The 2015 deer season had been long. Really long. As I sat in a stand overlooking a quarter-acre food plot the first week of December, almost three full months of open season lay behind me.
Western North Carolina has one of the lowest deer densities in the whitetail's range, so to say it had been an uneventful season would be an understatement. On many days, I hadn't even seen a deer. In fact, other than a nice 8-pointer I'd taken the Saturday before on another property, I hadn't had a deer in range all season.
Having spent so many days in the stand without any action, I wasn't paying much attention and was very close to nodding off. When I looked up, there stood a 10-point buck I'd nicknamed "Big Ten" smack in the middle of the plot, just standing there!
This particular buck had showed up on a game camera the week before Thanksgiving two years prior. Although my son had seen him twice the following week, nobody had laid eyes on him since.
I'd hunted Big Ten almost exclusively during the late season that first year and again the following year, but I'd never seen him. He hadn't even turned up again on any of my game cameras.
Why not? I believe my property just wasn't part of his normal home range — but with the rut waning, he was here anyway, searching for one last doe in heat. Without the food plot, I guarantee you I'd not have shot him that day. (Appropriately, I harvested Big Ten the same day the 2015 Big Ten college football championship game was played.)
Last winter, when North American Whitetail Editor in Chief Gordon Whittington asked me about the quality of my hunting experiences on pine plantations, my answer was to the point.
"Deer need food, water and shelter to call a place home," I said. "Give them what they need, and the hunting can be good." This 2-part series on pine plantations is the result of that conversation.
Unfortunately, most pine plantations don't offer what deer need. That's why I got the response I did when I brought up this subject to Steve Scott, president of The Whitetail Institute of North America. "Hunting a pine plantation without food plots is going to offer poor hunting at best," he told me.
TYPES OF PINE PLANTATIONS
Some pine plantations are owned by individuals; others belong to large timber companies. However, in both cases, the primary purpose of the trees is to make money.
If you own the land on which a pine plantation is located, as I do, you have the ability to sculpt the landscape to offer both income and better hunting. But doing so comes at a financial cost.
Because most deer hunters hunt leased land that's owned by large timber producers, I'll focus this discussion on that situation. Leasing land makes it more difficult to have good hunting, but it can be done.
I grew up in Wisconsin, and timber producers owned most of the public land I hunted in the northern part of that state. There, tens of thousands of acres weren't leased but were instead open to the public. To harvest a deer on that land, you had to extensively scout to find the best stand sites.
It was "big woods" hunting, and you really had to put in your time to be successful. Scouting to locate travel corridors connecting food, water and bedding areas was really the biggest part of the hunt.
While the land was open to the public, there was so much of it we hunters didn't trip over each other. Most hunters in the area I hunted were part of local family groups who respected each other and stayed away from areas they knew other groups hunted.
It was rare to have a random hunter stumble across you during the season. In fact, my family had hunted the same area for so many years that I personally only saw one other hunter in the last nine years I hunted there.
A dozen years after we moved away, I made a trip back to that area east of Rhinelander to hunt with a buddy who traveled with me from North Carolina. We drove the many miles of logging roads while I recalled stories of days gone by.
Finally we arrived at the old family parking spot. There we found a truck with a note on the windshield. It simply read, "Newcomb."
Several days later, I saw an old neighbor who hunted the area across the logging road from where we'd always hunted, and I mentioned the note to him. He told me it was his son's truck.
He'd left the note to indicate to his dad where he'd be hunting. After we'd moved away, that family had taken up our old swamp — and, I believe, named it appropriately.
Across the South, hunting timber-company properties is a whole different story. Instead of clearcutting and allowing natural reforestation, as is the custom up north, the owner replants the land with rows and rows of pine seedlings.
I've belonged to several South Carolina and Georgia hunting clubs that lease such property from major timber producers.
When I joined the first club, I had no idea what to expect. The club, just south of Elberton, Georgia, was on 1,000 acres. There were 20 members, and 20 permanent tower stands had been set up on various intersections and curves in the logging roads. Each member had a stand, which he controlled while he was in camp.
Anybody could hunt another member's stand as long as that member wasn't on the property. Unfortunately, the most productive stands were claimed by the senior members, who were all retired locals. So only rarely were they not in camp, even if they weren't actually hunting.
Because I was the new guy, I got stuck with the worst stand on the property. And though I did kill some adult does from other members' stands the first year, the only buck I saw from mine was a spike.
While other members were killing deer, most were yearlings. In fact, there wasn't a single good buck among the almost 100 deer shot that season.
While trailing deer on the club and spending some time there as the only member in camp during the off-season, I found the place had several ingredients whitetails need — but it wasn't being hunted properly.
Most of my fellow members were strictly rifle hunters who took advantage of the long season. But I don't feel that any of them were "real" hunters.
I scouted the property and really hunted it the following year. I found ravines with creek bottoms where the loggers hadn't been allowed to cut trees because of the slope and proximity to water. Where those hardwood bottoms met the pines, the deer trails were remarkable.
Because the members were hunting the same spots year after year, deer had learned not to stick their necks out during daylight hours. By never hunting other places, my fellow members had inadvertently provided sanctuaries the deer needed, even though there were no real thickets on the property.
Those sanctuaries offered the herd food, water and seclusion, making it difficult to kill good bucks from the permanent stands.
When the white oaks were dropping acorns that following fall, the deer were in there like kids flocking to the Good Humor truck's bell on a summer afternoon.
By watching deer tracks from the creek banks (this was before trail cameras), I was able to determine direction of travel and time of day when the deer traveled, and I set up accordingly.
The result? I was voted out of that club the following winter, after the season closed, because I'd killed the two biggest bucks that had been taken off the property in 20 years. The senior members convinced everybody else I'd broken the rules by not hunting from the permanent stands and that I was a "safety risk." I called it something else: jealousy.
If you have a leased plantation with hardwood creek bottoms and you have cooperating members in your club, you might be able to tap into potential you didn't even know was there.
The second club I joined, in South Carolina, lacked the creek bottoms and was void of a good water source. It was literally 1,200 acres of planted pines, which created a completely new learning curve. We know deer need food, water and shelter.
Because this new plantation was in various stages of growth, shelter was in ample supply. But there are several types of shelter a deer needs.
In addition to places in which they feel safe from predators (including humans), whitetails need protection from the elements. This so-called "thermal" shelter comes in two very different forms. What keeps a deer cool in the summer won't keep it warm in the winter, and vice versa.
On the South Carolina property, the timber company had created dense thickets by clearcutting everything except the drainages and replanting the harvested land in pine seedlings. During the first four or five years on a newly seeded parcel, the seedlings are taking root, and nothing is done to the stand of trees.
Because the ground has been opened up to sunlight, everything grows. Soon the stand of trees becomes an impenetrable thicket of blackberries, naturalized Japanese honeysuckle and other forage plants desirable to deer.
In addition to helping deer hide from predators, this type of place provides excellent winter thermal cover. It's dense near the ground and thus blocks the cold wind. Problem is, it's just too thick to hunt.
On other parts of the property, the trees were 12-15 feet tall and had been sprayed with herbicide to kill the ground cover. That removed the deer food but left a rather dense stand of pines. Again, it was great thermal cover — but if you can't see beyond 25 feet in such places, it's tough to kill a deer there.
When the trees reach about 15 years old, pine plantations are typically thinned by removing every other tree in the rows. Because there's no ground cover to speak of, this leaves a shaded forest you can walk through with ease for the next 10 to 15 years, when the pines are harvested.
Although the canopy is thick, providing shade, the ground at the surface is too open for deer to feel safe and generally has no amount of food. Thus, they generally don't like to spend any time there except on hot summer days.
The thinned trees allow the breeze to blow through while the dense canopy shades the ground, resulting in ideal warm-season thermal cover. Had that South Carolina property featured a water source, it might have offered some decent hunting.
But because the nearest surface water was far away, the deer used the property only for shelter. As we all know, deer travel from food and water to bedding cover at dawn and dusk, which turned out to be the times when 90 percent of the deer taken on the club were harvested.
I was a member of that club for just one season. But had I stayed, I'd have used a backhoe to dig some holes in shady areas near the early-growth thickets and put in cheap plastic "kiddie" pools to hold water.
Doing so would have meant delivering water every week or two during the hot, dry summer, but I believe the hunting results would have been well worth it.