DIY Habitat Improvement: Building Your Own Deer Dreams
July 17, 2015
For most of us whitetail hunters it starts not as a firm plan, but as a flickering wish.
We love being in deer country, but periodically we find ourselves yearning for more control of it. The feeling grows from at least one bad experience, when a hunt on either public or someone else's private land goes wrong because of too many fellow hunters, too few deer . . . or both.
For whatever the reason(s), over time we find ourselves wishing more and more than we could call the shots.
Stack up enough such frustrating experiences and many hunters eventually decide to lease private land. They assemble a group of like-minded individuals into a hunting club, and they set about making things better. They do a bit of habitat improvement, as allowed by the landowner, and they enjoy having more control of their situation than they ever did as public hunters or invited guests.
Yes, they soon realize there's a lot of work to do, and it for sure costs more than the old way — but on a well-run club without a lot of member squabbles or turnover, that tradeoff is often plenty good enough. That's why thousands of whitetail addicts keep playing the leasing game right up to the end of their hunting careers.
But for some of us serious hunters, there's yet another level to reach. We can bypass all of the frustrations of public hunting and the restrictions and politics of leasing and jump right into the captain's chair. We can own the land ourselves, and so do with it as we please.
North American Whitetail photo editor Ron Sinfelt grew up in Virginia and now lives just outside Atlanta. He started out his deer career as a public land hunter, and he's enjoyed a lot of success operating that way in several states.
But over the years, he and his wife, Victoria, found themselves wishing for something more stable and controllable than either public land or a hunting club could provide them. They wanted to own some dirt of their own.
Interesting, Ron says the dream didn't begin as a plan to buy a farm. All the Sinfelt's were looking for was maybe five acres on which to camp and then walk onto adjacent public land for their actual hunting. But as they searched here and there for the right situation, they ended up stumbling into something more: 42 unimproved but surprisingly affordable acres bordering a vast national forest.
Like all potential land buyers, Ron and Victoria were uncertain of what to do. The tract would cost far more than they'd intended to spend. But then, it seemed a great deal in an area with a lot of potential. Should they buy it or keep looking?
Finally a decision was made: to buy the tract. The Sinfelt's closed on it in spring 2014 and immediately came face to face with what to do next.
There was so much facing them: property lines to post, roads to build, food plots to clear, you name it. But they jumped in without hesitation and began the never-ending process of turning a piece of raw land in Appalachia into something much more: a place where deer dreams could come true.
For more on developing an overall food plot strategy, check out this Dr. Deer video from NAW TV:
I've been impressed with the results the Sinfelts have achieved in little more than a year of owning the land. With that in mind, I asked Ron to assemble the following slideshow of some steps he and his wife have taken to convert raw woods into a well-managed piece of deer habitat. We hope you enjoy this look at the inner workings of a new piece of habitat, and we look forward to updating the image bank as the Sinfelts continue working to improve the land and hunting.
Once the contract for our property was signed and accepted, we couldn't wait to get out and explore. Luckily the person we were buying from allowed us to do just that. While this looks like a great food plot location, we chose to use it as a staging area since it was right by the road.
My buddy Joe Holcombe brought his skid-steer by to help put the finishing touches on our road.
We had a few days to thoroughly scout the area and were able to put up some make shift, homemade corn feeders, so we could begin our trail camera surveys.
It appears that our efforts were much appreciated by the local deer herd, they stayed on the test sight day and night until all the feed was gone.
When you are thinking of buying land (for any reason really) it is always good advice to view it in the winter. You really can see the lay of the land and you will also know pretty quickly where you have drainage problems. Here my friend Adam (background) helped me dig a much-needed trench for a driveway pipe. This allowed us to get off the main road without needing four-wheel drive.
Once spring arrived, we got to work clearing a proper road to access the property. Every 'œimprovement' a property has will elevate the price. We bought totally raw land, so raw in fact we had to cut our way in from day one, but that also made it more affordable.
Vickie led the way deeper into the woods with a pull behind mower. If you don't have access to a bush-hog, a pull behind mower is the way to go for clearing roads and food plots.
Here I had already cleared the land with the plot master once, but it was time for the fall planting and all I could bring on this trip was the roto-tiller, so you use what you have to get the ground ready.
Vickie didn't mind making our lunch outside on nice days. We often brought the camper along to add that little, extra touch of 'œhome' to our work site.
While you can certainly plant a food plot around stumps, sooner or later, you have to get rid of them if you are really going to establish it as a field for crops. There are many ways to accomplish this, here I rented a stump grinder, other times I dug them up with an excavator. I also chemically dissolved them and burned them. The only thing I didn't do was use dynamite, which is on the list for the next time I have a big one in the way.
Having a rented excavator around is very handy for not only removing the stumps but the entire tree as well.
Autumn arrived and the food plot is ready for the first year of hunting. I realized that I needed to remove a few more maple trees that keep covering the plot.
Vickie loves feeding the deer and they were all too happy to eat all the corn we could give them. If it is legal to bait in your area, it is a great way to help identify what deer are using the area, but is also beneficial to the herd.
Testing your soil might not be first on your list of things to do, but it is very necessary to see what potential the land has and where your shortfalls may be. Here I have a PH meter as well as bags that I collect the soil from different spots on each plot, and then I send it off to the local extension service. They usually will have the detailed results back in a few weeks. Then you will have a good idea of what amendments are needed, for the specific type of plants you want to grow.
How nice it is to see that the deer appreciate all your efforts and start using the property as their mating territory.
To read more about Ron's project and to see more photos, check out the August issue of North American Whitetail!