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Is Water the Key to Whitetail Success?

Giving bucks a destination to drink can greatly improve bowhunting odds.

Is Water the Key to Whitetail Success?

(Lance Krueger photo)

I wasn’t what you’d call a whitetail mega mind — a Yoda — someone with the 411 about barometric pressure, moon phases and planting dates. Age structure talk was wasted on me, but my whitetail obsession was full-blown.

I’d popped a few lungs over the years — basket racks, mostly, and one good Nebraska eight. It was that 8-pointer that changed things for me.

My whitetail mastermind, Terron Bauer, had studied lots of trail-cam pics of the buck and slugged him as a solid 3½-year-old. I didn’t care. He looked heavy, and I wanted him.

On the hunt’s last day, I got my chance and I sent carbon over his back. Later, when I told my sob story back at Terron’s house, he said, “It sucks you missed, but that deer will be a tank of a 4-year-old.”

It turns out Terron was right once again. Late-summer photos showed the bruiser still as an eight, but he’d added mass and his body size was ultra-impressive. Like the year before, the buck was a movie star — he loved to visit a rubbing post/mock scrape that was placed 20 yards from the treestand.

A Buck & An Education

I didn’t miss the "Great 8" that November. I killed him my first sit, which gave me time to tour Terron’s farm. Those two days of looking at food plots, hinge cuts, buck beds, native grass programs and other habitat projects proved invaluable; I still refer to them as my whitetail crash course.

I took what I’d learned and started tinkering on my small, 50-acre piece of Colorado river bottom. The entire property is more than 300 acres, but only 50 of it is suitable for bowhunting, and that’s being generous.

Knowing I didn’t have machinery at my disposal and understanding the arid climate wasn’t suitable for food plots, I had to get creative. I would spend most of my November days in Nebraska, which meant I needed a great October tactic to put me in the chips when hunting in Colorado.

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To make his land more attractive to whitetails, Bauserman traded a day of farm labor for use of his friend’s John Deere tractor and mower to help clear trails for the deer to use. He also put a small pond on the property.

I cut a few travel corridors for grins — connected available areas and improved access. I did most of this with a set of loppers and a powerful weed eater, but toward summer’s end I exchanged a day of farm work for a few hours on a John Deere tractor. As I mentioned, food plots were out. The property isn’t irrigated, and our summertime rainfall average is under three inches. Daytime temps often climb above 100 degrees and it’s hard to get anything — even drought-tolerant greens like wheat and rye — to grow. So, I used the Deere and the high-powered mower attached to enhance my travel corridors further.

As with many whitetail properties, mine has a sweet spot — a location bucks tend to travel regularly starting in mid-October. It’s a staging area off a cornfield, a small opening in the timber surrounded by heavy bedding. Not only do bucks like to nap around the spot, but later in October, when some does start smelling right, they like to cruise the edges of the opening. This knowledge was gleaned from trail-cam data and time spent 22 feet up a cottonwood.

I’d already enhanced travel to the locale, so I took things a step further and sweetened the bucks’ sleeping quarters by leveling a few sandy humps, trimming entrance and exit routes and adding chain-sawed logs. The logs give bedded bucks a great back/belly rest, and buck beds aren’t hard to find. Search for a slight rise in the terrain surrounded by thick cover, crawl in and look for white belly hair. Some will call these buck beds window dressing, but I don’t care. Every property is different and requires different tactics to make it more appealing to deer.

Creating a Deer Magnet

My next step was one I’ve tinkered with for the past four years. Though the Arkansas River is less than 200 yards away from some spots on the property, I found adding a water source very beneficial. Over the years, my trail cameras have snapped more than 300 pictures of deer — bucks and does — slaking their thirst at my ponds. Why? The answer is location.

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When I put in my first deer water source, I looked at it like a real estate agent looks at a home before trying to sell it. Location is everything. The better the location — the more amenities, or in some cases the lack of, the better. This particular spot had three trails that connected in its middle. It’s located less than 400 yards off a grain field and is surrounded by good bedding cover. Deer can pop into the small opening without ever exposing themselves, and bucks can hug the edge of the tamaracks as they scent-check for does.

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Though Bauserman’s Colorado property is only a few hundred yards from the Arkansas River, years of trail-cam photos and time in the tree have shown him that water, put in the right location, becomes a buck magnet.

I used a small greenhouse tarp for the pond’s bottom that first year. My spade chipped away at the sandy earth and before long I had a 20-gallon water source. Filling that source was a chore, and it required a back-and-forth four-wheeler trip to and from a nearby canal system. The deer loved it, though. The problem was I had to add water regularly, and as the season got closer, my human footprint was too much.

The following year, I took what I’d learned and enhanced the pond’s size to 50 gallons. This required fewer in-and-out trips, but the deer still hammered it. Because I pushed the dimensions of my heavy-duty plastic to the limit, deer hooves trampled the sand down, kicked up the edges and just like that, the pond was destroyed. I fixed it three times that fall and finally killed a scrapper buck over it on a warm December day.

Year three was going to be better. I ordered an actual pond liner from Amazon, measured out my dimensions and created an 80-gallon pond. In addition to increasing the pond’s size, I moved it to a location where it would receive less sun and more shade; I figured this would help with evaporation. Extra care was taken to bury excess plastic. The eastern and western sides of the pond faced trails, and I sloped them for easier access as the water level dropped.

Finishing Touches

The stage was set. For grins, I added a cedar rubbing post that I buried three feet deep before blazing up the bark with my Hooyman saw. A long cottonwood limb was attached to the top of the rubbing post, and I created a mock scrape below it. Little things, yes, but additions that enhanced the spot and made it more appealing to deer.

I filled the pond to its brim on Sept. 25, five days before the Colorado bow opener. As expected, deer traffic was heavy. Had Terron not sold me on only shooting mature bucks, I could have poked a solid 3-year-old, 10-point buck on the first evening. The deer had hit the pond three nights in a row, and with Oct. 1 temps predicted to be in the 90s, I figured night four was a guarantee. I was right; after pulling the SD card on my Browning trail cam, I viewed picture after picture of the 10-pointer slurping water.

The story was the same for the next few weeks. My little oasis was getting pounded by lesser bucks and does, but no hit-list buck showed in the area.  That changed the afternoon the corn came out, and I didn’t sleep much that night. Journaling is a great thing, and my journal told me that a shooter showed up at the pond over the past three years within 24 hours of the corn harvest.

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During Bauserman’s third year of pond enhancements, a pond liner and a little sweat equity were all that were required to create a larger, 80-gallon deer refreshment stand on his slice of whitetail heaven.

The next day, right at noon, when temperatures were scorching and the bucks were napping, I got the wind right and slipped in to check the camera. Two shooters had spent more than an hour in and around the pond during the night. One, in particular, an old 8-point I had a history with, stood out.

Now the waiting game started. Of course, I wanted to strike right away. When you unravel an early season pattern, you take advantage of it. The shooter bucks weren’t on camera during daylight, but I credited that to the time when the combines made their last pass through the field. By then, darkness had swallowed the land.

My problem was the wind. I needed an east/southeast wind but had three days of west winds to deal with. I was able, once, to slip in and check the camera card. It was dark, the wind gave me a brief window and I made my in-and-out move. During two of the three west-wind days, the buck hit the pond once during shooting light and once in the middle of the night. That was all the intel I needed.

The First Sit

Oct. 25 was my first night in the pond stand, and I was overly excited. The evening was warm — in the 80s — not great for rut activity but ideal for a thirsty buck looking to grab a drink before heading to his evening food source.

The sit was uneventful. I’d been in the stand for more than two hours and hadn’t seen a deer. Then, like it usually happens, I turned in my treestand to grab a quick drink of water and the old eight was strolling down one of my manmade travel corridors. The buck wasn’t coming from the direction I'd anticipated; he was using one of my designed buck beds, if I had to guess. The wind was borderline — right for me and just wrong for him — perfect but risky.

The brute walked right under my stand, but the angle was terrible. Then, he turned and walked straight for the pond. It was a fantastic sight. He used the slope, put his two front hooves in the pond and started to slurp.

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On his first sit of the year at the new pond, Bauserman’s target buck came in for a drink with only minutes of legal shooting light remaining. It was a fatal mistake for the 8-pointer.

He ended up drinking quite a bit, and I was worried about legal light expiring before I could cut an Easton loose. According to my Garmin, I had less than two minutes left, and finally the buck turned to walk down the travel corridor. I murpped him to a stop, settled my pin on his vitals and pulled through my hinge release.

The hit sounded good — solid and hollow — but I lost my arrow in flight. Typically, when I hunt for whitetails, lighted nocks grace the end of my arrows. However, due to the gear shortage, I had no arrow glowers in my arsenal for the 4MM FMJs I was shooting, and that prevented me from seeing the impact. I waited 15 minutes before climbing down. But the AAE Hybrid 23 vanes were stained red and bubbles lined the arrow shaft. The tracking job would be a short one!

My two sons, Hunter and Brody, put a lot of time and effort into helping me develop my October kill spot, so I wanted them to be along for the recovery.

An hour later, I could see the deer’s antlers under the glow of my flashlight. The buck hadn’t gone 120 yards — the SEVR-tipped Easton had done its job, and my October water goal had been accomplished.

It’s amazing what you can do with a plan and a little elbow grease!




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