Hunting the Buck Bedding Areas
You can identify most of these types of buck sanctuaries by examining aerial photographs for areas of dense vegetation, wetlands, and conifer stands. On infrared photographs, water appears black and conifers appear red. Trace the perimeters of the bedding areas on the photos and note potential stand sites for further investigation.
With bedding areas and stand sites identified, start scouting on the ground. My favorite scouting times are winter and early fall. There are many reasons to scout in winter, but the most important in regard to bedding areas is visibility. Bedding areas typically are thick, and foliage during spring and summer conceals important features--subtle topographic changes, funnels, trails, old rubs and scrapes. In winter you can penetrate dense thickets to determine why deer travel the way they do within and around a bedding area. From the outside, bedding areas often look uniform, but they frequently contain wet areas, high ground, openings, and food sources that all serve to influence deer behavior. Further, with winter exploration you can link concentrations of rubs with specific bedding sites to pinpoint a buck's preferred beds. Scouting in winter gives you a sense of the big picture.
Scouting in early fall narrows your focus. Using maximum stealth--stay downwind, wear rubber boots, and avoid unnecessary contact with vegetation--walk the edges of bedding areas. Try to scout on windy or rainy days to help cover your noise and scent. This scouting reveals rubs and scrapes along a buck's preferred entrance and exit routes to the bedding area. Look for these signs in secluded locations where the bedding area borders forest or some other habitat that provides transitional cover to feeding sites. Also, look for places where the thick, brushy habitat of the bedding area extends into adjacent forest and fields. These brushy peninsulas serve as travel corridors for wary bucks reluctant to leave protective cover during daylight.
Not all bedding areas are created equal. Some are relatively easy to hunt while others are best left alone. Unless you have stealthy entrance and exit routes, I suggest you avoid hunting bedding areas less than one acre in size. In larger patches with lots of core area where bucks can remain undisturbed, you are less likely to alarm deer.
Remember, however, that during the early part of the season, undisturbed bucks often bed near the edges of their sanctuaries. Thus, you have to approach in complete silence, regardless of bedding-area size. If possible, place your treestands well before the season so that all you have to do is climb aboard. I commonly use a climbing stand, because it gives me freedom to move as wind and deer movements dictate. Many modern climbers are very quiet as long as you take your time with them.
The shape of a bedding area also dictates how you hunt it. When hunting a long, narrow bedding area such as a brushy fencerow or grassy waterway, hunt the ends, or approach your stand site at a right angle to the bedding area to avoid disturbing bedded deer. If you knowingly bump a buck from his bed, back off for a few days, and then set up on an alternate exit trail.
Timing can be critical. I generally hunt only in afternoons when restless bucks might exit their sanctuaries to feed. I'll hunt mornings only in places where I'm assured of slipping into stands undetected.
The first few weeks of the season, before bucks have been pounded too hard and are routinely exiting their bedding areas before dark, may be the best time of year to hunt. During the rut, late morning is a great time to sit on trails running parallel to bedding areas, as bucks cruise such trails to scent-check the cross trails for estrous does.
Food sources in or near bedding areas can be absolute hotspots, as bucks will often feed near their sanctuaries at almost any time of day. In forested areas, acorn-laden oaks are deer magnets; in farmland, crabapple trees and old apple orchards can be dynamite. One of my favorite stands is located among three old apple trees about 50 yards inside a large dogwood thicket.
If you can find no key features, such as food or obvious funnels to set up on, work your way around the edge of the bedding area and hunt secondary exit trails, especially those containing large rubs.
In summary, to hunt bedding areas effectively: 1) Scout smart by using aerial photos and limiting your intrusions to winter and early fall; 2) Minimize disturbance by selecting large bedding areas with plenty of core area to harbor bucks; 3) Hunt smart by using the weather, especially the wind, to cover your presence; 4) Maximize shot opportunities by setting up on key features such as food and natural funnels; and 5) Rest bedding areas by backing off after knowingly disturbing the area.