By Ricky Kinder
If you are a whitetail hunter in Iowa please raise your hand if you agree to the following question: Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have 1,500 acres of vast, pristine whitetail habitat to hunt in Iowa? While I obviously can’t see the hands going up I can imagine most of you have your hands in the air. The bad news is the overwhelming majority of hunters don’t have such quantities of land to hunt. In fact I would be willing to bet that most hunters who own, rent, or lease hunting property have less than 120 acres to hunt on.
The problem that most of us small acreage hunters face is how do we get the bucks to come to our land, or how do we get them to stay on our land? Both parts of this equation, especially that latter are not that easy to do. Small hunting properties just don’t have the capabilities as large tracts of lands when it comes to producing mature whitetails, but with some management work you can see better results in the number or bucks that use or live on your land.
While it can be done it is difficult to stock pile bucks on small properties. Bucks, especially mature bucks like their space and are solitary creatures, if there isn’t enough room, cover, or food on a property they will seek out a better place to live. That is where land management comes into play. The more attractive you make your land to the needs of a buck the better chances he will stick around to live off of what you are providing them. It is kind of similar to the staying in a hotel. If money weren’t an option where would you rather spend a night at a Motel 6 or a Hilton? Bucks are the same way, give them the choice and they are going to spend the night at the amenity loaded Hilton. That is the goal of managing bucks on your land. Give them the amenities they require.
Again this isn’t an easy task but there are several management practices you can implement that will improve the number and quality of bucks using your land or even better living on your land. If you have the time, energy, and ambition to create a small property buck haven then please read forward as this article may help you get your start.
Have a Plan
The most important thing you can do is to have a plan in place before you start your management. Land management isn’t an easy task and everything should be considered before diving in. Remember that this is a long-term process and will take some time to develop. There are certain things you can do to get quick rewards, but the overall objective will take several years.
The first thing you should do is analyze your property, as no two pieces of land are the same. What works for some hunters land might not work for yours. Find out what your property has for attracting and holding bucks and what it lacks. Once you figure this out then you can begin to implement what needs to be done. The topics below will help you establish what you may or may not need to think create.
Food Year Round
If you could do only one thing in land management practices it should be establishing a variety of food on your land. Whether or not a deer will call your land home determines a lot on the food your land has in supply.
In Iowa we have the luxury of corn and soybean crops that provide deer excellent food sources. After the crops are harvested though this is when a small piece of property must have some source of food to hold or bring in the deer. If there is no food on your land once the crops are harvested the deer will leave for greener pastures.
The most common way of having year round food is by planting food plots. Food plots can be anything you want them to be. Some popular mixtures today include sugar beats, winter wheat, clover, rape, chicory, and turnips. The options are endless in today’s market and having variety of food is a good way of getting bucks to use your property.
Another way to offer food all year round is if you have cropland on your property. Leaving a section of crop on the property creates a great natural food source for deer. If you are the owner of the land this is an easy option, but if you cash rent your land or lease a property you will need to talk with the farmer to see if there is an option to leave some crops standing throughout the year.
Study your property and determine when or where you can place a food plot, remember the number one thing in determining if a buck will call your land home is the amount and variety of food on a property.
Plant trees, shrubs and grasses
Any property can benefit from planting trees, shrubs, and grasses especially one you want to manage for hunting whitetails. While relatively simple to do, plantings of any kind requires planning and organization.
The best thing you can do is to contact a state forestry employee and let them know your thoughts and ask for a consult. There are a dozens and dozens of species to pick from but you have to be sure that the species you want will grow on your land. That is why a consult is a must. If you are going to put the time and money into planting then you better make sure you are planting the right species.
Remember that you are doing this for the purpose of attracting and holding bucks on your property so you will want to plant trees and shrubs that produce mast and cover. When you talk to a consultant make sure and tell them this, in return they will recommend certain tree, shrubs, and grasses.
I recently did a planting on an 80 acre piece of land and worked with a regional forester to help me determine what my best options where. Before I met with the forester I created a blue print of my ideas that illustrated what I wanted the land to look like. I presented this plan to the forester, he came out surveyed the land and gave his species recommendations.
Keep in mind that planting any kind of plant will take time to develop. There are certain species with rapid growth rates but in all likelihood your plan will take several years to develop into what you want it too.
Plantings trees, shrubs, and grasses can be spendy but there are programs available that aide in absorbing some of the costs associated with plantings. Check with your local county soil and water conservation office to see if there are any cost share programs going on in your county.
One of the simplest actions you can do to improve your land is to manage the timber on your property. For bucks it is all about cover, more specifically dense thick ground cover that they feel safe in. By trimming a few branches or completing removing some trees you can greatly improve the canopy of the timber on your land. What this will do is allow sunlight to the ground and improve growth of the underbrush, ideal cover for deer.
Removing some trees can also put some money into your pocket as well. Before you start hacking down any tree ask your district forester or a logging company to give you a idea of what trees might be worth some money.
Any given piece of land can only offer so much sustenance to deer. Meaning that if property “X” has a certain amount of food on its land then only “Y” amount of deer and other wild life can sustain themselves off of this property. No matter how big the size of the property is it can only hold a limited amount of wildlife.
There are two ways to increase sustainability for deer on your land. The first one we already discussed and that is creating more food opportunities for bucks. The other is to harvest does. Doe management is import for the quality of deer on your land and will increase the sustainability of the land in return.
The goal here is to not eliminate all the does possible but to take a few out of the herd to balance out the doe to buck ratio and improve your deer herd quality along with your lands ability to bring in and hold other deer, for the sake of this article mature bucks.
A well-managed deer herd should be 2:1 meaning that there is two does for every one buck. While this is ideal it can be hard to accomplish and yearly doe harvesting is required. Take survey of the deer on your property and try and determine the amount of does that need to be harvest every year.
Every big buck management property should have designated areas that are hands off to humans. Mature bucks are solitary animals and any pressure at all will cause them to leave or go nocturnal. Not ideal consequences for a deer hunter.
It is important to look at your property and designate where you should have a sanctuary or where you might already have one. Sanctuaries typically consist of dense thick underbrush that provides cover from intrusion. If your property doesn’t have any of these characteristics then you can create one by planting trees, shrubs, and grasses. Keep in mind though that this won’t be an instant benefit and will take type to establish.
There is one rule to sanctuaries on your land: Don’t go in them leading up to hunting season or during hunting season. If you want to check out your sanctuary do so after your season is over. Good times to look at sanctuaries are in the late winter to early spring months.
Today a lot of hunters are after the biggest racks possible, which is fine, but you need to determine if you want your land to be a big buck heaven or a buck heaven. If you are after a Boone & Crocket buck then you must be selective in your buck harvest. Pass on the smaller racks and let them grow into that monster you are seeking. On the flipside if you want to increase the number of bucks on your property and not be selective in your harvest that is fine as well, but you need to decide on a goal and adhere to it. Especially if you are trying to shooter a “Booner”!
Putting any kind of hunting pressure on a mature buck is too much! When you hunt your small property you have to be smart about it. Only enter the property during the season if you plan on hunting it. During the off-season is the time to do any maintenance to the land.
This one is a tough one! Deer require water everyday just as humans but they get a lot of there water in the vegetation they consume. Still dry periods of the year won’t allow a deer to get the water from vegetation they require so if your land has a water source available you will increase the odds of deer spending more time on your land.
The hard thing is creating a pond or water source on small property isn’t easy to do. Sure you could bring in the “dozer” and have at it but that can be costly, intrusive, and just not realistic on your property. Before you dive into a water source project make sure you absolutely want to do so. This should be the last step of your project as it is the most troublesome to accomplish.
Small properties can be just as good as large properties, especially if you implement managing practices. Give the deer what they need to survive and you will greatly improve the number and quality of the bucks on your land. Lastly, remember that land management of any kind is a step-by-step process and takes time. Don’t bite off more than you can handle in a year, take it slow and execute these steps as you have time. Over the course of several years you will start to see your plan come together. Stay patient and stick to your plan.