How To Manage a Small Property for Whitetails
The string of bucks waltzing by my stand on this late-season bowhunt was incredible. A snow storm had been forecasted for overnight, and apparently the local deer had checked the weather report. On this afternoon hunt it seemed every deer in the area was on its feet and either feeding or moving toward food in anticipation of what was to come. My stand was in the perfect funnel between a prime bedding area and a Real World soybean plot, the hottest food source for miles around.
Among the numerous deer passing my stand were several bucks. Some came alone, others in pairs and some in groups of up to five. By sunset, I’d seen 17 antlered bucks and many does and fawns. While I didn’t draw my bow that day, I was smiling as I quietly slipped away in the fading light. I knew I was onto something big.
This hunt took place almost two decades ago, but it was one I’ve never forgotten. It opened my eyes to the possibilities and even the clear advantages of managing a small property for quality whitetail hunting without any support from surrounding landowners. In every direction from this property the hunting pressure was substantial, and any buck was a target to nearly every hunter in the area. In spite of this, I was seeing some real benefits from my solo management efforts.
My current work as a whitetail consultant brings me into contact with a lot of clients and potential clients every year. Before I ever agree to accept a new client, I ask a series of questions and look at an aerial of the property. I do this to make sure I can truly be of service to those who hire me. It’s common for me to have a potential client tell me excitedly that the property is surrounded by other properties that are well-managed for big deer. It’s as if this is an understood huge step toward success.
Not so fast. There are certainly advantages to having every landowner in the neighborhood practicing a similarly progressive approach to management. The more hunters letting the young bucks live, the more mature bucks are available. I won’t deny that. But I’m probably going to raise a few eyebrows when I say with all sincerity that I prefer a property with a good amount of hunting pressure all around.
What Does Your Land Really Offer?
Think of your property as one small square on a giant checkerboard. We need to do everything we can to make our “square” stand out in a deer’s eyes from all other squares on the board.
Your square needs to address as many deer needs as possible, but especially security. The more hunting pressure there is on surrounding properties, the easier it is for a good land manager to make a property stand out. On the other hand, imagine how difficult it is for a landowner to make a property stand out from those surrounding it if they’re all well managed. Then a mature buck is just as likely to be on a neighbor’s land as he is yours.
If you have the only true security cover in the area, while all your neighbors are stomping every inch of their farms without regard to factors such as wind direction, access routes, etc., it’s easy to get the best buck in the neighborhood to stay on your land. I do it all the time on multiple properties, and so do a lot of my clients and students.
I have no doubt that, year in and year out, the big buck on a well-managed farm surrounded by heavy hunting pressure is going to be easier to kill than is one in an area with light overall pressure. He’s just much more likely to spend more of his daylight hours where the pressure is lighter. He has a reason to be on that property, as opposed to any of those surrounding it.
To consistently kill mature bucks, you have to hunt where they are in daylight. If you’re just one property over from where a big buck beds, your chances are about 10 percent of what they’d be if you had him bedding on your place. It’s a simple fact most hunters never even consider.
Also, a lot of hunters think smaller properties mean worse odds of tagging mature bucks. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I’d rather have hunting access to 10 40-acre tracts than a single 400-acre tract. If I can get a mature buck to bed on a 40-acre tract, I know every time I hunt there the odds are good that I’m within a couple hundred yards or so of him. On a 400-acre tract, that same buck could be a half-mile from my stand and yet still be on my property.
Also, if your multiple smaller properties are scattered over a wide area, you should be hunting a different herd of deer at each one. That means better odds of finding a buck that meets your goals. This is especially important as your standards rise. With multiple properties to hunt, your odds really improve.
Controlling What You Can
Obviously, not all small properties lay out well for managing deer. If hunters are sitting on your fence in all directions, you’ll never have the kind of results you’re probably hoping for. The smaller the tract, the more important it becomes that it’s laid out well and hunted properly. The key here is not to make the mistake of thinking it can’t be done.
Some properties naturally are much better than others are. There are things we can do to make any property better, however. To start, we can enhance bedding cover, food sources, water sources and other habitat elements. A well-thought-out plan can turn a so-so property into a good or even great one.
How much these enhancements will help depends on numerous factors, some of which are within our control. For example, where we put food sources or bedding cover can influence success. Granted, in some cases there are limited options for positioning these elements. But the thing we can do to help any property, no matter its size or location, is control human intrusion on it.
When I first meet with clients, some think I’m going to lay out a design for their properties and tell them where to put stands so they can magically start shooting big bucks. While these are key pieces to the puzzle, how they hunt and manage the land also are critical. The best whitetail property in North America can be quickly ruined by bad hunting practices or poor management.
When a place is properly managed, a serious hunter should be able to consistently kill the biggest bucks bedding on it year after year. All stands should have great access routes and only get hunted with proper wind direction. I’ve walked away from many good stand sites because access was marginal. Hunting those stands would quickly educate the deer and not only ruin the stand but sour the property. Hunting a stand with the wrong wind does the same. This is just one example of bad management.
With small properties, your margin for error is small when compared to larger properties. You don’t get the chance to make many mistakes on a smaller tract. If you do, your chances of killing a good buck drop drastically.
I often hear that with bigger tracts in areas of other well-managed properties, there are far more big bucks to hunt. That’s true — but there are also a lot more places for them to safely hide, and a lot more serious hunters after them. What are your odds of being the one whose land a big buck picks to reside on? Or the first hunter he walks out in front of? When he’s bedding on land I hunt, nobody on the planet has a better chance of killing him than I do.
The Illinois property I own is only 120 acres and is the best one I have access to. The majority of the other places I hunt have less than 30 acres of cover, and permission to hunt them has been gained by knocking on doors. Everything I do is well thought out, calculated and with a purpose. That’s the difference.
The late Roger Rothhaar, a legendary old-school bowhunter, told me decades ago that when a deer hunter hangs a stand, he should instantly be able to rattle off at least a half-dozen reasons why he put it in that tree. At the time I didn’t fully understand, but today I know exactly what Roger was talking about. When I hang a stand, I know exactly the time of season, time of day, wind direction, access route and other critical details that will dictate my hunting that spot.
Managing a property for mature bucks in an area where nobody else is on the same page as you takes a lot more than simply letting the little bucks live. You also must fool them into thinking they’re safe on your property, so they’ll stay there to grow old. The deer on your place can’t know they’re being hunted there, or your property becomes no better than the one across the fence. It’s a process with many steps.
Even if you hunt an area where hunting pressure is intense and the neighbors won’t let anything walk, you can succeed. You can’t get away with some of what guys on bigger managed properties can, but you can still make regular trips to the taxidermist. I know, because I do — and so do many of my clients.