Can you experience QDM on poor whitetail habitat? You sure can!
Make sure to check out my article about how to build a Quality Deer Herd on your own land.
Let me paint a picture for you. 120 Acres covered with pockets of mature spruce, cedar, pine, soft maple, and fir, blended in with a substantial portion of tag-alder creek bottom, and clear-cut openings from the early 80s, full of a variety of young pine. Soils consisting of primarily a sandy loam, with pH levels in the 4.1 to 5.2 ranges. Little to no mast crop, fruit crop, or farmland growing within 20 miles. A population of less than 5 deer frequenting the property on a daily basis, contributing to less than 5 total rubs from the previous year, and no evidence of any scraping activity.
So how do you see it, 8 year dream or nightmare?
In 1998 it became a dream, and in July of 1999, when the 120-acre parcel was added to our adjoining 10 acres and home, it became a reality. It also became the acceptance of year-round management, year-round stewardship, year-round planning and year-round work. But not all work is created equal, and looking back after I stopped working on the property in 2007, the results of hours of fun-work were extremely rewarding.
*Don't forget to check out my trilogy of Advanced Whitetail Strategy books, including my latest,"Mature Buck Success by Design".
The Molding and Shaping Poor Whitetail Habitat:
In 1999 I joined the QDMA, and 2 years prior I was introduced to Ed Spinnazola, former President of the Mid-Michigan QDMA branch and board member of the National QDMA. It turned out Ed was a food plot expert, not to mention full of generosity in both time, and even a little seed. As was discussed in most publications at the time, Ed stressed the importance of liming, as well as variety in planting, including both warm and cold-season forages. Along with Eds advice and information obtained largely from the QDMAs Quality Whitetails book and Quarterly Whitetails magazine, I formed the basis for my plan.
It was also in 1999 that I was privileged enough to meet fellow central U.P. area resident and nationally known white-tailed research biologist, John Ozoga. John is not only an expert in local herd research, but was an extremely valuable reference for local scientific insight and herd structure.
In August of 2001 my continuing plan was reinforced, as I hired Mark Thomas, also a national board member of the QDMA, to evaluate my actions, and make any recommendations of improvement. Mark and I spent approximately nine hours of walking and talking on the property, while I did my best to absorb the countless insights that Mark shared with me.
The information gleaned from Mark, John, Ed, and the QDMA, lead to what I believe was not only the successful foundation for the 120 acres, but for a lifetime career in the whitetail woods.
Poor Whitetail Habitat Food Plots:
Entering the 2000-hunting season, many hours of chainsaw work and about an hour of bulldozer was used to create two food plots totaling 1 acre. Two years later, by the start of the 2002 hunting season, and approximately 22 tons of lime later, I had a total of 4 acres of food plots. During a warming trend around Christmas of 2002, I had been able to start another of an acre of food plot, with the remaining portion of that particular area being added, limed, and leveled in the spring of 2003, as well as the completion of another adjoining acre area. Additionally, two other acre harvest plots were added during the summer of 2003, bringing the total of food plot acreage entering the 2003 hunting season to a 5 acres, with each 40 acre parcel offering various sizes of food plots. However I didn't stop there, and by the end of 2005 14 plots totaling 8 acres helped to support the entire 120 acres of cover. Each year the effects of lime were dramatic while turning unfertile, almost useless soil, into a productive variety of high quality forages in just one-year!
The Poor Whitetail Habitat Strategy:
What to plant, how to plant it, where to plant it, and why? Access roads, safety zones, treestand locations, and native plant management. What deer to harvest and how many? And most importantly...how to hunt the property!
In general, I tried to build everything to accommodate a stealth approach, within a design where my hunting and daily activities could be carried out with little human to deer contact. All aspects of the property revolved around a centrally located large non-hunted food plot, and a high percentage of food-supported sanctuary acreage that rarely received my sight, sound or scent. This is where the planning came in. When shaping a piece of land, mistakes can be costly and irreversible, and because of this I decided to make the investment of hiring an expert, as my efforts were becoming quite extensive.
Mark Thomas came to me highly recommended and with a wealth of field experience, education, and knowledge. Overall, Mark reaffirmed the direction my plan was taking, and had a couple of key suggestions. First, Mark saved me from a recommendation of a local state forester to build a pond in a particular area of the property. After seeing this portion of the property for the first time, Mark immediately confirmed my apprehension, by suggesting I do very little with the site, which meant no food plots, and especially no ponds. Mark informed me that this particular area held the best variety of preferred native vegetation and browse species on the entire property! It would have been a costly mistake to build a food plot in this location, and even worse, a pond. Mark's recommendation wasn't exactly to do nothing, but to possibly fertilize this area to further enhance the attractiveness it already possessed.
Mark also confirmed two other aspects of property strategy. First, a harvest goal I had developed in talking to John Ozoga, in that doe fawns would be a possible appropriate harvest target, as well as bucks at least 2.5 years of age.At the time my sites were set on older bucks in other states, but a 2.5 year old at the time, represented the top 10% of buck. A final recommendation was to leave the timber and young growth on the property just the way it was, with excellent screening, bedding, thermal, and escape cover already present.
With extremely low deer population numbers within the area, coupled with a 50% fawn mortality rate, there was just no immediate need to target any mature does within a solid QDM property plan.
Finally, another important piece of the stealth approach strategy was the trail system and tree stand usage. My access trails avoid crossing food plots, and the majority of the food plots were rarely, and sometimes never, hunted. The bulk of the hunting activities were practiced on travel routes to and from bedding areas. Some suggested I plant the majority of my 2 1/2 mile trail network to increase food plot acreage, but I chose to stay away from this practice on any trail that featured hunter access, due to the fact that it would greatly increase the human to deer contact frequency. My treestands were numerous and not over-used. Some treestands were only hunted once per season, in the perfect situation of wind, time of year, and time of day, and most were hunted less than three times.
Some may find my stealth strategy a little extreme, but on limited acreage it has been my experience that it takes very little human to deer contact to effectively damage the comfort level of an entire local deer herd. I found early in my hunting career that deer completely avoided an area for 2 to 3 days, previously being visited multiple times per day, after just one intrusion of stand set-up, construction, or even heavy ATV use. My poor whitetail habitat strategy was an intensive one, but I felt my efforts were rewarded greatly! However without an effective plant that relied on stealth and minimal intrusion the results would have most likely been minimal at best. What is the "lowest hole in the bucket" when it comes to implementing the principles of QDM on any parcel? "Hunting Strategy", because no amount of perfection with any habitat improvemeng can overcome poor hunting efforts.
Poor Whitetail Habitat Rewards:
In 1999 I was able to find less than 5 rubs on the property from the previous season, and one small scrape. It was quite evident from track counts found on the property, that there were less than 5 deer using the property on a daily basis. It was actually common to be unable to find a fresh deer track for 2 to 3 days at a time on the property's 2.5 miles of trails and 2-tracks! Prior to the 1999 hunting season I worked about 40 hours with a chainsaw, and an hour with a dozer operator to establish two separate food plots totaling 1 acre A third acre food plot was established with Ed Spinnazolas recommendations of multiple herbicide treatments, and a spring-toothed harrow. Although the initial food plot quality was low, deer began using the property on a daily basis, and my viewing opportunities within bow or rifle range increased dramatically. I also received my first buck picture on the property, a small spike, and later captured a 2.5 year old 8-point on a migration trail in December. The rub and scrape counts stayed about the same as the previous year, but it was obvious the daily deer activities were increasing, and the positive steps, although baby steps, were encouraging for 2001.
During the 2001 season, with the addition of a tractor, I was able to increase the food plot total to 3.5 acres. With established mineral stations and food plot funnels in place to effectively monitor daily activities, it was easy to create a camera census of the daily deer population using the property. Mark Thomas toured the property in late August and stated he thought about 15 deer were using the property on a daily basis, based on track count and sign. After the hunting season, while scouring numerous game photos, I was able to make the following population determination: Six mature does, 4 yearling does, only 1 fawn (due to an extremely harsh late winter/spring combination), and 3 yearling bucks. In addition, I was able to harvest a healthy 2.5 year old 8-point that had been residing on the extreme edge of the property, for a total population of around 15 deer. Mark couldnt have been any closer in his estimation, and this offered further evidence of the validity and expertise of his suggestions. Last but not least for 2001, were the over 40 rubs and over 20 scrapes found throughout the property boundaries! My baby steps for the property were getting bigger, and although I loved passing the winter months scouting, while listening to my beagles run the numerous snowshoe rabbits that now benefit from the increased food supply, I couldn't wait for the upcoming management season of 2002.
2002 was a great year in many ways. By the start of the 2002-hunting season, I was able to establish another food plot totaling acre, bringing the total food plot acreage to 4 acres. The game camera pictures were coming often and in John Ozogas opinion, they were mirroring the five-peaked daily activity rhythm feeding patterns of the white-tailed deer. On several locations, including the acre field I had just established, feedings were occurring consistently at mid-morning, mid day, late afternoon, and twice during the night. My own personal observation suffered as I spent 5 prime hunting weekends away from home, while hunting whitetails in WI and PA. But by the end of the season, the game cameras confirmed the movements of six different 8-points, of 2.5 to 3.5 years of age, 6 to 7 mature does, and 8 fawns! The game cameras also supported the findings of limited fawns the previous year, in that just 1 yearling was captured on film, a fat and healthy spike. Although there was a similar amount of rutting sign within the property boundaries, both rubs and scrapes had increased in size and intensity, which foreshadowed of great things to come.
Fast forwarding to 2006, I was able to pass on my first MI 3.5 year old buck! But that wasn't the only thing. Dozens of scrapes and over two hundred rubs could be found throughout the 120 acres. By the end of the 2006 season I had captured 17 different bucks on camera, passed on 11 different bucks of 1.5 to 3.5 years of age, and harvested 2 bucks from the property that were at least 3.5 years old!
Sadly the next year, 2007 was my last year hunting the property. However it was in 2007 that two, 4 year old bucks were discovered on game camera, as well as the the thrill of harvesting another buck that was at least 3.5 years old.
Although I haven't hunted the parcel since, I still enjoy hunting public land within the area, while shooting a monster 148" 8 point in 2011. Was he a product of the 120 acres? Who knows...but looking back the experience that I was able to enjoy while witnessing the transformation of a poor whitetail habitat parcel in a low-deer density area, offered more than enough of a foundation for a lifetime of whitetail pursuits!
There are indeed limits as a result of owning a smaller piece of property, but while staying within those limits, and establishing realistic long-term hunting and habitat strategies, a property of restricted size can experience dramatic improvement in both quality and attraction. The 120 acres had several limiting poor whitetail habitat factors that had to be taken into consideration, including: Size of property, substantial amounts of bordering public lands, low soil quality, and the migratory patterns with yarding characteristics of the resident deer population. Staying within these limits, I still feel that over an 8 year period I achieved an outstanding representation of a QDM parcel.
With the tips and tactics I was able to incorporate into the property, many from information I learned directly from the QDMA, Mark Thomas, Ed Spinnazola, and John Ozoga, a solid foundation of a strategic management philosophy was able to be implemented even on a small parcel. I experienced that by using a heavy dose of hunting strategy and lot of work, a sound management philosophy could reach it's full potential! The management of any property will be a never-ending tale of fun work, but as the season's progress success can be found by those that work hard. It all starts with a plan of setting priorities for each year and being diligent, but not over-worked in your actions. In the end of your hard work, and as the realization of your dream takes shape, you will find that not only have you increased the level of enjoyment and productivity of your property, but you will have experienced the rewards of being not just a whitetail hunter, but a whitetail Manager.
This is a revised edition of my first contributed article, published in the March 2004 issue of the QDMA's Quality Whitetails magazine.