ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- Things had been slow for my dad on the opening weekend of North Dakota’s archery season when we decided to come up with a new plan that centered around an oxbow on a small river.
Oxbows -- any u-shaped bend in the course of a river or creek -- are simple to find on a map. I feel they are one of the best terrain features to target when going into a sit without any prior knowledge if deer or a bigger buck are in the area. Bucks, and really deer in general, use them as bedding because they offer good protection from predators as long as there are easy exit opportunities for them through the river.
The general idea around oxbows is that a buck will bed on the inside bend of that “U” shape looking out over the water with the wind coming over his back. This allows them to see danger coming from the river and smell predators coming from the land side.
I witnessed this exact scenario on Oct. 18 during the 2018 season on an afternoon hunt. I tried to enter by walking slowly through the river using tall cattails to set up close to the suspected bedding. At the time, I guessed that bedding was on the tip of that inside bend, but what I’ve noticed is they will often shift along the bank based on the exact direction of the wind to ensure they can cover as much ground with their nose.
As I was walking in that afternoon, I had two, 2.5-year-old 8-pointers stand up about 20 yards from me. They couldn’t smell me and they couldn’t quite see me through the cattails, but they heard just enough of me to become nervous.
I could have had shots at both of them had they been a little older deer. I looked at my on-X map after they walked off and thought about the southwest wind that was blowing that day. They were bedded exactly where they should have been. Lesson learned.
Fast forward to Sept. 5, 2020, and we had a nearly straight south wind. “There is that oxbow you could set up on,” I told my dad as we talked through his options.
This spot sets up well for deer to bed on a variety of west, northwest and south-based winds, but straight south might be the safest to hunt it on. We can enter from the northwest and come into the trees to set up within 100 yards west of the bedding.
The conditions on Sept. 5 were hot and incredibly buggy. You can find relief once you get in the tree and fire up a Thermacell, but we were getting attacked by mosquitoes on our way in. Making matters a little more complicated is the fact that my dad does not feel comfortable hunting out of hang-on stands he has to climb into without a ladder.
We got to our destination, and I pointed out a tree about 12 yards off of an intersection where two trails formed a “T” shape, with the top of that “T” leading toward the oxbow. The tree had a little bit of a tilt to it and he wasn't comfortable with that.
I ended up setting the stand in a tree that was directly on top of an exit trail that leads out into a grass field before meeting beans. I knew it wasn’t an ideal location even as I set it, but I was miserable because of the bugs and a bit rushed not knowing exactly where I was going to hunt.
When we got back to the camper after dark that night, my dad told the exact story I feared. About 30 minutes before last light, a big buck came right down that trail leading out of the oxbow. He turned directly down the exit trail and stared up at my dad in the tree at 10 yards. They locked eyes with his crossbow raised, but with no quality shot angle, he just watched him through the scope before the buck turned and bolted away. He said it would have been the biggest buck he has ever shot through nearly 50 years of hunting.
I dwelled on this all night because I knew better. Never choose the best tree. Choose the best spot. It would have taken a little more time, but I could have positioned that stand safely and comfortably enough for a three-hour sit. He would have had a broadside shot.
I didn’t push that because I was rushed. If I’m honest, my thoughts at that moment while being eaten by mosquitoes were, “A big buck probably won’t come off that oxbow tonight anyway.”
That’s a mindset that leads to missed opportunities. Everything set up for a buck to be bedded there that day. That still doesn’t guarantee he will be there and follow the script, but believing he is and he will is one of the most important parts of executing a plan at any time of year.
This missed opportunity was another reminder that oxbows can be a fantastic terrain feature to target. As I look to the rut, I have a couple spots in mind where I will set up on the pinch points leading into oxbows hoping to catch a buck cruising to check bedding.
Does a cold front really drive movement?
Most people will read this question above and think of it as a foregone conclusion.
After all, all we’ve been told through decades of articles and more recently in podcasts and other digital media is that of course cold fronts drive movement.
A recent article from Lindsay Thomas Jr. of the Quality Deer Management Association and the National Deer Alliance outlines that there is no scientific evidence to suggest cold itself dictates deer movement. Instead, Thomas Jr. suggests, look at what deer are eating right now, the stage of the rut, hunting pressure and time of day to form a gameplan.
“When scientists have looked at weather as a driver of movement independent of other factors like the rut, they’ve found almost no support for a relationship, to the enduring surprise of most deer hunters,” Thomas Jr. writes.
I read this article with much interest because I have grown less and less confident in cold fronts as a strict predictor of movement through plenty of anecdotal evidence over the years. Yes, I’ve had amazing hunts after great temperature drops. I’ve also had plenty of lousy ones.
A trip to North Dakota in mid-October this year was a great example. We had an extreme cold front. I thought it timed well to jumpstart a ton of sign making with rubs and scrapes, and that I would be able to easily get on areas of good buck movement.
That was completely wrong. I found very little sign and ended up having slow hunts. It was a process figuring out what the preferred food choice was with very little crop left standing.
By the last day, I decided to play things safe and wait for the best indicator of buck movement that I have seen out there -- the seeking stage of the rut in early November.
I still get excited about hunting cold fronts. I’ve had some great hunts around them, but as I really think about those, that movement likely had as much to do with really having the preferred food source pinned down at the moment or it coming during peak periods of the rut.
If there’s one weather-related factor I feel like I’ve seen the best results from, it’s being on a great food source or a transition between bedding and food the day after a big snowfall that included blizzard-like conditions with heavy winds.