Try these five easy projects to improve your hunting land or lease.
By Gerald Almy
Successful deer habitat work requires thousands of acres of land, bulldozers, $60,000 tractors and expensive implements. Right?
Wrong. The truth is, you can make dramatic improvements on your property, whether owned or leased, with a modest amount of equipment and some time, sweat and hard work. A rake, shovel, chainsaw, garden tiller, perhaps an ATV or small 20-30 hp tractor will do fine. And while you’ll be tired at the end of the day, you’ll also likely look back on the work as an enjoyable experience, especially when you start reaping the rewards.
No, huge 12-pointers won’t be tripping over each other in front of your stand. But by implementing these five easy projects, you can improve a small tract of hunting land so dramatically that it will seem like a whitetail paradise compared to what it was before you began.
How do I know? I’ve seen these projects work firsthand for the last 12 years as I’ve put them in place on my land. And I’ve done so with only a modest amount of equipment. When my wife and I bought 117 acres in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, it seemed to hold rich potential for deer. But potential is the key word. The differences in the quality of the habitat and the hunting between then and now are stunning. My equipment? A 21 hp Kubota tractor, tiller and sprayer, plus the usual hand tools.
Even if you don’t own land, if your hunting club leases a tract or you have a friend or relative with a farm or piece of property, you can try these projects. Most landowners will be thrilled to have someone make these improvements for them.
And the rewards of your efforts don’t just come during hunting season. Watching the deer herd become healthier and the bucks get bigger is a payback you reap anytime you visit the property, or every day if you’re lucky enough to live there. It’s also a chance to give something back to these animals that provide us so much joy – and not just deer. Other wildlife such as ducks, geese, turkeys, rabbits, squirrels, grouse, pheasants, quail and songbirds also will benefit.
1: Plant Hunting Food Plots
Food plots have become quite popular in recent years, but there’s often an underlying conflict of interest. Hunters try to blend two goals: 1) improving the health and nutrition of the herd by providing a quality food source; and 2) shooting the deer when they come to eat it.
There’s no question that plots can do wonders for antler growth and the health of all deer. But if you shoot many animals on a large, food-oriented plot, older bucks will soon stay away or use it only at night. The solution is to use the larger food plots as places to provide nutrition for the deer herd while creating a number of other small, strategically-placed hunting food plots in key areas.
These might measure as small as 30 feet wide by 60 feet long, or they might be three or four times that big, but they’ll never be more than half an acre, and they’ll be positioned in locations where bucks can slip into them on their way to larger plots, farm fields or other major feeding areas. Find spots back in the woods on transition areas that bucks use as they move from bedding to major feeding locations and tuck in a few of these small plots.
Deer will slip into them late in the morning as they work their way back to bedding cover for a bite and in the afternoon when there is still plenty of shooting light. Even these secluded spots should not be hunted often, though, or mature bucks will learn to avoid them.
Plants to consider for these mini-plots include clover, chickory, Austrian winter peas, brassicas such as rape, lablab, cowpeas, wheat, oats, rye and mixtures from wildlife seed companies. Start by clearing rocks and debris; then remove existing vegetation. This can be done by spraying with a herbicide. Allow 7 to 14 days for the vegetation to die, respray again if necessary, then begin tilling or disking. Do this repeatedly, removing rocks as you encounter them.
You can use a small tractor, an ATV with pull-behind implements or even a garden tiller. In some cases you can just rake up the ground by hand to stir up and loosen the dirt. The more thoroughly you kill the existing vegetation and prepare the site, the better the results will be.
Do a soil test and add required lime and fertilizer. Avoid adding nitrogen for most legume crops. It just encourages weed growth; clovers will produce their own nitrogen. You can buy 0-46-0 and 0-0-60 and apply those along with some lime for most deer food plots and get excellent results. Only add nitrogen for cereal grains such as wheat, oats and rye, when 19-19-19 is a good choice.
2: Create Big Buck Cover
Your foods plot might attract bucks, but without cover they will not stay. Deer need cover for thermal protection in winter and security needs year-round. You can create this by planting appropriate vegetation or by manipulating existing vegetation.
Planting evergreens such as pines is a good way to start. Place them in clusters in areas where deer might naturally bed if cover were present.
Low, bush-type plants such as indigo, honeysuckle, blackberries, dogwood, crab apples, olives and lespedeza are valuable as well. Many of these not only offer cover, but also food in their leaves, stems and fruits. Plant in clumps or as hedges along a stream or bordering a wood.
Planting warm season grasses such as switch grass, Indian and big bluestem is another option. These grow 5-7 feet tall and provide great sanctuary areas for bucks. They thrive even in acidic, poor quality soil.
3: Thin the Woods
A properly-managed wood can support three times as many deer as an unmanaged forest. It also will grow higher quality bucks and produce better hunting.
Open, mature forests are devoid of cover, and except during the acorn drop, offer little in the way of food for whitetails. By taking a chainsaw to those woods, you can dramatically improve the habitat. Be forewarned, though: cutting trees is dangerous. Take a course on chainsaw use and cutting timber or read a book on it before you start. Wear protective gear and always keep safety foremost in your mind. In fact, this might be one project where you are more involved in the planning, marking of trees to be cut and decision-making than the actual work. If you can get a pulpwood or firewood cutter in to do the thinning, that might be best.
Avoid getting a logger only interested in the highest quality timber because those trees are often your best acorn producers. Ask advice from the state forestry department or consult a qualified forester and explain that your main interest is improving the deer habitat, with financial gain a secondary goal.
Cut old, poor value, misshapen or pest-infested trees. Leave some of these, or at least the tops, on the ground. They’ll offer good bedding cover for the deer. Besides thinning, clear-cut a few small, irregular shaped areas and the brush and low saplings that grow back will make wonderful, almost jungle-like cover in a few years.
If you have oaks, select the best ones to leave and cut all trees down around them that overlap their crown. They are competing with each other, and you’ll get better production from the fewer trees remaining. Cut more red and black oaks than white, but leave plenty of both species. Black and red oaks are more prone to diseases and insect infestations and aren’t preferred as much by deer for food, but their crops are more reliable and thus important to have.
Woods that were mostly sterile environments with little food and cover suddenly will see daylight streaming in as you work. Forbs will grow, shoots that deer love will form on stumps, bushes will sprout, and the area will become attractive to myriad wildlife species.
4: Build A Pond
If deer can’t find water, they might wander off your property to find a pond or creek during dry spells. Whitetails need 1 1/2 quarts of water a day. Some of this they get from vegetation or rain puddles, but having water available might mean the difference between bucks staying on your property or winding up hanging in your neighbor’s shed.
You can approach this project at whatever level of intensity and scope your land, time and finances will allow. If money is not an object and the habitat lends itself to it, a pond of one-quarter to several acres is best. This has aesthetic benefits, helps other wildlife, offers fishing opportunities and increases the property value. You can hire a bulldozer and have a pond built for anywhere from $600 to $10,000, depending on the size and topography.
Study the land and you’ll see low spots that drain surrounding hillsides, hollows that would make good pond sites or find wet-weather drainages that could be dammed. If you don’t have the funds or a good location for a larger pond, you can make your own water holes with some sweat and hard work. Use a chainsaw, shovel, logs, rocks, clay dirt — whatever is available to dam up low spots that tend to collect water after heavy rains or feeders that normally run in spring and go dry in summer. Even if the mini-ponds you create only hold water for a few months, you’ve still helped the deer herd.
5: Fertilize Native Deer Foods
No other type of habitat improvement work offers a bigger payback for the time and money invested than fertilizing deer foods that are already growing naturally on your property. Raspberry, blackberry, lespedeza, honeysuckle, olive, crabapple, wild pear, grapes, persimmon, cherry and greenbrier are just a few of the many species deer feed on that you’ll often find growing naturally on your land. All can respond to fertilizer in these ways: more palatability to deer, better quality and bigger fruits, more protein content and greater production of edible leaves, stems and berries.
Japanese honeysuckle is one of the best deer foods around, particularly during winter. It has a protein level of 9-20 percent and responds extremely well to fertilizer. One study done at the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station determined that fertilizing doubled the forage production of a honeysuckle stand to up to 3,000 pounds per acre.
Do a soil test and find out what the ground needs, or alternately, use a hand spreader and put out 19-19-19 fertilizer on these climbing woody vines that deer love. Apply in late winter or early spring and follow up in September with a dose of 34-0-0.
Don’t overlook oaks, either. You can improve both the acorn production and the size of the nuts and taste appeal to deer with fertilizer. Apply 19-19-19 around the outer crown area or drip line surrounding the tree in late winter or early spring and again in June after removing leaf litter. Better yet, dig a shallow trench and apply the fertilizer a few inches down. Spikes and tablets also are available for time-release application for fertilizing trees. Put several of these around the crown perimeter, and they’ll last up to two years.
Before long you’ll probably be thinking of five more projects you can add to this list. Working the land and improving the habitat is a hobby that never stops. And if you have as much fun with it as I do, you’ll never want it to end.
Take Advantage of Free Help
As you start on these projects, keep in mind there’s often expert help available for free through various government programs. Biologists, foresters and agricultural specialists are a phone call away. Consult the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the state forestry department, your local agricultural extension agent and the state game department, among others.
This article was published in the August 2004 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.