam about.
In my experience, given the big-timber territory I hunt, there is typically going to be more negative features than positive.  In reality, this actually makes things a little easier.  For example, knowing where a buck is NOT going to travel is often just as good as knowing where he IS going to travel.  Understanding that, let’s look a little closer at negative terrain features.

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If you find yourself in negative terrain, and you will, a good friend can make retrieving your trophy much easier.

The key element to remember when discussing negative terrain and the manner in which deer use the topography in order to get from point A to point B is this: Deer are lazy!  When given the choice, they will take the path of least resistance almost every time; as long as it provides them with a safe passage.  Remember, tough terrain (contour lines close together), will most likely be forsaken for easier terrain (contour lines spaced further apart) if it exists. 
When looking at your map, try to find negative terrain features that funnel deer movement into a pinch point. 

For example, as discussed earlier, a small drain possessing steep side-hills that eventually turn into gradual slopes near the top is an excellent illustration of how negative terrain can funnel and influence deer movement.  An actual observation of the land should reveal heavy trails at the top which will coincide with the “widely spaced” contour lines from your topo map. Positive terrain features on the other hand will include, but not limit themselves to: ridge-top saddles, shallow creek crossings, overgrown logging roads, bench flats, and/or gradually sloping hollows.  My most memorable “saddle” hunt ended when a young fork-horn eagerly chased a hot doe under my stand; grunting right up until the moment my arrow penetrated both of his shoulders. (bowhunting black bears)

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Bears are always a threat in mountainous terrain. Prepare accordingly.

Don’t make the same mistake I did in dismissing the benefits associated with topo maps.  Time spent examining your hunting location using one of these tools will ultimately result in less disturbance to the area, the ability to visualize the lay of the land without actually being there, and finally, achieving and maintaining the element of surprise.

The Road Less Traveled
When it comes to large tracts of timber, one thing is for certain, the majority of bowhunters will gravitate to the easy to reach, most attractive locations.  The drawback to that mindset is that “popular” or “traditional” stand sites are the kiss of death when it comes to bowhunting mountain whitetails.  In big-timber, the difficulty of the terrain actually divides bowhunters into two groups….successful and unsuccessful.

Without a doubt, deer grow accustomed to these typical bowhunter “hangouts”, and as a result, simply alter their travel routes to avoid them.  Knowing this, you can easily eliminate a good deal of real estate when trying to decide where to hang a stand.  Remember, the goal is to reduce potential stand sites to a manageable level and this is one of the easiest ways to do so.  However, in order to go where others won’t you have to be prepared not only physically, but mentally too.  For starters, if you eliminate the easy terrain all that is left is the hard stuff.  Steep, nasty, lung busting, leg-aching climbs are the norm, so physical preparation is paramount if you want to succeed. (preparing for tough terrain)

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While ATV’s are essential for getting “close” to your hunting area and hauling out game, many bowhunters make the mistake of staying on them too long. Instead, abandon the machine long before you reach your hunting area and hike the rest of the way in.

In addition, due to several reasons, deer numbers will be lower.  One reason is that only mature animals have learned to hide and live in nasty zip codes, and since they make up the smallest percentage of the overall herd, you shouldn’t expect to see as much activity as you would in other, more “traditional” hunting areas.  Another reason for low deer numbers is visibility.  Because the surrounding terrain is most likely going to be chocked with thickets it is going to be more difficult to conduct long-range observations.  Therefore, prepare yourself for a tough entry, low deer sightings, and a tough exit…  However, when you punch your tag you will soon forget all of that. (ATV add on’s)

Conclusion

In part 2, I will discuss the best time of year to scout big timber regions and the common mistakes bowhunters make when doing so. Until then……Embrace The Grind, Reap The Reward.

Steve Flores
Steve Flores is a passionate hunter who enjoys chasing mountain whitetails in his native southern WV. Steve credits his love of hunting to his Dad who took the time to introduce him to what has become a life-long obsession....bowhunting for whitetail deer.
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