Puddles and Pools: hunting intimate water sources

My uncle Lawrence, one of my deer hunting mentors, had a saying
he uttered frequently as he taught me to hunt whitetails.

“If ya wanna kill bucks, sometimes ya gotta get yer feet wet,”
he’d announce, looking up at the cold November sky through clear
Norwegian eyes. His speech was directed to me, since my legs were
young and strong enough to drive the swamps and bogs that infested
our hunting grounds. Lawrence was old and walked poorly, but he
shot like a sniper. So guys like me mucked around in the wet stuff,
paying our dues by pushing bucks to veterans like him.

In the process we killed enough deer that the lesson stuck: Deer
might have skinny legs and pointy feet, but they’re as comfy around
water as any beaver or muskrat.

I don’t hunt that low, water-rich country as much as I used to,
mostly because I now live where the bluffs are high and most H2O
runs downhill, doing its best not to settle in any one place. But
Lawrence’s lesson remains as sound for me as it did those many
years ago. Now I just look for more subtle water sources, and the
deer are never far away. Food sources come and go, but when I find
water even something that appears insignificant I sometimes hear my
uncle’s homily ringing in my ears.

The lesson was driven home again just this spring, while I was
trying to unravel the patterns of a nice buck that had humiliated
me last hunting season. I was scouting areas where I’d seen him
during archery season; walking out trails, checking bedding areas,
sniffing around for rubs and scrapes and trails. I’d picked up a
few clues, but I still felt like a kid staring at a jigsaw puzzle
with some pieces missing. And then I walked through a puddle.

It was a puddle I’d stepped across a dozen times as I walked to
stands, and in those trips I’d even noted deer tracks along its
clay-covered banks. The little catch-basin almost always held
water, thanks to its location at the base of three small ditches
that drained into it. But that spring day I wasn’t in a hurry to
hunt. So I stood by the puddle for awhile and for the first time
ever really looked at the thing. Deer trails, some obvious, some
very faint, led away from the little bowl like spokes emanating
from a wheel. So I started walking them, one-by-one, to see where
they led.

Most of the trails took me to places I knew well. But others
snaked through thick cover or slid down into gullies that I’d never
really explored. One of those subtle trails was peppered with rubs
and a second, faint as a child’s tracing on paper, took me to an
obvious bedding area. Then on a final trail I found a shed antler
that belonged to (Guess who?) the very buck that had kicked my butt
last fall. It was like finding those missing puzzle pieces, and as
I looked back toward that puddle a little voice in my head scolded
the reminder.

“It’s the water, Stupid.”

I picked out a couple stand sites near the very basin I’d spent
seasons walking past, and now, with only weeks left til archery
season, I can barely wait to hunt the spot. The buck will be
another year older and a little wiser, of course but then, so am
I.

Uncle Lawrence is dead, or I’ve have told him about my
discovery. Instead I called my friend Pat Reeve. I knew Pat would
appreciate the find because he’s an ardent believer in tiny
watering holes. In one instance he’d located a hollow stump that
collected rainwater; a big buck was drinking consistently from the
spot. Even better was Pat’s buddy, who dug a hole near a popular
crossing and put a kid’s swimming pool in it, then lugged water to
the spot. I can’t recall if the guy killed a buck there, but he
kept hauling the water, so it must have been worth it.

I know Uncle Lawrence wouldn’t have toted a coffee cup of water
to a swimming pool if it sat in his backyard but I also know he
loved to kill deer enough that he wouldn’t have minded a bit if
some young, strong kid wanted to do it for him. I’d have been glad
to oblige.

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