Whitetail Habitat Strategies: Hide Those Deer on your Small Parcels
Hide and Seek
How many of you liked the childhood game of “Hide and Seek”? I did! And I remember when I played that I not only liked to be the last one found, I liked to be the one that couldn’t be found in the first round, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and until after the game was over. In fact, the best was hiding until everyone was finished looking and were just about to give up. I would finally have to reveal my spot that was often right under their nose.
The dirty back corner of a garage, under a shelf behind a couple of old pallets…. maybe inside a pile of leaves against a chain-link fence basically out in the open…. or possibly the upper shelf of a closet behind a single row of shoeboxes while the other boxes were placed neatly under the bed. The point? To hide in “layers”. Layers are basically any form of change that causes the seeker to possibly give up. For example, a closet door, an upper shelf, a row of boxes…a fence, a pile of leaves, a tuft of weeds…a few shelves, a back corner, a couple of old pallets. Most people stop after the first layer or two, and the person hiding then of course stays hidden. Also, once the hiding spot is ½ searched, the seeker usually doesn’t come back for another investigation and if they do…those additional layers make the spot even better.
I’ve often found that deer in general, especially a reclusive, old, low-stress seeking monarch, tend to choose their daytime hiding spots in terms of the many layers of habitat change that exist in nature, for example: Ridges, benches, mature timber, young timber, changes in timber type, seasonal habitat changes, rivers, swamps, fields, food sources, etc. By focusing on “layers” when choosing where, when, and how to hunt whether it be public or private lands…maybe even when choosing parcel of land to buy or lease, you are on the path to experience the ultimate in whitetail hunting and management success. In order to understand where a deer is hiding, or where you can get him to hide, you have to first understand the use of layers in your whitetail deer pursuits.
Where to Hunt
Obviously if you have your own little slice of heaven then you hopefully will be developing a cohesive implementation and usage of many layers to improve your overall experience. Timber cuttings, habitat plantings, food source development and installation, water sources, and bedding area enhancement practices are all at your disposal to attain the “perfect” plan on your parcel relative to the various neighboring influences of hunter movement, food and cover. If you don’t have it, and it will fit within your plan…get it! When you develop a plan though, you not only offer a safe spot for the local deer herd to call home, but if you define that location enough, you have a great opportunity to sneak in for the kill. Best of all on private land, you can take many years to perfect your plan, fine tuning, making adjustments, and learning “on the go”. On public land though, searching for those layers, and then making some sense of those layers to predict travel, bedding, and feeding patterns becomes the name of the game, albeit a much faster-paced game!
In the northern public lands of MI’s Upper Peninsula the habitat can be continuous and almost boring. However, that is a very good thing because there is nothing better than using layers to take a 10,000 acre wilderness tract of public land and narrowing it down to less than 100 acres of potential hunting locations. Stay out of the continuous hardwoods, ignore the impenetrable tag alder swamps, and don’t be tempted to follow that one marsh-cut deer trail that travels for over a mile across a vast wetland of open grasses and an occasional black spruce or clump of tamaracks. Instead, draw a red circle around where that hardwood ridge, tag alder swamp, and marsh all meet possibly on a long point of funneled deer usage. Put an “X” over the areas within a ½ mile of any road or trail, place a star over the areas with a beaver damn or water source to potential cause the careless to get a little wet…and you’ve just eliminated 99% of the entire area that you can just simply ignore. Scan ariel photos and topographical maps first before spending about a ½ a day searching for areas that feature the most adjoining layers in one spot as determined by those photos and maps, and you will most likely experience success. Have multiple stand locations for varying wind and weather patterns, a back-door entrance or two, and have fun!
In the rolling public land hardwoods of northern PA, those layers might be the highest elevation line of a hemlock bottom, a hidden bench, a south facing ridge of new growth, a stream edge, a stand of beech at a time when the acorns are scarce, and a several acre area covered with the tangled mess of last year’s wind-ravaged blow downs. Sit on the downwind side in a pre-positioned climbing stand adjacent to the location featuring the highest concentration of large rubs, use the deeply cut stream as your access, be careful not to leave a scent trail on the way in, and wait for a mature buck to come wandering into his secluding bedding area. I can think of at least one 30 square mile area you could basically narrow down to about 7 separate locations to scout within a few hours on a Sunday afternoon prior to the Monday opener of PA’s rifle season. Maybe only 20 acres of total scouting area minus the walks in-between. And that area is extremely common throughout the region. It really can be that simple if you use layers to define your hunting efforts, whether those efforts be on private or public lands!
When to Hunt
The biggest example of layers I can think of that relate to “When” to hunt is the case of an 80-acre stand of mature hardwoods adjacent to a rich agricultural region. Acorns dropping, trees in their spectacular fall foliage, a few well-placed water holes, and adjacent succulent summer-range food sources all equal a high % of early season success. However, remove those crops, drop the foliage, dry up or freeze the waterholes, and vacuum up the acorns with a few dozen turkeys and a small herd of deer, and it’s often hard to find a deer track during late November. Use the seasonal layering patterns to determine the optimum time to hunt. On public land this may mean seeking stands of conifer adjacent to food sources during the late season, and on private land this may mean ADDING those food sources or conifer stands of snow-hindrance and thermal protection to build a late season deer herd on your property. But if you pay attention to the seasonal patterns of layering, you can enjoy hunting the right place at the right time, even if you have to plan on another place to hunt during the wrong times.
How to Hunt
Nothing spoils a great spot, a spot where many layers come together to produce a logical pattern of travel, feeding, or bedding…than by just plain walking into that spot at the wrong time, or even just sitting right in the middle of it. By using a downwind side, “deer free” approaches, and by staying OUT of the hub of deer usage and activity you can not only experience a great sit with a low % of possible deer/human disturbance, but you can preserve that spot for another time. On public land that may mean that you simply enjoy the entire day out in the woods and then leave the following day, dreaming of next year. However on private lands, the concept becomes much more critical to preserve. Think of your private hunting grounds as having the ability to age like a fine wine. As your neighbor’s are spoiling their parcels with poor hunting efforts, the local deer herd will easily distinguish the “safety” and security of your non-invasive tactics used to maximize the effectiveness of the many layers you have taken the time to create. Assemble those layers in a logical pattern of movement across the entire landscape of your land, and those un-interrupted manipulations of deer movement will become stronger and stronger every day, making the deer easier and easier to ambush when the time is right.
In the market to buy or lease?
By seeking out parcels with as many layers as possible, you are years ahead of the game. Then it’s just a matter of stepping in and enhancing the areas that fit within the best pattern of potential movement and deer usage for your parcel, and possibly adding more layers to the plan if appropriate to strengthen the intended pattern of manipulation. Also, but NOT enhancing the areas that fall outside of the intended overall plan, those areas become quickly distanced in both overall quality and deer usage, making it much easier for you to move about your new property purchase or lease without spooking the deer that “you” are hiding on your parcel.
Can a child-hood game hold the key to your success? Maybe? Who knows, but I hope you can relate to that example of layering. And of course I’m not suggesting a layer of pallets or head-high piles of leaves within your favorite hunting land, but come to think of it, I’d rather have an open hardwoods with a few long rows of head-high piles of leaves adding a 2nd layer to an otherwise “boring” piece of habitat, than “not”, in terms of increasing the possible level of security a local deer herd feels on that parcel. Give the local deer herd a place to hide within a logical web of layers, and in turn give yourself a chance to find a hidden buck of a lifetime, a buck that unwittingly hid within YOUR favorite hiding spot!
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By Jeff Sturgis, www.whitetailhabitatsolutions.com