When water is in short supply, provide it

Deer will use water holes in the summer months and rutting phase much more frequently than any other time of the year. Place a trail camera overlooking your new water hole, and you’ll be amazed by what shows up, especially during really dry years. Photo by Dana R. Rogers

By Dana R. Rogers

Most areas of the Dakotas are experiencing severe to extreme drought conditions. Crops and grasslands have been severely impacted, and so has the wildlife in each state.

The areas you have hunted in the past may now have nothing but dry creek beds and stock dams. While wildlife get most of their dietary water intake from the plants they eat, a good clean water source is a real magnet. In severe drought conditions like we are currently experiencing, providing a water source can really have a positive impact not only on wildlife, but also to your hunting success.

Over the years I’ve assisted in providing several water sources for wildlife. These water sources can range from large stock dams or dugout-type impoundments that require heavy equipment all the way down to a simple plastic tub dug down and placed in a low spot.

Water sources are legal to create and can be a neat way to increase deer traffic and create high-odds shot opportunities while benefiting the health of all local wildlife. Small manmade ponds are a way for deer, antelope and other wildlife to quench their thirst, and, as a result, they can act as an attractant.

Installing a small water source is fairly simple, and you still have time to get a few in before many of the seasons start. Be sure to take precaution and remember that this is a spot that you will likely be hunting come crunch time. Build your water hole to fit your property’s topography, game travel corridors and prevailing wind direction. Typically, I’ll build water holes with hunting season in mind and with a couple stand locations set up for different wind directions. This creates a great location with options come early season, as well as when the rut hits.

Location is critical, because you need to place water sources in areas where animals already want to travel through. For example, by providing a water source between feeding and bedding areas, you can set up a potential bowhunting hotspot. To that end, if hunting over the source is your goal, make sure you can hang a stand or set up a blind within shooting distance of the water source. Even if the deer have all the water they need within their food source, they will still visit water on the way to food if they have been holed up in a dry bedding area all day.

The “huntability” of the water source is very important. If you can’t hunt over the water tank you set up, it will actually pull game away from where you are hunting. In the heat of late summer and early fall big-game seasons, water is critical, and if you don’t have it on your hunting property, the animals will go elsewhere, perhaps to the neighbors.

Location is also vital to the longterm health of your waterhole. It has to be in a location where animals feel secure, and you also must ensure it’s in a spot that will retain water or where you can easily fill it year-round.

If you are going to dig a waterhole into the ground, soil type must be considered. You can use a rubber lining or a treated fabric liner, but granulated bentonite, a natural substance that contains no chemical additives, is easy and cheap to obtain. I use it on all the soil ponds I install and manage.

In-ground soil ponds will take the most equipment and sweat. However, an effective and economical alternative is to simply install a plastic, rubber or galvanized stock tank or small container that will hold water.

I’ve used old landscaping tubs, empty mineral-lick tubs and even old bathtubs to provide water to wildlife. Size is a factor, but if you can regularly haul in water and fill it, even a small 10- to 20-gallon tub can help.

Wherever you place your tanks, make sure they have some shade so evaporation doesn’t reduce your contributions. I often haul water in with a 350-gallon truck tank, but if you don’t have a similar option, you can dig a tank into a low spot, ravine or side hill with the lip right at soil level so any rains can work to fill it for you.

If you choose an above-ground option, place enough rock or soil in the bottom of the tank to keep it from blowing away in the wind.

Regardless of which type of tank you install, make sure to place a log or branch in it. This will allow any small mammals that jump in to grab a drink to safely get out and not drown and create a putrid mess in your good, clean water source.

Another benefit to creating water sources where they are otherwise lacking is using trail cameras for herd monitoring. Deer will use water holes in the summer months and rutting phase much more frequently than any other time of the year. Place your game camera on a nearby tree or fence post that overlooks your new water hole, and you’ll be amazed by what shows up. Manmade ponds certainly are not a sure thing to hunt over, but they sure are fun to run a camera on.

For hunting purposes, place the water source at the edge of the deer movement and near the beginning of movement cover. By doing so, you can greatly eliminate the potential for spooking game, as well as create a quick stopping point for a shot opportunity.

Hunting during the heat of early season is all about targeting food and hydration sources. During the rut, cruising traffic often parallels the food source. If you have the proper conditions, waterholes are one of the most powerful ambush locations that you can create on your land. Expect deer to use them prior to evening feeding and all day long once heavy rut movement begins. So, if you want to add something that will benefit your wildlife and also provide good hunting opportunities, set out and fill some water tanks.

As always when afield, respect the land, respect the landowner and respect the wildlife.

About the Author: Deer columnist Dana R. Rogers grew up in central South Dakota and now lives in the Black Hills. He welcomes questions and comments at dana.rogers.1@hotmail.com.