Kevin Vistisen, who hosts the popular Deer Hunter Podcast, has taken plenty of swamp bucks like the one above. He uses the strategies in this article to ensure that his arrow meets a mature whitetail each season (Photo: Kevin Vistisen).
By Darren Warner
Slowly plucking my way through the pitch-black darkness of a multi-acre wetland, the beginning of an old Scottish poem seeped into my mind.
From ghoulies and ghosties, and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night, Lord help us!
Lord, help the GPS I’m holding in my hand to guide me to my treestand, I thought to myself.
Twenty minutes later, the GPS had done its job, and I was looking at the old tamarack holding my climbing sticks and stand. It was show time. This would be my inaugural hunt in the swamp, and I knew it was my best chance to ambush a wide eight-pointer that made the marsh its home, safely avoiding a bevy of bowhunters all looking to put their tag on the buck.
An hour later, I heard the unmistakable sound of something slopping through the water headed towards me. My stomach tightened as I waited for whatever was making the noise to appear, hoping against hope it was the eight-pointer.
It wasn’t. A small spike appeared out of the mist, coming out of the water and walking a mere 10 yards from my stand. I sat motionless while some critter landed on my neck and started crawling on me. I waited for the buck to move on so I could brush it off. As soon as the deer was out of earshot, I slapped at the creepy-crawly on my neck.
That’s when the eight-pointer that had been standing behind me took off, narrowly escaping my arrow with the buck’s name on it.
Oftentimes you will have very little visibility when hunting in swamps. Look for movement, the gleam of an antler, or the white of a deer’s tail to catch a swamp buck sauntering by (Photo: Darren Warner).
For sure, there’s a lot that can go wrong when deer hunting in swamps, but the advantages far outweigh the challenges. The biggest plus is that you get a crack at bucks other hunters never see.
“For years I thought that a swamp buck was just a deer that hid out in mucky places when hunting pressure got heavy, but spent the rest of the year on dry ground,” said famed whitetail hunter and author Gary Clancy. “I was wrong. There are deer that spend most of their lives with their hooves in the mud.”
Mature bucks love the solitude and security of swamps. Only at night, and some days during the rut, do some of them venture out of their wet lairs in search of food and/or mates. Let’s look at how to locate swamp bucks and how to effectively hunt them at different stages of the deer hunting seasons. We’ll cover the ins and outs of hunting the ghosts of the swamps, making you a successful swamp ghost-buster.
Swamp Scouting Strategies
One of the best times to scout for swamp bucks is late winter/early spring after the snow has melted, focusing on both older and more recent deer sign.
“I like to revisit areas that I saw last fall, but I didn’t want to disrupt during hunting season,” said Michigan swamp hunter Kevin Vistisen, who also produces a helpful deer hunting podcast available to listeners for free (Deerhunterpodcast.com). “I’ll walk for miles looking for large deer beds, then back out and find a good spot to hang a stand 100 to 200 yards away. I don’t want to hang a stand too close to their beds because doing so contaminates the area and will compel bucks to no longer bed in those spots.”
Regardless of when you’re scouting or hunting, you need to understand what makes swamp deer tick. They spend most of their time in marshes because they abhor human intrusion. Unlike other deer that aren’t spooked by farm equipment and all-terrain vehicles, marsh deer will tolerate very little human activity.
“The key is to not hunt too close to a resource deer use because you don’t want them associating danger with the resource that they use,” said Grant Woods, renowned deer biologist and host of the popular Growingdeer.tv online series. “The exception to this rule would be hunting near acorns or mast that falls for only a couple weeks a year. In that case, I will hunt closer to the resource.”
Deer don’t hesitate to swim or wade through high water, so you shouldn’t either. Use chest waders to access high pieces of ground where deer often bed to avoid predators (Photo: Larry Keller).
Scouting for prime food sources can be done throughout the year. The trick is learning, from year to year, when mast is falling, then hunting those spots when deer are consuming it.
Aside from food sources, Woods looks for micro-differences in habitat such as waterways leading to bottlenecks that serve to funnel deer movements. Using an aerial photo can help identify funnels, break lines separating shallow from deep water and other features where deer activity can be pinpointed.
A portable GPS unit is an invaluable swamp-scouting tool you’ll want to carry whenever looking for potential stand sites. Many smartphones have built-in GPS technology, enabling you to record key information into the phone. The homogeneity of a swamp makes it nearly impossible to find potential stand locations later, so I also like to sketch the area in a small notepad I carry when scouting, marking trees where I may hang stands with fluorescent paint or orange tracking tape. Note the direction(s) the wind needs to be blowing to hunt in each spot.
Scouting for deer in swamps is all about patience and persistence. If the swamp is large, get a map of it and grid the area. Then, use your GPS technology to methodically scout the entire swamp. After each scouting trip, carefully record how much of the swamp you covered into your smartphone, notebook or GPS tracking application. Doing this ensures you won’t miss any spot in the swamp where a big buck may be hiding out.
You also can use game cameras to scout for deer that meet your harvest criteria – just make sure not to set cameras over deer beds or other areas where deer spend a lot of time. Instead, hang cameras along travel corridors to learn about the deer that live in the swamp and when they’re using the travel routes. Again, effective scouting involves learning as much information as possible without altering deer activity.
“When I’m scouting, I bring a climbing stick, safety harness and lineman’s belt with me so that I can hang my cameras 10 feet off the ground, pointing them downward to take photos and video of deer movements,” Vistisen said. “I also hunt a lot on public land, and this prevents people [from] seeing my cameras and being tempted to steal them.”
Swamp Hunting Strategies
Regardless of whether you’re scouting or hunting, always move with the wind in your favor. Swamp bucks live by their noses, so wear rubber boots and scent-control clothing and make liberal use of scent-killing spray to reduce the amount of human odor you leave in the swamp.
Plan for long sits when hunting in swamps.
“I’m in my stand 60 to 90 minutes before daylight because deer will often move back to their beds 30 to 45 minutes before daylight,” Vistisen said. “I stay in my stand at least an hour after dark because I’ve seen mature bucks wait 30 to 45 minutes after most hunters go home to get up and move out of their beds. Staying in my stand after most hunters have left also helps me gain valuable information about deer movements after dark, which I can then use when devising future hunting strategies.”
Notice that Vistisen and other successful swamp hunters are always scouting – even when they’re hunting. It can be tempting to just sit back and relax when hunting, but you’ll increase your odds of success if you pay attention and record valuable information about deer movements in a notebook or smartphone while in your stand. It can mean the difference between tagging out or going home empty-handed.
Carefully select your entry/exit routes so the wind is always in your favor. Savvy swamp hunters know that how you get in and out of a swamp is just as important as where you sit waiting for bucks.
After wearing yourself out scouting, it’s very tempting to choose the easiest route you can find, especially if you have to wade through water to get to your stand. But, now is not the time to take the path of least resistance. Again, do everything you can to keep the wind in your face and to use an entry/exit route that deer tend to avoid, like deep water. You may have to put your gear in waterproof bags or even use a canoe to get to your stand.
Besides occupying tree stands, Woods like to spot and stalk in swamps, looking for the gleam of an antler or white of a tail to locate marsh bucks.
“I tend to hunt afternoons because in the morning you’re moving and the deer are moving as well,” Woods said. “Unless there is a nearby agriculture field, in which case you can slide into the swamp when deer are elsewhere. When I’m on a spot-and-stalk, I am constantly changing my direction of travel so that the wind is always in my favor.”
Another successful swamp-hunting tactic is to strap a set of climbing sticks and a stand on your back in the mid-morning and still-hunt for a few hours, looking for fresh deer sign, like rubs and scrapes, or falling mast. Set your stand between bedding areas and deer sign/deer food, and wait for whitetails to come by in the later afternoon.
The rut is an excellent time to hunt for a swamp buck. During the rut, a buck will push a doe onto high ground then wait until she allows him to breed her. We all know that bucks disappear during the breeding phase of the rut – deer head to areas that provide good cover, like bogs, marshes and swamps.
Avoid hunting in swamps when the water is heavily frozen-over. Ice makes deer nervous and more susceptible to predation, so they move less and are on high alert in icy conditions. You’re also more likely to fall and get injured, particularly when climbing up or down a treestand. Unless you know the swamp well and can put your finger on high ground where deer yard up, stay out of iced-over wetlands.
When you do bag a swamp deer, immediately tag it, but wait to field dress it until you’re out of the swamp. Often, you can float a freshly harvested deer out of the swamp, making transporting the animal much easier.
Swamp hunting is all about persistence, patience and taking the road less traveled. If you scout smart, record your intel and do all you can to prevent getting winded, the only thing that will go bump in the night will be you dragging a monster swamp buck out of its wetland home.