The Art of Mapping Deer – Barriers

by Jim Stickles, AWB®

In my previous article, I discussed how water can act as a natural barrier, but there are many other barriers to deer movement worth discussing. The great thing about barriers is they are fairly easy to identify on a map and deer movement along barriers is very predictable. Remember, deer will skirt the edges of barriers often taking the path of least resistance from point A to point B. This makes barriers highly desirable places to hunt, especially when bucks are cruising during the rut. So let’s take a look at some other barriers!

High Traffic Roads

Although deer-vehicle collisions are an all-too-frequent occurrence, high traffic roadways are actually pretty effective barriers to deer movement. My master’s research involves monitoring deer movements along a high traffic interstate, so I have literally thousands of GPS locations to base my claim upon. If you were to look at a map of those locations, it looks as if somebody built a wall along the highway. An additional benefit of these areas is the noise from the traffic can help cover your approach and you can gain a wind advantage by hunting these locations when the wind is blowing toward the road.


 Figure 1: Rather than cross a high traffic interstate, deer will usually travel parallel to the roadway. Orange markers indicate a couple of pinch points, of which the one on right-hand side affords a view over a long, narrow food plot.

Urban and Suburban Development

Some of the best spots to hunt are where urban development and the woods meet, because there is enough human activity where the urban development can act like a barrier, and you might be able to get away with a less than ideal wind because deer are conditioned to smelling people in those areas regularly. Additionally, it is often unlawful to hunt with firearms in these areas, so with hunters being limited to archery equipment, shot opportunities are limited, and bucks are able to get a few years of age on them before they are harvested. This is primarily why many big bucks that are harvested each year come out of the suburbs.

 Figure 2: Deer movement through suburban woodlots can be very predictable. Cruising bucks will be looking for areas where they can access the next woodlot. The urban development often acts as an invisible barrier.

Steep Terrain

This might sound obvious, but deer are not going to climb cliff faces, nor are they going to jump off them on a regular basis. Most flat-land hunters do not need to worry about identifying steep terrain, but I grew up hunting in the Adirondacks of New York, and these were key features to look for on a top map because they would essentially funnel deer right to you. When you are hunting deer herds with <15 deer per square mile in mountain country, cliff faces combined with other barriers can help you fill your buck tag every year.

 Figure 3: In the topo map above, the areas that are shaded and have topo lines really close together are cliff faces. A nearby pond creates the perfect funnel. Also, a long, narrow saddle running from north to south with steep terrain on both sides provides an additional funnel. The area where all the red dotted lines come together is definitely an area worth scouting.

Large Wide Open Fields

At this point you’re probably thinking, “OK, this guy has no idea what he is talking about. I kill deer in large wide open fields all the time!” I do not doubt that you do, but bucks that break very far from cover frequently during daylight hours usually do not live to an age of “Trophy” status unless they are protected. That being said, big bucks are not likely to cross large wide open fields during daylight hours. On the rare occasion, they might break cover along the edge of a field long enough for you to get a shot off, but a majority of a big buck’s day during the hunting season is spent in the woods (Figure 4). Knowing this, we can look for areas where large wide open fields nearly converge with the exception of a small strip of woods that acts as a bottle-neck, forcing every deer wanting to get from forest patch A to forest patch B through a narrow strip of woods.

 Figure 4: These charts are from James Tomberlin’s paper titled “Movement, Activity, and Habitat Use of Adult Male White Tailed Deer at Chesapeake Farms, Maryland.” It is clear to see that as the rut (and the hunting season) progresses, bucks spend less time in wide open areas and more time in woodland areas during daylight hours.
 Figure 5: This is a classic example of where two large, wide open fields create a bottle-neck funnel with a small patch of woods connecting two large woodlots. Figure 5: This is a classic example of where two large, wide open fields create a bottle-neck funnel with a small patch of woods connecting two large woodlots.

These are just some of the more common barriers that can easily be identified from an aerial photo or topo map. When you do your field scouting, you may find other barriers such as an old stone wall or fence that you never saw in the map. These barriers are literally hidden gems, and if I find these features when I’m scouting, I will often follow them until I find a place where the wall or fence are broken, thus providing a breach point and often a good place to locate a stand. In fact, the last buck I harvested was at just such a location. There’s more deer mapping articles to come, so stay tuned! Good luck and happy scouting!

 Figure 6. The orange marker is the location where I harvested my last buck (2.5 year-old 6pt). The yellow line indicates a stone wall. Notice how the stone wall acts to funnel deer movements to the ends and at the breach point in the middle. The orange marker is where I put my stand. The morning I harvested this deer I saw 6 different bucks and several does. This buck was the biggest one I had seen all morning, and third time he walked within bow range of my stand, I sealed the deal with an 8-yard shot. He made 3 bounds, stumbled, and dropped.