Connecting the Dots this Offseason
By Sean Wuller
It’s March in Iowa and deer season has officially been in the books over a month now. You’ve had a couple weeks off from hunting and you’re already thinking of next season and how that whitetail you’ve been chasing eluded you yet again. In a way you’re happy, knowing one more year of that deer on the hoof means hopefully one more year of antler mass and tine length. However, in the back of your mind you’re second guessing your setup and strategy. You think your dilemma is that you only own a small tract of land, say 40 acres, and that all of your neighbors around you own much more land to hunt.
You’ve tried everything that you’ve read in magazines or seen on TV; bought and tried all of the new food plot mixes, off-season food supplements and minerals. So why do you keep coming up short?
I’ve spent many years in the deer woods, working with some of the most knowledgeable people in the hunting industry. I’ve been involved with QDMA, was one of the founders of Big & J Industries, LLC & co-inventor of “BB2” deer feed/attractant, worked with numerous TV shows, land managers, biologists, etc..
Through my travels and talks with people all over the United States and into Canada the same question always came up when we met new folks on their land. “How would you hunt this property and what would you do to improve it?” This question is a double edged sword. You see, I’m no expert and don’t claim to be one. Your property is unique on its own, there is not another tract that is like this one nor will there ever be. Each piece of property has its own unique characteristics that need to be utilized and understood. Keeping that in mind throughout this process will help you understand the things that we are going to touch base on throughout the article. The reason we are focusing on smaller tracts of land is simply because that is what the majority of us are working with. These same strategies, in my opinion, work just as well with larger tracts of land too.
All of this planning you are getting ready for started during the season whether you knew it or not. While sitting in your stand you consistently saw deer moving all around you, but not within shooting range. You played it off as you spooked them, or they caught your dirty wind, you made a mental note of where they were traveling. You noticed all season that the deer entered into your food plots at the last minute or two of legal shooting light. You thought that the full moon kept them up all night or that the weather kept them bedded down. Which may have happened, but you know what trails they are using to get to the plot, they’re just using them too late. Yet another mental note stored away. You planted your best food plot ever, it was lush and green, came up strong, fertilized the heck out of it, could have been a photo cover of a magazine type plot. However, the deer didn’t really care for it. Walking to your stand in the late winter you crossed several “deer highways” in the snow, noted the direction of travel, but they weren’t where your stand was or where you thought they were traveling. All of these thoughts lead to some frustration, but sub-consciously you were making notes and changes in your head to help out next year and for years to come.
So what’s the next step? First and foremost, you need a map and a written down game plan. Whether you use Google Maps, Hunterra Maps, or have access to Surety Maps ( a tool that Real Estate Agents use) you need a good quality map of your property. I like to get maps printed off in numerous sizes. I prefer to have a large map that I put up on a wall with a piece of Plexiglas over the top so that I can write on it with dry erase markers. This application is used for numerous purposes such as; providing family members an exact location of my whereabouts, food plot locations, known trails, watering holes, feeders, mineral sites & camera locations to name a few. It’s a master plan that is easy to change from day to day or as seasons change. I also like to use smaller waterproof maps that I can carry in my pack or in my all-terrain vehicle while working, scouting, or hunting on the property so I always know where to or not to go. I always have a few of these smaller maps just printed on paper as well so while making changes in the field I am able to make corrections on the map then transfer them to my master plan/map back at the house.
You’ve got your map now it’s time to connect the dots. First question you need to answer is “How are the deer using my property currently?” This is the most important step in being successful as a land manager and hunter. No matter what game you hunt knowing how and why your property is being used is crucial to your success. Once you’ve made a list of all the things you’ve observed during the season including deer travel routes, current stand locations, watering holes, deer travel times, and arrival times to food sources you can start to “manage” your property.
There is no doubt that you can make the deer use your property the way you want them to over time, but there are ways that you can speed up this process. To better help understand this process we’re going to use a map of a 40 acre piece of land that a friend of mine has. This property, as you will see, has some advantages and disadvantages when it comes to hunting. So how are the deer using this property and what can we do to be successful?
Scouting your property & the surrounding properties:
Let’s face it, most of us have full time jobs that aren’t in the hunting industry. We have families, responsibilities, and second jobs that eat up a lot of our time. This is what we call life, it happens whether we like it or not. Your time to observe the land may be limited, but it can be efficient no matter the time frame. When we talk about scouting we’re not going to assume that you sit in a stand or field all day from dawn to dusk watching how your property is being used. This is called “hunting” and you’re already doing it. You’ve compiled everything that you saw while hunting the past several years and made notes. It’s the offseason, so now what? Most of us like to shed hunt, some of us like to turkey hunt, both of these are a great time to survey the land and start to make changes. Using a map like we have shown will help you identify what you have. The property shown has a little bit of everything. It has row crop, thick cedar bedding areas, ridges, bowls, alfalfa food plot, and access to water. So how is it being utilized? We need to look at the property around it, our neighbors’ property to better understand this.
• The first thing that we note is that the neighbor to the south has a large corn field on the other side of the road. It’s surrounded by a thick tree line in most places and there are numerous trails leading to the road from your property and then to the ditches by the corn field. They also have a creek that always seems to have water in it that leads to a large pond area. You’ve walked your fence line by the road and noted the heaviest traveled trails and marked them on the map. The deer are using these as access to and from your neighbors’ property.
• The neighbors to the west have numerous fields, big and open, mostly grassy areas sometimes used for cattle. There is a smaller food plot tucked back into some trees just off to the northwest corner of your property line, but it’s pretty far back and not visible from your area. There are fingers of trees on the neighbor’s property that naturally lead into their fields as well as connect to your property line which is a shared fence line thick with trees and brush. You’ve walked this fence line and have noted a few heavily traveled trails, fence crossings, rubs, and scrapes. You notice that there is one main trail leading into your smaller southwest cornfield from your neighbor’s property and made note of it.
• The neighbors’ property to the north you know is heavily hunted. It consists of some food plots, thick tree areas, and a connecting ridge that leads into your alfalfa field. You’ve never mowed your alfalfa field, no need to as the deer use it heavily. There are numerous trails that you have seen along the north fence line; most of them seem to be in good stand locations if you were on your neighbors’ property. There is a heavier traveled trail that leads from the edge of what you consider to be the main bedding area on your property through a tall grassy area and into your alfalfa field. You’ve marked this trail out as well.
• The eastern part of your property is also bordered by a road, which is used daily. The property to the east of yours is open with some scrub brush and a finger of a creek. You’ve rarely seen deer hanging out on the edges of it next to the road. You have however noticed that there are two main trails leading to your eastern cornfield. One coming from the alfalfa field on top and the other coming from the smaller bedding area. The eastern edge of the cornfield has a row of trees and some brush, but it is easily seen through from the road.
You’ve surveyed the boundaries of your property and have noted what your neighboring properties have to offer. Now you can start to improve your setup. Seeing that you noted numerous trails all around the property you know that deer are using them to enter and or leave your property. Having too many of these trails gives the deer too many options so you need to narrow it down for them. This is easily accomplished by moving downed trees, branches, and brush in front of the not so heavily used ones. This allows you to “funnel” deer through designated trails you selected depending on stand locations and wind direction. You may have to cut some trees down or hinge cut trees for this application.
The best time to implement hinge cutting for our region is between the months of November to April when the sap is prevalent. (If you’ve never fell a tree or hinge cut a tree, read up on how to do it and always use your safety equipment.) Hinge cutting will allow you to fell the tree where you want to while still keeping the tree attached to the trunk, allowing it to produce stump sprouts for future growth as well as making a barrier and providing edible browse to the animals. Once you’ve blocked off the less traveled trails make sure that you have also improved the trails that you want the deer to use. This is as easy as clearing debris from the trails and stacking it on the sides of the trail in order to create a barrier and a safe passage of travel. These trail sides are great places to put those items, as well as the branches that you cut out for shooting lanes from stand locations. Nothing you cut down should go to waste there is always a use for it.
Now that the trails are selected and cleaned up we need to focus on food. No matter if the animals are using your property as a home base, pass through, feeding area, or bedding area the supplementation of food is crucial to your success. You don’t need hundreds or even thousands of acres in order to have preferred food on your property for the animals. You just need to have something that will stop them and hold them for a while. When talking about supplementation of food for whitetails there are four categories we will discuss: Food plots, minerals & attractants, natural browse, and water locations. While we could spend an entire magazine talking about the categories listed, we are only going to touch on some basics that can guide you down this path.
• Food Plots are not considered baiting in the state of Iowa as long as they are planted such as in agricultural operations. The addition of food plots to hold deer is widely used across the country. Selecting a food plot mix is easier than you think. Not all food plot mixes are the same just like not all deer herds are the same. Selecting a mix that has species native to the area or region will help to ensure the deer use them. There is no doubt that standing corn or beans in the late season are going to attract animals. Alfalfa has proven to be a great deer attractant as well and is fairly easy to establish depending on the soil and amount of water that it gets.
The location of the food plot is established by selecting an area that has safe surroundings where the deer feel comfortable entering and leaving. Staging a food plot right next to a road wouldn’t be the best location. The Alfalfa plot that is identified on our map is at the top of the property close to the bedding area and has great cover all around it. The row crops are near the roads due to access by the farmer. These row crops still attract deer, just limit your shooting ability as well as being visible from the road.
• Minerals & attractants are considered baiting by the state of Iowa. The harvesting of animals over bait is illegal in Iowa. The supplementation of deer during the off season is however a gray area that is not addressed in the regulations. Mineral sites and feed sites help to keep the deer coming to a location and become familiar with your property. The use of supplements, attractants, and or minerals in front of trail cameras is a great management tool as well. This will allow you to get up close and personal with the deer on your property when properly placed in front of cameras. To select what attractants, supplements, or minerals to use can be hard as there are hundreds if not a thousand of them available. I tend to stick with ones that are nutrition based. I like BB2 from Big & J, Ani-Logics Supplement 365, as well as the original Trophy Rock.
The use of feeders or stumps to keep feed and minerals up off of the ground help you to get better pictures, but also help keep the supplements up out of the mud. Do some research of your own before you supplement your deer herd. Check with local DNR representatives or contact the state headquarters and ask for clarification.
• Improving the natural browse can be as simple as using a little bit of fertilizer in some areas, or may involve burning off some areas, or hinge cutting some trees, and or creating openings in densely wooded areas. Use the map of your property as a tool and mark some of the already available food sources such as Oak, Mulberry, Persimmon, Hawthorn, Walnut, and Maple trees, Wild Blackberry, Poison Ivy, and native flowers to name a few. Taking care of these species will help to increase the amount of food that you can provide that won’t really cost you too much.
• Watering holes, creeks, ponds, or manmade water tanks are all great sources for numerous types of wildlife to benefit from. If your property doesn’t have water on it you need to put some locations in it first and foremost. The easiest thing to do is to dig a hole in a good location that can fill up by Mother Nature. You could also install water tanks such as the Wild Water system from Banks Outdoors. Watering holes are also a great place to use trail camera locations. If you have the ability to transport water to the watering hole locations around the property do so. This will help supplement Mother Nature during the hotter months.
Monitoring Your Property:
The trails are marked, cleared of debris, spruced up and ready to go. The food plots have been installed in centrally located areas. Natural browse has been improved and the introduction of supplements, attractants, watering holes, and mineral sites may or may not have been introduced depending on state & local regulations. It’s time to literally watch the fruits of your labor unfold with the use of trail cameras. Trail camera use on or within close proximity to the trails will help to identify the travel patterns of the deer on these trails. As the seasons change so will the use of the trails and or times that they are used. Installing cameras at food plots and supplement/mineral locations will help to track the procession of the deer as well and will also allow you to identify the animals on your property. These locations need to be monitored monthly so come hunting season you know which one is used at that time of year. So let’s go through some Trail Camera 101:
• Use a quality camera of choice paired with the biggest memory card and best batteries that you can afford. I use several types, depending on the location. My most expensive cameras are in the center of my properties away from potential threats (i.e. trespassers).
• Always try to position your camera facing north. This will allow for the best images all day.
• Location of your camera on your property has to be scrutinized not only for the purpose of getting the best photos, but also in how and when you are going to access your cameras. Place a camera in a location as you would a hunting stand. Know how you are going to access it and what the typical wind direction is as not to disturb the areas around it.
• Keep cameras approximately 15 to 20 feet away from the area that you want the photos taken at. If you are placing them on trails make sure that you are able to angle the camera down or up the trail at 45 degrees. This will give your camera ample amount of time to fire once a deer is within range.
• Make sure that all tall grass, tree branches, and other obstructions aren’t hanging around the view of the camera as not to set it off when there aren’t deer around. Nothing worse than 1000 pictures of the grass blowing in the wind.
• Camouflage your cameras into the surroundings as best as you can. This is not for the deer as much as it is for your neighbors. It’s a shame we even have to talk about this these days, but we do. The use of security boxes, python cables and locks is also a good way to deter theft where applicable.
• Check your cameras monthly, yes I said monthly. This is hard to do because you’re dying to know what’s going on I know but there is a reason. When checking your cameras using the same mental checks as when hunting such as scent control, wind direction, and time of day will pay off in the long run. The least amount of time spent checking your cameras means more time the deer are in front of them.
• Cataloging and sorting of photos is a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. This day and age has brought us advances in this step and the use of the internet has found its place. I like to use a company called HuntForce. It’s a web based program that takes all of the guessing and hard steps out of it. You can set profiles for deer, stands, and camera locations. Then you only keep the photos that you want. The program even calculates the best time of day to see that animal as well as what the weather is like when that animal is most active at your sites. This is a unique and very affordable tool that limits the amount of time potentially needed to be in the stand.
Stand location is all based off of the observation of everything we’ve done to date. All of the photos have been reviewed, trails have been established, and food plots installed. You can now tweak your stand locations as it gets closer to season to ensure that they are in the correct spots that will be accessible during your dominant wind direction. Your entry and exit strategies will be established to these locations while you are mapping out your property. You know where the deer are, where they are going, and where you want to be. This allows you to position your stands accordingly.
Combining all of the above tactics or just some of them will help you to improve your success in the future. It all starts with observations in the field during your last hunting season. The sub-conscious notes that you take are crucial to your success. By implementing a map and a game plan that may take you a few years to complete the way you want will prove to be deadly in the field come hunting season. During the offseason there is always work to be done. Keeping track of your goals and updating your plan will help you identify the needs of your deer and your property at any given time. There is a lot of information in this article and it may seem like a daunting task. If being successful in the field was easy everyone would do it Keep Calm & Hunt On!