Preparing to leave home in the pre-dawn darkness, I followed my usual routine of checking the windsock flying 30 feet up our utility pole. Confirming a light but steady northwest breeze, I mentally started going through my stand options for this early-November bowhunt. I soon settled on a stand on a particular small farm.
It was only a few miles away, but I hadn't hunted it yet that season.
At daylight, I saw the first deer of the morning. The 2 1/2-year-old 8-pointer slipped past my stand, presumably coming from food plots a couple of hundred yards away and heading toward thicker cover.
Soon the light made for awesome video footage as a great 3 1/2-year-old buck walked slowly past me at 15 yards. His 5x5 rack with split brows would easily score over 160 inches and likely push 170 inches. He was one of the best 3 1/2s I'd ever seen in the wild, but I simply shot video as he passed.
Through intensive trail camera monitoring, I try to stay up to date on bucks that are using the properties I hunt. Due to history with this buck I was certain he was only 3 1/2, so I had no intention of shooting him. My plan was to shoot an older but somewhat smaller-racked buck that shared the property. The 4 1/2 I was after would maybe push the 150 mark, and his clean 5x4 rack wasn't much bigger than the one he'd worn the year before. He'd be a great buck to shoot.
The 3 1/2 had just walked into the thick brush when I looked back along the same path to see the 4 1/2 headed my way at a steady gait. I quickly returned the video camera to its mount, focused it on the spot where the buck would pass and hit the "record" button. Then I grabbed my Mathews, snapped the release onto the string and came to full draw, just as the buck stopped behind a double-trunked tree.
Fortunately, a 6-inch-wide gap between the trunks was centered on the buck's vitals, offering me a good shot. As the mortally wounded deer crashed away, I sat down to savor the moment. I'd accomplished exactly what I'd set out to do — taking out an older "management" buck — and I'd done so on my first hunt of the season on this small property.
In my travels, I get to talk to a lot of deer hunters. And as I do, I find many of them falsely believe the only way to consistently kill mature bucks is to have massive private hunting lands that are well managed. In fact, some have even chalked up my consistent success to the fact I own and manage a sizeable property strictly for hunting whitetails.
But that's not the case at all. I'll admit the Illinois property I own is the best whitetail tract I've ever hunted. But take note: It's only 110 acres, which isn't nearly as big as many seem to expect. What makes it special is how it's laid out and how I manage it. Also, every other property I currently hunt has less than 100 acres of cover, and most have less than 40. Some are much smaller even than that.
I want to dispel the idea that a whitetail hunter needs a lot of acreage to be able to manage for mature whitetails. That simply isn't the case. And to fully take ownership of this idea, I'll make a statement that will likely catch your attention: If I could own 400 acres, I'd prefer that total be divided into several smaller tracts of 40-120 acres each, not all in one tract. The only catch is that those smaller tracts must be the right tracts.
I'm a land management consultant who works with landowners in a number of states. Recently I was talking with a potential client about his 78-acre property in Ohio. I had the place pulled up on Google Earth on my computer, and the landowner was asking my opinion about it.
I had some reservations as to how much we could improve the property. It just didn't lay out well. But as I started to voice my concerns, the landowner announced he also has another property he might have me look at. His concern was that it was only 40 acres. He directed me to that property, and as I zoomed in on the address, I instantly saw potential. This 40-acre tract had a lot more hunting potential than the 78 did.
Now, I recognize these are both small properties by the standards of many hunters. My point is that the size of the property isn't nearly as important as its layout. I'll take things a step farther and state that I've seen 20-acre tracts I'd rather hunt than some 200-acre tracts. As deer hunters we need to get away from the "bigger is better" mindset as we look at hunting properties. Plenty of small properties are absolutely fantastic for hunting mature bucks.
MORE BUCKS TO HUNT
Now that I have your attention, let me explain why I favor some smaller tracts of deer hunting land over larger ones. Let's start by comparing a single large tract of land for hunting whitetails to multiple smaller tracts for hunting.
The first clear advantage is that hunting multiple properties allows a hunter to pursue different deer on each. As we raise the bar as trophy hunters, it becomes increasingly difficult to find bucks large enough and old enough to meet our goals.
You might have more individual bucks using a 400-acre property than an 80-acre one, but you won't have more bucks using that 400 acres than you can have using five different 80s. If those smaller tracts are all separated by a couple miles or more, this fact compounds itself even more. With each property you're hunting a different deer herd. That means the odds of finding a buck that meets your criteria are better with multiple properties at your disposal.
Let's face it: The only bucks you can possibly kill are the ones that spend some time on the properties you hunt. So if you're limited to one property, you're limited to only the bucks on that one property.
Now let's take this thought to another level by introducing another factor into the equation: You can't stockpile mature bucks on a low-fenced property. On a 400-acre tract, there will be at most only a few truly mature bucks utilizing the property at once. In fact, if you look at the number of mature bucks you could have bedding on a 400-acre property every day, the number will be even less.
Let's compare that to the situation on five properties of 80 acres each. With proper management, you should have a minimum of one mature buck on each of those properties; in some cases, you might have two or three. Overall, then, the smaller properties will give you a lot more mature bucks to choose from.
Hopefully I'm starting to get your mental wheels turning in regard to the advantages of smaller properties. But there's a lot more. I firmly believe that if I have total control of a decent property, whether it be 40 acres or 400, in time I can get the oldest and probably biggest buck in the area to spend his daylight hours there, at least for part of deer season. With multiple smaller properties, I thus can simultaneously be hunting the best bucks in each area, rather than just the best bucks in one area. Think about that for a second!
"If I know a mature buck I want to kill is staying on an 80-acre property, my odds of putting a tag on him are far better than if he were staying somewhere within 400 acres."
I can imagine what some of you are thinking: If hunting multiple properties is better than hunting a single property, why not hunt multiple bigger properties, instead of several small ones? Well, this is where the smaller-property advantage really starts to become apparent.
If I know a mature buck I want to kill is staying on an 80-acre property, my odds of putting a tag on him are far better than if he were staying somewhere within 400 acres. I could design and lay out both properties down to the last detail, but when I step onto that 80-acre property, I know the buck I want to kill is within a few hundred yards of me and his travel options are more limited. This isn't the case when hunting a much larger property.
As I meet with clients on their hunting properties each year, the question often comes up regarding the ideal size for a whitetail-hunting property. That's a tough question with a lot of variables. The way a property lays out is very important, as is the number of hunters who are using it. Surrounding properties also figure into the equation. As mentioned, I've hunted on some great properties that were 20 acres or even smaller. Ideally, though, I'd prefer a property to be around 40 to 80 acres.
In the end, most of us aren't going to have the financial means to decide between a 400-acre tract vs. five of 80 acres each. We're stretching our finances just to buy a single smaller property. (And yes, I realize the per-acre price of smaller tracts tends to be higher, but let's assume for a moment that the same amount of money would buy 400 acres either way.) So we must make the most of it.
One of my primary reasons for writing this article was to offer hope to the many of you who are in this predicament with me. Remember: Even if your property isn't hundreds of acres, you can kill mature bucks from it.
Of the many mature bucks I've shot, none came from a large property except for those taken on public land. Most came from properties with under 40 acres of cover. I've made a career of killing mature bucks on small properties in the real world. And if I can do it, I'm confident you can, too.