An old-timer once told me, “Boy, you can be the best damn hunter in the world, but if you don’t hunt where big deer live, you ain’t never gonna kill one.” The longer I’ve hunted, the more I’ve realized that guy was right. Many damn good hunters make the mistake of hunting year after year on lands that don’t grow and hold mature deer. So all they ever shoot are 6- and 8-pointers.

Well, let’s change that.

New Ground

Now is the time to get out of your rut and find a new spot to hunt this fall. With whitetail populations healthy to stable in most regions, you shouldn’t have to look far. A small woodland or maybe a 300-acre farm 50 miles down the road from where you’ve been hunting all those years might have more nutritious feed, thicker cover, less pressure—and more big 8- and 10-pointers roaming around.

Knock on doors, be polite, negotiate a lease, somehow get permission. Just like that your chances of tagging a big deer go way up.

Food: The Heart of It

Now for the nitty-gritty: How to evaluate new ground and zero in on spots where good bucks hang out.

The more feed on a property, the more family groups of does that live there. It’s that simple. And here’s the kicker. Bucks will follow the gals to the food sources during the early-fall “fattening-up period,” and the horny guys will keep prowling around them later in the rut.

If a place has a couple of soybean, corn or alfalfa fields—or better yet a mix of crops—that’s great. But one or even two major food sources aren’t enough. Suppose there’s a drought? What if in early fall a farmer picks clean his grain? Well, the does gotta eat several times a day. They’ll quickly expand their home ranges, moving a couple miles or more to feed and carrying bucks off a property.

Ideally, a tract will have crops and a variety of other food sources to sustain deer throughout autumn and early winter, the times when you are out there with bow or gun. Check an aerial photograph for timbered ridges and bottoms that rim fields. Then go and scout those terrains for mast trees.

Look for a blend of oaks, the lifeline of whitetails in many areas. White-oak acorns mature annually while red-oak nuts make every couple of years. That’s how nature puts some mast on the ground every fall.

Get serious and look for what I call “buck trees.” They are the healthiest oaks on a property, generally 10 inches or so in diameter and sometimes clustered together. The trees grow a couple hundred yards off a crop field or food plot, and right now they’re laden with green acorns. When those nuts start dropping in September, some bucks will quit the grain and gorge on the high-fat treats in the cover of the woods. They are perfect spots for an archery ambush. You might want to go ahead and hang a couple of tree stands nearby right now.

Crops and acorns are the key ingredients on many lands, but keep on scouting. Down south deer eat pecans; up north they crunch beechnuts. Whitetails love persimmons, locust pods, crabapples, wild cherries and other soft mast. Browse like sumac, dogwood and honeysuckle are staples, especially late in the season.

If you hit pay dirt and find a smorgasbord you know the soils on a property are good. Minerals from the earth and the nutritious foods help bucks grow heavy racks.

Gimme Shelter

For a buck to live at least 3½ years and grow thick antlers he needs cover and lots of it. Some biologists say the ideal habitat is comprised of about 30 percent brush and edge.

Check an aerial for gray blocks and slivers that show recently thinned or cutover woods, regenerating burns, overgrown fields, CRP strips…you get the picture. Deer are fringe animals. They love to travel edges, lingering here and there to browse greenery and snack on the soft mast that grows there.

Look for does to bed in the big covers. Then expect mature, crotchety bucks to hole up in “satellite thickets” nearby. Small cattail swamps, cedar patches, tangled fencerows and especially ridge thickets… The more satellites you find near spots where does feed and bed the better. When the rut and hunting pressure heat up, old bucks cruise from cover to cover, utilizing several core-bedding areas.

The Water Factor

A hotspot beyond compare will be laced with creeks or maybe a river. Deer drink of the free water, especially when running during the rut and especially in a hot, dry fall. But moreover, a water source with its rich soils, diverse plant life and brushy edges provides the key ingredients of food and cover. Studies show that wherever possible whitetails gravitate to and reside in fertile drainages.

Study an aerial, do a little pre-season scouting and try to hang a stand in a creek thicket or on a riverside flat. That just might be your breakthrough spot, the place where you finally nail a buck that scores 140 inches or better this fall.

Odd & Ends

Food, cover and water are the key elements of a hotspot. The following terrains will make a habitat more diverse and better.

Openings: Biologists say a prime habitat has about 10 percent open space. Say you lease a 200-acre woodland. Try to plant a couple of food plots and maybe bush-hog strips in an overgrown pasture. Those 20 cleared acres will provide deer with food and edge. The openings will also act as stages where does and bucks commingle in late summer and later during the rut.

Old roads & rights-of-way: The more of ‘em the better. Bucks love to rub and scrape in old logging roads. Does and bucks browse, bed and travel in brushy power-line or gas-line cuts.

Funnels: Check an aerial photo for hollows, ridge saddles, strips of timber between fields, brushy fencerows, necked-down creek crossings…you get the idea. Hang stands in those funnels because that is where the big boys travel and chase does.