Add Shelter to Grow (and Keep) Big Bucks

SURE, FOOD PLOTS CAN ATTRACT BUCKS to your land, but they can't keep them there. Only prime cover can do that. Whitetails need shelter when rough weather comes, and they need security all year round. Without these things, deer--and big bucks especially--are bound to take up residence in someone else's hunting area.

If your land lacks prime buck-holding cover, however, you're not necessarily out of luck--because creating it isn't difficult. With a little careful planning, you can even arrange and customize it to help set up the perfect ambush for an unsuspecting trophy. Here are five ways to get started:

1. Form a Big-Buck Corridor
Mature bucks will ignore lots of natural travel corridors--small creeks, drainage ditches, saddles, or swales--if they lack cover. On your property, search for such potential funnels that lead from bedding to feeding areas or between doe bedding areas. Along them, plant two rows of small trees or bushes, about 6 to 12 feet apart. You want a wide-racked buck to be able to walk comfortably down the aisle as the plants grow.

Honeysuckle, dogwood shrubs, crab apple, and viburnum work well. Add extra appeal by mixing in a few favorite soft-mast species, like apple, pear, or persimmon.

2. Get an Edge
Wherever agricultural fields or food plots are surrounded by open woods, big deer typically wait until dark to approach. By creating a border of thicker cover between field and forest, you can get those bucks to show up earlier.

Along the edge of the woods, for a minimum of 60 feet, saw a number of low-value trees to chest height. Fell the trees, but leave them partially attached to the stump. Soon vines and shoots will grow up, forming a thick shelter that big bucks will gravitate to. Before you know it, you'll have a perfect staging area--and a great spot to hang a stand.

3. Go to Grass
A field of native warm-season grasses makes a superb sanctuary. A half-acre patch will hold bucks, but a couple of acres planted in long strips is ideal. Last year, I took a 21-inch-wide 8-pointer from a wooded trail leading to such a spot.

Switchgrass is the easiest to grow and can be planted simply by broadcasting the seed on bare ground and covering it very lightly. But using a seed drill is the best way. You can hire a local farmer to do this or rent the implement yourself. Government programs, such as the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP), may be able to help with financing and planning.

4. Make Your Beds
You'll never have a true whitetail hotspot without good bedding cover. The best place to make it is on a wooded hillside or ridge, away from human traffic, and close to the center of your property. Once you locate such a spot, mark one- or two-dozen low-value trees per acre in a 2- to 4-acre section. Then take a chain saw and start cutting.

Fell the marked trees and let them lie. This creates a labyrinth of protected buck beds. It also admits more sunlight, promoting the growth of grapevines, honeysuckle, berries, and other young food plants. Soon you'll have a thick, junglelike area that bucks will love.

5. Plant Some Pines
When hunting pressure builds on surrounding properties or when the weather turns nasty, an isolated grove of thick pines is just what a buck is looking for. And you can provide it, easily and cheaply.

Many state forest departments offer seedlings at discount rates in bulk. I put in 500 white pines every year, for example, and it costs me just $75 for 2-year-old trees.

Space them 8 to 12 feet apart and plant as large an area as you can, up to several acres. Leave the groves as sanctuaries. Set your stands on travel routes leading to them. Hunt these only occasionally for your best shot at a trophy.