Don’t overlook the importance of water when whitetail hunting.
It was a very hot mid-September afternoon in northeastern Wyoming, and my friend, outfitter Ralph Dampman of Trophy Ridge Outfitters told me about an isolated stock pond set in some scattered pines in an area void of human activity. The little tank was maybe a half-mile from some alfalfa fields and gave the local whitetails a place to get a drink before heading to the fields to feed.
I set a treestand in a gnarly old pine, making sure I was sitting in the afternoon shade, and climbed aboard. Exactly two hours before sunset, my attention was diverted from my paperback book when I heard a deer trotting in my direction. Over the hill he came, a dandy 10-point that waded chest deep into the water and began drinking. At just 25 yards, it was a chip shot.
Deer hunters generally define their whitetail hunting strategies by asking three questions: Where do they bed? Where to they eat? How to they get from bed to food and back again?
These are important questions, but they overlook a fourth piece of the puzzle that can be mightily important: Where and how do deer get their water?
Over the years, I’ve had some great success hunting over or near water, and not just during hot-weather months. For example, bucks in the middle of the rut, when temperatures can be cold and dank, need a lot of water to keep their hard-working bodies going. But before you decide to change your entire hunting strategy and focus on water sources, there are some things you need to know.
First, being fairly large animals—bucks can weigh well over 200 pounds— whitetails typically need three to five quarts of water per day, depending on weather, ambient temperature, humidity, time of year, body size, and so on. Lactating does or any deer growing both body or antler need more water than others.
Second, studies have shown that many deer, including older bucks, often bed close to water. I’ve located the bedrooms of some really old bucks over the years, and virtually all have been within 100 yards of a water source. Most of the time, those sources were small seeps, springs or trickles far off the beaten path.
Studies have also shown that deer in general and mature bucks in particular often go to water prior to feeding. They will drink at other times, too, but when they drink only once a day, which tends to be the case more often than not, that evening time just before they hit a preferred food source is when they like to water.
Finally, don’t hold out for postcard-perfect, crystal-clear ponds or streams. Deer seem to prefer small, isolated puddles, seeps, troughs, river springs and the like. Mud puddles suit them just fine. That’s why hunting water sources during rainy weather is generally a fool’s game; when deer have small water sources everywhere, you just can’t bet which they’ll choose on any given day. But when the weather’s hot and dry, it’s much easier to figure out the puzzle.
Though deer need water daily, whitetails can go for relatively long periods of time without drinking surface water, because they use both preformed water and metabolic water. Preformed water is the H2O found in the foods they eat, while metabolic water is produced internally as a result of hydrogen oxidation during an animal’s metabolic processes. Fortunately for whitetails, a large proportion of the water they need is found in the natural browse they eat, which is generally between 50- to 90-percent water (grasses, agriculture, etc.). When that’s the case, deer drink from water sources only to supplement the water extracted from their diet. One study in the Southeastern U.S. suggested that whitetails do not require surface water on a daily basis because of high rainfall, humidity and the availability of succulent plants much of the year. The study also mentioned that surface water may be important during the summer when rainfall is scarce and both the water needs of lactating does are high and bucks are growing antlers.
When water is scarce, such as in a severe drought or in the arid Southwest, deer are forced to get almost all their daily water requirements from preformed and metabolic water, both, as I said earlier, related to diet. But note that the less water a deer’s food contains the more free water they must drink. It’s just like we need more water after eating a big plate of salty food.
Here’s the rub. During drought, natural foods get drier, so the deer need more water. Of course, during a drought, there often isn’t a whole lot of free water available if any. That’s why drought years impact deer productivity so much that you see drastic fluctuations in population and even antler size in arid regions. The lack of water limits their ability to thrive.
Conversely, what about northern environments that freeze over for months on end? Deer will eat snow for its water content, but it takes a lot of snow to equal an eight-ounce glass of water. Fortunately, in extreme cold weather, the whitetail’s overall water needs are reduced, and because deer get most of their water from foods they eat anyway, northern deer satisfy most of their winter water requirements by eating green needles within reach on coniferous trees like hemlock and white cedar, last year’s growth of buds and branches on numerous deciduous saplings and shrubs, living bark off both and even acorns and other hard mast they find under the snow. During winter, northern deer also have the unique ability to recycle their urine and dry their feces internally to conserve water.
Early season warm weather hunts are an obvious time to focus on water, especially if that water is located near a bedding thicket. Trail cameras placed on these water sources can show you whether or not bucks are using them during legal shooting hours.
While I love hunting water during hot weather (and not just for whitetails, but also elk, mule deer, Coues deer, and pronghorn), I also like waterhole hunting during two other timeframes: the rut and the late season. During the rut, bucks run themselves ragged chasing does. They can go for days without food, but they must water every day (and sometimes two or three times a day).
While I have many rut-hunting waterhole stores, one stands out. Sitting in a tree over water one crisp November morning, a dandy buck started chasing a doe all around my stand. They must have passed by me a half-dozen times within 45 minutes, but I never got a shot before they left the area. An hour later, the buck, panting heavily, walked right under my tree to get a drink. He never knew what hit him.
During frozen weather, deer will water if there is an open source. A ranch I hunted for years in southwestern Kansas during the December late season, when temperatures routinely dipped near zero, is a prime example. I hunted near a cattle trough that was always frozen over. Every hour or two I would climb down, go over to the trough, and beat the ice with a two-pound sledgehammer to open it up. And every year I’d shoot a buck that came to drink there, as it was the only open water source for miles.
I and many friends have had great hunting success building small water sources for deer in isolated areas where mature bucks feel comfortable getting a drink during daylight hours. One mistake many hunters make when constructing these artificial water sources is believing they need to be built in low-lying areas, where natural drainage will keep them filled. But I’ve found that waterholes built on flat, ridgetop-type areas are better for hunting.
There are a couple of reasons for this. A water source in this type of terrain generally makes it the only reliable water source for a large radius, and if you can place it in thick cover and an out-of-the-way spot, deer feel secure coming to it. In the Southwest, my friends and I have built small water tanks that hold somewhere between 10 and 30 gallons, adding large rain-catching funnels to keep them filled. When the rains don’t come, we regularly backpack water up to them. A five-gallon can of water weighs 40 pounds, and it is a pain in the petunias to keep some of these tanks filled, but the results are well worth it.