Darkness was still 30 minutes away in late October when the third deer of the evening walked into the opening beneath my tree stand, looked around and started lapping water from the muddy puddle 20 yards away. I had no interest in arrowing the adult doe or either of the yearling bucks that visited. I was holding out for something bigger but it was fascinating to see the waterhole’s power over deer. Everything I’ve read about whitetails the past 40-plus years said they get all the water they need from plants, fruits, vegetables and other browse. That’s true, of course, but it doesn’t mean they don’t like drinking from quiet, secluded ponds and puddles when available. If I’ve learned one thing from Tom Indrebo the past 20 years, few things attract deer like woodland waterholes. Indrebo, 70, a longtime whitetail guide and outfitter in western Wisconsin’s Buffalo County, believes deer are drawn to small ponds – and even puddles – like kids to mud and candy. Children, after all, survive without getting muddy or eating sweets, but indulge in both whenever possible.
Big bucks visit woodland waterholes throughout the hunting season. Waterholes merely 25 feet across and 2 feet deep attract whitetails
Indrebo discovered deer’s fascination with muddy water years ago while bouncing his ATV up a trail in his woods on a steamy summer day. As he squeezed past muddy, water-filled ruts made by the neighbor’s tractor, he saw deer tracks pocking the wet clay. Two days later he again bounced up the woodland trail, and again squeezed past the muddy ruts. Even more deer tracks dotted the clay. In the weeks that followed, Indrebo kept checking that shady spot and saw a pattern. Each time it rained, deer activity increased. As the ruts dried, deer activity declined. Finding no evidence of salt or other natural minerals in nearby soils, Indrebo figured deer must like freshly scoured dirt, muck and muddy water. An idea formed: Why not supply deer a natural, “eternal” source of muddy water? The next spring, Indrebo hired a bulldozer to scrape out a couple of woodland waterholes. He strategically built those first ponds on a slope between bedding and feeding areas on his farm.
The best woodland waterholes are in shady, but fairly open cover. Deer don’t like to feel boxed in when lowering their heads to drink
By the time the ponds froze in late November, the tree stands overlooking them consistently outperformed stands near scrapes, food plots and rub lines. “I expected the waterholes to draw bucks during the rut when they’re chasing does, and they did,” Indrebo said. “When the rut’s on, bucks hit waterholes anytime of the day.” His logbooks unveiled an unexpected bonus in following years. The waterholes were also productive during early archery season, especially on hot September days with steady winds. “When we had hot, calm days in September and early October, deer didn’t hit the waterholes as often as they did during hot, windy days,” Indrebo said. “I finally made the connection. Deer get extra water on nights when heavy dew coats field crops. But when it’s hot and windy, the dew can’t form. That’s when deer head for water, and we make sure we’re hunting waterholes.” Therefore, Indrebo’s hunters often watch waterholes from early fall until freeze-up. “We don’t give up on waterholes until deer quit trying to punch through ice with their hoofs,” he said. “I don’t know why, but deer like mud and fresh dirt. If they have a choice between a mud puddle and a clear-running creek, they’ll drink from the puddle. A woodland pond is just an oversized mud puddle.”
Deer will visit woodland waterholes until they freeze over with ice too thick to punch through with their hoofs
What makes a good whitetail waterhole? Indrebo suggests building along slightly tapering slopes just below a ridge’s crest. Deer tend to bed high so they can watch below while scent-checking air currents flowing over the crest behind them. Waterholes should be about the same level as bedding sites, so deer can use them when leaving or returning. Identify the site’s predominate autumn winds, and build the pond downwind from bedding areas. Indrebo makes sure nearby hillsides, pond banks, and brush around the waterhole doesn’t box it in. Contours to the pond must be gradual, not steep. Deer must have a clear view of their surroundings when lowering their head to drink. Steep banks reduce their ability to see, hear and scent-check their surroundings.
When choosing a pond-construction site, make sure the hillside above has just enough pitch to carry rain runoff into the waterhole’s basin. Ideally, the soil contains heavy clays. The bulldozer driver will scrape out a bowl-shaped basin about 20 yards in diameter and 4 feet deep at its center, and build a berm to trap runoff. He’ll then spread the remaining clay across the basin to form an impervious bottom. Many landowners mistakenly build waterholes in hilltop gullies where hillsides intersect. Although these sites quickly collect water and seldom dry, their berm usually washes out in the first heavy rain.
Deer don’t like to visit waterholes that make them feel boxed in. They like to be able to see all around them when lowering their heads to drink
If you must build in sand or lighter soils, install a liner beneath the waterhole. Liners can be expensive, but remember: You want a waterhole, not a lake, so don’t buy the world’s largest liner. Waterholes should also be surrounded by mature trees large enough to hold a tree stand and offer concealment. Trees meeting those criteria have large canopies to shade the pond. That’s vital, because shade slows evaporation and reduces ground brush, so deer don’t feel claustrophobic when drinking.
When possible, build ponds inside oak groves. Few things attract deer like muddy water and fresh acorns. Place at least one tree stand on each side of the pond so you’re “safe” in any wind direction. When bucks are chasing up and down hills, and racing field to field looking for receptive does, they drink often. Indrebo’s trail cameras often show bucks returning to the same waterhole two or three times daily during the rut. Maybe so, but when the evening ended that day in late October, I climbed down without shooting an arrow. Even the best sites can’t guarantee visits from the woods’ biggest deer.