Building Whitetail Utopia - Part 1
April 25, 2016
The client I was talking to in Mississippi was excited, to say the least. You could feel him beaming with pride as he told me of his son's first kill. The two had been sitting together on stand when the son arrowed the buck as it walked down the "sidewalk" leading from the hinge-cut bedding area to the food plot. I've never been happier to hear someone go on and on about how his property had gone from random deer movement to focused activity.
On another occasion, I was lucky enough to both see and hear that same excited pride in my older cousin. He'd shot a doe that sit. He was thrilled with the shot, but it was the bucks he'd seen that really had him amped. In one sit, he'd watched more Pope & Young bucks than he had in the rest of his life combined. Several nearly gave him shots, but what had him so pumped was that none had busted him. He was able to slip out at dark without a single deer knowing he was there. He was proud, and he had a right to be.
Then there was my own son, Zach. He'd been sitting on a food plot we'd made together. Before the sit was done, he'd shot his first doe and his first buck. I'll be honest, he held it together better than I did. In fact, he was the one that suggested we leave the doe for a bit, just to see if a buck might come out. Had we followed my suggestion, the hunt would have been over after the doe crumpled in the plot.
The reasons for managing hunting properties are many. They're as diverse as the personalities of hunters who manage properties. Still, the best formula for achieving optimum results is the same for each.
Before I dive deeper into this topic, I feel I must bust a couple myths. The first is that far too many believe you need hundreds or even thousands of acres to produce big bucks or make a positive difference in your hunting through management.
I've now offered management services for somewhere around 25 years. During that time, I've been extremely blessed to do long-term work on five separate properties ranging from 1,500 to 4,000 contiguous acres apiece. I won't lie to you; it's way easier to manage the really large properties. Sure, they require more work than a 40, but they also provide an awful lot of room for error. When a buck's entire home range is swallowed by a single property, I don't believe I could drive many of them off those grounds if I tried. If someone hunting that property passes a buck, odds are so much better that he'll be there next year than on smaller properties.
That said, I've had many, many more clients with properties of 40-240 acres. It's true you don't have close to the same margin for error on such grounds. In fact, it's downright easy to drive all deer from properties that size. The result can be a barren wasteland.
However, you'd be flat-out wrong if you believed you can't make a very positive difference on most small to averaged-sized properties. In fact, I have no doubt the hunter owning a 40 can typically make a more dramatic difference on his or her land than can one owning 4,000.
No, I haven't lost my mind. If someone owns a 40 in an area that doesn't already routinely pump out huge deer, they aren't going to do so on a yearly basis just by beginning to manage their hunting land. The owner of the 4,000 might have a shot at doing just that. However, the latter owner likely will have good deer to hunt all season no matter what. Sure, management can make hunting easier and better, but nice deer are probably there every season, all season long, already.
Now let's look at the 40 owner. The first hunt of the year is often his or her best. Not uncommonly, the more it's hunted, the worse the hunting gets. If neighbors have good habitat they either aren't hunting or are hunting smart, that 40 can become void of deer in a heartbeat.
On the flip side, if they manage and hunt it right, the 40 owner can often see more and more deer as season progresses. Instead of the hunt quality dropping over season, that 40 can often attract deer like metal shavings to a powerful magnet, particularly if you have sloppy hunting neighbors. The same can occur on the 4,000, but going from seasons where one has essentially no deer to hunt to having steady or increasing deer numbers is more dramatic than when one has the room for error and sees deer all season long, no matter what they do.
So don't get caught up in the myth that you need large acreages to improve your hunting. Again, it sure is easier on the big tracts, but it can be done on the smaller ones. In fact, you can often see a much more pronounced difference on a smaller tract, compared to when it wasn't being managed.
YOU CAN'T HUNT HERE
The other prevailing myth is that you can't allow family or friends to hunt a property if you want to be serious about managing it. For that matter, you yourself don't want to hunt it until the rut. Even then, you only want to go in on prime-weather days when you think Mr. Big will be moving. After all, every trip in risks exploding the property and sending the buck you want to kill or get another year older running to the neighbors.
If you believe that, don't feel bad. After all, that's how much of the best land you see on TV is managed. If you really want to grow the very biggest deer, offer a ton of food, quality cover and almost never hunt the property.
One key element is missing in all of this, though: How is that approach any fun?
OK, I can see how it might be to someone owning thousands of acres, where large portions can be set aside in that manner while still having ground they can play on during the not-so-perfect hunting days. More power to those people. But for the rest of us, never forget that this is ultimately supposed to be fun.
It doesn't matter if we're talking hunting, putting in food plots, planting trees, hinge cutting or anything else we can do to improve our habitat — if you're not enjoying doing it, stop doing it that way. Everyone's goals will vary at least somewhat, but enjoying habitat and deer management as well as hunting should be at the top of the list.
You bet you can allow your family and friends to hunt that property! In fact, I'd say there's something pretty messed up if you don't allow any loved ones on the place. Sadly, I've known more than a few who wouldn't let their kids or wives hunt the land they owned.
It's pretty safe to say that most North American Whitetail readers take deer hunting very seriously, and that's great! But remember that, ultimately, it's only deer hunting. Lives aren't being saved if you kill the biggest buck of your life. In fact, the world really won't be a better place if you do . . . and won't be a worse one if you don't.
So again, remember that this all should be and can be made to be fun. Get out there with family and friends to both do the work and enjoy the hunt. If it gets too hot, bugs are driving you insane or anything else is occurring to make you miserable, stop for the day. It's not worth being miserable or ruining relationships to get a food plot done or kill a big buck. In fact, hunting and habitat work are both great ways to build and strengthen relationships.
Luckily, making these activities fun and enjoying them with loved ones doesn't have to come at the cost of killing good bucks. All you must do is design and implement an effective plan to meet the goals of allowing ample hunting opportunities while also striving to create great buck hunting. As you'll learn in future parts of this series, it's actually a fairly easy balancing act to pull off.
Of course, there are limits. You aren't going to get away with hunting 20 people on a 40 without blowing up the property. That said, if you identify that you want to enjoy a property with family and friends, set that as a goal and put together a plan to accomplish it, you can get a heck of a lot closer than if you just wing it.
GOALS & A PLAN
This brings us to the most important steps of any habitat and deer management plan: To be most effective, you must first identify all important goals and then develop a plan to achieve them.
The single biggest mistake I see managers make is winging it. Management is much like a jigsaw puzzle, with goals being the picture the puzzle pieces reveal. Each improvement you make is a piece of that puzzle. If you start forcing pieces in at random locations, the final picture probably isn't going to be recognizable or overly pretty.
The following questions will help outline your goals. When answering them, remember that the only wrong answer is a dishonest one:
(1) Which is more important: having the ability to shoot the largest bucks or seeing the most deer?
(2) What's the highest number of hunters on the property at any one time?
(3) What's the max number of hunters at any one time?
(4) What balance are you most comfortable with between recreational activities not related to deer hunting and practices that benefit deer, such as staying out of the woods, not driving ATVs, small-game hunting after deer season, etc.?
(5) Is creating ideal deer habitat more important than having a visually appealing property?
(6) Is a quick fix or greater long-term benefits more important?
(7) When given the choice between improvements that cost money and those that generate income, how much greater must the potential benefits of the out-of-pocket route be before turning down the income-generating route?
(8) What's a realistic amount of time and money you're willing and able to spend on these improvements?
(9) Do you have the desire and ability to be a do-it-yourselfer, or must you contract out the work?
(10) Is your ultimate goal to improve your hunting opportunities or the quality and health of deer on your property? (Although the two can go hand in hand, many plans that focuses exclusively on improving the quality and health of deer result in dispersing their feeding activities. While there can be pluses to that approach, it often makes deer movement much less predictable.)
(12) Are there future activities that should be accounted for up front, such as children potentially starting to hunt with you, adding a house to the property and so on?
Those are merely a handful of the questions I ask potential clients, but I believe they're the most important. With those questions answered honestly, goals emerge — as do limitations in achieving them. No matter what the answers to any of those questions might be, one can create a plan to achieve those goals.
Luckily, there are countless ways to achieve your goals through improvements. As you'll learn in our next issue, some cost money, while others take no more than sweat equity. There are ample effective approaches to achieve almost any goals, almost regardless of the limitations you might face. The key is that the goals be both honest and realistic.
With goals identified, you can then start to look at how best to formulate a plan for accomplishing them. In fact, that's what we'll address in Building Whitetail Utopia - Part 2. Specifically, we'll do an overview of the most commonly used tools available to the manager for improving the habitat. Just remember to have fun during each step of the journey. After all, that should be at the top of everyone's list of primary goals.
For a full list of the questions I ask clients, as well as seeing all the habitat-related info I use to generate a habitat and hunting plan, visit food-plots-for-deer.com. By clicking the Photo Evaluation tab, you can go through the entire process for free. Consider it your homework assignment to be completed before reading the next installment. I promise you'll enjoy it more than the homework you had back in school.