Get an edge on a big buck

(Photo by Jeff Burleson)

Edges, places where different types of habitat meet in the deer woods, are spots to which deer hunters should pay attention when looking for areas to set up stands.

Of every game species, deer are the most-popular species pursued on the planet. Hunters are uncanny, investing countless hours during their lifetimes looking for, essentially, a better mousetrap. 

From different scents, revolutionary deer stands and a long list of high-tech gear, hunters continually try to outsmart mature bucks and improve their hunting experience. 

But a deer’s natural instincts shouldn’t be forgotten. A whitetail will always have certain preferences in habitat types, no matter whether it was born in 1821 or 2021. Edges are crucially important and are among some of the hunter’s best tools to understand and incorporate into their hunting strategies. 

What is an edge, anyway? 

Basically it is a place where two features meet, whether  natural or man-made, such as: a wood line along the edge of a lake or an agriculture field and a forested boundary. Edges can be abrupt or gradual and are found everywhere. But what makes one edge better than another?

Biologist Charles Ruth is the big-game program coordinator with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. According to Ruth, edges are often utilized by wildlife for several different reasons. 

“Edges or transition zones are important for deer as travel corridors and food sources,” Ruth said. “From a food standpoint, high-quality forage can be associated with edges because of the sunlight that is able to reach the forest floor.”

Edges typically provide ample food for deer because the change in habitats often allows sunlight to jump-start forage growth. (Photo by Rick Small)

Forage opportunities

Essentially, new edges create growth opportunities for forage types that wouldn’t be available to establish and flourish without the disturbance and prevalence of sunlight. Trees and heavy brush block sunlight from the forest floor. But when these areas are disturbed and light penetrates, growth of forbs and other tender vegetation can persist.    

Since deer are ruminants, grasses can be attractive as a viable food source, but it’s not just grasses, either. Edges create growth opportunities for forbs, shrubs and other young pioneer vegetation that offer deer something worth eating. 

The width of the edge and the type of bordering communities can determine its quality. As Ruth said, edges are transition zones formed from two communities coming together. Typically, they are going to be abrupt at first and then will grow into a more-gradual zone that creates a wide assortment of forage opportunities from the ground to just out of a deer’s reach.

“Edges could be a narrow feature or ]could be broad, and depending on the local factors will determine which one is better than another,” he said.

The edges of cutovers will have plenty of new growth, drawing deer to use them regularly for food and travel. (Photo by Jeff Burleson)

Narrow or gradual

Narrow edges will typically have an abrupt transition point with some herbaceous plants fighting for survival on the short end and a few scattered shrubs and saplings along the timber border. A good example of an abrupt edge is along an agriculture field where the transition zone is narrowed each time the farmer plows or mows the field edge. Even though narrow, deer and other wildlife will patrol these edges looking for newly sprouted forbs and other tender vegetation. 

Most edges between two or more timber types will have more gradual and broader transition zones that offer a wide range of foraging opportunities over time. 

Ecotonal areas along swamps, rivers, wetlands and other places where moist soils exist create excellent foraging opportunities due to the presence of water and fertile soils. Both wetland and non-wetland plants will thrive in these areas, creating a buffet for deer. Edges along wetter areas are often some of the best places to find deer using them as a food source. Edges near water will often have a high site index due to the availability of moisture and nutrients creating even better areas for food production. 

Streamside management zones in areas managed for timber will provide deer with plenty of foraging opportunities along the stream. (Photo by Rick Small)

Travel zones

Edges and transition zones are not just for feeding, either. They are the interstates of the woods, used by deer and other wildlife traveling from one place to another. Deer like traveling under the protection of the forest or heavy cover, but they also like to see and quickly evade predators when needed. Edges provide the ideal combination of cover and openness to create an ideal traveling situation. 

Some edges are going to be better than others for travel, just like for foraging. Deer will have a destination, and they use edges and travel corridors to get from Point A to Point B. Hunters can take advantage of edges to increase their chances of encountering a deer that meets the criteria. 

Edges are excellent places to hunt, especially in areas where baiting isn’t allowed. As Ruth said, edges are good foraging and travel corridors; deer will use edges for feeding, but edges are usually utilized for foraging along the edge on the way to another destination. It’s almost like street food for humans. 

Primary feeding zones in the fall in the Carolinas are typically agriculture fields, oak flats, oak ridges — places that offer plenty of forage. Deer will use edges as travel corridors from bedding areas to the food. An edge may be a relatively narrow, wooded corridor along a stream bank. 

Streamside edges

In the South, much of the land is under some level of timber management, and foresters mark out streamside management zones to protect water quality. These SMZs will have an edge along the creek edges along each side of the standing timber left from the previous harvest. Deer will utilize this entire edge complex for traveling and sometimes for bedding and feeding as well. 

Deer will travel to food sources in places where food is natural or semi-natural like an agriculture field, but in areas where baiting is allowed may serve as a temporary — or somewhat permanent — food source that deer will gravitate to in fall and winter. Deer will use edges to travel to these food sources. 

Whether deer are traveling to natural food or bait piles, deer will travel to and from via edges; they can make excellent places to set up a bow stand to encounter these deer on the way to their dinner table. 

Fortunately for hunters, deer hoof it everywhere, and a well-used trail churned up with hoof marks is always going to give away which edge habitats are used more than others. 

ucks are more likely to set up rub lines along edges, which are often their major travel corridors in early fall. (Photo by Jeff Burleson)

Scent-station edges

Corridors that deer travel frequently will always be good places to set up in the rut, too. Both bucks and does will utilize edge habitats going from one place to another. Bucks make a living creating scent stations along these edges in the form of a typical rub or scrape. Not only are these features visual for deer, they are primarily used as scent stations to alert other bucks and to attract mates. A buck is more likely to place a rub or scrape along an edge than anywhere else. Edges are known travel and feeding corridors, and they will always choose these areas first when creating rubs and scrapes during mating season. 

Edges are some of the best places to first explore when visiting a new property or a new area on an existing hunting property. Deer will surely be using edges wherever they can for feeding, traveling and for locating mates. Edges of swamps and any type of water feature should be highlighted and prioritized when looking to locate a stand. Edges along water features are premium places that deer use for feeding, traveling and setting up scent stations during rut and even bedding.  

The edge concept isn’t necessarily a new concept for deer hunters, but edges are sometimes underutilized or are hunted incorrectly. According to Ruth, edges are used for bi-directional travel when other things are equal. However, hunters also understand the power of the wind, and mature deer do so as well. 

Deer will rarely travel downwind due to their inability to detect dangers in front of them. Hunters should set up along edges when the wind is favorable and not carry their scent across these travel corridors and edge habitats. As a result, deer will sometimes use edges from only one direction, and hunters can determine which edges are going to be preferred for deer on the prevailing winds.  

Edges are important for deer and hunters who are looking to encounter their next trophy buck this season. 

Ruth couldn’t have said it any better. “Most any type of edge would benefit deer compared to a large area of a single habitat type.”

About Jeff Burleson 1312 Articles
Jeff Burleson is a native of Lumberton, N.C., who lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He graduated from N.C. State University with a degree in fisheries and wildlife sciences and is a certified biologist and professional forester for Southern Palmetto Environmental Consulting.

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