The idea behind elevation zones can be as simple or complex as you choose. It is a strategy I feel can go a long way in helping you narrow down deer movement and making the woods feel a lot smaller than they appear. Below is my approach to how I use elevation zones in the areas I hunt.
My intentions are to share concepts that induce critical thinking in the woods and allow hunters to develop a plan to have their best season yet. As a general reminder, each hunt is situational and the surest way to success is applying the relevant things to your situation rather than taking things verbatim.
The Big Picture
To begin understanding how deer in my area use the landscape, I like to zoom out and look at the bigger picture. I look at a full topo map of my given hunting area where I mark out the low point and the high point, which provides me with my elevation range. For example, let's say I have a piece of public land that has a total area of 500 acres, and has a river/lake system at 300 feet elevation, with hilltops bordering the private-land agricultural fields at 720 feet elevation, giving me a huntable elevation range of 300 FT - 720 FT.
From here, my goal is to find the hot zones that condense the deer movement into a much tighter range of elevation. I have found the most efficient way for me to do this is to put my focus on three major categories: food, cover, and travel. In order to get a more well-defined plan, I like to break down these categories into more specific sub-categories that I mark with color-coordinated waypoints for organization purposes. (see below)
What's It Mean?
Before drawing conclusions, it is important to note that these sub-categories are dependent on one another. Say you have a white oak ridge next to hilltop buck bedding. The likelihood of crossing paths with a buck between the two goes up or down based on the level of security in the thicket and the production of the annual acorn crop.
Now that you have your colorful map, it is time to make sense of it all and put all of your boots on the ground scouting to good use. Spotting the trends gives the next thing I do in the woods meaning and allows me to do so with conviction. Whether it is trying to pinpoint objectives for my next scouting trip, finding an optimal place to hang trail cameras, or determining high odds stand placement I no longer have doubt in my choices.
The beauty of it all is how you can use the information at hand to tell a story of how the deer use the landscape to enhance your experience while out in the field. I will use the story of my 2020 Ohio archery buck to show how my theory of elevation zones was born, and how it opened the doors for me to craft it into what it is today.
I arrived at the piece of public land I would be hunting for the next eight days in Southern Ohio, mid-afternoon on October 31st. Full of excitement, I decided to wait to set up camp until after the hunt and rushed out to set up for a few hours of stand time.
I settled in, and it didn't take long for me to start seeing some rutting activity that continued for most of the evening. The next morning the action was nonexistent, so I decided to pull down my set and start exploring the woods looking for fresh deer activity. This lead to me spending the next two full days walking the woods and marking waypoints with all of the fresh buck sign I came across.
After getting back to camp that evening, it clicked that I was seeing a condensed about of scrape activity in between the 950 FT - 1,000 FT elevation range. I decided the next day I would head out at first light into the most promising area I explored and walk this elevation zone until I found the freshest sign and set up shop for the rest of the day.
It didn't take me long to find a cluster of red-hot scrapes on a bench right in the middle of the hot zone. I watched bucks tending does for the first few hours of the day out of bow range, and finally, at 12:38 PM I pulled a buck off of a doe with a few grunt calls where he came in on a string and offered me an easy 10-yard broadside shot for my first public land archery harvest.
This bow kill was the moment things started to become more clear to me, and I realized how I can tilt the odds in my favor if I was willing to spend more time in the woods and get more creative with my approach. The idea of elevation zones has been evolving ever since, and I constantly adapt it to the area I am hunting, the time of year, and the constantly changing atmosphere of the woods.