October 05, 2021
By Darron McDougal
Whitetail hunting’s most elementary aspect is to learn where deer are feeding. With that knowledge, we can craft an ambush strategy, either hunting over the food source or somewhere between the food source and potential bedding areas. Every deer hunter should know these fundamentals, and countless articles have addressed them.
Less often discussed is the fact that habitat can change from year to year. What was a hotspot teeming with deer activity last year might be ice cold this season due to factors beyond our control. And that can have a great bearing on your season’s outcome.
Below, I’ll outline three major habitat changes that can alter deer movement. Then, I’ll conclude with how you can use technology to stay on top of these changes. Let’s discuss.
1. Crop Rotations
When you find a hotspot near a corn or soybean field one season, the allure to hunt there every single year is high. However, if the farmer plants the field in potatoes, deer activity will likely diminish. No, deer probably won’t vacate the area entirely, but they’ll certainly shift their focus to the nearest more desirable food source, be it corn, beans or alfalfa.
Stay on top of rotations by logging crop information each season for your hunting area. Try to draw some conclusions as to how crop rotations impact deer movement by your stands. Then, you can make better-informed hunting decisions in the future just by referencing your notes.
These rotations occur on both public and private lands. Farmers, as well as wildlife agencies, will rotate their plants to maintain healthy soil, and onX can help you to make notes on both. With the in-app ability to identify landowners, hunters can easily connect with the owners of surrounding properties and get to talking. Heck, you may just be lucky enough to gain permission.
2. Logging Operations
Unless you have a colossal hunting property, what happens on neighboring properties can impact — negatively or positively — hunting on your property. Logging is a huge habitat alteration that can change how deer use an area, even if it didn’t happen on your land.
Select cutting hardwood timber yields leftover treetops that deer will browse on. That is a minimal change. On the other hand, when a pine plantation that deer have been bedding in for years is clear cut, they’ll be forced to find alternative bedding areas. Logging can truly change deer patterns to a greater degree than many hunters realize.
When an area is clear cut, young regrowth can provide valuable browsing for several years following the cut. It can be a great place to hunt deer, especially in big-timber areas with no agriculture. Within a few years, the thick regrowth will also provide tons of bedding cover. In summary, the cut wasn’t necessarily a negative alteration, but nonetheless, one that changes how deer use the area.
3. Forest Fires
This habitat change is especially important in the arid portions of the whitetail’s range. Think Idaho, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, for example. Wildfires are common in these states. While the end result of a wildfire can have similar results to logging clearcuts, the difference is that animals will evacuate — or at least try to — an area actively on fire. Logging operations don’t typically drive deer out. Quite the opposite, I’ve seen deer activity increase where logging is underway, hardwood tops being the allure, as I mentioned above.
While active forest fires can be taboo for hunting, the aftermath will result in regrowth that is highly valuable forage for deer. Like regrowth in a clearcut, an area that burned a year or more ago might have fewer trees as a result of the fire, but the regrowth is attractive to deer, making it a good place to hunt. This is especially true in areas of vast timber and no agriculture.
Don’t Freak Out, Just Change Your Strategy
It’s somewhat stressful to go through the effort to find whitetail hotspots, then learn that deer aren’t using them the way they did when you first found them. But, it shouldn’t surprise you that deer habits change — the points I just outlined are big changes for deer. I mean, imagine how differently you’d use your house if someone transformed your living room into a bathroom, your kitchen into a basement and your garage into a swimming pool. Changes to an environment change the inhabitants’ habits.
That being said, adjust your strategy. Of course, the information you can learn with on-foot scouting is priceless, but I know of no better tool than onX Hunt to save you some legwork and intrusion. onX recently added a 2020 Crop-Data layer to the app. With it, you can see what crops were planted where last year, and that can help you determine what crops might be in the rotation for this year. Certainly, if you use it to take notes over the next few years, you’ll find it highly beneficial if you hunt agricultural areas. Plenty of land, both public and private, will border these large scale farming operations so take notes and keep putting in those treestand hours.
Likewise, the Timber Cuts layer denotes clearcuts and the year they were completed. This can prove highly beneficial in places like the Black Hills or Northeastern Washington where the scene is dominated by pine timber and minimal agriculture. Cuts just a year or two old will provide great forage, while older cuts with aging regrowth can provide vital bedding cover, as I mentioned earlier.
onX also covers the wildfire aspect of deer hunting. It has an Active Wildfires layer so that you can decide where and where not to hunt. In other words, don’t plan a hunt out west without knowing what’s happening in the wildfire world. And then, if you want to locate an old burn to hunt over some regrowth, you can dial in on one with the Historic Fire Area layer.
These are just the start of what onX offers hunters. I’ve been using the app religiously for several seasons now, and I cannot imagine being a DIY hunter without it. It's worked for me on both public and private lands. If you haven’t used onX Hunt and the aforementioned layers it offers, I believe doing so can boost your success this whitetail season. It certainly won’t hurt your chances.