Many of us hunt deer on small properties rather than vast wilderness areas. To keep mature bucks living year-round on these parcels, you must satisfy a myriad of habitat needs: a variety of food, ample cover, water, secure travel corridors, thermal protection, and lots of edge habitat. The more of each ingredient you provide, the more likely bucks will become reclusive and stay put on your 50, 150, or 300 acres instead of roaming to fulfill their needs. Of course, these elements attract does, too, which are the final enticement during the rut.
If you can afford it, you can hire a wildlife consultant. Otherwise, use this checklist of what a big buck needs to call a smaller property home. It’s based on 22 years of my trying to turn 117 acres into a mature buck paradise.
Print yourself a Google Earth map, put on your boots, and get walking. Note down all habitat features you already have and those you lack. Then plot out the best locations to fill in the gaps.
If your land has no creeks, springs, or lakes, build a water hole or pond. Sometimes a wet-weather creek can be dammed with rocks and branches. You can also dig a hole and sink a livestock tank or a kid’s swimming pool in low spots that will collect rain. If you have the means, build a 1⁄4- to 1-acre pond near cover (or add some).
2. Food plots
Devote 3 to 10 percent of your property to plots (see “Set the Table,” p. 50). Keep them away from boundaries or roads. Plant a variety of perennials and annuals so quality food is available year-round: clover, alfalfa, and chicory for spring and fall; soybeans, lablab, and cowpeas for summer; brassicas, wheat, and oats for fall and winter. Your plots are only as good as your dirt. Always do a soil test first and determine nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium needs. Then apply those along with enough lime to bring the pH to 6 to 6.5. And don’t forget minor elements such as manganese and boron.
3. Natural foods
Besides plots, you want a selection of natural foods such as greenbrier, plum, raspberry, blackberry, and grapevines. You can create these by making 1⁄2- to 2-acre clear-cuts placed at strategic locations between bedding and major feeding areas. The sunlight creates a surge of low-growing, natural foods.
4. Woods Clearings
Deer require clearings in woods for visibility, socialization, establishing dominance, and chasing during the rut. If you’re making clear-cuts so natural foods will grow, you’ll have these clearings. Be sure to cut new ones every three or four years, though, as older ones grow thick.
The more acreage you devote to a sanctuary—an area that you’ll never hunt—the better your hunting will be. Bucks will pile in here after getting pressured on neighboring lands, and you can intercept them after they leave the designated area. Enter a haven only to retrieve hit deer or hunt for sheds. It can be moderate to thick cover, preferably elevated, and near the center of the property. Some big-buck specialists make 50 percent of their land a sanctuary.
6. Bedding areas
These can be within the sanctuary or nearby. If there aren’t naturally thick areas with brambles, vines, saplings, and blowdowns on knolls or benches, create them. Fell some low-value trees and hinge-cut or partially knock down others with a tractor. Pile up cedars. Plant low-growing shrubs, such as Chickasaw plum, strawberry bush, Allegheny chinquapin, gray dogwood, and raspberry. Then get out and leave the area alone—even if it’s not in your sanctuary.
7. Transition corridors
Ditches, brushy hollows, strips of saplings mixed with briers and vines, or overgrown fencerows allow mature bucks to feel comfortable leaving their daytime bedding areas and traveling to major feed fields or between doe areas. If these are lacking on your land, create them with linear versions of the bed-making tactics described above. These corridors don’t have to be wide—25 to 50 feet is plenty—and they offer great ambush sites when the wind is right.
8. Staging areas
Deer like a brushy edge or staging area where the travel corridor nears feed fields or food plots. Plant shrubs here and fell some low-value trees. Also let 15 to 20 feet of the field edge grow up in bushes, brambles, and forbs. All deer need these edge areas to mill about and watch open fields before entering.
9. Mast-producing hardwoods
Increase productivity by thinning the competition around the best oaks so the crowns and roots aren’t crowded and obtain maximum sunlight, moisture, and nutrients. Also expand the time frame in which acorns are available by adding early-dropping, quick-growing species such as sawtooth and pin oaks in fields bordering woods.
Like people, some bucks have a sweet tooth and some don’t. To keep deer around that do relish these energy-packed foods, plant several small clusters of apples, pears, persimmons, or plums throughout the property. The edges of fields or food plots are good spots, as are natural clearings in woods. Plant the trees in groups of six or more to ensure cross-pollination.
11. Rut cover
Mature bucks will shadow does in semiopen areas near major feed fields from late October through November. But they’ll feel more comfortable if they can monitor the females from pockets of adjacent thick cover. You can create several of these buck shadow areas by adding shrubs and clusters of pines, or better still, by planting strips of native warm-season grasses next to favorite doe hangouts that don’t have much in the way of cover. Switchgrass is the easiest to establish, but add some bluestem and Indian grass so you’ll have healthy, consistent stands.
12. Thermal cover
Some conifers are essential for winter habitat. Pockets of cedar, spruce, pine, or hemlock shield deer from harsh winds, dampen snowfall, and provide psychological security cover when deciduous trees and bushes lose their leaves. If you don’t have thermal cover, plant it. White pines are ideal and often cost only 20 cents to a dollar apiece each when purchased in volume from forestry departments.
Determine your habitat’s most pressing needs, draw up a plan, and then make one improvement at a time. That’s the road map to creating a mature buck paradise.