In Building Whitetail Utopia - Part 1, we covered some important foundational topics for habitat improvement and deer management. We noted that it isn't necessary to control a large acreage or to keep others from hunting your ground to make a positive difference.
Setting goals and designing a plan to achieve them lets you significantly improve your hunting while enjoying it with family and friends. And having fun and enjoying hunting should be primary goals of any management plan.
In Part 2, we'll cover some of the most significant tools in the manager's toolbox to improve the habitat. Although space won't allow for covering all potential tools or even the finer details of those covered, I hope this will be enough to at least open your eyes to many of the most significant improvement methods available.
This won't be the smoothest writing you've ever read. Instead, it will be a choppy series of topics. However, for those wanting to improve their hunting lands, it could be a real eye-opener. So let's dive right in.
Starting off with a bang, no other technique has the ability to transform most woods from too open into a thick, nasty tangle as fast as hinge cutting. The reason for this is that it simultaneously opens the canopy, encouraging new growth while dropping much of the previous canopy to the forest floor.
The act of hinge cutting is nothing more than sawing far enough through a tree to get it to drop, but still remain alive. The uncut portion then works as a "hinge" in allowing the branches to maintain a connection to the root system. The tree continues to grow, but now much of its growth is within a whitetail's reach. Between the newly accessible browse the hinge-cut trees provide and the new growth the extra sunlight spurs, this can create a surplus of new browse.
At the same time, it drastically thickens a woods. Remember, when it comes to cover, anything over around five feet up is of little to no value to deer. Sure, they can stand on their back legs to browse, but it's the lower cover that provides them with that feeling of safety.
With this in mind, imagine hinge cutting a good-sized tree about five feet off the ground. Assuming the hinge is successful, you now have many of the upper branches near ground level, as well as the trunk running parallel to the ground at around five feet up. This tree now offers so much more cover than when it was standing that I'm not even sure how to quantify the difference this one cut made. Let's just say it's a game changer.
Due to liability issues, I suggest you contract a professional to do all chainsaw work. Whether you do that or not is 100 percent your choice, but that's my official suggestion. Anyone using a chainsaw must use all safety gear at all times. That means always wearing chaps, a helmet with face shield and logger's gloves, boots and jacket.
Likewise, never try to get a tree of any real size to fall away from the direction in which it leans. If you don't feel comfortable cutting a tree, don't do it. Dead trees and trees with dead branches also are to be left alone. There's a reason loggers refer to them as "widow makers." Always err on the side of caution and follow all chainsaw safety recommendations. It's just not worth the risk.
With all of this in mind and in practice, hinge cutting is pretty easy. Before cutting, determine which way the tree leans. Then have it cut between 40-70 percent through on the side the tree is leaning away from. Remember, the goal is to get the upper portion to fall while maintaining a live connection to the roots.
On small trees, you often can cut 40-60 percent of the way through and then pull them over. This allows more bark to remain connected and is great for their survival rate. However, on larger trees, don't stop cutting until the tree begins to fall. The risk of dangerous kickouts is greatly decreased by continuing the cut until the tree starts falling. Also, large trees have a greater tendency to split and ruin the hinge when not cut far enough through.
If you vary the height and layout of hinge-cut areas, they can serve many useful purposes. By cutting at a height of around five feet, the cuts are high enough to allow deer to move freely underneath them. That is a great approach for creating bedding and in-woods feeding areas.
Varying the heights of the cuts can create blockades and screens to hide the hunter's movements. This can then be used to keep deer from going downwind of stands or to funnel deer past specific locations.
You also can hinge trees perpendicular to where you want deer to travel. By centering a 28-inch "sidewalk" through trees mainly hinged perpendicularly to each side, you offer them easy travel through enhanced cover. Assuming this new "sidewalk" connects two areas deer naturally want to travel between, such as a food source and a bedding area, it can be very effective in getting deer to travel precisely where you want.
As you can see, the uses of hinge cutting are many. This truly is a powerful tool for instantly transforming a mature woods into thicker cover and increasing the food supply.
Of course, planting trees is another effective way to create cover. The catch is it takes years to realize the benefits. However, tree plantings can add value, thermal cover and specific deer foods hinge cutting can't.
There are three keys to successful tree plantings worth mentioning here. The first is to match the planting with the climate zone and soil conditions. Trying to force trees that thrive in rich, moist soils onto that sandy ridge won't often end well. Luckily, there are habitat-enhancing trees that can fit almost any climate and soil condition.
Next, appropriate tree spacing is important. For example, let's look at planting spruce for thermal cover. By planting most spruce species 12 feet apart and staggering their rows, adequate sunlight is able to get to the lower branches. In turn, the trees will hold their lower branches much longer than tightly planted spruce and thus provide increased winter thermal cover.
Finally, many trees must be protected from animal damage. This is often the case with fruit trees, where rodents girdling the trunk and bucks using them as rubbing posts can lead to a lot of wasted effort and money.
Warm-season native grass plantings, such as switchgrass, big bluestem and Indian grass, are another effective way of creating cover. Although they can be tricky to establish, once going they provide quality security cover for deer in considerably less time than is required with tree plantings.
When established, native grasses can serve as great fawning cover and bedding areas. From a hunting perspective, they also seem to be magnets for unwilling does looking to lose the bucks chasing them. At the same time, they can work well for creating privacy fences for screening. This can be helpful when you want to shield prying eyes from a road or to hide hunters traveling to and from stands.
While warm-season native grasses aren't right for every property, such plantings are an important tool in our toolbox. In the right spots, they can have a very positive impact.
Prescribed (controlled) burning is another tool. Not only does it help control certain unwanted plant species and revitalize others, it releases nutrients back into the soil. In turn, emerging plants are capable of increased growth rates. Many think of burns as maintenance for CRP lands and native grass plantings, but they're also valuable for revitalizing wooded areas.
In either case, treat fire with extreme respect and caution. Either have extensive experience with controlled burning or leave it to the professionals. Even a slight increase in wind speed or shift in direction can transform a well-mannered burn into a challenge quickly — especially if you're not properly trained and/or prepared.
It's been my experience that introducing water sources is either a godsend or pretty much a waste of time and effort. In some places, such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan or Pennsylvania, a secluded puddle in the woods is likely to be one of the best hunting spots on a property. The same often can be said for some of the Deep South states. But in some of the heartland states, whitetails seem to be far more ambivalent to waterholes. That was a lesson I learned the hard way, several times over.
Food plots are certainly an important tool. In regions void of farm fields they can draw deer like moths to a flame. Even in ag-rich areas, they can be powerful hunting draws.
For the deer manager, one of their more important benefits is supplying quality nutrition during the low periods: midsummer in arid regions and winter farther north. For as much talk as there is for the need of quality nutrition during spring's early antler growth and birthing months, that really is of little importance in comparison to improving nutrition during low-food periods.
Remember: to help grow the biggest, healthiest deer, your food-source chain is only as strong as its weakest season. Strengthen that link and your chain just got a lot stronger than enhancing one of the stronger links.
BULLDOZERS & BACKHOES
If you want to rearrange the deer world quickly, bulldozers and backhoes are things of great beauty. A skilled operator can create access roads, clear in-woods food plots and adorn each with a water hole, not to mention creating strategic blockades — all within a day or two.
All of this is pretty much common knowledge. What might surprise you is the low cost. I've always been able to find a local operator and reasonable equipment for under $120 an hour, with most falling at or just below $100. When I personally run the equipment (which is most often), I've never paid more than $75 an hour. Of course, these numbers are all for smaller equipment, but that works best for these projects anyway.
I'm not pretending the costs don't add up. However, a day's work can make a huge difference in laying out a property. For about the cost of a top-of-the-line outfitted bow, these habitat improvements can last the rest of your hunting lifetime.
If asked to select a single act that could do the very most to improve a property's quality of hunting and the caliber of bucks staying on it, most would think food plots. But my experiences consistently reveal that creating sanctuaries is typically the most significant improvement you can make.
On the overwhelming majority of properties I professionally manage, I almost always designate 70-90 percent of deer cover as a sanctuary. Doing so encourages deer to pile into a property as pressure mounts in surrounding areas and allows them to feel safe on that ground. The most common result is a deer population that increases over the course of hunting season, instead of declining.
At the same time, you train deer to feel safe on the property. In return, when spooked, they have a strong tendency to run deeper into it, as opposed to leaving. At the same time, because they feel safe there, even the most mature bucks are much more likely to move more freely during daylight. All of this adds up to a huge difference maker for hunting.
As we'll cover in the next installment, one of the tricks is to lay out the land so it still offers ample hunting opportunities. In doing so, we create the best of all hunting worlds: relaxed deer that can be hunted from low-impact, productive stands.
WHAT NOT TO IMPROVE
On the flip side, it's also typically important to have areas void of deer activity. Remember, most managers' goals are going to be to both increase the deer's health and the quality of hunting opportunities. This can create a strong desire to improve every inch of your hunting grounds. Doing so leads to deer being everywhere.
Although this sounds great, how do you then safely get to and from stands? Where's that buck going to be on any particular day if everywhere is prime habitat? There are significant advantages to focusing specific deer activities in specific areas. It provides much lower-impact, better-odds stand locations. Deer will never follow all the rules we make for them, but encouraging activity and movement through defined areas offers tremendous hunting and management advantages.
In some regards, this piece perhaps has to have been as frustrating to read as it has been to write. It's hard to mention these tools without getting into the finer details of how each can be used to help our hunting and management efforts. But it's much like building a house. While laying the foundation might not be as thrilling as seeing the walls or roof go up, that foundation is mission critical in the quest for ultimate success.
Learning which tools are at your disposal is one of the first steps toward improving deer land. Then it's a matter of deciding which ones to use. In our next issue, we'll discuss how to put all of this together into a plan for achieving realistic goals.