Whitetails and Water: The H2O Connection

By Scott Bestul

I glassed the buck in late July and knew he was special. He carried only an 8-point frame, but it was a frame you could build your hunting dreams around. The buck sported long, heavy beams; sky-scraping tines; and bases so wide he had to droop his ears back to give them room. I guess in some places, 8-pointers are “management bucks.” On my lease, that dude was as good as it gets. The buck showed up often in a remote field the farmer had devoted to alfalfa and soybeans. I could spot him there almost any summer evening, and I believed that predictability would make him vulnerable during the first week of Minnesota's early archery season.

Trouble was, the buck would enter the fields on any of a half-dozen entry trails. And I also knew that hunting him there was a swing-for-the bleachers proposition: Guess the right trail, and you’ve got your trophy. Make a mistake and bump the deer, and spoiling further chances was an almost-certainty.

Fortunately, I had a back-up plan; a small pond my leasing buddies and I had dug nearby. The pond was 75 yards off the field in a small staging area. Bucks loved to hit the pond for an afternoon drink, dally around until almost dark, and then head out to the fields. And when I set my hunting buddy up on the pond the first two nights of the season, he saw seven bucks; animals that ambled into that waterhole like they’d done it every night of their lives. On Night 2, the Big 8 showed up and drank from the pond, turning broadside at 15 yards and exposing his broad flank for my friend’s arrow. Trouble was, that arrow went six inches over the buck’s back.


I guess it doesn’t matter why — besides buck fever — my friend missed. What matters is that every buck that came to that setup was there for the same reason: to drink. Not for food. Not to escape pressure. Not even for does. Just to stick their noses in water and suck it up. Many modern hunters — me included — are obsessed with detail; growing food plots, finding a killer grunt call or making a realistic mock scrape. In the process, we forget basic whitetail biology: Deer need to drink.

I learned that from my friend, Ted Marum, a former guide and whitetail fanatic who counted himself among those whitetailers who didn’t give water much thought. “I’d read all the stuff about deer getting much of their water from the food they eat,” he said. “I knew they needed water, of course, but I didn’t think about it for hunting purposes at all.”

Ironically, Ted’s mother helped change his mind. Joanie Marum is a dedicated and enthusiastic deer hunter, and when she asked her son to put her in a stand one evening several seasons ago, Ted directed her to a newly hung set right behind his home. “The stand was near a logging road that came off a steep hillside,” he said. “Rains had washed the road and eroded it, so I’d made a little berm in the road to stop the runoff. A big puddle had formed at the base of that berm. I’d set the stand to cover some nearby trails, but I’d never thought about the puddle.”

Mother Marum changed that situation in a hurry when she sat the puddle stand and missed a buck that night. “Then she missed a big one the next evening, and then finally killed a monster on the third,” Ted said. “On the fourth night, I put a friend in the same stand, and he nearly had a shot at a B&C 8-point. It had been a hot, dry, fall, and every one of those bucks was coming straight to that puddle.” The experience was an epiphany for Marum. “The more I thought about it, the clearer it became,” he said. “By fall, nearly all of a whitetail’s food sources — browse, acorns, grains, even alfalfa — are drying down and offer little moisture. Then the rut comes, and bucks and does are running all the time. Add a warm fall, which we’ve been getting a lot of lately, and it only gets worse. A big buck chasing does all night is wearing his winter coat and working hard. At some point of the day, he’s going to be thinking about water.”

Consequently, Marum began looking hard for water sources where he could place stands. After some trial and error, he realized the location of the water dictated its potential as a stand site.

“I learned that finding deer tracks near a farm pond, for example, didn’t take much effort,” he said. “But most of those ponds were out in the open and visited by deer only at night. I needed to find water that deer would come to when my hunters could shoot them.” That got Marum searching for water sources near some form of security cover. Deer use woodland creeks, secluded ponds, seeps and springs, even longstanding puddles during daylight hours. Though Buffalo County, Wis., is noted for its numbers of mature whitetails, these are heavily hunted deer that are notoriously reluctant to expose themselves.

“And,” Marum added, “they’re like big deer anywhere; as lazy as can be. They’re always going to walk the easiest path, eat the closest food, and drink the most convenient water. If there’s a little, scummy pool 100 yards from a buck’s bed and a clear-flowing stream a half-mile off, the buck is going to that pool first — guaranteed. Hunters have a hard time accepting that because the water doesn’t look good to them. But whitetails have cast-iron stomachs; that water won’t bother them a bit.”


Of course, not all properties have water sources. Even fewer sport H20 near security cover. When Marum was guiding, he realized if he could manufacture such spots, they would be ideal setups for his clients. So as a first step, he’d find an area where he’d like to steer deer, such as a ridgetop with consistent winds, easy access and nearby security cover. Then he’d look for a tree within that cover that was ideal for hanging a stand. And then he’d hire a guy with a bulldozer to scoop out a small pond that lay an easy bow shot from the tree.

Marum was amazed at the results. In fact, on one pond he dug, three hunters shot Pope & Young-class bucks three consecutive days. Another buck would have fallen to a fourth client, but that guy missed. And, it should be noted, that three-day streak of activity wasn’t a fluke. Marum’s hunters have shot, missed or encountered so many bucks at that stand that it’s a fixture among his long-time customers. Mention “the pond” in his camp, and most clients will know exactly what you’re talking about.

The costs of building such a pond will vary according to region, but in the upper Midwest, $400 is a pretty average figure. “They aren’t big,” Marum said. “Maybe 12 to 14 feet across and knee- to waist-deep. A good 'Cat operator can knock one out in a few hours. Because they’re fairly deep and in the woods, they hold water better since they’re not as susceptible to wind and evaporation.” On most of Marum’s properties, the soil is clay-based and holds water well. In areas with looser soils, it’s a good idea to install a heavy-mil plastic liner to make sure water won’t drain out. After digging the hole, simply overlap sheets of liner on the bottom, then backfill over them until they’re covered with at least 18 inches of dirt. The backfill prevents deer hooves from puncturing the plastic when whitetails come to drink.

Naturally, Marum leased much of the land he hunted, and although most landowners have no problem with minor pond construction in the woods, not all are crazy about 'Cat work. If that was the case, Marum asked permission to install a small (110-gallon) landscaping or livestock-watering tub instead. Available at most farmsupply  or home/garden stores, these tubs are made of tough, heavy rubber (far less likely to crack and leak than plastic or other material) and cost about $50. After digging an appropriate-sized hole with pick and shovel, Marum places the tub in his excavation and backfills around it. Then he lugs water to the spot or, more likely, relies on rainfall or runoff to fill the tub. In any case, he’s created a micro-pond in a spot where deer are comfortable, yet his hunters have the advantage of a good stand tree.


Like any prospective hotspot, ponds must be hunted carefully to avoid bumping deer and making their drinking sessions nocturnal events. And because Marum’s ponds are typically located near security cover, a proper approach and exit has to be determined so hunters can get in a stand without alerting deer. “That’s why I like a logging road or ATV trail that leads right to the stand,” he said. “A hunter can slip in and out of there without making a sound.”

Like any setup, hunting a pond should only be done when the wind direction is right for that spot; wind currents and thermals should suck the hunter’s scent away from the pond, as well as nearby bedding areas and entry trails. Marum typically erects a stand preseason, brushes shooting lanes and then leaves the stand hanging all fall.

Alert readers will note that Marum has placed a hunter in pond stands on consecutive days. Although such a practice can quickly burn out most stands, Marum doesn’t hesitate to make repeat visits to a pond when conditions call for it. “When the rut is on, I’m convinced that so many different deer — bucks and does — visit my ponds that it’s tough to burn them,” he said. “You may bump a deer there one day, but the buck that cruises through the next may have been miles away the day before. When the bucks are really running does, my pond stands are at their best. Not only do bucks and does come to them to drink, but bucks come to them just to look for does. Scrapes and rubs and food are all good places to set up, but you show me a water source back in the timber, and that’ll be the first place I hang a stand.”

Project GreenBank

Whenever my lease partners and I dig out a new pond — something we do at least once a year and usually more often — we always save some extra clover seed as the last step of the project. We dig most of our ponds with a skidloader, which results in a lot of extra dirt lying around after the excavating is complete. As we dig out the pond, the first layer of soil (topsoil) is set aside so it’s not buried or mixed with rocky or less-fertile soil that is excavated later. Then when the pond is complete, we heap this top soil on the berm or bank as a seed bed for the clover. Then we broadcast (often by hand) Imperial Whitetail Clover seed across the banks. Because we don’t normally take the time to soil-test or fertilize these banks, we like to lay the seed on fairly heavy to ensure a decent catch. Imperial Clover not only helps to stabilize the pond bank and keep it from washing, it also offers deer the chance to snack a little while they’re drinking. When we first tried this, all my leasing partners commented on how much time deer spent nibbling on clover before or after they’d had a drink. In fact, some of my buddies compare our pond sets to bars. “The water is the nice cold beer, and the Imperial Clover is the peanuts in a bowl,” one friend likes to say. “Deer think they’re coming in for just one, but the other just keeps 'em hanging there a little longer.”

Hunting Natural Water Sources >>>>>

Whitetails are water-loving creatures across their range, and savvy hunters should look for deer sign near any water source on a property. River corridors, lake edges, stream banks, seeps and springs are all examples of natural water sources that will attract deer throughout the season. Not only will deer visit them during the warm, dry weather of early fall, but also as the rut unfolds. Don’t neglect water in late fall and early winter, as the season’s last green plants will typically be found near water. Water sources are a prime afternoon hotspot in the early season, as deer will often drink before heading out for evening feeding. As the rut nears, don’t hesitate to sit all day at a water hole; bucks and does might show up at any time to sneak a drink after running hard. Even during the high pressure of firearms season, deer are attracted to water, particularly spots where nearby, dense vegetation (swamps, marshes, bogs) offers security cover from hunters. Sometimes the most attractive water sources to deer are the most difficult for humans to access. Don’t be afraid to don a pair of hip boots to wade across a marsh, or hop in a canoe and paddle to the far side of a lake. Deer are masters of making small adjustments in their routines to avoid human activity. Creative, hard-working hunters can find ways to access hard-to-reach places and be where deer feel most comfortable.