One obvious solution is to take steps to create your own big-buck haven. Believe it or not, with a little work it is entirely possible to turn low-production agricultural land into a hunting paradise.
Mark Beck is a unique real estate agent and land consultant who specializes in converting poor quality agricultural land into the ultimate recreational paradise for hunters. He's had plenty of experience in creating trophy buck sanctuaries that routinely produce true wallhangers across the Midwest. Typically, Mark will purchase a marginally producing piece of property and incorporate several key steps to bring the land to its fullest potential as a whitetail retreat. Then, he'll sell the land to buyers interested in hunting mature trophy bucks.
Whether you own or lease 100 to 1,000 acres, Mark's formula for converting these properties into big-buck havens will also work for you. Here are some of his tips for success.
BEFORE YOU BUY
Compare the purchase of a hunting property with that of buying a house. Long before you begin shopping for your dream home, you should have a very specific idea about certain requirements, such as the number of bedrooms you want. The same thought process should apply for purchasing hunting land. The property should offer certain features before it can fulfill your desire for growing big bucks. Before you buy, consider some of the following basics.
Economics: This should be your first consideration. Your decision on how much acreage to buy and where to buy will be determined by what you can afford. As you work through numbers with your banker or accountant, it may become evident that you might need to bring in partners to afford the amount of land you desire. This brings another dynamic into the equation, but it may be something that you'll want to consider.
Buy or lease: Leasing instead of purchasing the property will dramatically affect future decision-making. Without a long-term lease, it may be difficult to implement land management practices to create a big-buck haven. Since many of the steps require several years of work and considerable cost, try to secure hunting rights to the property for at least 10 years. (If 10 years scares the landowner, try something creative like a five-year lease with a five-year option to renew.) Make sure the landowner knows you want to implement changes on the land to enhance the deer hunting, and make sure that he or she fully agrees with the plan. It's best to get the agreement in writing.
Establishing goals: Your primary goal to create a big-buck haven may be influenced by secondary priorities. Do you also want to hunt waterfowl or upland game? If so, your decision on what to buy will be affected and a multi-species land plan will be needed.
Using maps and photos: Topographic maps and aerial photos are important tools that will help you make a decision. You can answer many questions by looking at maps, not to mention the amount of foot time saved. Ideally, you would like to walk every inch of a piece of property before buying it, but this may not be feasible. Maps and aerial photos can help you pinpoint features to investigate on foot. In short, they'll help you use your time more efficiently.
Note various features: While investigating the property, always be aware of key features like water sources, flooding history, soil quality, erosion potential, habitat carrying capacity and diversity of the flora and fauna.
Location: Where you locate is another important consideration. What are the neighbors doing? What public land is nearby and how is it managed?
"A 10- or 20-acre piece, in the right location, could produce a lot of wildlife," Mark noted. "I also advise beginning your search near big river systems or in floodplains. In other words, I like to look for property that qualifies for government assistance programs."
DEVELOPING A LAND PLAN
Management requires planning. Once you've purchased your property, it's time to put some serious thought into its management. For that you'll need a good plan. A typical floor plan for a house provides basic information for important things like the dimensions of each room, the number and location of wall sockets and the number of doors and windows in the house. If you think of your land plan as if it were a floor plan, it should provide you with such basic information as the size and location of timber, all open spaces, waterways, ponds, wetlands, food plots and any other prominent features.
If you are going to focus only on hunting big bucks, this makes your plan more precise and less costly. If your goal includes managing for multi-species, this will add another level of consideration to your planning as already mentioned. Keep in mind that deer always benefit from various plantings and habitat manipulation required for other species, such as turkeys, quail or waterfowl, so don't limit your goals.
THE TREE FACTOR
Although timber manipulation is often one of the most overlooked aspects of land management, this is one area where Mark excels. He once owned a tree-planting business and planted several million trees throughout Illinois.
"Call someone who has experience in this area," Mark advised. "It will save you a lot of time and frustration. It sounds easy, just plant some trees and native grasses and your property will become a great habitat. But your plan needs to be thoroughly thought out in much greater detail. Think about where you will plant trees and locate food plots to make the hunting better -- not just next year, but 10 to 15 years from now.
"At first, trees will be small, but in 10 years, you may have a tree big enough to hold a tree stand. If you do want a tree stand in a particular location, carefully consider the species you might place there. Faster growing trees, such as a green ash or cottonwood, will get you in that stand location much faster than an oak tree will.
"Keep in mind that trees are planted according to zone. Zones simply identify the tree's ability to handle the weather, and you should know what zone you are in and what soil types you have before you invest in trees. A certain type of oak tree that prospers in Mississippi may not do as well
if planted in Michigan. Try to plant mast-producing trees, like oaks, some of which grow faster than others.
"Young trees may be a food source for deer as browse. Some will probably be eaten by deer and not survive, so plant many more trees than you need. Other species like honey locust won't do as well in low-lying areas, but they grow well on hillsides, and they're fairly inexpensive. Chokeberry, serviceberries, cherries and shrubs will also do well in many areas. Fruit trees need to be protected. The hardest part about planting trees is trying to protect them from browsing deer."
WATER IS A MUST
"Water works wonders, but be careful what you attempt," Mark said. "Some government programs require that you maintain water nine months out of the year in shallow-water areas. You may have to put in a water control structure, but be careful not to flood your neighbor's property. Blocking of ditches may work, but digging a pond or a hole is not part of the prescribed practices of the government's program. In areas not enlisted in any programs, water hole hunting may be something you want to implement if it is not already available."
EDGES AND GRASSES
"Deer like to hang out around and travel along edges, and diverse edge habitat is very important," Mark said. "Every time you change the habitat, you create edge, whether it's from prairie grass to a food plot edge or from a corn field to a forest. Even hedgerows, ponds or riverbanks create edge. Instead of having one big food plot, you always get much better deer habitat whenever you create a lot of different edges.
"Prairie grass and other native grasses create excellent habitat for deer in a relatively short amount of time. A forest may take years to grow, but you can have a big-buck haven in a large field of prairie grass within a couple of years. However, I don't recommend invasive grasses like Johnson grass, Reed canary, brome grasses or fescue, because they choke out everything else and they aren't much good for deer.
"It'll take a couple of years for prairie grass to get started. I recommend putting in multiple fields of prairie grass that are burned every two to three years. Because they tend to be deep-rooted plants that take a lot of time to develop their root systems, people often plant these grasses and think they are dead if nothing happens in six months. Allow about two years before you notice the plant growing. Also, if you mow it too short, you can kill it."
SOIL TYPES AND PH
"Deer inherently know which plants have the most nutrients and they'll usually eat those plants," Mark said. "But you may have the most beautifully designed food plots in the world and if you don't offer the right nutrients and pH in the soil type, the deer may not use those food plots at all. (pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity in the soil.)"
Ask your Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) office about the soil type in your area, and find out if it's a sandy loam or clay. Ask your agent what can be grown in your area. Test the pH of the soil to determine if fertilizers are needed.
"In some places, you may only have the local farmer's crops as food plots," Mark said. "Some of the best food plots are crop fields where some of the rows of crops like corn are left standing. Some hunters tend to think of food plots as killing plots, places to harvest a deer, but you must also consider the deer's year-round nutritional needs and plant accordingly. Late winter and early spring are often overlooked times of year when deer need a food source the most."
"Whenever possible I recommend designating a sanctuary on your property where no one is allowed to enter during certain times of the year. Tree plantings and large fields of native grasses make excellent refuges for big bucks and they'll help keep deer on your property. Also, they're excellent places to find shed antlers, and sheds can tell you which deer made it through the winter."
IMPLEMENTING YOUR PLAN
"Step-by-step planning is best," Mark said. "When I bought my own property, my first goal was to plant 100,000 trees. That was quite a chore. But once we got it done, there was a great sense of accomplishment. What was once a corn field will eventually become a forest of native species producing mast for wildlife."
Plant in stages: "If you buy a bottomland farm that is tillable, plan to do some planting the first spring. Corn and bean stubble make excellent barriers for weeds. Native grasses can be planted up until June 1 throughout much of the Midwest. You can get in and plant your trees a lot easier in the spring and summer when it's drier. Tree planting should be a first priority since it can be a daunting task. It's always better to plant trees as soon as the ground thaws.
"In the summer, spend your time putting in cover crops to keep weeds under control where your food plots are going to be. Wheat, rye or oats are good crops to plant. Any annual-type grasses that will act as a cover crop to keep broadleaf weeds down are a good choice, and they'll provide green fields for the fall."
Keep it manageable: "Don't get overwhelmed by the task if you have large acreage. Someone with 1,000 acres may have to do a few sections at a time instead of working on implementing a plan all at once across the entire property."
Hire it out or do it yourself: This is a difficult question for some folks to answer. The cost of hiring an expert to do some of the work may seem prohibitive, but if you don't, you may end up spending more in the long run.
"There's more to planting trees than just digging a hole and sticking them in the ground," Mark explained. "If you plant 10,000 bare root seedlings and don't do it right, you may have wasted several thousand dollars. Seedlings need to be kept in a cooler beforehand at the right temperature. If they start drying out or budding too soon, or are not packed in at the right depth, they could easily die. Unless you've had some experience, I'd recommend hiring an expert to handle projects like that."
MAINTAIN YOUR PROPERTY
Long-range planning means maintaining what you started. Keep erosion under control by monitoring waterways. A long-range plan for timber management that might include some clearcutting or select harvesting should be considered. And it's always a good idea to work with your neighbors to expand the number of acres under similar management.
Some people specialize in buying and selling land after incorporating management plans for big bucks. If you are considering purchasing such a property, ask to see those plans firsthand. If you plan to sell your property after a certain period of time, keep accurate records of all you have done. It may increase your property value and help you make the sale. Chances are, most people buying recreational property for hunting will own the land for generations, but you never know.
Personal preference often comes into play when developing a quality management plan for your property.
"Decide whether you are trying to kill trophy bucks or managing for numbers," Mark said. "In either case, doe management is important. Keep the carrying capacity of the land in mind by utilizing trail cameras and other legal means of monitoring your deer numbers."
PROOF THAT IT WORKS
As a young man, Abe Lincoln walked the fields and waterways near New Salem State Park in Illinois and once surveyed the land that Mark now owns.
"I own 436 acres that were filled with corn and soybeans when I first bought the land," Mark explained. "During the first year, we planted 100,000 trees on 290 acres. The following year, I planted 40 to 50 acres of prairie grass, then incorporated food plants according to the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) guidelines. What was once a vast expanse of crop fields is now a wildlife-rich ecosystem. After five years, we are now seeing trees that are over 20 feet tall. Cottonwoods and other species came up on their own."
Mark and a few friends have taken several quality deer since implementing his land management plan. What was once marginal agricultural land has now turned into Mark's personal big-buck haven. By following his advice, you can have yours, too!
(Editor's Note: Mark Beck is a licensed real estate broker at Aspen Real Estate in central Illinois. Visit his Web site at www.landguys.net. Or, visit Cabela's Trophy Properties at www.Cabelas.com.)