In the late season, deer retreat into flooded areas to escape hunting pressure. Here’s how to bag them.
It was an early January morning, and a bright moon, two days past full, cast an eerie light across the swamp. A bitter North Louisiana cold snap had kept the temperature below freezing for several days, and now it was in the low 20s with a light north wind.
I had trudged down an old road for over a half mile heading for a deer stand I had picked out days earlier. Now, about 400 yards from my destination, the way was blocked by water.
In the ghostly light, Dugdemona bottom looked like we were a week into the 40-day flood. Water covered the road as far as I could see. It was perfect.
One of the most productive methods of late-season deer hunting is to pull on chest waders and hit the water. Winter rains swell sloughs and creeks, but except during extremely high water, there are always natural levees, hammocks and ridges that remain dry. Deer are drawn to these spots to escape the hunting pressure on the surrounding uplands.
On this frigid morning, I plunged into the backwater, knowing there was dry ground across a slough a few hundred yards ahead. Breaking through the thin sheet of ice as silently as possible, I made it across the slough and took up a position next to a large water oak. Over the next hour and a half nothing moved but a raccoon that waddled past me.
I had begun shivering from the cold when suddenly a flicker of brown caught my eye. It looked like a doe and yearling slipping down the slough, but a peak through the scope revealed that one deer was much larger than the other, and they were moving around erratically.
Just as it dawned on me it might be a buck chasing a doe in the late rut, I caught a glimpse of antler tine. This was a good buck, but when he stepped out from behind the tree, I ignored the antlers and fired the 7mm offhand. The deer collapsed as if pole-axed.
Rushing forward, I finally got excited. What a great buck! The deer was about 200 pounds and had a perfect 8-point rack with an 18-inch spread — a very good deer for Winn Parish, and my second best ever.
To be successful while wade-hunting, one first has to know where the ridges are that produce bucks like this. Getting to them is the problem.
During squirrel season, take notice where the dry slough beds are most shallow. A 1-inch difference in depth may determine whether or not you will be able to wade across once the water rises.
Pick out landmarks that will tell you if wading is possible. On my Hog Hair and Hammock leases in northern Winn Parish, I know if the water is up to a certain cypress knee, or has reached a particular tree limb, it’s too deep to wade. Sometimes these can be spotted without even getting out of the truck, and it saves a lot of time and energy.
It’s also important to know in which direction ridges run so you can keep the wind and sun in your favor. A rising or setting sun can be distracting while hunting any type of land, but when surrounded by water, it is particularly bothersome. Light reflecting off water is more blinding than direct sunshine.
Often when the water is too high to wade, a boat can be used to reach the ridges. This is a particularly good way to hunt those crowded WMAs. Just toss your waders in a john boat and motor down the river to find a suitable place to park and start wading.
Topographical maps are a great tool to use in wade-hunting, particularly if you are not familiar with the area. Ridges and hammocks are easy to spot on them, and this knowledge can give you an advantage. Other hunters will reach the backwater and either turn back or hunt down its edge. By studying the map, however, you might know there’s a dry ridge just out of sight and can wade across and hunt it all by yourself.
Wade-hunting is a solitary sport. It’s very nature requires stealth and does not lend itself to having a partner. It is a loner’s way to hunt.
One of wade-hunting’s great appeals, in fact, is simply making the effort to get away from everyone else — no 4-wheelers roaring by, no hunter shuffling under your stand.
Only on rare occasions is anyone else even encountered in the backwater. Once I waded to a leaning stand deep in a palmetto swamp and thought I was all alone. Shortly after five does trotted down the slough, I saw fellow lease member Tommy Chandler easing along the bank duck hunting.
Flushing up some squealers, Chandler raised his gun to fire. Knowing he had not seen me (hunter’s orange was not required then), I dodged behind the tree just as he shot, and the dead duck made a kamikaze dive past me. When I spoke up, he was as surprised to find me there as I was him.
Another lease member, Jim Dunigan, once showed me a somewhat different way to hunt the isolated ridges. While wading amidst a labyrinth of sloughs, I was shocked to see a human head poking up above the ground. Easing over, I found Dunigan sitting motionless in a small pirogue he was using to move silently through the water.
One important, but less obvious, advantage wading can give a hunter is better visibility. The next time you’re in thick woods, stop and squat down. Notice how much farther you can see when you’re looking under the brush on a deer’s eye level.
For this reason, wading can be very effective even when the land is not flooded. Wading down sloughs or creeks even in normal water conditions puts you on the same level as the deer and allows you to see much better.
Another advantage of wade-hunting is that deer do not seem to spook as easily when in flooded areas. It’s as if they don’t really associate danger coming from the water.
Many times I have jumped deer off small hammocks and heard them go crashing into the water like a herd of horses. If they have not winded me, however, they frequently stop just out of sight. On occasion, I have even taken some small bucks by using a grunt call to lure them back.
One of the great things about wade-hunting is it seems only to get better as the season progresses. In late December or early January, when hunters start complaining about the lack of deer, the truth often is that the deer have simply retreated into the swamp.
My first large buck was shot one New Year’s Eve. I had taken a small buck the day before while wading down one side of Dugdemona’s Ernest Slough. On New Years Eve, I decided to hunt the other side.
In early afternoon, I paddled a john boat across the slough and began wading toward a ridge. It was only 2 p.m., and I wasn’t being particularly quiet, but something told me to slow down. Just as I reached dry ground, I spotted a deer not 30 yards ahead.
Looking through the scope, I saw a large buck vigorously rubbing his antlers on a small holly tree. Taking rest on a tree, I fired — and missed! The buck simply raised its head and looked around as if saying, “What the hell was that?”
My next shot dropped him. It was a large 8-point with an 18-inch spread.
Just a couple of years later, I waded back to the same ridge and sat down not 200 yards from that very spot. I bagged a small buck that afternoon and came back a week later and shot another small one. Returning the next morning, I killed another large 8-point that sported an 18-inch spread.
One reason wading is so productive in late season is because it corresponds with the dog season. If your lease allows dog hunting, then the flooded bottoms can be your best bet.
When chased by dogs, deer, especially bucks, frequently head straight for the nearest water. By wading into the backwater before daylight, and being patient, you have a good chance of taking a buck either while still hunting or bagging one that is chased there by dogs.
Nothing pumps the adrenaline more than listening to a race coming closer and hearing the deer charging through the water toward you. It’s amazing how much noise a single deer makes when running through shallow water (it’s equally amazing how a whole herd can slip silently past you and barely make a ripple!).
This tactic has paid off for me more than once. Several years ago, while returning to my truck from the backwater, dogs ran a nice buck past me. Several shots at the bounding deer drew blood, but he continued on for several miles and finally escaped into a flooded palmetto swamp.
The following week, I waded into the palmetto to a leaning stand on a slough. Later in the morning, dogs jumped a deer on the other side and an hour-long race began. Finally, there was a loud crash of water upstream, and soon something caught my eye in the slough behind me. It was antlers sticking up out of the water from a buck that was swimming right down the middle of the slough.
He veered to my side, trotted out of the water, and ran right under the stand. In my excitement I didn’t notice it at first, but after downing the 6-point, I found a back leg was nearly shot off. I am convinced it was the same buck I had bloodied the week before.
A few years later, the scene was repeated when I waded back to the very same spot. Not long after daylight, there was a gunshot on the Hammock Lease next door, and a dog race began. Eventually, the dogs came my way and the deer splashed into the slough upstream.
This buck came hobbling down the bank and stopped 20 yards away. After downing the 6-point, I found a front leg was nearly shot off.
I later ran into Bill Griffin, who explained that our friend J.W. Boone had bloodied the deer from his box stand, and the dogs were let loose to track it down.
I learned another important benefit about wade-hunting from these kills. It is much easier to drag a field-dressed deer through water than over dry land. An air bubble forms inside the body cavity that allows it to float. In fact, it sometimes pays to stay in the water to drag a deer, even if it means taking a longer route back to the truck.
If wading appeals to you, be forewarned — pushing across several hundred yards of thigh-deep water through brush and cypress knees can be exhausting. Make sure you’re in good physical condition before trying it. There also is the danger of falling into freezing water.
If you wade hunt, it’s not a question of if you fall in, it’s really how many times in a season. My missteps — literally — are legion. Several stand out.
One late December afternoon I waded to a ridge and hunted down its edge. It was one of those rare North Louisiana weeks when the thermometer had not climbed above freezing for days.
Easing along in shin-deep water, I came upon a large water oak that had recently toppled over. One step farther and I suddenly stepped off into what seemed a bottomless pit. Freezing water soaked my upper body and poured into my waders. I thrashed about wildly, not exactly sure what had happened, before finally crawling out on my hands and knees.
I know now that while an unobserved tree might not make any noise when it falls in the forest, it certainly leaves a deep hole in the ground!
The greatest chance for an accident occurs upon entering or exiting the water. That is when a hunter most lets down his guard.
Last season I had three spills (yes, I am something of a klutz), and all occurred upon entering a slough.
One slough that I have crossed a thousand times has a small underwater log to step over. I simply wasn’t paying attention and ran smack into it. Losing my balance, I danced around a bit and finally keeled over, soaking my left arm and shoulder as I reached out to catch myself.
At another familiar crossing, I was stepping down the bank when my left foot slipped completely out from under me. Down I went, hard on my butt, and I began sliding into the water. Fortunately, I was able to grab a bush and keep from going all the way under.
On another occasion, I was crossing a slough at an unfamiliar spot. It looked shallow, but as I entered the water, my foot slipped down the steep bank. Immediately, I was in an uncontrolled slide, and I frantically wondered how deep it was going to be. Fortunately, I bottomed out about 1-inch below my waders’ top.
Like any other hunting, risks can be minimized. Always try to cross sloughs at familiar places and avoid walking across foot logs. When wading, go slowly, and shuffle your feet along to feel for roots and logs.
Be particularly careful when entering or exiting a slough. On sloping banks, hold onto a tree limb and sidestep by keeping your feet parallel to the bank. This gives you more balance, and you can better negotiate the slope.
For those who don’t mind working at their sport, wade-hunting is the way to go. If permanent box blinds, food plots and feeders are your thing, forget it. It takes considerable effort, but wading is the perfect way to get away from the crowds and find those isolated spots where the bruisers hang out.
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