Part of what makes the whitetail special is that it can thrive in so many habitats, from the steamy tropics all the way to the snowy northern Rockies. In addition to the huge range of topography, temperatures and precipitation these places offer, the vegetational differences are extreme. Some habitats are almost solid forest, while others feature a tree only every few miles — if that.
So it isn’t as though we must manage for one very specific habitat mix in order to have whitetails. But as every serious land manager has discovered, developing a highly huntable property while maintaining great numbers of healthy bucks, does and fawns takes thought and effort. Achieving that balance isn’t easy, but it’s the proverbial “sweet spot” we’re all aiming for.
Whitetails must hide from predators and bad weather but still be able to efficiently access enough food and water every day. So the more of these habitat elements we can have on a tract, the less reason deer should have to leave it.
The fact it’s often possible to wedge adequate food, water and cover into a small area is what makes whitetails practical for even us small landowners to manage. As Dr. James Kroll of the Institute for White-tailed Deer Management & Research preaches, having all these elements on your land makes for much more consistent hunting results. If we hunt smart, on any given day odds are some deer will at least be on the property.
Of course, having deer on your place and being able to hunt them effectively don’t always go hand in hand. We need to lay everything out properly to have regular hunting success. If we don’t, the deer will win the game way more often than hunters will. Eventually, that can make it hard for everyone to stay enthused, because it will seem the management hours and dollars just aren’t paying off all that regularly.
Last November I hunted three widely spaced whitetail locations, all of them new to me. The first was with Monquin Creek Outfitters in Virginia, the second with Northway Outfitters in Saskatchewan and the last with Old School Guide Service in Kansas.
Once home from those hunts, I got to thinking about how deer still control the outcome, regardless of the management plan or how current the intel. Trail cameras left no doubt multiple trophy deer roamed each place I hunted. But only in Saskatchewan did I shoot one. Elsewhere, I had trouble even seeing one. In fact, in 10 prime days in Virginia and Kansas, I glimpsed just two mature bucks — and got shots at neither.
Say it with me now: “That’s why they call it hunting.” Yes, but we always want to know why a hunt didn’t pan out. In retrospect, I doubt it was the moon, weather, predators or pressure. The common denominators were abundant food and cover. There were just way more good spots than I could watch.
Back when deer management was still a new idea, many areas were overpopulated and had little good forage other than farm crops. That’s still true in some places, but not as many. Now we have food plots, supplemental feeding and greater emphasis on native habitat enhancement. Meanwhile, EHD outbreaks, predators and increased doe harvest have thinned the herd. As a result, some whitetails actually have become harder to hunt.
Sure, we want healthy bucks that live long enough to get big. But on the negative side, when they have tons of good feeding options and cover, they tend to be spread out and even less inclined to move in daytime. Being in great shape, bucks also aren’t forced to spend many hours a day feeding. So we often end up hunting harder — and the extra pressure then turns them even more nocturnal or bumps them off the land entirely. All this makes it tougher to tap into daylight buck activity.
Can you relate to these issues where you hunt? I know many private land managers who can. And they’re frustrated. They’re having enough success to keep them going, but not enough to feel they’re reaching their goals.
A SNAPSHOT OF YOUR SITUATION
Objectively assessing our own deer land is hard for us laymen to do; human nature leads us to give ourselves benefit of the doubt, especially if the program has already cost us a lot of time, labor and money. But every habitat manager needs to look in the mirror from time to time.
“Oh, the bucks are here,” a frustrated manager might say. “They’re on camera. Our guys just can’t kill ’em. It’s a hunter problem, not a management problem.”
Well, guess what: If higher hunter satisfaction is needed to keep everyone moving forward with the management plan, it is a management problem. So the manager needs to figure out what’s wrong and take steps to fix it.
Every visit to deer land I own or manage has been eye-opening. I’ve learned something I didn’t know. Whether it’s really new or I’d just been missing it is hard to say, but the point is, a single pass doesn’t reveal everything. So I don’t base decisions on what I might notice on a given day. I’d much rather make several visits, then combine them with what I hear from fellow hunters and see on trail cameras to get a solid feel for the land and the deer. Only then can I be confident changes really are needed.
Countless factors affect whitetail habitat, and we certainly don’t control them all. Many timberland hunting clubs have seen all the big trees cut down and hauled to the mill, affecting deer patterns for years. Hunters leasing farms know that corn or soybean field will one day be harvested. In cattle country, grazing rotation can push deer out of a pasture overnight. And of course, a flood, windstorm or wildfire can rearrange things no matter how smart we think we are.
When any of these things happens, the deer’s world changes — and so does the hunter’s. Those are just facts of life. But let’s look at some habitat elements we hopefully can control.
Reducing the number of good feeding spots, bedding areas or even water sources helps nudge deer toward the remaining ones. All else being equal, concentrating activity boosts hunting results. But when eliminating food or water to improve huntability, don’t overdo it. In an effort to concentrate deer, you could end up with too little to offer them. (In legal baiting areas, turning off feeders is another form of that mistake, though it’s rapidly reversible.)
Deer that suddenly can’t find enough good food or water often will drift off in search of it — and sometimes they never make it back home. One of your neighbors might still have plenty of what they’re seeking.
From a hunting perspective, the balancing act involves limiting a buck’s options just enough to gain a critical advantage. But in trying to end up with the upper hand, remember that as you reduce feeding/watering sites, you need to leave yourself enough places to hunt a given wind direction. Otherwise, the same wind day after day can lead to burning out stands, which can be a net loss.
While on the topic of “unwanted” deer food, here’s another word of caution: Don’t get carried away with planting interior roadways. They often are planted on leased timberlands, where good plot sites are scarce. Desperate for ways to increase forage, many hunting clubs sow cereal grains up and down all their dirt roads and then hunt over them. The result can be miles of “plots.”
Deer using these are tough to pattern;they just have too many options. A buck can pop onto the road anywhere, grab a few bites and then, in one step, be gone again. And the more winding the road is, the harder such plantings are to hunt — not to mention potentially dangerous, if there’s any vehicle traffic.
A powerline right of way might be a better option to plant, provided you have permission and all safety concerns are addressed.
FARM CROP WORKAROUNDS
Trying to compete with commercial crops often is frustrating. But keep the big picture in mind. Because farmers are providing a lot of the herd’s nutrition during and outside hunting season, the proverbial glass is half full, not half empty. Farm crops have helped turn a wide swath of North America into a perennial trophy factory.
Nearby crop fields might have left you feeling helpless in redirecting deer feeding patterns, but do what you can. If you have food plots, try planting some crop deer just like better. This could include fruit/mast trees, too. Of course, also think about tweaking plot size, number, location, etc.
One quick, convenient and flexible option is to use portable fencing to limit which parts of which plots deer can access at a time. With this type of fencing (electric or polyethylene) around the right crop, you can often nudge feeding activity in your direction.
I’ve found on our small farm in northern Missouri that it’s often possible to predict farming activity well enough to manage around it without even using a plot fence. The key there is timing.
Since buying the property over a decade ago, I’ve never planted a warm-season plot on it. That’s because farmers bordering us on two sides alternately plant large fields of corn and soybeans. Our small plots could scarcely compete with them. But by the time the rut hits, those fields nearly always have been cut. Then our green cool-season plots, surrounded by prime bedding cover, become the hot ticket. And frankly, even when neighboring crops are still standing in gun season, much of the best cover is on our side of the line. Bucks can pop into and out of our plots without being visible from far off.
Of course, you can lose the battle even if the crop is on your side, as I saw in Virginia and Kansas. A look back at the latter hunt will illustrate my point.
Thanks to years of management by Mike Nickels of Old School Guide Service, the main Kansas farm I hunted was deer heaven. The rolling terrain offered a patchwork of brushy strips and fingers separated by fields. There also was a remote pond ringed by hardwoods and red cedars. And Mike’s trail cameras showed fine bucks were around.
But while scouting, I noticed the crop harvest was running way late. There were still crops standing all over — not just in big fields far from cover, but also in strips winding from one end of the place to the other. Plus, there was a huge acorn crop back in the timber. In short, there were more feeding areas than I could hope to cover. So it was a far better week to be a deer than a hunter. I saw little movement overall.
Those results were similar to what I’d experienced at Monquin Creek in Virginia, where Chip Watkins also manages great farms. All local crops there were standing too, and while I hunted many great setups, I kept picking the wrong one every day.
I’d gladly hunt with either Mike or Chip again, hoping for better luck on harvest timing next time. There’s only so much we can do about the impact of farming activities, whether on the home front or while traveling. Within the limits of moisture and temperature, the farmer decides when crops will be planted and harvested.
Farm efficiency is highest with large, easily accessible, sunny, level fields laid out conveniently for heavy equipment. But these days, less-efficient places also tend to get planted. Just as with plots, winding farm fields that follow the contours of the land and dip into hidden areas get more daytime deer use than do flatland fields out in the open. So if “bad” fields exist on the land you manage, or even next door, your plots’ productivity as hunting spots can be impacted by the farming schedule.
But do what you can. As Don Higgins has detailed, “soft” edge is great for boosting daytime use. Made up of brush, small trees, weeds and/or grasses, this type of habitat lets deer move into and out of plots with confidence. The right edge thus could be the one missing ingredient to getting more shots at mature bucks.
Certain forbs or grasses with little food value to deer still can find use as edge cover. Goldenrod, broomsedge and some other natives get tall enough that deer feel hidden in them yet still are somewhat exposed to view. (Note that while such invasives as Johnsongrass, multiflora rose and sericea lespedeza can provide soft edge, they’re widely classified as “noxious.” Thus, they’re inadvisable — and in some cases, perhaps even illegal — to plant.)
Managing whitetail habitat is never “one size fits all.” It always involves a unique mix of deer, land, weather, time and money. And you can be sure not every move you make will be a winner. But remember: A bad move doesn’t have to be your last one. If you need to change something, change it.