Let’s dispel the notion that to have good hunting you either must control hundreds of acres or never allow anyone else to set foot on the land. Believe it or not, by strategically remodeling our hunting grounds, we can improve even small acreages and hunt them hard, all while seeing more deer as the season progresses.
Of course, we must set realistic goals. Clearly identifying them gives us specific targets to work toward and helps lay out the path that leads to achieving them. We also must remember to have fun doing all of this. In fact, that should be a primary goal.
Realize there’s more to improving hunting grounds than adding food plots. That’s often an important part, but a number of other tools also are available to the habitat manager. In many situations, setting aside sanctuaries and improving the deer cover with a chainsaw can do more good than the best food plot ever could.
Luckily, we aren’t forced to choose just one improvement method. Within reason, we can use as many as we see fit. The trick is to understand what’s available to us and use the methods best suited to achieving our goals.
That’s precisely where generating a thorough habitat-improvement plan comes into play. If the final goal is a completed structure, the various improvement techniques are the tools that allow us to build it. No carpenter would strive to use every tool at his disposal for every job.
Simply put, a well-thought-out plan allows us to sort through the tools and select the best ones for building our version of a whitetail utopia. Creating that plan can save countless hours of work and piles of money. When shooting for improved habitat, a better resident deer herd and increasing the property’s ability to be hunted effectively, you rarely can wing it and hit a bull’s eye.
Although illustrating a step by step guide to generating a plan is as impossible as prescribing one plan to work equally well for everyone, we can cover the highlights and get you well on the way.
Setting the Stage
It’s impossible in one article to thoroughly cover creating a plan, just as it’s impossible to prescribe a single plan for all. Even covering all the things you should do to a property is too much for an article.
We’ll skip steps as adding water sources and planting fruit trees. Those are just two examples of tasks I’d suggest in both plans. I’d add them to food plots within shooting distance of proposed stand sites. So when reviewing these plans, please realize there are more tasks that can and really should be done to achieve the hypothetical goals of these phantom owners.
Dr. James Kroll and Pat Hogan from NAW TV show you the importance of planting fruit trees for whitetail nutrition:
Also, I must point out that these specific improvements haven’t been made. In fact, to make sure to avoid revealing something a private property owner might not want shown in a widely circulated magazine, the image is of public ground in a Midwestern state. It could just as easily be your own land.
The Landowners Let’s call the first landowner Ted. He and his brother, Tom, are the only hunters on the ground, and both are serious big buck hunters. All the kids are out of the house, and these guys — we’ll call them “T&T” for short — are willing and able to spend whatever it takes to achieve their goals. They want to kill the biggest bucks they can.
The second landowners we’ll call Sam and Samantha (“S&S”). Both hunt, as do two of their children, and the third isn’t far behind. They like the idea of killing good bucks. In fact, without thinking it through, both would say that’s their primary goal. But dig deeper and you find that their primary goals really are for the kids to see a bunch of deer and for them all to have fun hunting together.
With three kids, S&S must be somewhat frugal. They have manpower to invest, but they need to keep financial expenditures under control. Unlike T&T, they lack the cool food plot toys and would rather not break the bank with their purchases.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s also say the tract is surrounded by big timber, very similar to the mixed hardwoods and softwoods found on this ground. That’s the case in real life for this location, so we might as well stick with it.
When studying the improvements added to each aerial photo, you’ll find similarities. Let’s break them down:
New access road (black lines) with screening and blockades (green lines): How hunters access a property is a huge factor in how hard they can safely hunt it.
Picture a wooded 40-acre tract with the access going down the center. To hunt a stand on the back of the property, there isn’t a wind that allows them to safely do so. Each trip to stands educates deer.
Although there are situations in which center access is the best choice, edge access is often better. With it, one can access along the east side of a property with any wind with a westerly influence, without ever getting sniffed by a single deer on the property.
The same applies to using the west side with winds out of the east, the south side with north winds and the north side with south winds. In each case, the hunter’s odor is blowing onto neighboring ground. While spooking deer on the neighbor’s side isn’t good, arguably it helps to train them that “it’s dangerous over there. Come over here, where you’re safe.”
We’ll also be talking logging soon. Both of these hypothetical access roads were made by loggers, as a condition of taking the timber off the property. The roads are identical for each landowner.
The loggers were specifically instructed to pile all lesser-value trees removed for creating the road in a parallel line to the road, on the interior side. With a little follow-up chainsaw and manual piling work, one can then create a deer blockade and help hide traffic using the road.
In areas where dropping a few trees or moving in some extra brush isn’t enough to effectively block deer movement, one can fill the gaps with sections of wooden snow fencing. In each case, if the deer really want to, they can find ways through our blockade.
Still, because we have easy-to-cross gaps in our blockade (the while breaks in the green line), we encourage a ton of movement through those gaps. If deer are crossing in areas we don’t want them to, we also can try to better plug the blockade in those areas. This new road system and blockading is key to both plans. It serves as the backbone to low-impact access for hunting, with the screening helping to hide us and the funnels the gaps create making potentially great stand sites.
Sanctuary: In both cases, everything inside the outer ring of food plots and “sidewalks” (yellow lines) serves as a sanctuary. As mentioned earlier in the series, if we find a couple spots inside our sanctuary that scream “killer setup,” we’ll slap stands (red dots) there. However, they’ll be aces up our sleeve that are rarely, if ever, used.
By developing low-impact access and setting aside a significant portion of the property as sanctuary, we’re on our way to making the property a magnet for attracting pressured deer. In fact, add the cover enhancements we’ll be making to both properties, and within a year or two, most of the deer spooked in the area will head straight for the sanctuary — including deer on neighboring lands.
Dr. James Kroll and Pat hogan from NAW TV discuss the importance of developing a whitetail sanctuary:
Using Logging to Create Cover, Increase Browse and Create Dead Zones: Although many plans I create don’t call for bringing in a logger, we’re going to do so in both of these plans. The woods itself is a mature, park-effect woods. It needs some trees removed. At the same time, the loggers are a cost-saving option for creating our new access and screening blockade.
In both cases, the loggers will do all cutting inside our sanctuary. This will leave a “park effect” between our access and sanctuary. Deer will spend less time in that buffer zone, helping to create safe winds and generally keep hunter impact lower.
They’ll also leave all the tops from cut trees where they fall. This will create extra cover, providing more holding power. In fact, odds are the bucks will use the tops in strategic locations as bedding sites.
Because we’re in the Midwest, in both cases the logging will be done during late winter. Heavy equipment on frozen ground does less cosmetic damage. This timing also provides extra woody browse when the region’s deer need it most, while not risking kicking them off our ground during hunting season.
Food Plots (shades of pink and bluish- green areas and lines): Both properties also use food plots to help draw and hold deer. Without exception, each is set up to allow safe, low-impact hunting. That rarely happens naturally and is key to keeping the resident deer ignorant of being hunted on this ground.
Dr. James Kroll and Pat Hogan from NAW TV show you some helpful tips for planning and planting your food plot:
Sidewalks (yellow lines): These are lanes approximately 28 inches wide, super-easy walking trails, with bands of trees hinge-cut on both sides. Because one tries to get most trees to fall perpendicularly away from the sidewalk, there’s easy walking down the center, while a surplus of browse and cover is created to both sides.
When creating sidewalks through super-thick areas, one can skip the hinge-cutting and merely make the 28” wide trail through it. In future years, as the trees mature, they can then be hinged to maintain the browse, safety and easy walking the sidewalk provides.
Both plans use sidewalks to connect the hinge-cut bedding areas (green ovals), thermal cover (dark- green areas) and native grass plantings (tan areas) to the food plots. In fact, when combined with the food plots, the sidewalks create the outer ring of our sanctuary. Although deer will travel outside the sidewalks with both plans, these lanes do encourage them to travel where we want them to.
Notice that the sidewalks and food plots work together to encourage deer to stay inside our property, essentially running a circle at the edge of our sanctuary. Of course, deer still will come and go, but every little bit helps. At the same time, the sidewalks help to significantly raise the amount of cover and woody browse on the property.
Dr. James Kroll and Pat Hogan from NAW TV discuss how to plan your entry and exit routes:
Thermal (dark green areas) and Native Grass (tan areas) Cover: While the amount of spruce and warm-season grasses planted differ, both plans have them to again help increase the holding power of our property. The thermal cover will help hold deer over winter, whereas the warm-season native grasses help most throughout the summer and fall.
To create firebreaks around the native-grass plantings, we’ll plant a cheap red clover (bluish-green bands around native grass). This clover will also provide forage, but not of such quality as to keep the deer from heading to our food plots.
Doe Bedding (green ovals): While the positions vary slightly with each plan, both suggest hinge-cutting quarter- to half-acre areas for doe bedding around the outer edges of the sanctuaries. Does naturally want to pack in closer to food, while bucks tend to prefer the solitude of being behind the doe groups.
Even with the hinge-cut areas, does will bed in other areas, as well. Still, adding pockets of thick cover around the food helps ensure the property can hold more does, while further encouraging the bucks to travel to the edges of the sanctuary for hunting.
Stands (red dots): On both plans, each potential stand site shown has safe winds, access and departure. They’re on the outer edges of our sanctuary. So long as one religiously uses the wind, they can be hammered without realizing a drop in productivity. In fact, each stand on the property should get better as the season progresses and more and more deer pile in from pressured neighboring lands.
As noted from the start, due to varying goals and practical limitations there are also some key differences between these plans. Let’s go over some of those.
For instance, while the extra spruce and native-grass plantings help increase the cover quality and the property’s potential to hold more mature bucks for the brothers, that comes at the cost of eliminating the bit of land they otherwise could rent to a local farmer. Meanwhile, for S&S that annual income is more important, so on their tract we decided to rent out the farm acreage instead of plant it in permanent cover.
At the same time, the couple doesn’t have the equipment T&T do. So instead of bringing in a bulldozer to open up big plots and create blockades (green lines) around them to further aid in creating safe winds, S&S will be using the “throw and grow” method on most plots. They’ll merely target more open areas of the woods and cut out some trees to open the canopy sufficiently for forage growth.
To establish these plots, they’ll spray to kill weeds. All the small plots will be rotated every couple years between highly desirable clovers and a cereal rye-oats mix. Both of those plantings can handle feeding levels that would wipe out brassicas, corn, peas, soybeans or similar annual plantings.
The exception is the small portion of farm ground S&S will take back. They’ll have the farmer work the soil in the spring, allowing the couple to merely spray a couple times and then top seed a brassica/pea rotation (pink area).
Also, by having the farmer not work his ground until spring, they get the benefit of the previous year’s corn or soybean waste supplementing their food supply. Using the top-seeding method, the couple can get away with as little equipment as a hand seeder, though a sprayer and constructing a drag for their ATV would be helpful.
On the flip side, T&T can use their toys to rotate between a brassica mix, with the other half of the plot planted in cereal rye and oats. The ring of clover around those plots further diversifies the feed offering and gets good growth from the clover in the shaded and root-leached areas, where most other plantings won’t thrive.
The logging is the other big difference. To maximize deer numbers, S&S need more forage and thicker cover. To accomplish this, we’ll have the loggers do a very aggressive thinning. We’ll divide the sanctuary into four parts and have each part aggressively thinned three years apart.
Doing so will keep the woods in various stages of regrowth, maximizing its thickness and browse production for many years to come, all while bringing in a bit of money. Combined with the doe bedding areas and increased number of sidewalks, the couple will be maximizing woody browse and the thickness of the woods to boost deer numbers.
The brothers also have their property slated for logging in late winter. However, they’ll have moderate thinning done. Their sanctuary will be logged in one shot. By cutting lighter, the property will get thicker, but not to the point of the couple’s land. This will maximize acorn production but leave the native habitat short on food in bad acorn years. Luckily, the brothers will have enough in food plots to cover any mast shortfalls.
Outside of sweat equity, S&S will have much less invested in their improvements. Still, having their entire sanctuary be a thick, nasty regrowth area will help increase natural food production and really pack the deer in tightly. This serves to maximize hunting opportunity and fun.
T&T, conversely, will be investing more money and equipment into their plan. Although they won’t be able to quite hold as many deer, their plan creates more segregation of bucks, with four main food sources and four smaller “kill” plots. With increased spruce and grass plantings, as well as the treetops lying around the woods, they can realistically have two or three mature bucks set up core areas on their ground. Plus, they might well get cracks at other local bucks that are seeking refuge from hunting pressure or simply cruising through, looking for does during the rut.
My hope is that what’s presented here gives you some idea of what a good plan can do and how goals and limitations factor into its execution. In both cases, the plans literately transform otherwise marginal hunting ground into a well-oiled machine that keeps holding good bucks and offering chances to harvest them.