Hunting Whitetails Exits and On-Ramps

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Ontario buck
This Ontario buck was shot after it ascended a small secondary ridgeline that tapered uphill to the main ridgeline. This buck wasted no unnecessary energy during its climb. Hunter shown wearing Lost Camo.

A deer hunter winces when the metal button on their pants pocket snapped loudly together. He had just slipped his GPS unit back into the cargo pocket on his upper thigh, and then tried to quietly snap it shut. The deer hunter couldn’t have failed worse. The metal button sounded like the pop of a .22 when it snapped together.

This deer hunter was atop a granite formation in northwestern Ontario, overlooking a gully and brushy hillside. He had paused while still-hunting to check his location, hoping to spot a whitetail among the young poplars and jack pines on the regrowing clearcut. A light northwesterly wind brushed the pine boughs back and forth with the cool November air.

The deer hunter froze in place when the noisy button snapped into place, listening to hear if the sound startled anything nearby. After a minute of silence, he scanned his surroundings. As his head moved left to right, he was startled to see a deer’s haunch in a thicket of beaked hazelnut 125 yards away on the opposite hillside. If not for snow clinging to pine boughs behind the deer, he never would have seen it. But because that was all he could see of the deer, he slowly shouldered the .35 Whelen and peered through its scope.

Scientific surveys reveal that buck rubs are usually found in greater numbers along the points of secondary ridges where two types of woody cover converge. Hunter shown wearing Mathews Lost Camo.

In the next instant, adrenaline blasted through the deer hunter's veins as the scope revealed a buck’s high, heavy rack, brutish head, and big body obscured by brush. He was staring at him! He feared he would bolt any instant. With his rifle now wagging like a puppy’s tail, he braced his left arm against his rib cage for a steadier aim, breathed deeply, found an opening, and centered the cross-hairs on the buck’s shoulder. He collapsed when he fired. The deer hunter plunked his butt into the snow and braced his elbows atop my knees for a follow-up shot. He found the buck’s spine in his scope and fired one more slug between the top of its shoulder blades to ensure the hunt had a happy ending.

Minutes later he was standing over the buck, marveling at his length and bulk. His North Woods body was so massive that his 150-class antlers almost looked unimpressive at first glance.

Before field dressing the buck, the deer hunter back-tracked his final steps to see if he could figure out his final minutes. Had he been bedded, and had the loud button-snap jolted him from his bed? Or had he been browsing, and heard the deer hunter step out on the opposite ridgeline? Or had he been walking this hillside and checking it for a hot doe? A glance around the kill site revealed no bed, just regularly spaced hoofprints weaving along the ridge above. He had never stopped during his final 200 yards, nor had he nipped any buds or branch tips that he could see.

The deer hunter followed his tracks to the ridgeline and then over the top. His tracks on that side ascended a small point that tapered gradually uphill, perpendicular to the main ridgeline. This buck had wasted no unnecessary energy. His tracks showed he climbed diagonally along the hillside toward this small point, and then followed its modest incline to the long ridgeline above, all the while avoiding the hill’s steepest sections. The deer hunter appreciated the buck’s choice in walking routes.

Scientific Confirmation

A couple of years later, while reading a research report on buck rub densities by Bryan Kinkel, a Nashville earth scientist and deer management consultant, this deer hunter remembered that buck’s final walk. Kinkel had coined the terms “on ramps” and “exit ramps” to describe subtle points that descend at gradual, perpendicular angles from ridgelines. Deer use these ramps to enter and leave their distinct, long-running trails atop ridgelines, or parallel them just below the skyline.

To better understand buck movements and where bucks rub, Kinkel and his hunting partners worked with Dr. Grant Woods, a wildlife biologist, to devise a research project for their hunting property. Woods had long been studying buck rub densities and rubbing frequencies to see how they change when deer herds are managed for well-balanced sex and age structures. Woods devised a survey using random transit lines so Kinkel and his crew could determine the property’s average number of buck rubs per acre, as well as the bucks’ preferred rubbing trees, topographical features and cover types. As experienced deer hunters, they knew most buck rubs along field edges and open trails were made at night. They hoped a more detailed survey would reveal where bucks traveled — and rubbed — most frequently inside the woods, thereby increasing their odds that bucks would be there in daylight.

After studying their data, Kinkel’s group found an average of 4.7 buck rubs per acre on ridgelines, 4.5 buck rubs per acre on points, 3.7 buck rubs per acre in valleys, and 1.9 buck rubs per acre on hillsides. They further broke down the results by dividing hilltop points into two categories: primary points, where ridgelines end; and secondary points, where subtle points descend perpendicularly from the ridgeline. They found primary points had an average of 4.4 buck rubs per acre, but secondary points had the highest average of all at 5.2 buck rubs per acre.

  Not coincidentally, Kinkel’s group found much the same results when they studied scraping behavior on their property. They documented that the highest concentration of deer scrapes occurred at the intersections of ridgelines and secondary points.

Compare Saddle and Ramps

Some deer hunters overlook a ridgeline’s secondary points because they key on more obvious topographical features, such as the ridgeline itself or its low points — saddles. No doubt, many deer get shot as they cross ridgelines or saddles, but deer hunters shouldn’t be too quick to set up on such features. Keep scouting the ridgeline and compare all of its saddles, primary points and secondary points.

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