Good grief it was hot. You have to really love deer hunting to walk a mile to your stand, mostly across open pasture, in the kind of intense heat and humidity that we were having. But, for the first time since bow season opened, the wind was correct, and very directional. No switchin’ back and forth at all. It would be my first attempt at a buck we had watched a large portion of the summer, either directly, or on trail cameras. The large deer was feeding in our 6-acre alfalfa field, which, despite drought and intense temperatures, was in excellent shape. We saw him twice through binoculars at the very edge of total darkness. The trail cameras revealed that he was usually there well after dark.
My stands were set up in mid August, after A LOT of scouting and walking, looking for his tracks, which indicated he was bedding in a clearcut. His daytime resting place was about two-thirds of a mile from the alfalfa, across a very large open pasture. The edge was quite thick, and several large white oaks, loaded with acorns, were encased in it. It looked like the place he would browse, eat a few acorns, and wait for total darkness before he crossed that wide open pasture.
About 10 minutes till “not enough light to shoot,” I heard a twig snap. Then I saw the buck emerge from a nearly impenetrable briar thicket. He stared into the pasture for a minute or two, then began looking for acorns, occasionally finding one. He alternated between checking the pasture, eating acorns and licking his nose and testing the wind until he was a mere 15 yards from me. All he had to do was step into an opening in the thick understory. Unfortunately, when hedid, no ethical shot presented itself. Rumen and hind legs were all I had a glimpse of. A nervous wreck, I watched helplessly as light faded away. The buck was standing motionless in a dense group of small sweetgums, looking out into the pasture, when it finally got too dark to see. I remained motionless and heard him walk off under the cover of darkness. He nicked the fence when he jumped it, headed to the alfalfa. A little luck, and his heart/lung area would heave been in that 15-yard opening instead of gut: Bummer.
My story did end very happily. Several days later, I killed the 14-pointer on a morning hunt from a different stand. Although the stand I killed him from wasn’t positioned in what I call a staging area, the stand where I had him 15 yards on the edge of the pasture was a classic example of a staging area. That hunt alone proves that learning to identify and hunt a staging area can lead to success.
Staging areas are excellent places to waylay a mature buck, especially when they are in a predictable pattern, before or after the rut. The deer are feeding on their favorite grub, but almost exclusively after dark… and they are bedded as a rule, way before daybreak.
It is an area where deer mosey around, waiting for black dark before moving into open feeding areas. They are located between bedding and feeding areas, generally very close to the bedding area. They feel safe there, because of the cover, and can see/smell ahead of them for any danger… and there is usually a food source of some sort there.
Early season, when the deer might be feeding on alfalfa, iron-clay pea or aechynomene patches, staging areas will usually have some early dropping acorns, honeysuckle or greenbriar. Late in the season, before heading to a green field of wheat, oats or rye, a staging area might be a thick area containing water oaks, privet or other available browse.
The best way to find a staging area is to first locate the bedding area. This is done best in late summer. We always watch our food plots and fields from a distance with spotting scopes. You do not see the mature bucks on a regular basis, but you will on occasion. Take note of exactly where they enter the field. When they are in their summer pattern, not much changes in their daily routine. Chances are they will be coming from the same direction every time you see them. This pattern will last into bow season. If you are after a particular buck, try to ascertain which tracks are his, then begin searching (WELL before the season begins) for his tracks leading back to the bedding area. If you find it, the staging area should be obvious as mentioned.
I killed a big 12-pointer a few years ago that we saw come into an iron-clay pea patch before dark exactly three times all summer, but he entered it the very same way each time. Large tracks showed he was bedding in a beaver swamp about a half-mile away, and his staging area was a large cane and blackberry thicket that had a few small but productive white oaks in it.
With bow season gone, you’ll have to tuck the above-mentioned information away for next summer. However, there may be an opportunity for you to find a staging area as post-rut bucks will seek out new, thicker bedding areas as foliage disappears this month.
Staging areas change during the course of the season, as primary food sources change, and the bedding areas change due to a change in effective cover. To find these new areas through the course of the season, be cognizant of where these new bedding areas will be. Then look for concentrated groups of rubs, a lot of droppings, and an available secondary food source. In my area, Oglethorpe and Madison counties, after the rut ends, the primary food source is usually green fields/food plots, and the secondary food source is water-oak acorns, honeysuckle and privet in the river and creek bottoms. You should be able to look at an area in August, and, barring unforeseen unusual weather conditions, have a good idea of where the bedding and staging areas will be throughout the entire deer sea- son. This is the way I hunt, although some hunters are successful locating and hunting staging areas on-the-fly… I have just found my success setting my stands up way ahead of the season.
Staging areas are usually adjacent to or bordering thick bedding cover. However, I have found they can be very close, or very far from the primary food source. The distance is dictated by how close the thick bedding cover is located. Deer will not compromise excellent bedding cover to be closer to the groceries.
A few years ago, I was hunting a late-season (late December) staging area between a dense clearcut and a green field of oats. It was a good three- quarters of a mile from the field. In late October and November there were several areas of cover, much closer to the field, that the deer were using. When the leaves dropped, the cover was not anywhere near as thick and dense, and the deer quit using them.
About 10 minutes after sundown, a bachelor group of four yearlings and a 2 1/2-year-old 8-pointer came out of the cut and began feeding on some
water-oak acorns. Five minutes later, a 3 1/2-year-old 10-pointer joined them. I enjoyed watching them feed till solid dark. Not wanting to spook them, I stayed in the stand. About 20 minutes after dark, it looked like a cavalry charge. I could see the deer in the moonlight, and on the horizon. They headed south like they were in the final stretch of the Kentucky Derby. When I got to my truck and drove out, my lights hit the oat field… all those bucks were in it… two-thirds of a mile from their bedding area!
There are usually a bunch of rubs in staging areas, as the bucks feel the urge to make them after they have been bedded most of the day. The exact direction the bucks enter the area is a little hard to determine, as they mill around so much feeding there. A lot of droppings are there also, as deer usually void themselves as soon as they leave their bedding areas.
If I have a particular buck patterned, and have a real good idea where his staging area for a particular food source is located, I always set up two stands. They will be on either side of the area I wish to hunt, for opposing wind directions. You want the wind to be favorable to you and the buck.
Because of the close proximity to the buck’s beds, one must be extremely careful in stand placement and approach to the stands. I now hunt staging areas almost exclusively out of lock-ons and climbing sticks, as they are the most quiet stands to get into. Climbers, no matter how good you are with them, are just too noisy when the buck could be bedded just 50 or 60 yards from you. One miscue while climbing, and your chance at a mature, pressured buck may be over.
I also make sure I approach the stand VERY quietly, taking several minutes to go 20 to 30 yards if the leaves are dry and crunchy. I once spent an hour going 60 yards into a stand.Yep, I got him! I also make it a point to never cross a trail I think the buck is using from the staging area to the food source. If he smells you at any time, the game could be over for the season. You want to show up, hunt, and leave without him having any clue you have been hunting him, until the arrow or bullet hits home. Your success hunting staging areas will depend largely on playing the wind properly, and how stealthful you are getting to your stand… you have to be “Rambo.”
There will be times when you have a buck’s staging area locked in, and the wind is perfect and you still will not be able to correctly hunt the area. You might know exactly where he is, and the wind is in the perfect direction, but there is no way you can get into an area undetected if you have to walk through 100 yards of dead hardwood leaves that sound like breaking potato chips every time you take a step. Now, I know some of y’ all are thinking, “Dang, John. There might be only two or three days a season when conditions are just right to hunt a particular staging area.”
Well, that is true, but in my opinion, your chance of getting that buck is better hunting those two or three days, than hunting one stand constantly. The first time he gets a good whiff, it might be over for that particular stand. I killed a very nice buck with my bow several years ago, the first day I was able to hunt the stand correctly. It was the second to the last day of the bow season.
I hope everyone is having a great season, putting some delicious meat in the freezer, enjoying nature and maybe getting a wall-hanger.
Be safe, and please make an effort to take a child or someone who has never been hunting, with you