There’s a lot you can do besides plant food plots to improve a deer hunting property.
I don’t own a lot of land, but it’s enough that there are places I might not set foot on for an entire season or two. It was one such corner that I happened into one warm, blustery November afternoon. With wind and temperatures being what they were, sitting seemed like a low-percentage ploy. I opted for a little in-season scouting. I’d just crossed an alder swale when I noticed an opening in the trees ahead.
Then I remembered. Several years earlier I’d cleared a small area, barely 30 by 100 yards, with the intention of planting a food plot. I got distracted by other things, and the clearing was neglected. “Must be a mess now,” I thought as I drew nearer. It was. The ground was choked with waist-high sedges, and the stumps I’d planned to excavate had sprouted into bundles of pencil-thin whips.
I was a bit discouraged at first as I waded through the morass. That quickly changed when I noticed the ground was littered with deer droppings. As I investigated further, I determined why. The tip of every stump sprout had been browsed, and the thick sedges were mottled with matted-down beds.
By simply opening up the canopy, I’d created a whitetail oasis. My scouting mission came to an abrupt end and, a short while later, so did the life of a young buck that walked confidently into the clearing.
THE PLOT THICKENS
Food plots are the rage nowadays. There’s no question they enhance your property’s ability to attract and support whitetails. But they’re not the only means. There are many other ways, some considerably less expensive and labor intensive, and some that can even generate revenue. Yup, there’s a way for even the laziest or the busiest landowner to build a better deer trap.
Opinions vary, but biologists often recommend you plant somewhere between 5 and 15 percent of your property with food plots. Even the high end of that scale still leaves as much as 85 percent of your property open to other efforts.
The first step in any management program is to document existing conditions. Take stock of what you have. In the process, you can see how much land is benefitting deer. Stands of mast-producing trees — whether they be hard mast like acorns or soft mast like apples — count in your favor. Not everything has to provide food, either. Dense bedding cover is an asset, although most such thickets also contain things deer like to eat. What you want to avoid, if possible, are large areas of land that are of little value to deer.
That’s not always possible. Pine plantations, especially older ones, don’t offer much for deer. If you live in the Southeast, they’re a fact of life, particularly if you lease from a timber company. However, even land intensively managed for commercial timber harvest can be managed for deer. You just need to know what to look for.
Jon Cooner is director of special projects for the Whitetail Institute of North America. He was driving through an 800-acre lease with a landowner when he found inspiration. The area was mostly planted pines, “real thick stands about 15-20 feet tall, and so choked with briars you couldn’t walk through them,” he recalled. Then he noticed a gap where there were no pines and asked the landowner why.
“For some reason, they just didn’t take there,” was the response.
Cooner reckoned there must be other such places, farther off the road. He was right, and the landowner was more than happy to let him do as he wished with those spots. Cooner decided to create some neat little throw-and-grow food plots in remote locations where deer felt secure. You can do the same thing in areas of beetle infestation or wind-throw.
If you’re leasing, the landowners might not let you make small salvage cuts, but they’re often more than willing to let you thin out small damaged areas. Nature has taken care of the sunlight; you can take care of the rest. It could be as simple as cutting up deadfall timber and throwing down a few handfuls of lime, fertilizer and seed.
As the opening passage shows, even if you do nothing to it, a disturbed area can be more valuable than a neatly groomed forest.
I used to hunt some large tracts in West Virginia that consisted mostly of older hardwoods. There was lots of food in years with a good mast crop, but not much in the way of cover.
One day we discovered an area where apparently a micro burst had touched down and leveled about four acres of trees, effectively transforming it from the whitetail’s dining room to an ideal bedroom. Deer loved to lay in among the tops of the fallen oaks, and we loved to sit up on the ridges and watch as they moved to and from the little sanctuary.
Sometimes the key is to determine what’s in short supply. In the case of my neglected food plot, it was woody browse. In the West Virginia mountains, it was dense bedding cover. In Cooner’s pine plantations, it was anything besides pines.
In drier areas, it could be water. Dig a hole deep enough to reach ground water or hold surface water a bit longer and you could literally have a whitetail oasis.
Soft mast is one of the most underappreciated deer foods. I learned that lesson a few years ago hunting with friends from Rut Wear in Kansas. After a couple of fruitless days hunting several of the abundant and vast soybean fields, I switched to a ladder stand atop a brushy, overgrown hilltop that just happened to overlook a small patch of ripe persimmons. The parade of deer started early every afternoon and continued until I could no longer see, and probably throughout the night.
One reason that stand was so effective is that the landowner removed competing overstory vegetation, allowing the persimmons to thrive. Unfortunately, the following year he bush-hogged around it, and the deer stopped coming during daylight. You can take advantage of any mast-bearing tree, whether apple or oak.
In northern climates, apples are high on the list of favorites. Apple trees are especially common around old, abandoned farmsteads.
That usually means fields have grown up into forests, starving the apples of valuable sunlight and nutrients. Cut out competing overstory, particularly on the southern side, and the apples can spring back to life.
Around home, some of my favorite early season bow stands are near wild apple trees that I’ve nurtured. The bounty is short-lived, but when conditions are right, deer will wade through acorns to reach the frost-killed apples.
If your land doesn’t have apple or persimmon trees, plant them and be patient. I made a terrible mistake once, and I’ve regretted it for a long time. I intended to plant some apple trees but I kept putting it off, primarily because I didn’t feel like waiting 10-15 years for them to produce fruit. That was 20 years ago.
Had I put a few small trees in then, I’d have a deer magnet now. And some of the modern varieties of apple, persimmon and pear trees will produce fruit at much younger ages, particularly in warmer climates.
The same is true for oaks. Most folks would never imagine they could plant an oak sapling of the size available at the local nursery and expect to live long enough see it bear fruit. You can. You just need to do a little research on the Internet or ask your local county agent about which varieties produce fruit at the earliest ages for your area.
The primary objective of timber harvesting is either to generate revenue or firewood. If done correctly, it can also be tremendously beneficial to deer.
Outside of agricultural areas, the whitetail’s predominant winter food is woody browse — hardwood browse, to be precise. It’s scarce in mature, un-managed stands, but is a positive side effect of cutting, especially hardwoods like maple.
Cut in the winter, and the tops provide a short-term bonus for deer that might otherwise be struggling for food. The following spring, leftover stumps will sprout with suckers or whips that will become a very attractive food source by fall. Leaving downed tops will also create bedding cover.
Skidders can make one heck of a mess, but the bare ground they leave behind provides an ideal base for planting annual or perennial vegetation without need for implements. Simply broadcast lime and seed with a hand or ATV spreader and pray for rain.
These are but a few of the things you can do to make your land more deer-friendly. The list is limited by local conditions and your own ingenuity.
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This article was published in the August 2010 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.