September 22, 2010
By Don Higgins
The early October wind came from a perfect direction for me to hunt a new stand that I had placed the summer before. I wasn't sure what to expect from this new location, but sitting in a tree and watching Mother Nature's show was always worthwhile.
Back in May, I had planted 15 acres of native warm season grasses in three separate tracts on this property. These grass fields now stood 8 feet tall and appeared to offer the local deer a prime bedding area. The stand I was hunting was situated right in the corner of an 8-acre field containing these grasses. My elevated position gave me the perfect chance to see the entire field and gauge how well the whitetails were receiving their new bedroom.
After settling in, I started glassing the field with my Vortex optics, looking for bedded whitetails. Within minutes, I spotted the antlers of a buck bedded only 50 yards away. His rack blended perfectly with the tall grass, but my elevated position allowed me to catch the movement of his antlers as he swiveled his head.
By the time darkness ended my hunt, eight different bucks had risen to their feet and exited the bedding cover as they made their way to feed in nearby fields. Although none of them were old enough to interest me, I was impressed to say the least. Six months earlier, this field was covered in cornstalks. Now it was such prime whitetail bedding cover that it held one buck per acre!
THE HABITAT PUZZLE
Although I don't own a huge tract of land, I've been blessed with 120 acres on which I've been able to implement my management program. I've learned a lot of valuable lessons over the years, and I've been able to share many of those lessons with the readers of North American Whitetail, as well as with the clients who hire me to improve the whitetail habitat on their property. In their quest to create prime whitetail habitat and hunting opportunities, I've seen areas where both novices and experts have placed a lot of emphasis, and I've also seen areas they've totally ignored.
Food plots have become the rage in the whitetail hunting community. I think it's safe to say that today's whitetail herd is better fed than at any other time in history! In some cases, though, we've gone so far to the extreme in planting food plots that we have offered foods that deer won't eat.
I venture to say that anyone who has done even the most minimal amount of habitat work has probably tried his or her hand at planting a food plot. Food plots definitely have their place in the management picture, and they are an important piece of the overall habitat puzzle. But they are far from being the most critical piece, especially for the landowner/manager looking to improve hunting success.
GOOD COVER A MUST
Quality bedding cover is far and away the most important thing that any whitetail enthusiast can provide on his or her property. Think about it for a minute. Where does a mature buck spend the greatest amount of time during daylight hours? I'll give you a hint: It isn't in the middle of a food plot! A mature buck demands security, and he'll go as far as necessary to find it. It's nothing for a buck to wait in his sanctuary until dark and then walk two miles cross-country to a prime feeding location. He will leave huge tracks, rubs, scrapes and other sign near the feeding area that will increase the pulse of any hunter on the property.
Come daylight, however, the maker of all that exciting sign will be settled in his safe haven, far from the hunter who is waiting in a stand near the food plot. I continually stress in my articles that in order to kill a mature buck, you have to hunt him where he spends his daylight hours.
THE THICKER, THE BETTER
Prime bedding cover has two requirements. It has to be thick and it has to be secure.
Security simply means free of disturbances, and it's easy to keep an area free of human disturbances by simply making it off-limits to human traffic. Other disturbances like free-roaming dogs can be tougher to control. Nonetheless, every hunting property needs a sanctuary area set aside that is free from disturbances, human or otherwise.
An area can have the ideal vegetative cover for deer bedding. But without security, it's far less appealing to whitetails -- especially mature bucks. Getting big bucks to bed on a particular property with any regularity requires thick cover. If you are fortunate enough to already have thick cover on your land, you can probably achieve the desired results by simply making that thick area off limits to human intrusion.
However, it's much more likely that you'll have to create, or at least improve, the cover on your property to make it ideal for mature bucks. This is not a bad problem to have, because creating thick bedding cover allows you to determine exactly where it will be located on your property. You can then lay it out in such a way that your hunting opportunities will be maximized.
CREATING GOOD COVER
There are a number of ways to create thick bedding cover. I mentioned the planting of native warm season grasses at the beginning of this article. There is no faster way to get almost instant results. You can reap the rewards of a new prime bedding area during the first hunting season after the grasses are planted. To do this, you'll need to plant an open area in order to get a good stand of grasses. Several grass species such as Indian grass, big bluestem and switchgrass are all candidates for these plantings.
One word of caution: multiple varieties of each of these species are available, and all varieties are not created equal. Some will lay flat in the winter months once they are subject to snow or high winds. Other varieties are much more tolerant of harsh conditions and have superior "standability." Needless to say, a field of grasses lying flat on the ground is not going to offer much security for bedding whitetails.
Establishing these grasses can be a bit difficult if proper steps aren't followed. First, I recommend that you spray the field to be planted with a combination of glyphosate and Plateau herbicides. The glyphosate will kill any weeds that are already growing, and the Plateau is a residual herbicide created specifically for these native grass plantings to cut down on later weed competition. Planting should be done in mid to late May and can be done right after the herb
icide has been applied.
If possible, use a no-till drill specially designed for warm season grasses. These seeds are very difficult to plant with a conventional planter, and even broadcast seeding can be difficult although not entirely impossible. Seed depth is very critical and should be 1/4 inch. When broadcast seeding is used, it is recommended that the seeding rate be increased 1 1/2 to two times the recommended rate to make up for seed that is not planted at the proper depth. Use a cultipacker or a light drag after a broadcast planting to ensure that the seed gets good soil contact.
Once a warm season grass field is established, it will last forever as long as it is maintained properly. The very best way to maintain these plantings is by burning the field every couple of years in early spring. Burning a warm-season grass field will not only stimulate these grasses, it will also burn weed seeds and woody sprouts that are competing with the grasses.
When planting these fields, keep in mind that they will need to be burned. Plant firebreaks of clover around any edges that may cause problems when the field is burned.
As much as I enjoy the warm season grass fields on my property, I also like diversity in bedding cover, just as I like diversity among my food plots. Thick woody vegetation makes a tremendous bedding area, and I try to have plenty of it on my property. If not present, I always suggest creating it when offering advice to others. Most wooded cover can be made thicker, and usually this can be accomplished with little expense. I start by evaluating the timber value in the chosen location and determining if it is worth having a logger come in and harvest saleable timber. If so, I let the loggers do their work before I begin mine.
Logging alone will sometimes create the desired results, but I like to go in after the loggers have gone and open things up even more by cutting undesirable species. Simply taking a chainsaw into an area and randomly dropping trees will instantly let sunlight in and cause a host of weeds and woody vegetation to start growing. This is a natural cycle in which the new trees will eventually grow tall enough to take over by shading out the sunlight, thus preventing weeds and grasses as well as younger trees from growing.
Whenever using the "chainsaw approach" to creating bedding areas, I always use some timber stand improvement philosophy by properly spacing the remaining desirable species and leaving those with the best shape and trunk development to mature. On rare occasions, I'll work in an area with few or no desirable species. In these areas, I level almost every tree and then come back in the spring and plant seedlings of more desirable species.
Once a wooded area has been cut or timbered and the canopy opened up to let sunlight in, the location will get better and better for a number of years as the vegetation matures and gets thicker. Eventually, of course, the area will again be taken over by mature trees. By slowly working your way through the timber on a property, you can create a situation in which various parts of the timber are at different stages of development and you always have prime bedding areas. Depending on the property, I would suggest planning a new cut every five to 10 years.
Over the past decade, I've found that I get as much enjoyment from the habitat improvement work I do on my land as I do from hunting on it. Nothing compares to seeing deer or other wildlife "take to" a project that you've implemented, whether it's feeding in a food plot or using a bedding area that you've created. As you work on your own property, keep in mind that there are several pieces to the habitat puzzle. Put them all together and manage things right and you will have a complete picture of whitetail utopia. Leave out the most important piece, and you'll never reap the rewards that are possible.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
To order an autographed copy of the author's popular book Hunting Trophy Whitetails in the Real World, send a check or money order for $25 to Higgins Outdoors, Rt. 1 Box 271, Gays, Illinois 61928 or order online at www.higginsoutdoors.com.