Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Saturday, January 28th, 2023

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Three critical steps to growing big deer

I remember all the excuses we had for not having mature deer in our neighborhood. All the public land nearby.

Endless gun seasons. No one passing on deer….Those were the Big Three, but I know there were more. I just forgot them, because at some point my neighbors and I decided to roll up our sleeves and try to improve things.

There was no miracle cure or overnight success. The first three years we plowed under barely-touched food plots we’d left for wintering deer; animals that were so trained to leave our area and winter elsewhere that they walked away from acres of standing corn and soybeans. Even now, almost no one else in the area practices any deer management, and of course the wildlife management areas are still there and the structure of the hunting season has not changed a bit.

But now, virtually every year, we have one or more mature bucks to chase. We don’t always tag them, but the fun is knowing they are there, living and growing on small chunks of habitat we helped create. While detailing the steps we’ve taken (including some epic failures) would require more space than I’ve got here, what follows are three basic categories we addressed.

Start with the food factor

It’s no secret that whitetails are slaves to their stomachs; if you don’t provide – or find – the groceries, deer simply go to the places that have them. And mature bucks are no different than the rest of their herd-mates, continually looking for the right stuff to satisfy their appetites, and relying on those places even during the rut, when eating is fairly low on their priority list. But even when a buck’s primary mission is finding does, guess where he’s going to start looking? Yup, the salad bars where the girls hang out.

Of course this has led to an entire sub-industry in the hunting world, with a myriad of companies pitching food plot blends in appealing bags that feature a big buck on the front. I’ve tried a bunch and they’re typically successful, allowing a savvy food plotter to keep a buck’s tummy satisfied for the better part of the year.

Toss in some ag crops (when avail able) like corn, soybeans, and alfalfa and if a buck can’t find something to nibble on, he’s not working very hard.

The quest to provide the groceries for deer, however, doesn’t end with the stuff we plant. Remember, whitetails were thriving long before farmers and food plotters arrived on the scene and their systems are hard-wired to feed on browse, mast, and other naturally-growing food sources.

The best deer managers are those who plant, manage, and sustain these trees, shrubs, and plants on their properties and, for those who don’t have the luxury of managing real estate, recognizing these preferred foods is critical to knowing the favored sources in a buck’s world.

Think security cover

While I’m a gung-ho food plotter, I also shake my head a bit at the emphasis
on establishing and planting plots, all the while ignoring an equally
critical component of a buck’s life; habitat that makes him feel safe.

I don’t care if the buck you grow is the biggest stud for four square
miles, at his core he remains a prey species hardwired to hide from
danger.

When faced with peril, a buck’s primary desire is to flee quickly, then hide like a bunny rabbit.

Even when he’s not in danger, a buck is never far from the dense cover that he’s associated with safety since he wore spots.

In some areas security cover already exists; conifer swamps, cattail
marshes, dense creek/river bottoms, all provide the thick stuff
preferred by deer. But if those spots don’t exist on your property
you’ll have to create them and doing so usually requires the use of a
chainsaw.

I’m a huge fan of logging and recognize its benefit for a healthy forest,
as well as improved whitetail habitat. So if you’re not managing your
timber with the help of a forester who understands your deer management
goals, you need to do that. And if you’re hesitant to go that route, or
not content to wait for the long-term benefits of logging, there is
another way, and it’s called hinge cutting.

Hinge cutting is simply dropping a tree by “hinge-ing” it with a cut that
tips the tree over, but doesn’t pass completely through. The remaining
bark/cambium layer not only keeps the tree top alive for a time
(maintaining a fresh browse source within easy reach of whitetails) but
creates a horizontal landscape of cover that makes deer feel safe.

My partners and I have started and maintained several hinge-cutting
projects over the past few years and created dense bedding/security
covers that have truly attracted deer (including some great bucks). The
key to mastering this technique is focusing on tree species that are not
valuable as lumber or pulp. We pick most heavily on box elder, as well
as elm. Whenever possible we focus our efforts on small pockets that
grow closely to preferred bedding areas or travel corridors.

Space and discipline

Once whitetails have a menu of foods to choose from and a sanctuary to
retreat to, the rest is actually up to the creators of those spots: you
and me.

Food plots need to be hunted sparingly and only under the right wind conditions.

Remember, whitetails feel vulnerable when they’re feeding, so if you start giving
them reasons to be nervous (overhunting a plot, ignoring wind
direction, not having a good entry/exit), their response is usually
predictable; they’ll either limit their visits to night, or simply
reduce their visits and focus on other dining spots.

Sanctuaries are even more important. Once you create a safe haven for deer, your mission is simple; stay the heck out.

When my neighbors and I finally committed to this concept a few years back
it was pretty shocking how quickly our hunting success changed.

Suddenly, mature bucks in our neighborhood had one or more places to retreat to
where they weren’t bothered and their response nearly was immediate.

Instead of bedding wherever he wasn’t feeling pressured, a buck now had a predictable spot he could lay up and not be bothered.

It’s amazing how quickly you can shrink the world of a nice buck by giving
him the stuff he needs, then largely leaving him alone.

One of the toughest things to face as a deer hunter is that most of the time whitetails are not super difficult to figure out.

We’re tempted to think we can’t tag a big buck
because he’s “outsmarting” us, when in fact he’s just being a deer; an
animal whose main mission in life is simply to stay alive.

He does that by eating, sleeping, and traveling in places where he feels safest.

If we can provide those things for him, then discipline ourselves to hunt
when conditions are as close to perfect as possible, we’ll clear some of
the hurdles that once caused us to stumble.

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