By Steve Bartylla
It didn’t exactly start off as a good afternoon for bowhunting. With the November temperatures in Schuyler County, Ill., hovering in the low 70s, I figured most of the rut activity would be taking place at night.
Making matters worse, I needed to mark the trail in to the stand. Sugar Creek deer manager Chad John and I had decided to hunt the stand only a few times all season, and he needed me to mark the trail so clients could find it on future hunts. It was a touchy setup, but had good potential for a buck.
My concerns were justified by snorting does and the quick exit of a definite shooter buck on the way in; things didn’t look good. But I soon found out that first impressions can be deceiving.
I’d barely gotten settled when the action began. I spotted movement up the draw, and one glance told me the approaching buck was world-class.
With a series of grunts, an estrous call and a snort-wheeze beckoning it to within 30 yards, the buck paused broadside to make a scrape. As it stood there for what seemed like forever, I cursed myself repeatedly for not trimming the clump of brush between us.
After finishing the intimidation ritual, the buck slowly turned and resumed his approach toward the origin of the fictitious calls. Stopping at less than 20 yards, he stood in a motionless stare, anxious to locate the phantom deer.
I quickly thought up a game plan. The second the buck began to move again, I’d come to full draw. The tree that was now between us would provide cover, and I’d have an easy shot if he turned right or left. If, as I believed was most likely, he turned to leave, my only option would be to try to turn him with another call. With my options planned out, all I could do was wait and study the rack sticking out beyond both sides of the tree.
It was impressive! Both main beams went straight up to solid brow times. At that point, they took a 45-degree angle out to the sides, continuing to angle up, but didn’t loop back around in the least. The lack of curvature resulted in an inside spread of well more than 30 inches. Also, because the beams continued to slope upward, the tips of the rest of the tines stopped at the same height; it looked like someone had sawed off the top of the rack. Doing some quick math in my head, I guessed the rack had about 170 inches of antler.
After what seemed like several lifetimes, the buck turned and walked straight away, as I’d predicted. I drew and waited for him to clear the tree and brush. As he continued to walk away, I voice-grunted when he hit the opening. Now about 35 yards away, he just flicked his tail and continued. Another snort-wheeze had no effect. The buck’s eyes and nose had already told him nothing was there. I hung my head as I realized that not removing that bush while hanging the stand had cost me a buck of a lifetime.
Nevertheless, the next several hours were thrilling. From the repeated deep grunts and seven different bucks that came by, it was obvious that a mature buck was holding a doe captive near the point on the other side of the stand. Bucks between 1 1/2 and 3 1/2 years old passed through one or more shooting lanes, offering ample shot opportunities in the thick, brush-choked bottom.
Just as the sun set, the grunts started up again, heading quickly down the point. I caught a glimpse of the doe, followed by a wall of antlers.
Having anticipated such a scenario while preparing the stand in August, I had opened up a 5-yard-wide shooting lane to the base of the point. The chase would lead Mr. Big right through it.
The second I saw the buck’s front leg in the opening, I nearly screamed a voice grunt at him. I knew it would take something drastic to stop him. It worked.
Already at full draw, I settled my 20-yard pin and touched the release. As I heard the buck’s final crash, I knew I’d placed a good bet once again.
What that afternoon hunt showed were the benefits of a good setup. The 300-acre farm belongs to Donald Barry, owner of Sugar Creek Outfitters. While Sugar Creek keeps pressure lower than almost any outfitter I know, having an afternoon that incredible is still impressive, especially considering that other hunters had already been on the property.
While I was lucky to be in the stand on a day when the action was so hot and heavy, the location of the stand, the selection of shooting lanes and the setup were not accidents. A good hunting setup requires planning, knowledge of the property, and a good grasp of deer behavior.
What Deer Want and Need
Many hunters make finding the best stand sites the first priority when setting up on a given property. But if you have any control over the land and you jump right to stand selection, you’re missing a critical step.
The first thing you should do is determine how to hold deer on the property throughout the hunting season. You can’t get a deer that isn’t there, and the more time it spends on your property, the higher the odds of taking it.
Also, the more time deer spend on your property, the greater your ability to manage them. If the deer are there, you can affect buck-to-doe ratios and sculpt the age structure of bucks.
In order to accomplish this, you must understand what deer want and need: food, water, protection from the elements and security. If a property can provide these requirements better than the surrounding areas, the deer will spend more time there. Of course, the bucks will wander off during the rut, but even that can be minimized with a healthy doe population.
Making it Happen
On the Barry property, several creeks and ponds provide ample water. The same is true for cover, with the red cedar thickets choking the hillsides.
Still, to provide a feeling of safety, we had to create several sanctuaries. If you can, set aside areas as off limits to human activity. It won’t take long for deer to realize that they have a safe haven. Access routes to and from stands are critical to keeping a property fresh. No matter how creative you get, some areas just don’t offer good access. When you have such an area that also has protective cover, designate it as a sanctuary.
How many sanctuaries do you need? The more land that is off limits, the safer the deer feel. However, because the ultimate goal is to improve hunting, you don’t want to have so many sanctuaries that it puts too much pressure on your hunting areas. Just as the deer quickly learn where it’s safe, they’ll also learn where they’re being hunted and will avoid those areas.
I suggest reserving about 25 percent of the deer habitat as sanctuary. When possible, it’s also a good idea for properties with more than 200 acres of habitat to have two or more sanctuaries. A 1,000-acre property should have about five.
There is no perfect sanctuary size, but anything less than 20 acres typically does little good. On the flip side, cagey bucks might never leave sanctuaries that are more than 40 acres. To keep it simple, look for areas that are hard to access that also offer good protective cover. If cover doesn’t exist, create it. Next, look for areas between 20 and 40 acres and aim for about 25 percent of the deer habitat.
Using those guidelines on the Barry farm, three areas jumped out at Chad John and me. All three were large swaths of red-cedar-choked hillsides and points. With the sanctuaries located between two food sources, we surmised that we could ambush any deer heading into or out of the sanctuaries.
Speaking of food sources, a second key to holding deer is to offer prime food throughout the year. I believe that non-rutting bucks shift their patterns due to feeding more than any other factor, with hunting pressure being a close second. Most often, this shift takes deer to a neighbor’s property. You can reduce that shift by supplying quality food all season.
Also offer variety. Deer require a diverse diet to meet their changing nutritional needs. In the spring, summer and early fall, deer require a high-protein diet. As fall marches on, deer, especially bucks, will look for foods that are high in carbohydrates and fats.
I also believe deer get tired of eating the same thing every day. I used to feed deer behind a house I owned in my home state of Wisconsin. Beginning the day after season closed, I fed the deer a mixture of one part corn, three parts oats and three parts trophy pellets. Regardless of the season, this blend beat anything that the area supplied.
However, when the second spring thaw began, still weeks away from green-up, the deer dispersed. As healthy as my mixture was, I have no doubt that that the deer craved a break from eating it for 2 1⁄2 months. I tried several other mixes over the years, but nothing held the deer as long as my original recipe.
To address both the changing nutrition needs and the desire for diversity, I try to offer a bevy of options. That was easy on the Barry farm, thanks to the rent-farmer’s selection of crops. The top two fields were clover and alfalfa; we considered planting some brassicas as additional greens, but we felt we already had ample greens to address that craving. But we lacked grains. The bottom field was planted in soybeans, but those beans would be harvested before the rut, and the leftover waste would not be enough. We planted a 10-acre corn-and-bean mix right in the middle of the bottom field. Offering both grains in one location increased its drawing power, and the size was sufficient to last well into winter. With that, we had all the pieces in place.
By providing deer everything they want and need, you can attract and hold more deer on your property. Furthermore, carefully planned sanctuaries and food plots can help dictate deer travel routes. When you can hold deer and know their travel patterns, your chance of success skyrockets.
With those keys in place on the Barry farm, it was time to select our stand locations. Read where and why we placed stands, as well as how those stands performed, in next month’s issue.
Make Water and Cover
Just about every article about improving habitat recommends adding food plots and enhancing native food sources, but few touch on the importance of adding water and cover. You can do both, probably easier than you might think.
A small dozer is the obvious choice for making ponds. Select an area that naturally receives runoff. In heavy soils, dig a depression, create a solid dike, and you’re done. In lighter soils, a liner improves water retention.
If you don’t have access to heavy equipment, a much easier option exists. Cut a large plastic drum to 2 feet high and bury it to the rim in a strategic low spot. During dry periods, you can bring in water from a natural source. Where legal, a little deer mineral in the container further increases its appeal.
You can also create protective cover. Evergreens are a common choice. To maximize growth and help retain lower branches, use 10-foot spacing between trees and rows. Also stagger the trees from row to row. In other words, start every other row 5 feet in from the starting point of the first row. This spacing and staggering between rows allows more sunlight and water to reach the bottom branches.
This article was published in the September, 2008 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.