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Habitat Improvement for Any HunterWords by Matt Haun
It’s fair to say most deer hunters don’t own bulldozers, excavators, tractors or even the land where they hunt. And for those who do, the habitat improvements covered here will still work. Deer need the same core resources to survive as humans: food, water and cover.
Through some simple habitat manipulation and construction with hand tools, you can create a much more hospitable environment for your local deer to call home. I guarantee tackling these five DIY projects now will pay dividends come deer season.
Natural Food Enhancement
There’s no question wild whitetails prefer natural browse over supplemental feed. The reason is because a deer’s digestive system is designed to process those native forbs, grasses and woody browse. The combination of sunlight and fertilizer, with or without soil disturbance, is the quickest way to produce quality natural food without breaking the bank.
In areas of dense canopy cover you can use a chainsaw to cut the taller trees, allowing sunlight to once again reach the forest floor. This will allow early succession plants to come back, most of which are favorites of deer for browse. You also get he added benefit of a thicker understory that provides great cover.
You may be saying to yourself, “I can’t cut trees down on my hunting lease.” Fair point, but I guarantee you are allowed to maintain your interior roads, which helps your landowner and is perhaps the most effective place to improve/create natural browse for your wildlife.
Roads, by default, receive more sunlight than most forested areas. Generally, roads are also wider than the actual vehicles that travel them, leaving edges that can be routinely cut, pruned and fertilized. Fertilizer can help natural plants not only grow better but make them much more palatable to deer. I recommend a simple soil test to see which fertilizer may be most beneficial.
Deer need vitamins and minerals; every living organism does. Minerals are literally in everything they eat. However, we can help them get needed minerals easier and in higher quantities by creating and maintaining mineral sites. There are many recipes for homemade minerals out there, most of which use pure salt as the main ingredient.
They will attract deer, but there are commercial blends much better for year-round use. Evolved Habitats has a product called Rack Up Trophy Class that is a superb mineral that provides year-round attraction and nutrition. Evolved’s Molasses Blocks are also a good option to get deer to start utilizing a site quickly.
To set up the mineral site, I like to find an area on a field edge or in the woods that deer are using regularly. Clear it of vegetation with a shovel and pour/place the minerals directly on the dirt. In the case of the Molasses Blocks, I like to break them up so deer don’t have to take turns to use them.
Watering in the minerals won’t hurt either but is not necessary to get good utilization. I like to start my mineral sites relatively small — between four and eight square feet — so the minerals are concentrated into less dirt. Over time, deer will make the site much, much larger by digging at the ground and spreading the mineral content over a wider area.
The minerals provided by your efforts will help local bucks maximize their antler growth and are also extremely beneficial to pregnant and lactating does. Big, healthy fawns become big, healthy bucks.
After earning two college degrees and spending 11 years professionally managing deer, I still can’t figure out why deer would rather drink from a mud puddle than a gently flowing stream or river! However, I have seen it over and over again. If you don’t believe me, try this idea yourself and hang a trail camera to observe the results!
We all have places on the properties we hunt where rainwater runs off of roads, fields or ridges. To start, find a small, natural drain where water flows during rain events. Follow that “drain” until you find a relatively flat spot.
In the case of a woods road, there will generally be sediment there. You need a flat spot 50-100 square feet in size so the waterhole won’t dry out too quickly. Shade is also extremely beneficial in this regard. You’ll then lay out your “hole” perimeter with the shovel and dig towards the center using the dirt you remove to create a levy/dam around your hole.
I’m talking about a dam 6-8 inches tall; really just a berm to define your edges. The hole should only be a foot or so deep and should gradually slope down to the far side. It is very likely your manmade mud puddle will fill up after the first rain event. Depending on soil moisture though, it may drain very quickly. Don’t be discouraged.
After a few rainfalls, it will likely hold water just fine. If it doesn’t hold water, the best thing to do is immediately convert the spot into a large mineral site.
Deer will find the water; after all, they need water to live. Still, I like to sweeten the pot and get them using my waterhole more quickly by adding an attractant such as Wildgame Innovations Apple Crush or Evolved Buck Grub around the edges of the waterholes. Not only will these holes provide needed water for your deer but they also make spectacular places to archery hunt early in the season.
No-Till Food Plots
Contrary to popular belief, you do not need a tractor or even an ATV to plant a very effective food plot. Yes, you will sweat more doing it by hand, but the potential rewards in deer nutrition and attraction far exceed the manual labor. The rule of thumb when building a “no-till” food plot is the more dirt you expose the seed to, the better success you will have.
I promise if you take a no-till food plot seed into the woods and spread it out on the forest floor covered in leaves it will fail. Take some time to prepare the area before seeding and you’ll have a great honey hole.
The first step is removing existing/unwanted vegetation. This is where a mower can come in handy, but if you don’t have one, spray the vegetation with an applicable (depending on species) herbicide and allow it to work on the plants for 3-4 weeks in your absence. This will allow the herbicide to get a complete kill on the plants.
Next, clear the dead debris by chopping/cutting or mowing it. Rake the debris off the plot area and either till or rake the ground, exposing as much dirt as possible. Seed blends such as Evolved Habitats Throw & Gro or Wildgame Innovations Backwoods Blend are made up of mostly small seeds such as brassicas, clover and cereal grains that do not require much soil contact to germinate. Spread the seed over the dirt then lightly rake it in.
The best time to spread this seed is just prior to a rain event, as the rain will help significantly in “driving” the seed in the ground. Both Throw & Gro and Backwoods Blend are best planted in early fall and will germinate fairly quickly, resulting in a nice honey-hole green field that will not only attract deer throughout the fall and winter but will also be great places to stage your Avian-X turkey decoys in the spring waiting for you know who to strut right up.
Where legal, supplemental feed, like supplemental minerals, can be extremely beneficial to a deer herd. I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Feeding protein pellets isn’t habitat improvement!” I would beg to differ, because in many cases and in many regions of the country, supplemental feed is the No. 1 improvement to a deer herd’s nutrition you can possibly make.
A deer’s nutritional needs are seasonal when it comes to protein, but for simplicity I break it down to just two seasons. Feed a high-protein supplement (17-25 percent) from mid-March through mid-September. Outside those dates, if you continue to offer supplemental feed, you can feel free to do so with corn and/or other products high in carbohydrates.
Do NOT attempt to feed protein directly on the ground or with a “spin-type” feeder. The feed will not hold up to moisture and you’ll end up with rotten feed on the ground. The other reason is you want your deer to eat as much high-protein feed as possible, whenever they want it. Spin-type feeders are great for fall and winter corn feeding but not for protein pellets.
You can easily build a homemade trough feeder in your garage or build it on-site. These feeders should be able to hold at least 100 pounds of feed and keep it dry. Often you can find the needed building materials lying around your shop, garage or property. They don’t have to be pretty, just functional. It is very important that fawns are able to eat from the troughs.
For this reason, the upper lip of the trough needs to be no higher than 23 inches off the ground. Bucks also need to be able to eat in it during summer months, so you need to keep the roof high enough that bucks won’t bang their velvet-clad antlers while feeding. The roof should be at least three feet higher than the top of trough, and ideally four feet higher.
If you are just starting a supplemental feed program, or you think deer are underutilizing your feed troughs, you may need to “sweeten” the deal by mixing an attractant in with your feed. There are many on the market that not only increase attraction but provide nutritional benefits too.
Evolved Habitats Buck Grub and Roasted Corn Freaks and Wildgame Innovations Persimmon Crush, Sugar Beet Crush and Apple Crush are some great examples of additives you can mix with your protein pellets to make them more attractive.
Give your deer a couple weeks to acclimate themselves to the feeder itself and set your cameras up to monitor the feeders. Yes, you will feed some raccoons, but they will not eat enough of your feed to break the bank and you will be amazed at the long-term effects to your deer herd, specifically buck quality and body weights.
You don’t need to own heavy equipment or a lot of acreage to implement improvements that will increase the quality of your deer herd and your hunting success. Hard work, smart planning and some hand tools can get you a long way.
All of the above improvements can be done by yourself, and although I am a huge proponent of teamwork, installing a mineral site, no-till plot, waterhole or supplemental feed station can be a nice thing when you’re the only person who knows where they are come November!
All-new Persimmon Crush ($14.99 per 5-pound bag) from Wildgame Innovations is double-screened to create fine powder that releases far more scent than usual. Real persimmons add natural attracting power to this blend that has an ultra-high fat content. Persimmon Crush is perfect for the late season when native browse is scarce
Evolved Buck Grub ($24.99 per 20-pound bag) is an extremely palatable mix that provides your deer herd with optimal fat, calories, protein and minerals. Buck Grub is designed to attract and hold deer with its attractive aroma of toasted almonds, setting you up for the season of a lifetime.
To produce Acorn Rage ($24.99 per 16-pound bag), Wildgame Innovations first has to collect a batch of acorns, crush them and blend them with a special oil-enriched roasted soybean meal through an extensive extrusion process. From there, fresh oils and flavors found in real, ripening acorns that just hit the ground are preserved and stabilized for the best of both worlds. Simply put, the flavor brings deer back for more time and time again.
Twice the protein and triple the fat of regular corn — this is what you can expect out of the Roasted Corn Freaks Mix ($9.99 per 5-pound bag) from Evolved Habitats. This powdered mix incorporates whole-kernel corn, soybeans and proprietary ingredients to produce an aroma that can’t be matched.
Roasted Corn Freaks can also be purchased in liquid ($10.99) you can pour over logs, stumps or directly on the ground, or in block ($4.99) form to create a quick mineral site.