Most of us would agree that buying a piece of hunting property is a huge commitment. One of the biggest challenges is determining if the land has that potential to pay off after the secondary investment of hard work has been made.
A few years ago, Iowa deer hunter Travis Paul began looking for a piece of land that was not only affordable but also capable of serving a dual purpose. He wanted something he could turn into great hunting ground, but he also wanted it to be a place of recreation for the whole family.
When Travis began looking for ground, there were two primary physical requirements he felt were critical: (1) location; and (2) access routes to/from good hunting spots on the property. For these reasons, a 27-acre tract that had caught his eye a couple years prior kept coming to mind. He'd hunted the place and felt it was a diamond in the rough. So when the property came up for sale in 2013, Travis didn't waste any time making an offer. A few weeks later, he and his wife, Julia, were the proud owners of their own piece of dirt.
How good has that decision been? Well, in five short years, Travis has killed four bucks that gross over 160 inches each, with the biggest being a 15-pointer grossing 191! Let's hear exactly how Travis turned this small piece of ground into a big-buck mecca.
"We had set money aside with the goal of purchasing our own piece of ground when the right opportunity came about," Travis explains. "I had hunted the property for a couple of years and was confident it had potential. Even though I didn't own the property, I had passed up bucks that I might have shot in years prior. However, in 2012 I arrowed a big 13-pointer that grossed 170, which was my biggest at the time. That's when I started visualizing what could be done to turn the small piece of ground into a big-buck paradise.
"At first, Julia wasn't all that keen on the property," Travis notes. "However, after laying out my plan, I was able to convince her it was the right piece of ground. Not only did I have a vision for hunting, but by adding a couple of ponds that would sustain fish, it could become a recreational place for our family, too. Long story short, we had a family meeting to weigh the pros and cons of buying that particular piece of property. My dad and mom met with us to help make the decision. In the end, we decided to buy the 27 acres."
"Other than keeping hunting pressure to a minimum, I felt the key to holding deer on the property would be giving them food, water and security cover," the landowner says. "So that became part of the overall plan. I put together a plan for all the stand locations based on specific wind conditions, bedding areas, food plots and ingress/egress routes. I knew from the get-go that creating bedding areas and ingress/egress routes was likely one of the most important parts of my infrastructure plan and would be critical to success," Travis notes.
"To start, I built bedding areas in strategic locations on the back 20 acres, and that would become the deer sanctuary," he continues. "I girdled some of the less-desirable trees and dozed others into brushpiles to let in more sunlight. Afterwards, I planted tall native grasses and cedar trees to thicken up the existing bedding areas.
"In addition to the food plots, I put in two ponds on the front end for the deer to use, but also to sustain fish for recreation," he adds. "On the back end I put in two small ponds or watering holes between the stand sites and bedding areas specifically for the deer."
DESIGNING STAND SITES
"Many hunters go into an area and look for the hottest sign, then try to locate a tree that works for multiple wind conditions," Travis says. "Rather than trying to find a stand location after the fact, I determined where each stand would be located based on a specific wind condition, entrance/exit routes and the seasonal phase it would be hunted.
"The far back end had a lot of mature oaks, so I carefully planned out four stand sites between the bedding areas and food plots. Those stands would only be hunted during the primary rut.
"On the front end, there were only a few mature trees to work with," Travis notes. "But I had eyeballed three that would make great stand sites, based on the specific wind requirements and ingress/egress routes. Those would be primarily observation stands and hunted during the pre-rut. It would allow me to hunt virtually undetected and avoid violating their safety zones or bedding areas on the back end.
"Wind requirements played a key role in determining all the stand locations," Travis says. "Unfortunately, the deer had established trails around some of the stand sites that would allow them to get downwind. When I brought in the dozer, I cleared some of the less-desirable trees and brush and created blocks over those existing trails to alter the deer travel routes. The idea was to keep the deer upwind, rather than downwind. In short, I used the brush and trees to funnel the deer where I wanted. For example, if the trail went behind the planned stand site, I piled brush over it to divert the deer to the front of the stand in a desired location, generally within 15 yards."
INGRESS & EGRESS
The less cover and/or land contour there is to hide you from deer on your land, the more critical it is to have great access routes in hunting season. Travis definitely kept this in mind as he acquired and began to manage the 27-acre property.
"The majority of Midwest hunters are hunting small tracts of land, where the timber ranges from 10 to 50 acres," he says. "That's not much cover to conceal your movements, especially if you have to cross 100 acres of open ground to get to it. Obviously, the biggest challenge is getting to and from stands undetected.
"My primary ingress and egress routes were integrated by design on the front end, where I had the three observation stands. To help conceal my movements to and from the stands, I planted cedars and tall native grasses along the edge of the ingress and egress routes.
"To avoid busting deer off their primary food source before sunrise, I hunt evenings exclusively during the pre-rut," Travis points out. "My strategy at that time is to catch the deer coming off their beds to the food plots."
The entrance and exit routes also take me around the bedding and feeding areas. As the season wanes, some hunters get lazy and make the mistake of following deer trails to and from stands. In doing so, they end up polluting the very trail they expect the deer to follow. And they often tip off the buck they're hunting. Personally, I avoid crossing or following deer trails. If it means walking an extra 100 yards, so be it.
"In 2015, I hadn't seen much for shooters," Travis notes. "It was a bounce-back year from EHD. In mid-November, on two cameras I started getting pictures of a big 8-pointer with flyers. I hadn't seen him before. Based on the photos, I had a pretty good idea of how to hunt the buck.
It was a couple days before Thanksgiving when I decided to hunt one of the stands on the back end that I only hunt when the conditions are right. I remember it was pretty cool that morning, and I hadn't seen a deer until 8:00. That's when a half-dozen does and fawns meandered through. Eventually they walked right beneath the stand.
"A short time later, I spotted two smallish bucks lock antlers and start sparring 75 yards away. Almost immediately after the ruckus started, the big eight appeared out of nowhere. I thought about calling, but then he started moving toward me. Long story short, the buck followed the same trail as the does. As he stepped into the clearing eight yards away, I settled the pin and unleashed the arrow. The buck scrambled to stay on his feet but went down within eyesight. He grossed 167 and was the third deer killed on the property in four years."
IMPROVING THE FOOD SUPPLY
"Iowa is one big food plot, and by default, crops are the primary food source," Travis explains. "My plan would incorporate approximately 10 percent of the property in food plots, mainly on the front end near or around the planned stand sites. Instead of having several separate plots, I started near the front end and worked toward the back end, linking them together in a chain. I figured it would translate into more opportunities early and allow me to stay off the back end until the rut started rocking.
"I planted corn and soybeans the first year, but the deer destroyed the plots too early. With having so much agricultural crop available on the neighboring farms, it made sense to give the deer high-protein alfalfa and clover. Deer can be finicky, and it seemed like they preferred ladino clover over anything else I tried. To beef up the plots, I frost-seeded annual clover into the ladino to get more tonnage per acre. In doing so, I found the food plots generally last the entire season," Travis says.
Last year, the landowner's plot strategy paid off with a trophy he'd become aware of two seasons prior.
"In November 2015 I had an opportunity to shoot the buck on the food plot," Travis remembers. "But he caught my movement and ducked the arrow. During late muzzleloader season, I got a second chance. By then he had broken off some points, so I passed him up."
The reprieve was only temporary. By the following season, the big deer was again on the hit list.
"In 2016 I had pictures of the buck in mid-October, but shortly after he disappeared," Travis recalls. "I didn't see him for five or six weeks, but in late November he reappeared on a camera.
"It was the second day of muzzleloader when I slipped into one of the observation stands overlooking the food plot. The plot was still green, and the deer were hitting it pretty hard. It was cold that afternoon, somewhere in the low teens. Using the cedars and prairie grass for cover, I was able to get into the stand without bumping any deer."
The hunter hadn't been there over an hour before deer started filtering into the food plot. All told, 25-30 showed up to feed. But there wasn't a shooter in sight . . . yet.
"With only 30 minutes of shooting light remaining, I saw a big deer coming out of the timber," Travis notes. "I pulled up the binoculars and was surprised, to say the least. It was the big 15-pointer. There were too many trees and brush in the way for a clear shot. The buck needed to move to the right to an open shooting lane.
"With the exception of the big guy, a few minutes later the deer started moving to the left — which was the exact opposite of the shooting lane," Travis continues. "As good luck would have it, the big guy turned at the last second and started moving toward the clearing. As he stepped into the shooting lane at 125 yards, I steadied the crosshairs and squeezed the trigger. The buck didn't go 75 yards. He grossed 191 inches and is my biggest deer to date."
DEVELOPING MOCK SCRAPES
"Scrapes can be deadly during the pre-rut, but deer don't always create them in the most desired locations," Travis points out. "I've had pretty good luck creating mock scrapes, so it became part of my plan around the stand sites and food plots. When clearing timber for the food plots, I left several small trees in strategic locations near the stand sites. After planting the food plots, I went around the periphery and trimmed back all the branches except the ones I wanted the deer to use for licking branches.
"Although deer naturally open up scrapes as the pre-rut approaches, I'll use a natural scent like Mrs. Doe Pee to get them started in September. By the time the season opens, the deer will generally take over," Travis claims.
SCENT CONTROL IS CRITICAL
"You can turn a small piece of property into a deer mecca, but sloppy scent practices can destroy all your hard work," the landowner says. "Without a doubt, scent control before and after the season opens has been critical to my success. I practice scent control whether I'm hunting or just checking cameras. There are parts of the property, like the beddings areas, that are off-limits regardless of the time of year. In fact, there are parts of the property Julia hasn't even seen. It might sound a little overboard, but it works for me."
"The bordering landowner on the back end of the property has a similar philosophy on deer management," Travis says. "Sure, a couple of the up-and-coming bucks I wouldn't have shot were killed by someone else. Unfortunately, you're going to have that from time to time.
"On the flip side of that, some will die of natural causes, including disease. For example, take 2013, when EHD was prevalent. I was getting pictures of a couple big bucks, but they dropped out of sight shortly after the season opened. That next spring, the neighbor found both deer dead on his property. It was apparent they had died of EHD.
"My son Owen started hunting two years ago, when he was nine," Travis notes. "That first year, we left the house with all intentions of him shooting a doe. But when a 140-class 10-pointer stepped out, I gave him the green light."
Travis Paul and his family have turned the dream of owning great deer ground into reality. While he doesn't have nearly as much acreage as some folks do, every season they've been proving you don't need the whole county.
"Buying your own piece of ground can be rewarding when it's done right," Travis points out. "It took a lot of hard work and planning to transform the small piece of ground into the deer mecca it is today. No doubt if I had to do it over again, I wouldn't change a thing. It was a great investment, and we'll reap the benefits for years to come."