By Tom Carpenter
It makes my family absolutely nuts, but I can’t help myself.
We annually drive major miles through some of the best deer country in the Great Plains — the Dakotas, Nebraska and western Minnesota — and my head’s always on a swivel.
I can hear it now: “Watch the road, don’t look for deer!”
Sure, I’m looking for whitetails. But during those “iffy” midday hours for deer spotting, there’s something else to view and analyze, and that’s good places for deer stands.
That’s what it’s like, being a farmland whitetail hunting geek, and it’s fun even if I know I’m never going to hunt a particular spot. Fortunately, I get to spend many hours on the ground, too, pursuing ag-land whitetails.
Farmland hunting success hinges on location, but there’s a trap, as random or convenient spots don’t work out well or even that often. Here’s a rundown of 10 proven stand locations. Look for these spots, sites, scenes and situations where you hunt, then make a setup that will result in success.
My favorite bowhunting setup ever was halfway up a sidehill timber. There were creek-bottom hayfields a hundred yards below and ridgetop grain fields a hundred yards above. The farmer’s tractor trail climbed the hill between fields, and a well-traveled deer trail ran along a shelf in the middle of the hillside. These travel lanes intersected at a bend in the tractor trail.
It was perfect. If the whitetails weren’t walking the tractor trail, they were traversing the sidehill, and there was an ideal shooting opening at the bend.
In most farmland bowhunting scenarios, you’re pursuing relatively unpressured whitetails on their terms. Food, bedding cover and, to some extent, water should be the habitat features to consider as you plot out potential deer movement and select locations to hunt, and the following list can shorten your search for the perfect stand site.
Conventional wisdom says that a farmland bowhunter should not set up right on the food source, but rather place his stand back in the cover to ambush whitetails traveling to their evening feed. But the cover the deer are using isn’t always extensive enough to do that. There’s another place you can find success — an inside corner.
Picture any “L” shaped corner formed by timber, or where a fenceline or hedgerow intercepts a tree line or shelter belt. A similar scenario is a lobe or “U” of cropland surrounded by cover. Imagine crops planted in the oxbow bend of a creek or river that is lined with trees, brush or tall grass.
The bottom line is you’re looking for a place with a food source (hay or alfalfa early in the season, corn or other grain stubble later) that extends into a notch or corner. Whitetails feel comfortable in these nooks, and you should be waiting where the deer want to be.
Because of the varied nature of the agricultural landscape (grain fields, pastures, wetlands, grassy or fallow fields, woodlots, fencelines, hedgerows, farmyards, homesteads, tree lots, creeks, rivers …), farmland is full of intersections where deer travel corridors come together. To up your odds, set up where landscape features converge.
Here are some examples. Look for the intersection of two fencelines or hedgerows, two drainage ditches, or one of each. Use a ground blind if there are no trees around. In tree belts or woodlots, search for the “crossroads” where a deer trail cuts a tractor path or minimum maintenance road. Anyplace trees come to a point are prime spots where whitetails crossing open country like to duck into cover, making the area a busy intersection.
Look for areas where one kind of cover or landscape feature hooks up with another. Here you can also find the inside corners mentioned earlier. Farmland deer will naturally follow a corridor of cover, then pause where it adjoins other cover.
There are many examples of good hookup spots: where a fenceline or hedgerow meets a tree belt; where a tree line or brush line joins up with the timber in a creek or river bottom; or where a swale or ditch empties out of or enters into a marsh or wetland.
Farmland cover often occurs in strips, whether it’s a narrow woodlot — a tree belt or tree claim, as they’re called out here on the prairie — or a creek bottom. Look for a funnel where the cover narrows or pinches.
Think about places like where a winding creek bottom necks down, or where a tree strip or a wide hedgerow thins down and whitetails have to stick to one side or the other for cover. Narrow areas in fields spanning hilltops or running along valley bottoms are good spots for intercepting feeding deer that are funneling into range.
Once the rut hits and bucks are on the move, look for hard edges — sharp, defined breaks between cover and open areas. When bucks are trolling for does they will follow these lines. These are also the kinds of places where scrapes appear.
Find a line of scrapes or rubs edging a field, and set up along the corridor, maybe five yards back into the woods for cover. The edge of a woodlot where it butts up to any field or pasture is prime. So are hedgerows or fence lines with big enough trees that you can hang a stand. Railroad-grade edges are great rut travel routes as well.
The trick to this kind of hunting is being ready for action fast. Don’t be afraid to grunt to stop a buck on the move.
My favorite farmland gun-hunting setup ever happens to be one I currently use. It’s in the bottoms next to a small river. Behind me runs the stream, with probably 15 yards’ worth of trees and thick brush running alongside it. To the right is a marsh of tall grass, willows and dogwood. To the left, a small crop field runs up and abuts the marsh, with that field-marsh edge running right to me and ending at my stand. Across the field, which is 137 steps wide, is an old brushy railroad right of way. The area is a transition zone and intersection all in one.
Gun hunting in farm country is a different game. With more hunters on the landscape, whitetails are under more pressure, so focus on travel routes, escape hatches and movement funnels.
With a rifle, muzzleloader or even slug gun in your hands, your effective range is greatly expanded. You still need to be smart about choosing your setup spot, but there’s a little more leeway for just getting in the right area. With that in mind, keep the following ag-land stands in mind.
The idea is taboo to many deer hunters, but one of the best places to hunt farmland deer during gun season is right in the zone they want to occupy. Target thick bedding cover where you have a chance of intercepting whitetails arriving from other places or where you may get a little daylight movement out of the area’s resident deer. Here you’re sacrificing shooting range for location. It’s a good trade.
Think of spots like these: a thicket or dry island deep in a marsh or wetland; the middle of a remote pasture or CRP field; a brushy south-facing sidehill; and a secluded hollow or gully out of the wind and away from all the other action.
Farmland deer naturally hang around and travel along edges and transition zones between cover types and food sources. In this scenario, you’re taking advantage of the increased range of your firearm and hedging your bets, as opposed to committing to the close quarters of a bedroom.
Consider the following transition zones: the transition from woodland to wetland, back from the cropfields; the edge between a tree belt and a fallow field or forgotten pasture; and any zone where you can find three cover types meeting up. For example, think of where trees, a wetland and a crop field converge.
Travel corridors make prime gun-season stand sites. Whitetails may use the cover itself, or they might just follow the general flow of the landscape. That’s the beauty of gun hunting. You don’t have to get it exactly right; you just have to have the right idea.
Here are some of those ideas: a creek bottom where you can watch fields, pastures or open areas alongside the cover; a brushy fenceline connecting patches of timber; a drainage or irrigation ditch between fields; and a fenceline or ditch linking woodlots or wetlands.
One farmland gun-season trick is to hunt where no one else would think to go. This is where the whitetails retreat to find peace, quiet and safety, and it might be a lot closer than you think.
Whether the spot is just secluded and out of the way or near human habitation, changing things up can really pay off. Be sure to follow state and local regulations for shooting near homes or farm buildings, and get permission from the landowner to hunt that close.
In prairie country, the back end of the shelter belt surrounding farm or ranch buildings is a prime location. Even if there’s not much cover there, a forgotten weed patch or gully behind the barnyard will pull in whitetails. Don’t ignore a fallow corner that might be too steep or rocky to crop. Look for an old, abandoned pasture or orchard that may have just enough brush to hide a deer. Remember, whitetails are just looking for seclusion.
Farmland whitetails aren’t afraid to cross open country. Fields — whether filled with crop stubble, hay, plowed ground, weeds or grass — are facts of deer life here. A farm-country whitetail wanting to get from Point A to Point B has no qualms about exposing itself for a few moments to get where it wants to go.
When hunting fields, look for pinch points that will minimize the deer’s exposure. Set up along a point of timber or brush that juts into the open. Where two brushy fencelines cross is prime, as it may funnel moving deer into an area. Set up where two woodlots come close together or adjoin. In hill country, find the saddle or low points in ridgetop fields to catch deer sneaking over between drainages.
I’m a busy-body, and I need the multi-tasking entertainment of “scouting” for good deer stands while driving farmland deer country. My explanation to passengers is always that the activity keeps me alert and awake … and in good practice for choosing the real thing come deer season.
About the Author: Tom Carpenter is a freelance writer who focuses his outdoor year on the Dakotas and northern plains. His favorite thing to hunt or fish for is … whatever he’s hunting or fishing for.