Swamp Bucks

Swamp Bucks

Swamps and big bucks go together like arrows and broadheads. Of all the whitetail that I have taken, all but one was collected in and around wetlands. For this hunter, the mucky, thick and seemingly impenetrable habitat of swamps provide ideal hunting grounds. Most hunters avoid swamps because it’s easier to hunt high ground.

This is a great benefit to those willing to penetrate these quagmires. With low hunting pressure, the deer are usually of better quality and they are also less wary and easier to pattern than the more pressured deer of the highlands.

When I was a young, rookie bowhunter some twenty years ago, learning how to hunt swamps was essential if you wanted a decent chance to bag a buck. Where I grew up in northern Michigan, poaching was such a widespread problem that the only place where decent numbers of deer could be found was inside the area’s big swamps.

One evening, I successfully coerced my Dad into driving me to one of my bowhunting spots. He dropped me off and said he would be back at dark to pick me up. I trudged down a big hill, across a stream and into a huge swamp.

I penetrated deeper into the swamp until the water threatened to overtake my rubber boots. Locating a good runway near a small rise, I placed my one-leg stool against a big cedar tree and settled in for the evening. As darkness approached, I was startled to alertness by the sound of splashing coming from in front of me. After tuning into the sounds, it was determined that something was heading in my direction.

Being a young teenager, the excitement caused tremors to usher through my body. My shakes reverberated to my old Jennings bow and my arrow rattled against the bow with a disco beat that was coincidentally favorite at that time.All of a sudden, ears were spotted floating above the swampy vegetation, and moments later a trio of does with a buck pulling up the rear was coming down the trail that I was guarding.

My casual nervousness was instantly transformed into sheer buck fever as another surge of adrenaline coursed through my circulatory system at the sight of those antlers. Pivoting myself in the direction of their approach, I clenched the string with my shooting tab. The situation looked promising until I realized that I was posted almost right on top of the trail that they were coming down. On the deer came until they were standing five feet in front of me.

To this day, it’s still a mystery to me how I was able to draw my bow with three adult deer looking right at me from spitting distance; but I did it. I picked out the buck and sent an arrow on its way. The deer was so close that the arrow barely left the rest before striking the deer. I was in a state of disbelieve when I hit the deer right where I was supposed to! The small herd bolted back into the bowels of the swamp, and within seconds the setting was returned to an eerie silence. It was getting dark, so I hurried out to the road because I knew my Dad would get worried if I was late. When he arrived, I was so excited that I couldn’t even speak.

All I kept mumbling was “deer, deer, I-got-a-deer.” My Dad was recovering from a recent heart attack and couldn’t join me in the recovery, so we decided to get help and track it down in the morning. That was the longest night of my life. I never fell asleep; I just laid there all night waiting for morning.

My older brother Greg volunteered to help me recover my deer, so we headed out at first light. Unfortunately, it had rained during the night obliterating any blood trail. This meant searching every inch of the swamp until the deer was found. We spread out about twenty yards apart and started out in the direction where I had last seen the deer. We hadn’t walked fifty yards when I spotted a patch of brown fur sticking out of the water.

I screamed at the top of my lungs, “There’s my deer,” while running like a maniac to claim my prize. That deer was my first deer and even though I have taken much larger, trophy-sized bucks since that deer still ranks number one in my book. Since that first taste of success, I continue to find consistent success hunting swamps. One important fact about swamp deer is that they tend to inhabit a much smaller home range than deer in highlands.

Swamp deer also gravitate to small ridges and humps within their range for several purposes: Isolated high spots serve as bedding areas; whitetails hate to bed down in water. Deer are also attracted to the differing foods that are available on ridges. Another main draw of swamp shrouded high spots is during the breeding season; Ridges are magnets of rutting activity.

My scouting strategies start by consulting a detailed topographic map of the area. Ridges, humps and perimeter topography can be studied, and potential hot-spots can be identified for close-up scouting.

Topo maps also show wooded areas within and around swamps, which is important for potential tree stand locations. After pinpointing promising areas, I like to get a feel for the area by driving all the roads and two-tracks and marking any access points on the map. This is essential on public property to help locate low-pressure areas, and it also helps one get a feel for the lay of the land. After driving the area, the legwork begins. If necessary, I will put on hip boots and get down and dirty to locate travel corridors to and from bedding and feeding area.

The best time to scout any area is right during the hunting season for next year. Pre-and-post season scouting is also beneficial, but the deer habits change so dramatically throughout the season that data collected might be inaccurate. I prefer to scout year round and doing so provides an intimate knowledge of the changing deer patterns and populations in my areas.

One day, many years ago, I was having limited success due to unanticipated hunting pressure in my chosen areas. I decided to hunt a new spot in a muddy river bottom. Even though I had little knowledge of the area, I knew the swamp held good numbers of deer and big deer were known to inhabit the area. I sloshed my way across a marshy area and along a mixed spruce and cedar stand until the ground rose slightly above the water. This spot was obviously well used by the local deer herd. Trails were worn deeply in all directions, and rut activity was obvious with rubs and scraps all over the place.

I cleared some leaves away from the base of a spruce tree and trimmed a few branches off to allow for some shooting motion. I sat down on my one leg stool and began my vigil. I hadn’t waited more than ten seconds when I heard a scratching sound from the direction of where I had walked in. I dismissed the noise as one of the numerous red squirrels that inhabit the area. When I set my bow down to reach behind me where a twig that was poking me in the back of the neck, I was shocked by the sight of a huge buck standing right in front of me when I turned back around.

He had obviously heard the noises that I’d made while clearing my stand and came to investigate. His head and most of his body were behind a big cedar tree, but his wide, symmetrical rack protruded out from both sides of the tree.

I slowly reached for my bow, but unfortunately, the buck stepped out from behind the tree before I was ready. He spotted me and bolted away quicker than a speed freak’s carbon arrow. I didn’t get a shot at that buck, but I did learn that it is possible to actually hunt a new spot with a limited knowledge of the area. The secret to scouting during a hunt is to imitate the sound of deer and other animals while moving about.

This should be a solo affair to keep the disturbance to a minimum. Walking in stops and spurts and occasionally blowing on a grunt call will sound natural in the woods. Use contact calls to sound like deer communicating with one another and mix in some tending grunts if the rut is on. The scent should also be minimized to avoid contaminating the area. I wear hip boots when scouting in swamps to keep my feet dry and to help reduce human scent left at ground level.

I mentioned before the value of patches of high ground within or bordering swamps. Key in on small islands of surrounded by wet terrain. These spots are usually crisscrossed with deer trails and can become extremely productive as the breeding season progresses. Bucks won’t normally lay down scrapes in standing water, so those high spots normally have concentrated rutting activity on them. Set up your stands in these areas well in advance of the rut and you’ll be ready for a bonanza of buck activity later during the season.

Swamps bordering agricultural fields can also make superb hunting locations. Deer will bed in the swamps and then feed in the fields. The key is to set up where you won’t spook the deer when entering and leaving your stands. I usually set up within fifty yards of the field edge.

Deer will often move about along the fringes of swamps before dark and will offer shots in the process. Bucks on the prowl for hot does will often sneak along swamp edges adjacent to crop fields and can be ambushed by a patient hunter.

A dynamite technique for dedicated trophy deer hunters is to backpack into remote swamps to hunt. Due to low hunting pressure, bucks are allowed to reach maturity in some of these remote areas.

I’ve done many backpack hunts in swamps, and some truly impressive trophies hang on my walls to show for it. These short-term bivouacs need two ingredients for optimal success: A pre-scouted hunting location and a dry spot to set up a camp are necessary.

I usually perform preparations in advance to set up stands, cut firewood and clear a campsite. I even put up a buck pole. I usually select a camp location along a stream, so water is readily available.

Sometimes deer are downed in swampy areas were getting the carcass out can be a real challenge. Dragging a deer a mile through a thick quagmire is not an easy task. Sometimes two hunters can rig a pole and carry the deer out. The solo hunter doesn’t have this option, so quartering the animal or even boning it out on the spot are valid options.

A boned out deer will weigh roughly one-third of its live weight, which is usually about fifty pounds for an average size deer. By packing or even carrying by hand the bagged pieces, the hauling process is made much easier.

In northern ranges, swamps start freezing over during November. With a skim of ice, deer will avoid the partly frozen water like the plague. They will move out of the frozen parts of the swamp and concentrate in the high spots to avoid the crunchy ice. This is another big advantage for having stands located on high areas. Deer will be stacked up like cordwood in these spots during a freeze.

In northern states that have winter deer seasons, whitetails will migrate to swamps from surrounding uplands making for some excellent late season hunting. The combination of snow and cold temperatures triggers these migrations. Swamps with heavy stands of cedar, spruce, and hemlock will draw the most deer and will serve as yarding areas.

With an infusion of fresh deer in an area, hunting can be outstanding for those who can endure the cold hunting conditions.

Swamp hunting is not for everyone. This is fortunate because those of us that are willing to penetrate these deer hideouts are usually rewarded with quality hunting experiences. Low hunting pressure, high deer numbers, and numbers of mature bucks are well worth the extra effort.

Why don’t you try bagging a swamp buck?

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