Chapter 9: Improving Your Hunting Property

Another chapter from my forthcoming book. Any suggestions or criticisms would be appreciated.

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Deer need three things: food, water, and cover. To have the best deer property possible you need to maximize the quality and quantity of all three.

After you’ve put up your “no trespassing” signs you should plan where you want cover and where you want to add food and water. These improvements will need to take place over a series of years because some aspects take time to grow, and you may not be able to afford all of these improvements at once. So your property improvement plan should cover the next several years. Where your access roads will be should also be part of your plan.

Where you want to improve your property will depend largely on what your individual property looks like. When you will look at your property with an eye towards creating food plots some spots will stand out. Those spots may be small meadows, old fields, or an area that has few trees and stumps to remove to clear a space.

The most efficient place to add water will be where the ground is already low. Places where puddles form in the spring are prime places to create ponds. Deepening ditches or streams (check your local laws) are also obvious places to create a year round water source.

Anyplace on your property might be changed into cover, food, or water, but some places will cost a lot less in order to transform them.

Once you’ve planned where you want things you’ll want to work first on whichever takes the longest to get into shape or work first on which ever can be done in the season that you are currently in. Tree planting is probably more difficult in the winter, etc.

Clearing an area for food plots may require removing some trees or stumps. Trees can be felled quickly, but stumps are best removed by someone with a bulldozer several years after the tree was cut. Without a lot of digging, or explosives, a fresh stump will remain firmly attached by its extensive root system. A few years after the tree has been cut the smaller roots will rot and the whole stump can be moved out of the way with a bulldozer. You could use a stump grinder to take the height of the stump down to the ground but the stump will remain a constant irritant whenever you do anything like till that ground. It is best to go around it until you can have it bulldozed. It’s a good idea to have all of your stumps removed in one bulldozing session; having the excavator come to your property multiple times will be more expensive than having him come over only once.

Growing food will not be particularly effective in your first season either. It will often take a few years to improve your soil to its peak, and it will take several years for fruit trees to begin bearing fruit. If you want fruit trees, then you had better plant them early in your property improvement.

Creating your water source(s) will not take as long. A professional pond maker can create one in a few days or weeks, so long as you can afford to pay for it.

Cover is where the deer will live. It is where they go to sleep and where they go to get away from danger. If you don’t have cover, then the deer will spend most of their time on someone else’s property. Your property may already have lots of cover and you may not need to add any. Are there large areas on your property where you have great difficulty walking through? Can you see through those places? You want a large percentage of your property to be nearly impenetrable by yourself or your eyes. If it isn’t food or water, then it might as well be cover. The thickest, most impenetrable, out of the way places would be my bet for where the biggest bucks around live.

How you create, or improve, your property’s cover will depend on what you have already, and what your property is like. A wide open space will have no cover; you’ll need to plant brushy plants and/ or trees. Here in central Wisconsin white pines grow at around one foot each year starting the year after they are planted. Several rows of coniferous trees are good cover from when they reach a few feet high until they grow too tall to have any low branches. Buy coniferous trees by the thousand and plant them around eight feet apart. It will cost a few hundred dollars for a few thousand trees. Buy trees from your local tree farm.

You might have a situation where you cover is in one place, your food is in another place and there is a large clearing in between. You might like this situation because you can cover the whole clearing with a rifle, but the deer are likely to wait until after dark to walk across the opening; deer don’t like being far from cover during the day. With this situation, a good idea would be to plant two or three rows of coniferous trees in a line from the food to the cover. The deer will prefer to walk along this thin line of cover rather than across the open space during daylight. This will work well because the deer will come out earlier, in order to hit the food just before dark, and because you’ll know that the rows of trees is where the deer will be when they travel between the food and cover.

A property that has lots of mature trees does not have any cover. It may seem wrong to cut down most of those mature trees but doing so will provide more benefits than having those trees remain standing. Mature trees may provide some food in the form of nuts, but little else. When those trees are cut new plant growth is encouraged. New plant growth provides cover in the form of brush and food in the form of browse. “Browse,” or fresh plant growth, is a large part of a deer’s diet.

When you hire loggers to cut down your trees they will pay you for the wood. The amount of money that you get will depend on the quality of your wood and how much you want to cut. You’ll probably get several thousands of dollars for your wood. If you don’t, then you either have a very small property, or you did not cut enough.

You may want to plan your property so that you cut different sections every ten years. The first year or two after you cut will leave you without trees or much cover. After a few years the new growth will reach a larger size and become great deer cover. But after many years the brush will become another mature forest with limited cover and limited food.

Be sure to clearly mark a few trees for the loggers. You’ll want to leave some trees for future tree stands. A tree will take 20-30 years before it is big enough for a stand, and you won’t want to wait that long.

Fruit and nut trees are a good way to add some food, but deer will get most of their food from natural browse, which you created by clear cutting. It takes several years for trees to grow big and produce their mast (fruit, nuts, etc). The longer that you wait to plant, the longer it will be before you see any results from them.

Apple, crabapple, pear, and chestnut trees will all provide food for deer. You’ll need to fence these trees in, or deer, and other animals, will eat the fresh tree growth and the tree will not get bigger. Wrapping the bottom of the trees may be necessary to prevent rabbits from chewing off all of the lower bark too. You need to plant more than one type of apple tree in order for them to pollinate. It is good to check when each species ripens. Ideally, some of your apple trees will drop apples in August, some in September, and some in October (or similar, depending on where you are). Having your trees ripen at different times of the year will mean that deer will return to that area for the ripening of each of the apples, rather than only visiting the trees for only one time period. It is also recommended to plant a variety of apple, crabapple, and pear trees in your apple orchard.

Nut trees, like chestnuts, will also need to be fenced and wrapped just like apple trees.

Growing fields of deer food is another type of food source that you can create. Fields of deer food are known as “food plots.” Food plots are just fields, or small areas, of clover, or soybeans, or turnips, or whatever. We will look at them in the next chapter.

Baiting is a third way to add food to your property. Baiting often has all sorts of laws and restrictions associated with it. Check your local laws.

Deer bait might be: corn, soybeans, sugar beets, carrots, apples, or you might go to a farm supply store and buy horse feed, or horse treats. The deer in your area may prefer one kind, or another. And some deer will take some time before learning that new, for them, things are good to eat.

There are also salt licks, mineral licks, and flavored sugar goo. There is merit to the argument that deer need minerals to grow and you should therefore add mineral licks. You may, or may not, notice a difference if you do add mineral licks. These are not used as bait, but they may be considered so legally, because they will not attract deer during the hunting season. Deer prefer these minerals during other times of the year. Minerals will have the most impact on antler size when they are eaten by the deer when the new season’s antlers are growing. Put minerals out, if you are legally able to during the spring and summer. The sugar goo, or powder, like Deer Cane or C’Mere Deer, may be useful during the hunting season, because it is food, and not minerals.

One of the most well known deer licks is Trophy Rock. It is just a rock of salt. I wonder how the deer know to lick a Trophy Rock. Do the deer just wander around licking rocks until one tastes good? But they find them and they lick them.

Feeders are often used for bait. One reason is to keep the food off of the ground. When food is spread on the ground it will eventually become mixed in with their excrement. That is unhealthy.

I have not had much experience with deer feeders, but they are big business in some parts of the country. My personal preference would be towards feeders that are gravity operated. Electronically operated feeders are more expensive and more likely to break, and require batteries.

Baiting works best when there is little other food around. A pile of corn is easier to access than food that is buried beneath snow, for example.

Baiting is frowned upon by many people. These people may not like adding artificial food sources, or they may not like the convergence of many deer to one place, which they claim results in faster spreading of diseases.

Baiting is also expensive and labor intensive. A food plot or tree will provide food without you once they are planted, but bait will need to be physically carried out each time that you want it out.

When celebrity hunters get busted for breaking a law, it is often because they were breaking baiting laws. One way that I’ve heard that the authorities find out about such things is by noticing many deer trails in the snow all leading to one place. Apparently the trails look like a wagon wheel.

Baiting has lots of downsides but many people still do it. They do it because it works.

Water is another essential for deer survival. Deer get water from all sorts of places. They get it from streams, lakes, and rivers. They also get it from puddles, leaves, and anywhere else that holds water.

If I hunted somewhere where it is hot, then water would be my first land improvement priority. All deer need water, but that is especially true where it is hot.

The thing to do to add water is to hire a local excavator to bulldoze a pond. You may need to add a pump, or you may not. Ground tarps and other things may also be necessary to keep the water in.

Adding a pond can improve your hunting a lot but it will cost several thousand dollars. Hire your excavator and then do what he says. He’s the expert and he knows more than you or me.

Having a long term property plan is good. It is also good to think about where you want your ponds and food plots when you can afford to pay for them.

After clear cutting, and planting more trees, you should think about where your property, and the surrounding area, is weakest in terms of food, water, and cover. Improve whichever is weakest, and then move to the next.

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