Water and Whitetails: Scouting and Installing Water Sources for Deer


Whitetails have three basic needs: cover, food, and water. In the big, wide world of patterning whitetails, bedding areas and food sources get all the glory. Water often goes overlooked. Fortunately, for deer hunters who remember this vital member of the triad, success is nigh.

There are many reasons why hunters should put more emphasis on water when hunting whitetails. First, deer, like all animals, must consume water to survive. Secondly, deer use water bodies as defensive mechanisms. And third, finding existing water sources, or adding water sources in strategic locations, can help hunters intercept target animals.

Water Is Vital

While water routinely flies under the radar as an important resource, it’s a much bigger matter than most hunters make it. Just as water is vital for the survival of humans, it’s the same for whitetails. It’s equally important as food.

A whitetail oftentimes drinks multiple times per day. A 200-pound buck typically sucks down 3-5 quarts of water in a 24-hour period. Of course, that number fluctuates based on season and conditions. The time of year, daytime temperature highs, level of physical exertion, and water content within food sources all impact how much water whitetails directly drink.

For example, springtime food sources contain high water content, so deer don’t need to directly drink as much water. In summer, water content decreases within plants, and temperatures increase significantly, so deer begin drinking more water. In fall, temperatures decline, but so do the water levels within plants, and so deer must drink more. This trend continues during the rut, but deer exert much more energy, and so water intake increases yet again. In winter, deer receive little water from the woody browse they eat, so deer must drink from water sources.

All said, the rut is the best time to hunt over water as a primary hunting tactic. This is when deer are most likely to hit water during legal shooting hours. Outside of the rut, deer often hit water during daylight, but sometimes wait until after dark to drink. Rut aside, the early season, pre-rut, and late season are also good times to hunt over water (in that order).

Build the Ultimate Whitetail Property Without Food Plots

Water Is Safety

From a safety standpoint, certain water-centric areas draw deer in hordes, especially mature bucks. These locations offer whitetails safety and strategy. Some of these places include islands, coves, creeks, lakes, rivers, oxbows, marshes, swamps, and water-locked areas. Each of these offer a unique safety element that deer take advantage of, especially mature bucks.

Deer commonly bed on peninsulas within oxbows (where waterways make a land-based U shape). They will bed toward the closed end of the U. Generally, predators don’t approach from water, so they aren’t as worried about covering that direction. If they do, they use the quick land-based escape route to evade danger. Furthermore, if they see, hear, or smell a predator coming from land, they dash across the water to safety.

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Marshes and swamps serve similar purposes, as predators rarely wade through standing water to reach them. That includes a lot of deer hunters. Not to mention the thick, nasty early successional growth often associated with these locations. So, deer find pockets of dry ground within these areas.

Additionally, one of the best ways to find success on public land is to focus on areas that are land-locked by private properties and/or water-locked by deep creeks, rivers, and lakes that require boat access. Pressured deer flock to these areas to get away from hunters. Hunters who use a boat, canoe, or kayak, to reach these destinations, can fare quite well.

The areas that receive and hold the most moisture (without retaining too much) typically offer the best and thickest early successional cover. These are the areas with thick, nasty undergrowth that mature bucks love to bed in.

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Adding Water to Your Property

As a friend of mine once said, “Humans decide what to drink, and whitetails must decide where.” That’s true, as whitetails often decide to drink wherever it’s safest and most convenient to do so. That’s why strategically located watering holes have the power to amplify a hunting property. It’s a food plot that deer are forced to use, and will do so, if it’s a convenient, safe option.

Generally, deer prefer stagnant or slow-moving water sources over running or loud bodies of water. The noise reduces their ability to hear predators. With eyes and nose down in the water, the ears become their primary detector of danger.

Plus, many natural water sources are in lackluster areas that aren’t advantageous to deer. These areas might leave deer exposed, are too far from bedding, have no food sources nearby, etc.

There are a variety of ways that hunters can add water if they don’t already have a good source. In fact, in areas where water is lacking, hunters can rest easy knowing their water installations will have even greater effect. There are numerous options for a wide variety of budgets.

The most inexpensive route is a small, plastic swimming pool. Dig a hole and insert it in the ground. To complete this objective, determine the necessary size of the hole. Second, dig the hole to size. Third, remove all rocks, sharp objects, and then smooth out the surface. Next, place a thick layer of plastic within the hole. Afterward, place the small swimming pool into the hole. Once properly seated, place another layer of thick plastic inside of the pool and tuck the extra plastic between the outside edges of the swimming pool and the soil. Place a few rocks inside the pool to weigh it down.

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While optional, some land managers prefer to back fill a thin layer of dirt into the swimming pool to make it more natural-looking to deer. Once finished, use buckets, or a large water tank, to fill the watering hole. Place a tree limb into the hole so small animals can climb out, if needed.

Obviously, the more expensive option is to bring in an excavator and dig a pond. This generally requires serious planning, permit purchases, wait times, and significant costs. In some areas, digging a half-acre pond can cost $5,000-$10,000.

Most landowners and deer managers select an option between those two ends of the spectrum. It’s certainly possible to dig a smaller, more permanent watering hole. Even a 1/10-acre pond can serve as a good, long-term water source. Dug correctly in the right location, it can hold water year-round without manual refilling.

Regardless the scale of your planned water source installation, it’s crucial to think and strategize on where to place water holes. This is especially true for increasing usage by deer, as well as for entry routes, exit strategies, and wind directions for stand or blind locations.

Watering holes take a lot of sweat equity, and sometimes, money. Maximize the return on investment by locating watering holes with purpose. Consider the time of year you want deer to use these water sources, the bedding areas they will approach from, the food sources they will depart to, wind directions for these areas, and more. The following are additional considerations for seasonal watering holes:

  • Early Season Stand Locations: Between summer bedding and early season food sources (ag fields, early acorns, soft mast, food plots, etc.); close to north-facing slopes where deer bed on warmer days; on the edges of small early season food sources; close to the earliest-dropping acorns; in summer staging areas; etc.
  • Pre-Rut Stand Locations: Between fall bedding areas and mid-season food sources (cut cornfields, falling acorns, quality browse, food plots, etc.); on the fringes of known buck bedding areas; in thicker security cover; along fall staging areas; etc.
  • Rut Stand Locations: On the fringes of fall food sources (cut cornfields, standing soybean fields, acorn pockets, reliable browse, food plots, etc.); between doe bedding areas; within pinch points and funnels; on the edges of heavy cover; etc.
  • Late-Season Stand Locations: Between winter bedding areas and late-season food sources (cut cornfields, standing soybean fields, food plots, acorn pockets, reliable browse, etc.); higher-elevation bedding cover; solar bedding (southern-facing slopes); thermal bedding (stands of conifers); unpressured areas earlier in the season, etc.
  • All-Season Big Buck Hotspots: On the edges of bedding areas along benches, brushy flats, cedar thickets, CRP cover, cutover timber, leeward ridges, ridge endings, thermal hubs, habitat pockets in suburban areas, etc.
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All things considered, remember to position water holes in a manner that falls along the bed-to-feed, feed-to-bed, or other A-to-B lines of movement that stand locations are positioned along. Unless necessary due to a property line, pesky prevailing wind direction, or other challenge, try not to “pull” the deer to you. Rather, put the watering hole “in their way,” and deer will be more likely to use it.

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Water and Whitetails 14 Water and Whitetails: Scouting and Installing Water Sources for Deer

Finding Water with HuntStand Pro

Because of the various reasons that whitetails so greatly rely on water sources, bucks and does alike rarely bed far from it. In the East, where water is more common, bucks prefer to bed within 100 yards of it, if not closer.

Of the best and most-used buck beds I’ve discovered in heavy cover, these are rarely more than 70-80 yards from a water source. Granted, these sources are often small, perhaps as minute as a seasonal puddle or small spring emerging from the ground. Still, mature bucks typically take the best bedding, and these are almost always close to a water source.

Regardless of how close a given deer beds from water, every deer needs it. This makes it a must to locate water sources, and HuntStand Pro is an excellent resource for doing so. Numerous app layers help identify key water sources. Some layers that can help with this include: Satellite, Mapbox Satellite, Outdoor, Terrain, and more. Plus, the Monthly Satellite Layer helps see near-real-time changes in water sources. Furthermore, other layers available with a Pro Whitetail subscription, such as the National Aerial Imagery layer, help identify water sources as well.

When e-scouting with HuntStand for water sources, it’s best to use a layer and/or scout from an elevation (i.e. zooming in or out) that shows fall- or winter-based imagery. This will make it simpler to identify smaller water sources within thicker cover, which are the most-used options during legal hunting hours. Scouting with aerial imagery that displays full foliage can make it more difficult to locate obscure water sources near deer bedding areas. Use the polygon tool to outline the perimeter of water sources so you can easily find them later in HuntStand.

Overall, hunting over or near water for whitetails is a lethal tactic. It can make the difference in success or failure, especially during key times of the year. Keep that nugget of knowledge in your hip pocket as a land manager and deer hunter.


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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>