Author: James L. Bruner
I’m sure there are readers out there right now wondering what the hell a conifer is and how this connection to deer hunting can be made. Relax! Would you expect anything but a deer hunting article? To put this in it’s most basic terms a conifer is a needle-bearing tree. The large majority of these trees, such as Spruces, Pines, Balsams, and Cedars, hold their needles throughout the year. Other conifers such as the Tamarack will not apply to this article but are still classed in the family of a conifer.
What many hunters fail to realize is that conifers provide a full spectrum of essential possibilities for deer. In colder weather climates the conifers lend aid to safe harbor for the deer waiting out a snowstorm or, at any time of the year, a heavy rainfall. Many stands of conifers attribute the aspect of a tightly-packed grouping of trees found in the lower elevations of any region. Often times these same areas provide standing water. The thermals found in the lower elevations are typically much warmer than those found out in the open hardwood forests. Deer, being natural survivalists, will use these attributes in their everyday routine and you can realize these advantages and capitalize during any portion of the hunting season. Let’s start out with the basic requirements of the whitetail deer.
Cover is obviously a word that loosely fits a requirement so we will refer to this as shelter. Natural shelter for bedding whitetails can consist of many factors. Wind direction, line of sight, and escape routes are the benchmarks. A deer does not just wander along and decide a random spot looks good simply by sight. The requirements previously mentioned are absolutely a consideration for decision. Keep in mind that deer are not only hunted during the hunting season but are pursued all year by predators in many areas and a large stand of conifers can create a perfect bedding and, or, shelter area.
Conifers, by nature, often exhibit low hanging branches which can at times reach the ground creating a natural canopy for deer and other animals. These large sweeping limbs in succession create a windblock during harsh winter storms or frigid late season winds by diverting the actual source or removing it’s effects completely. Add in the factor of possible snowfall hanging on these limbs and you now have a very likely wintering range. These same stands of conifers also limit the snowfall that reaches the ground making it possible for deer to move about more easily when needed. Being able to negate the wind and partially absolve the need for travel through deep snow enables the deer to retain much of it’s own natural body temperature and reserves without relying on further requirements of food for longer periods of time. In simple terms the conservation of any energy is their basic goal to survival and a stand of conifers can provide these requirements in short order.
A forest that entails any expanse of conifers, especially those which have matured, also provide a natural break-up of a deers outline which is the most detectable aspect for hunters. I’ve literally walked right up to deer in these mature forest areas before they spooked and a wounded deer will tend to seek this exact cover when wounded if it is available. To makes sense of this importance you only need to understand that a wounded deer, especially when not mortally wounded, feels safe here and confident that he can escape further danger. Take for instance a previous tracking experience with a friend who needed help finding an 8 point buck he had wounded during the firearm season. The buck made it’s way without hardly any hesitation through the more open hardwoods but, as evidence in the snow pointed out, began to pause once it reached the conifer swamp. Coincidentally that same buck held tight as we crawled on hands and knees through underbrush until we came face to face with the buck before it decided to bolt. Happily, I might add, in the other direction. Due to the fact that we had lost the bloodtrail, and the woods in this area were completely covered in trails and tracks, we realized we had walked within 10 feet of the buck on numerous occasions before locating him. In the end it turned out to be a poor shot and the buck was believed to have survived. And that, is a simple example on how a deer relates to conifers and the cover they provide during many aspects of the year and in times of difference.
Food and water are obviously needed requirements and most of us understand the need and look for areas to ambush a buck, or doe, on it’s travels to and from feeding and bedding areas. Now here’s a simple fact that many hunters may not realize about conifers. As noted above we understand that a conifer stand of forest can provide excellent shelter and bedding areas. Typically, the conifers thrive on moist terrain for optimal growth which can be noted by their shallow root structure and the many windfalls found in these types of swamps. This noted feature also reveals the possibility of water sources. These water sources can be sparse at times found in pockets of moss which are nothing more than indentations on the ground’s surface. These same areas can also be the worst swamp you’ve ever set your boots in. The natural saturation of these areas will allow groundwater from recent rains, melting snow, or standing water, to become a productive source of water for deer. Uprooted trees will also provide a basin for the collection or emergence of water where the root system had previously been located. Due to elevated natural heat created throughout a conifer swamp, snow will be more acute to melting even during mid-winter conditions. A constant succession of melting and freezing can create pockets or layers of water below the snowy surface which are easily accessed by the deer. In short, it’s a general rule of thumb that where you find a decent grouping of conifers you will also find a water source of varying degrees.
Food comes in many flavors, if you will, in the world of whitetail deer and most of the deer family for that matter. I tend to concentrate and write about whitetails simply because that is the species here with no other options but keep in mind these same techniques will work and apply for the majority of the deer family.
There is a reason that the conifer forest can maintain low sweeping limbs and provide an abundance of cover for deer and the fact is that the percentage of conifers, at least the ones here in Michigan, are mostly considered starvation food for whitetails. The Spruce and Balsam, and much of the low greenery, found in most swampy areas provide “little to no” value towards maintaining the health and nutrition of a deer. With that in mind if you’re looking for a late season area to hunt whitetails that are concentrated you may want to push forward if the area is consistent with these types of trees. Although they still provide excellent cover, and probably water, they won’t provide essential nutrition and the deer will tend to locate closer to the main food source. If, on the other hand, the area contains trees such as the Cedar or White Pine you probably have a very suitable ecosystem with a well-rounded attraction for a concentration of localized deer but there are a few aspects to inspect before getting excited.
It is not uncommon to find cedar trees stripped of all it’s greenery up to a height of 8 feet in areas that receive any significant snowfall. Because of the preference towards cedar deer can strip these conifers in a fairly short amount of time. Now I’m sure there are some readers thinking that 8 feet in height must be some sort of monstrous deer that adapted to climbing trees or something so let me explain. In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan we receive a pretty substantial annual snowfall that can total well over 4 feet. A deer on top of this crusted snow has very little problem reaching that height and they will stand on their hind legs for added reach when needed. So check the immediate availability of the cedar from the ground for a reasonable distance to make sure that the food source has not been depleted.
White pine are another conifer that provide a food source for the deer. As the cedar, the white pine is a preferred food source during the later part of the season and again I stress this depends on your region and the probability of snowfall. Deer are not going to seek any of these food sources when they can still meet their nutritional needs from seasonal vegetation. The white pine can easily be spotted in and amongst a grouping of spruce or balsam trees due to it’s long needles which are represented in clusters of five scattered along it’s limbs. The color of a white pine tucked in with these other conifers will typically standout as a lighter green and almost feathery from a distance. These young white pines are also a good indicator of previous browsing from whitetails either earlier in the year or from previous seasons. In most cases when both cedars and white pines are available the deer will deplete the cedar before moving onto the pine depending on the size of the deer herd. Other trees that can provide a preferred food source for deer, but may not be present, are the yellow birches, sumacs, and dogwoods.
Another tree, which doesn’t fall into the conifer category but still provides a food source, is the Ash tree. This is considered a medium quality food for deer as is the Jack Pine, and Poplar. Typically the Black Ash is found in the swampy areas of a conifer forests boundaries. Growth is quick due to the immediate source of water which provides two aspects that are similar and beneficial to the deer. Young Ash trees sprout quickly in rapid succession around the base of the tree. Caught in a late cycle of growth these young trees are easily obtainable to the deer. The bud portion of these saplings are the attraction to deer and often you will also find rabbits feeding on the twigs. Due to the quick growth of the trees they are not as stable as other hardwoods in terms of their strength regarding the large growth rings. In windy conditions these trees habitually lose their battle to the elements with the upper portion falling to the ground providing an immediate added food source for deer. It’s not anything to look forward to but rather a bonus to you as the hunter.
Poplar, or Aspen trees, Jack Pines, Oaks, and White Birch, are all considered medium quality foods for deer. Obviously they all won’t reside in a conifer forest and, their availability of preference will differ in all regions, but should be taken into consideration. Check for signs of browsing by inspecting ends of twigs. When height from the ground is not an issue you can readily be sure that it was indeed deer browsing in the area. When snowfall comes into the equation, or the twigs lower to the ground have been browsed upon, check the end for telltale signs. A deer will tear the twigs and buds from the tree leaving a rough edge. A rabbit will make a very clean cut that will look like a snip from a pair of pruning shears or scissors.
Hunting these areas can be a whole new ballgame for those who are not acquainted with conifers or hunting what we call at times the swamp. For the archer there are some benefits. Your field of vision is normally very limited in a mature conifer swamp. I would say 90% of the time any deer you would see will be in range for most bowhunters. Also you will find that because of the moss that tends to grow in these areas the approach from the deer will be fairly silent. This can dramatically decrease the time you have to draw your bow and make a release on the deer. You really need to be alert hunting in these situations or the deer can slip past quickly. The flip-side to that coin is your approach to the stand can also be very silent sparing you an agonizing stalk to and from your stand to keep from sounding like a buffalo walking through the woods. Although I treat my time to and from my stand as hunting time it is a nice break to hunt those areas that afford you the opportunity to walk at a comfortable pace and not have to side-step every twig and leaf on the path.
Because deer tend to spend a fair amount of time in these areas you can expect to see deer throughout the day in many cases. A word of caution is that if you notice the area is used primarily for bedding to back-out a short distance if possible before placing your treestand. Setting up right on their beds is not in your best interest. Your approach will be difficult at best and you may alter the daily habits after only a couple hunts. Setting up on the edge is a good option if the area is not large in size. Some soft calling may be all you need to attract a buck to your location if you find they are moving just beyond your line of vision.
Scent is another important factor in these situations as always but typically moreso in this scenario. The physical makeup of a swampy conifer forest tends to confine your scent and disperse slowly and gradually especially when hunting the core of such an area. A good native cover scent such as pine would suit your needs to alleviate the saturation in the area. Even an earth scent or the common dirt scents work fine. I tend to prefer the scent wafers that can be pinned right to your clothing. They hold their scent for long time and there is literally no mess for application or transporting.
For firearm hunters the same rules apply with of course the exception of the weapon. You won’t need a rifle, if that is in fact an option, in this hunting situation. Your basic shotgun with slugs will do the job quite nicely. I tend to chamber 2 slugs and one buckshot in most instances. You may be able to pump out two quick shots right off the bat but the third is likely to encounter brush which will allow the buckshot to increase your percentage of a finishing shot if needed. I do bring, and suggest, a small pair of field binoculars for those times when a deer is moving just beyond the trees and you’re looking to confirm whether it is a buck or doe. A buck moving just out of range for a clear shot may be turned with a quick soft call of your choice depending on the season and the current stage of the local deer herd.
All in all you should find that with any hunting trip the scouting and understanding of the physical elements and natural habitat will play the biggest role in success. If you’re a hunter that gravitates towards the open hardwood lots I understand the allure but don’t sell yourself short and pass by that little conifer forest. You could be walking right past the connection you been waiting for.