For most of us, hunting whitetails isn’t just a seasonal hobby — it’s a year-round obsession. With that obsession comes hard work, and a lot of it, but it’s something we love to do.
When it comes time to put away the bows and firearms, most of us switch back to being managers and stewards of the land, with the goal of improving the habitat and making for a better hunt the following season. Winter can be down time for some other hunters, but for us it’s the right time of year to get out the chainsaw and other tools and get to work on the trees.
Why winter? I know what you’re thinking: It’s cold and nasty out. Why should I get out of this nice, warm house and prune trees? The answer is simple: For the health of the trees, it’s the best time of year to do so.
As you might recall from biology class, a tree pulls water and nutrients up from the soil through its root system. The water ends up with the leaves, where sunlight turns the starches into sugars. Then it flows back down the tree to the roots. Most trees enter a dormant period after their leaves fall away. This is when it’s safest for the tree to be pruned. It’s not that you’re interrupting the flow of water and nutrients that makes this the safe time to prune. It’s that pruning when a tree is active is the easiest way to allow disease to enter.
A plethora of viral and fungal threats can harm or even kill a tree if they get to the core. The only way they can get there is through the bark. So if you open that up, you risk endangering the tree. Does that mean you shouldn’t cut a branch here or there during summer, such as when hanging stands? Not at all. Chances are you’re not going to damage a tree much in the process. They’re resilient.
There are many reasons to prune a tree. How and why you do it depend on the species and what you’re hoping to get as a result. Fruit trees are different from nut-bearing species. Likewise, hardwoods are different from evergreens with what you can accomplish from pruning.
The basic idea is to allow more light through the tree canopy, resulting in more fruit production. You’re also working to get the tree to put its stored energy into producing fruit and new shoots each season.
All you need to do is drive past a commercial orchard in winter to see pruning is pretty serious business. Why? It’s all about the physiology of the tree. The species we plant to provide food for whitetails store vast amounts of energy each season, and we want to convert that into fruit for the herd.
For example, let’s talk about apple trees. Like other species, they take up water and nutrients from the soil, and sunlight turns carbon dioxide into food for the tree. The roots act as not only a transfer system for the water and nutrients, but also as a “root cellar” during the dormant period, storing all of that energy.
Trees are no different from other plants in that when they grow, they get taller. On a mature tree that’s already producing, taller isn’t always what you want. In fact, what you want is a tree putting all available energy into producing the very things deer want to eat: fruit and new, tender shoots.
There are many similarities between growing bucks and growing fruit commercially. To get your trees to produce more of the very thing you want, you prune. What you’re doing is simplifying the tree, notes Terence Robinson, an applied fruit crop physiologist with Cornell University in Geneva, New York. You prune in earnest when the tree reaches maturity, much as a good deer manager removes bucks after they’ve reached their potential.
In all seriousness, though, most fruit tree varieties reach bearing maturity at around five years of age. At this point, you can start lopping what’s called the “central leader.” This is the branch that forms the top of the tree. If you think of the tree as a line going straight up from the trunk, the central leader is easy to identify.
“As the tree ages, the top tends to overgrow the bottom,” Robinson says. “To prevent this problem and to maintain good light distribution and good fruit quality as trees age, the top of the tree must be kept more narrow than the bottom of the tree.”
A successful approach to managing the tops of trees is to annually remove no more than two of the larger upper branches, using an angled or “bevel” cut. Often a new shoot will grow from the spot at which you made the cut.
The same basic principle goes for the main part of the tree, as well. Cut out no more than two main branches each season. This keeps the tree producing young, fruit- bearing branches each year. Take a look at any old, overgrown apple tree and you’ll see a massive reduction in the amount of fruit. You’ll also see a lot of dead branches in the inner parts of the tree. Not only is this not offering maximum food production for your deer, it makes for extra obstacles if you’re trying to get a clear shot while hunting around fruit trees.
Most fruit-bearing species take a similar pruning technique. The main thing to keep in mind is getting the pruning done on colder days, after the tree has entered a dormant period. If you look at a branch, you’ll see all the buds that will form leaves, shoots and even fruit. If those buds haven’t yet burst, you’re still good to go with pruning.
Another method commercial fruit growers use also applies very well to the deer hunter, and that’s training. When you’re pruning is also a great time to work on training your trees. Think of it like training your dog. You work with your pooch to get him or her to go where you want. Well, the same idea applies to tree branches.
Fruit growers want to produce a lot of fruit, with most of it at optimal picking height to cut down on harvest cost. One of the main ways they do this is by training branches to grow below the horizontal line. This is achieved by bending the end of the branch downward and securing it in place. Doing so tricks the branch into not putting its energy into growing longer; that energy instead goes into growing new shoots and fruit.
Not only does this trick increase production, it provides another benefit: to form good places for mock scrapes. Finding a wild tree with an ideal licking branch can be a bit tricky. However, if you have a fruit tree that’s in a great spot, training a low branch into position can work amazingly well. Bend that branch over and anchor it. Some twine or even wire will work, but remove it once you get the branch growing the way you want it to.
On my land, I had a young apple tree that was perfectly located on the edge of a clearing. I cut down other, larger trees that were around it to give it better light, then pruned it back to encourage more fruit. I thought it would make a great spot for a mock scrape, so I bent over a branch and secured it. The plan was to set up the scrape when things started getting closer to the rut, but I ended up not needing to do that. The tree is now at the center of a natural scrape line running across my property.
I then proceeded to survey other spots on the property that could serve the same purpose. In the process, I found a young hardwood tree I felt might work. It didn’t take much time or effort to get it trained downward, and it became another scrape location. So by my training the tree branches, you could say I’m doing the same with the deer.
Pruning nut-bearing trees takes a different approach. After such a tree has reached the age of five or six years, you’re basically done pruning, other than removing dead branches. The first few years of growth are when you prune to shape these trees.
With a young nut tree, identify the central leader and then cut off a third of it. Also remove anything that appears to be trying to compete with that leader. And cut out any branches that cross each other. If they’re growing horizontally across the main canopy of the tree, or out of the trunk too closely together, also remove those. And if two branches are growing within six inches of each other, remove the smaller of the two.
With nut-bearing trees, you want the opposite of fruit trees when it comes to those young branches: Everything should grow above the horizontal line. So remove any branches growing at a downward angle. The only branch you should let grow downward would be one you want to set up as a possible scrape point, as discussed with training apple trees.
Butt pruning is another method extremely useful for deer hunters, especially those hunting near evergreens. This method involves cutting off branches near the base of the tree. Evergreens grown for timber are heavily butt pruned to increase growth, reduce knots and make for straighter logs.
If you’ve seen a stand of pines and noticed how thick the growth of branches is near the ground, you’ll also notice little else growing under the trees. You’ll also probably see little deer sign. With butt pruning, you can make a tunnel through this dense cover, encouraging vegetation growth and more deer use.
With any tree, disease and injury can lead to problems down the road. Look over your trees and cut away anything that looks dead, diseased or injured. Make your cuts below the bad part and into good wood. Don’t worry — callus material forms quickly, and your trees will be much healthier in the long run.
You need clean tools. Hand tools such as handsaws, loppers, machetes, axes and such should all be cleaned before use. Use something like Lysol cleaner. You’re looking to cut down on bacterial infection. Again, this is why pruning during winter months is best.
For tools, you’ll at least need a handsaw and some loppers. As you get more serious about it and/or have a lot of trees to prune, stepping up to a good, high-quality pole saw, such as a Husqvarna, is a must. For chainsaws, get enough saw that you can take down whole trees if needed. I run a Husqvarna Rancher 455, and it does everything I’ve ever asked of it. And finally, remember to be cautious and safe. Wear eye protection, heavy gloves and durable boots. You can easily get hurt pruning trees if you’re not paying attention.
Winter pruning gets you out of the house and into that cool, fresh air. It’s also a great time to look for sheds and just spend time on your hunting property. Best of all, it’s another way you take an active role in whitetail management. You’re helping to shape the land and turn it into the buck magnet you’ve always wanted. So it’s time to haul out that saw and get to work!