I own a grand total of 14 acres and I've discovered that it takes a strategic management approach to make my limited amount of real estate the best possible deer-hunting site. If you want to get the most out of your small piece of property each season, there are a few key points you need to keep in mind.
First, you should focus on drawing deer to your side of the fence during the hunting season. Second, determine any "limiting" factors for the deer herd in your region. And finally, plan your hunting schedule around the times that deer are attracted to the resources available on your land. Let's look at each of these factors in more detail.
FOCUS ON THE SEASON
It's extremely important to always keep in mind that your biggest goal is to have deer moving through your property during the hunting season. It won't do you much good to have deer bedding and feeding all over your mini-farm in the spring and summer if they move somewhere else in the fall. Start by thinking about the factors that draw deer to specific locations in your part of the country in the fall and early winter.
For the most part, this involves food sources. What food sources do the animals seek out at that time of year in your region? In my part of Missouri, row crops and acorns are the biggest draws for deer when hunting season is open, although food plots featuring attractive mixes of vegetation are another good bet.
However, bow season in Missouri opens Sept. 15 and doesn't end until Jan. 15.
Obviously, the needs of the deer herd change greatly over this four-month period. During the first part of the season, when temperatures are still warm, I've found that hunting near a preferred watering hole is sometimes better than focusing on a food source. Then, in late season during the dead of winter, available food and protective cover from severe weather are the most important factors that dictate where the deer will be.
If you live in an area where the hunting season spans a period of several months, think about how the needs and preferences of the deer change over the course of the season.
This way of thinking will help you determine when deer are seeking different resources during the season. The next challenge is trying to attract them to your property to obtain one of those sought-after resources.
IDENTIFY LIMITING FACTORS
Obviously, it's unrealistic to try to meet all of the habitat needs of your deer herd on only a handful of acres. Don't expect to be able to provide bedding areas, premium food sources, watering holes, protection from severe weather, and other important habitat characteristics on one small tract of land. It simply can't be done.
You have to accept the fact that your local deer will probably never find everything they need on your property alone. However, once you understand that you cannot provide everything they need, you can begin to focus your management efforts on one or two specific resources that your land can offer the deer -- things that will attract them and keep them coming back.
The best way to determine what that "magic bean" might be is to think about the limiting factors for the deer herd in your area. A limiting factor is any resource deer utilize that is not common in your neck of the woods. It's usually limited in supply but always in demand by the deer. In dry regions, permanent water sources are often limiting factors. In an agricultural area where entire farms are devoted to row crops, thick cover for bedding and escaping severe weather and/or hunters might be the limiting factor.
In many areas, a specific food source that deer crave but have a hard time finding can be a limiting factor. Depending on where you live, a grove of persimmon trees, a stand of white oaks, a field of oats in the fall, an orchard of apple trees, or a newly sprouted patch of ladino clover could be a resource that deer don't find in abundance.
Do your best to identify one or two limiting factors that occur in your region that deer seek out during the hunting season. This might take some time and legwork. Spend time driving the roads around your land. Identify what types of habitat are available to the deer. More importantly, try to note the resources that are not available.
In addition to driving, make time to talk with adjoining landowners. Ask them about the predominant habitats on their property, and pay special attention to any key food sources that the deer find there. Finally, spend some time studying an aerial photo that displays all the property surrounding yours.
As you investigate what lies on the other side of your fence, pay special attention to things that will likely be used by deer as food sources, bedding areas, watering sources, or cover from severe weather. Remember that your main goal in all of this is to determine if there is an important resource that is not available on the surrounding properties. If all goes well and your homework pays off, you'll discover one or two limiting factors that your deer herd will seek out.
Once you've identified these factors, you now hold one of the keys in luring bucks onto your property during hunting season. If you are especially lucky, your property already contains one resource that is limited in your area. If that's the case, you should try to manage your acreage so that you enhance that limiting factor, making it as attractive to the deer as possible.
What sets your property apart from the surrounding deer habitat? Maybe you own an overgrown field that is a great bedding site. Maybe your land contains an orchard that produces a great crop of fruit every fall. Maybe you have the only pond in your area that holds water year 'round. It could even be that your property is full of "good for nothing" pines or cedars that will draw deer in during times of harsh weather. Once you identify one or two of these limiting factors on your property, make sure you manage your land so that you enhance them.
But what if you've studied the deer habitat in your area and you discover that nothing sets your land apart from the land surrounding it? In that case, you have more work to do.
First, make certain you have a good handle on what some of the limiting factors are in your locale. Then, think about what you can do to add habitat on your property that addresses one or two of those limiting elements.
If there are not any really great bedding areas around, do what you have to do to create ideal bedding sites on your acreage. If water is limited, build a pond. If a certain preferred food source is not available, plant it and cultivate it. And if possible, combine several of these new resources so that deer will have more than just one reason to walk onto your land during hunting season.
Recently I planted a small apple orchard on my 14 acres. To my knowledge, there are no other apple trees in the area. I also have plans to build a pond that will offer a permanent water source. Although we cannot provide everything deer need on small tracts, providing a few different resources is much better than providing only one.
SCHEDULE YOUR HUNTS
Finally, plan your hunting schedule around the time that the limiting factor on your property provides the biggest attraction to the local deer herd. Here are some examples:
1) If your have a popular water source on your land that attracts deer from miles around, make sure you hunt it on the warm, dry days early in the season when deer are prone to use it the most.
2) If you have a fall food plot, make sure you hunt it when the vegetation is just beginning to grow well. That's when it's most attractive to deer.
3) If your property has a thick stand of pines or cedars, make sure you hunt it on bad-weather days (extreme cold and wind or when the snow is piling up) because that's when the deer will be most likely to move into this cover.
4) If there are any hard- or soft-mast-producing trees on your land, hunt them when the nuts or fruits begin to fall. The deer will quickly discover this fruit and add it to their diet.
In summary, determine the limiting factors that affect your local deer herd during the time of year when hunting season is open. Then, manage your property to provide one or more of those limited resources. Do this, and you'll greatly improve your chances of harvesting a good buck on your side of the fence this season and in the seasons ahead!