With dense cover and plentiful food, river bottoms offer prime deer habitat any time of year. During a late season hunt, however, whitetails pour into these areas making them dynamite spots to find an overlooked buck.
Cold, snow, ice, and strong winds make for tough conditions in exposed open areas and higher elevations during late season. But bucks can find shelter and protection from the harshest breezes and deepest snows along rivers.
Extra Tip: Another attraction of rivers during late season is the presence of does. After the major rut is finished, yearling does and some female fawns that did not breed earlier come into estrus in December and January. These does are often concentrated in the gentle, protected terrain they find along rivers.
How to Stay Warm During Cold Weather Deer Hunts
Three Tactics for Tagging Late Season River Buck
1. Still Hunt Along the Water’s Edge
Rivers seem made to order for still hunting. You don’t have to fool with a GPS unit or compass because you’ll never get lost following the water’s course. Simply find a prime stretch of river with good habitat and fresh sign and then sneak carefully and slowly along the edge of it.
Moving slowly through cover trying to spot rabbits, squirrels or other small game. The object is to use your eyes more than your feet. You should spend more time standing still than walking.
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Hunt Wooded Stretches, Watch the Wind
Although it can work well in farm country, still hunting is especially good in big woods territory. The key is to be flexible.
Get out before dawn, check conditions and choose a river that will let you crosscut or work into the wind as you sneak along it. If the flowage makes a sharp bend as you are hunting and the wind turns bad, jump across to the next stretch where it’s in your favor again.
Extra Tip: At some points you may be walking just feet from the water, at others 100 yards or more away. Let the thickness of the cover and abundance of deer sign dictate the exact course you take.
Still Hunting Tactics
Walk a few steps, then pause and scan the woods intensely. Look for the glint of sunlight on an antler, a patch of gray hair, a horizontal shape in the mostly vertical forms of the woods.
Extra Tip: Scale down even slower if you find a fresh rub, large tracks, or a hot scrape with a licking branch above it.
Sometimes you may want to watch a prime spot for 30 minutes or more. This is not a race, and there’s no final destination. Getting once chance at a good buck is the goal.
2. Take a Deer Stand & Ambush a River Traveler
In farmland, treestand hunting is often the best tactic to use along river bottoms since bedding and feeding patterns are easier to pin down. Often bucks will bed right along the river or in a finger of thick cover that juts off from it. Even if they don’t bed near the river, the water’s edge acts as a natural travel lane and funnels their movement.
Where to Set Up
Concentrate on key feed areas—an orchard, leftover corn stubble, soybeans, a secluded food plot—then backtrack to find thickest bedding cover along the river or just off from it. Place your stand downwind along deeply-trodden trails connecting these two key points.
Extra Tip: A particularly prime spot is where the vegetation along the river narrows down, funneling deer through a stricture point. A sharp ridge jutting down to the river’s edge with only a narrow travel lane between it and the water is a prime example of where the buck’s travel will be channeled and offer a great stand site.
Hunt River Crossings
River crossings are also great stand spots. Deer can swim, but they prefer to wade across shallow areas because it’s easier and makes them less vulnerable to dangerous chilling.
You can often locate these crossings ahead of time. They’ll typically show up as riffles (squiggly lines) on topographic maps. These are the shallowest areas. Confirm there’s fresh sign, and set your stand on either side of the crossing, depending on wind direction.
Extra Tip: Deer will often pause before they enter the river and right after they emerge at the opposite side to shake the water off. That’s a perfect time to make take your shot.
3. Put on a Push for River Bucks
|Wear plenty of blaze orange when conducting deer drives along rivers|
River bottoms are terrific spots to put on a late season drive. The water’s edge basically serves as a blocker for one side. Narrow down exit points further by pushing a stretch with an open field on the other side of the strip of cover along the river.
Have one or two hunters positioned at the end point of the drive and another watching the field--just in case a buck breaks across it.
One or two hunters can then push the thick vegetation along the river bank. They can carry guns, but should only shoot if a deer bails out behind them after they walk past it.
This drive works best if the river is deep and deer are unlikely to want to swim across it. If there’s a shallow crossing, place a blocker there.
Extra Tip: Be sure to wear plenty of blaze orange when conducting deer drives along rivers. Safety should be the number one priority. Know your safe shooting zones and never take a shot towards another hunter.
Whatever you do to hunt deer, drive, still hunt, or watch from a hunting stand, don’t overlook river bottoms for great late season hunting. Food, cover, and plentiful does make these great hotspots to tag a big December or January buck.