Habitat and Herd Improvement

Whitetail Parcel Layout and Design, from a Habitat Designer's Perspective

Wpid 2012 01 18 16 53 58 52 1 1

Wow....my deer season is over, and it's "Habitat Time"!! I feel extremely fortunate to either manage deer habitat or hunt deer year round and as my friends probably remember me saying often, "I'm pretty lucky!" as it relates to being able to do what I do.

I wanted to offer a bit of a framework of what I look for when visiting a property for a client so that some of you that would never consider hiring a consultant can at least have an idea of what to look for and what angles should be covered.

1. Access. West to East access is best the majority of the time, but that is subject to existing habitat in and around the parcel. BUT, that access does not generally mean west to east right through the center of the property except for parcels several hundred acres or more in which the parcel more encompasses the daily lives of various family groups.

If the property runs horizontally a north E/W trail and a south E/W trail can protect the center of the property but allow you as the hunter/landowner to have several cuts into the heart of the parcel or at least into the edge of the heart of the parcel so that you can access stand positions. These stand positions can then be pinched or defined with various tools such as fencing, cuttings, tunneling, planting, or even small food sources to keep the deer at your feet and into the wind instead of at your back and with the wind in their favor.

This is especially critical when accessing parcels from west to east, typically with the seasonal wind patterns. A north E/W trail and a south E/W trail can still get you around the heart of the property even though you are accessing with the wind.

Vertical properties are no different in that exterior access is a must while protecting the integrity of the heart.

HOWEVER, this is not to say that on a small parcel your best bedding cover could not be in a corner, right on your property line. For example, you may have a heavy NW corner that matches up great with an adjacent funnel/bedding area that is almost impossible for a neighbor to access without pushing deer onto your property. Same with a NE corner, or basically any top, corner, or side around the entire parcel. There is NO SET for access, just concepts that need to be applied to the existing situation.

2. Bedding area locations. In general, the worst are near access points, in the front of your parcel, and they should never be chosen randomly purely by timber stand rotation or timber management. It is critical that YOU as the landowner dictate where a bedding area should be defined, and that bedding area will be managed, improved, and maintained for the forseeable future.

Westerly edge bedding locations are GREAT....IF, you access the parcel from the east, or possibly the north or south but again it's all subject to neighboring habitat and access. For example, it could be your best bedding areas is along a road, north of your cabin which is along the same road, basically in the NE corner of the property. The deer might access that bedding area from across the road to the east and the trick is to preserve the intergrity of that bedding area while using the road access to your favor and attempting to lengthen the use of that deer hotspot into the heart of your property. That can be done with additional cuttings, plantings, travel corridor installation and food sources, but the longer the length of deer usage the more you can capitalize on that pattern of movement in a hunting situation.

The bottom line, the deer need to feel secure, and you need to not only offer that security, but define that security enough to be able to hunt your property. "The thicker is better" for the entire property is not necessarily a good thing unless it offers definitive approaches and stand positions due to topographical and existing clearly defined changes in habitat. Instead, define the bedding area and you can further define where you hunt throughout the entire parcel but in no way are these bedding areas random.

An effective bedding area has to be screened from your approach. A 20 acre bedding area is not a 20 acre bedding area if deer can see you, hear you, or smell you. In fact, it can be a pretty poor 20 acre bedding area with an absolute zero chance of attracting and holding a mature buck even if he existing habitat and "deer beds" are perfect on paper simply because you do not offer enough security for that bedding area.

Probably the biggest mistake though is defining a bedding area simply by logging or timber management activities based on future boards per foot. YOU need to define that bedding area first as it relates to all the interior and exterior influences on the parcel and then shape the timber management activities to fit that layout. That will also include maintaining adjacent existing stands of mature timber when possible to further define the bedding area and to allow for downwind blockers and "deer-proof" access to stand locations.

3. Food source locations. Often the best scenerio allows for seperation of food source and bedding locations so that you can capatalize on deer movements in-between while never spooking deer on the major food sources. That food to bedding movement pattern is about as sure-fire as it gets to have during daylight hours unless you as a hunter or landowner destroy it with careless movements in and around the property.

With that in mind it's pretty hard to access rear food source locations while having to travel through or around bedding locations, especially when talking parcels sizes of a 1/4 mile wide. Hidden front food source locations with rear bedding locations is a great scenerio when you can skip around those food source locations to intercept deer as they travel to or from the food source. That situation also sets up fantastic morning stand options for the pre-rut by allowing you to get behind or around major food source locations while deer still are safe and active feeding under the cover of darkness. You can get into a quiet stand location with the wind in your favor (might be you even walk in with the wind, on a pinch point into a back bedding area that has been naturally or artificially enhanced).

This is all for not though if you create a situation where a deer can literally step out of his bedding cover and onto a food source within a very short distance. In that situation you have to often destroy the integrity of the food source to get a look at that short movement and at the same time if you destroy the food source and the food source is adjacent to the bedding area...you risk the bedding area as well.

The worst case situation are food sources you have to walk through to get to stand locations. This is a terrible scenerio and it promotes an uneasy herd on the entire parcel. The deer will pattern you as a hunter, the deer will become nocturnal on all your food sources and in that case it's better to not actually have the food source at all. THIS IS THE EXACT REASON why planting your property's 2-track system can often be a very bad idea. IF you don't have to walk through it during "deer hours", IF there is little chance of spooking game while you use those trails, IF you have some fairly hidden inner trails...it should work but often they can often hurt you several times more than they can help you. However, 1 great scenerio, for example, is a N/S trail system connecting several small or large plots that you can get to an outside corner of a planted connecting trail from low-quality cover from the east, screened approach and stand location, within a line of heavy cover...but that's pretty specific!

3. Balance in food source. Typically clover and chicory are terrible as a november food source. What's the big deal with November? Well, it's the #1 month in which you can have the greatest impact on your parcel's carrying power for a quality deer herd. Also, November is a month in which the local habitat is providing less available forage, and ag regions are not typically any better. Most properties should be collecting deer as the season progresses and food sources, even in ag land, are critical during the most intense of hunting months. The one exception is in cover-starved ag regions where any thick cover will hold deer...but they still need to eat!

On most midwestern parcels the local deer herd has several times more food than it needs from May-Oct. so if you are offering GREAT forage during this time that could still be nice, but if it is at the expense of offering forage during Nov-April your property is not balanced and the potential quality of your deer herd, including a quality level that includes a good # of bucks and older bucks, is greatly hindered. That balance is key!

Many small parcels only have an acre or two of food plots......don't make the mistake of not being balanced during the hunter months or that hopeful summer anticipation could lead to empty dreams during the hunting season.

Also, this balance is shaped by the region the parcel is in. Ag dictates 1 balance of forage, big woods or wilderness another, and cool to cooler climates yet another balance.

4. Balance in cover. Yes, just as a parcel can certainly have too little cover, it can have too much. So, what do you address first, food or cover? Well that depends on a host of factors, but the cover related activities that are needed on a southern WI ag land parcel could be a total waste of time on a northern MN remote wilderness parcel. Also, maybe existing cover dictates that other factors such as trail access creation and food sources could be a priority. For example, we have a few hidden, defined by topography and habitat bedding areas on my WI lease. If we spent our precious hours of activity creating or enhancing bedding cover, while negleting stand locations, access, and food sources, it wouldn't necessarily be a waste of time, but it would make our overall efforts less effective. We have to have food on that parcel, and we have to hunt smart and have many stand locations and access points. We can manage without the bedding area enhancement and have for 6 years now if you take a look at my website harvest photos, but we could lnot ive without our food soures and stand location variety and access.

5. Segregation of the sexes. Simply, the mature does rule the roost. Single bedding and feeding areas will be taken over by the female population with the 1 exception sometimes being that of cover starved ag regions. However, you can take the same bedding area size, same amount of food source acreage, and by allowing for seperation within your strategic property layout you can actually hold more deer, including more bucks. At the same time it forces mature bucks to move more between deer hotspots whether they be feeding or bedding, increasing your odds of harvest.

6. Hunter movements and activities. The bottom line....do the deer know they are being hunted? Do they hear you, do they smell you, do they see you? Let's face it, deer/human encounters add up over the season like the acne on a non-bathing greasy forehead of a teen age boy! Your welcome for the visual But, think clean access, clean property use, clean stand use and think where you can eliminate the potential for deer/human encounter, and then by the end of the season your property can still be fairly clean. That means screened access, non-human traveled food source locations, favorable wind access relative to food source and bedding areas for time of day and time of year, that means not spooking deer getting in and out of stands, and effective doe harvest timing.

7. Your doe herd. The #1 sign of a pressured property...a pressured doe herd. If the local doe herd only feeds on your parcel after dark it's probably due to one factor....you I mean that in the nicest of ways but if a doe herd can feed in someones backyard at all hours of the day while living out of 2 acres of cover surrounded by ag fields of incredible forage variety seen by deer only after dark...it can happen just the same on your 40 acre parcel, or 100, or 200. Meaning, you creat the scenerio of either the unpressured backyard deer herd or he daytime deerless ag fields that surround and you only need a few acres. However, destoy it once, destroy it twice..and it's often done for the season.

Maintain the doe family movements....maintain the integrity of the property and then at the appropriate time go in a harvest those does in a surgical strike of predictability and effeciency. Whenever I hear someone say they shoot every mature doe herd they see, you can bet they probably don't shoot enough, and their property is severely hindered for the quality potential of their property's holding ability, including mature bucks. Timed, infrequent surgical strikes are much more effective for many aspects compared to heavily pressured all-out efforts.

8. "Definitive Use" stand locations. Morning, evening, mid-day, early season, late season, pre-rut, rut, cold weather, warm weather, East wind, South wind, West wind, North wind....what are your stands, what is the optimum time to use and what conditions are most favorable? Which stands can be ruined for the best time of year by using too early...which ones can be used too late...can you use a stand "too late" in the season? These aspects of stand use have to be defined, and they have to be defined through experience...there is no field guide for your existing or potential stand locations. Yeah, some general ideas...but those general ideas can get you in trouble no different than picking a "great" food plot location purely by the quality of the soil.

Think of it this way in that my 70+ stand locations or "favorite trees" in 3 states public or private are defined enought that I'd trade 5 morning sits of my choice in the first 10 days of Nov. for the entire rest of the season. That also illustrates another point...you have to know your approximate % of success for the timing of the use of your stands. I honestly feel that some of the stands that have less than a 2% chance of success in most of Sept and Oct jump to a 25%+ chance to score on a mature buck during it's optimum condition so it's not necessarily just about why and when to use a stand....but how you prioritize that stand relative to all the other "perfect" stand positions to use at the same time.

Also, your various trails have to have defined use as to morning, evening, time of year, etc. and a large part of defining your tree stand usage is first defining your trail access.

Think of property layout and creation as choosing a spot to place a treestand. Do you just wander through the woods and place a stand in the best looking tree? Or do you place a treestand only after great care is considered for approach, wind direction, deer trails, habitat changes, thermals, neighbors, access, time of year, time of day, etc.? It's no different with bedding areas, food sources, access trails, and screening cover...it's always BEST location which may or may not be the best soil, or the best timber, or the best tree. "Take a look at your soil map and pick your food plot locations" is about as far as it gets from stategic property management and it can really get you in trouble and hinder your success. I'll be reminded of this as I plant several hundred conifer over the "perfect" 1/4 acre food plot on my property this spring Great growing plot, one of my best...TERRIBLE location because I might has well have put up a sign that said, "I travel through here local deer, come here to be continuosly scared by me as I enter or exit my property stand locations...come get to know me!" because that's exactly what that "perfect soil, perfect plot" does for me in that particular spot. Of course all things being equal...pick the best soil. On the other hand, some of my best plots are my worst soils, and worst locations on paper...westerly facing, dry, no top soil, well above the water table..they stink on paper but in the real world are the best and that is what you need to look for with your entire property layout.

It's 1 big giant puzzle and it's actually a lot of fun! There are some "typical" aspects, but I have yet to see a "cookie cutter" parcel. The concepts are still the same...how a property should be hunted and preserved (in fact I take the same hunting approach on public land too!), segregation of the sexes, balance in food and cover, priority of food and cover, access, screened approach, bedding, and food sources, and definitive use stand location...but the application of those tools is anything but cookie-cutter! There is so much to consider and really it can actually confuse the matter by using multiple sources of "educated" input. For example, ask yourself, is your forester really a hunting expert that will not only know what timber to cut, how, and why...but how it relates to overall strategic use of your property for holding and hunting a quality whitetail herd? What about a book on deer management from an author in another region....how does that relate to your property-and most importantly does it relate to your property? Hey, congratulatios you grew a GREAT food plot, but is it the best seed variety, in the best location, for you and your hunting efforts? Growing a great plot is only a small portion of the puzzle, in fact, just like a leaned back crooked tree can indeed be the best spot for a tree stand (and unfortunately often is), a poor "on paper" plot can indeed be the best for your situation. So much to consider and these angles have to have a mature buck hunting influence if mature buck are something you want or hope for.

The way to manage property....learn how to hunt mature bucks first in many different locations and regions, public, private, ag, wilderness, big woods ON YOUR OWN, and then manage your property with that hunting influence first...make sense?!? Shape your property to fit into the aspects of smart hunting tactics relative to your area and you will be on the right path but without that base it's nothing more than having a logger timber a 40 and then using the decking areas and access trails for food plots, and letting the bedding areas develop where they may. Ask yourself with every possible development...how does this fit into my property? Will this cause me to spook deer? Can I access this without spooking deer? Will this pull deer too far out side of security cover to be effective? How does this relate to my neighbors parcel, my neighbors habitat, my neigbors access and location? Will this be available "when" the deer need it the most and "where" the deer need it the most? Will I push deer to my neighbors by doing this? Will I collect deer from my neigbor by doing this? Am I taking too much from a priority of cover or food, to create more of a less of a priority of cover or food?

To view 1000s of my posts for additional information, visit the whitetail forums at www.michigan-sporstman.com

By Jeff Sturgis, www.whitetailhabitatsolutions....


Previous PostNext Post