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 do not have such large expanses of land to hunt. In fact I would be willing to bet that most hunters who own, rent, ask permission, 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 simply lack the capabilities that large tracts of lands possess when it comes to producing mature whitetails, but with some management work you can see positive results in the number of bucks that use or live on your land with a few proactive, yet effective strategies.
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 suits their needs. That is where land management comes into play. The more effectively you cater your land to the needs of a buck, the better the chance he will stick around to live off of what you are providing. It is kind of similar to 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.
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, keeping in mind that this is a long-term process and will take some time to develop and implement. 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 one piece of land might not work for the next. 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 create on your land.
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 throughout the state. 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. Since the spring and summer months are pretty much covered with crops ideally you want to think about food plots for late fall and winter months, when nutrition is key for survival and food can be scarce. Food plots can be anything you want them to be, but a good idea is to plant foods that stand up to the harsh winter conditions here in Iowa.
My best advice for anyone looking at planting food plots is to contact a seed manufacturer and ask their advice. Any reputable manufacturer will give you advice on what to plant, when to plant it, benefits of planting a certain species over another species, etc. There are dozens and dozens of species you could plant but some are better than others for different periods of the year. By talking to a trustworthy seed manufacture you will get an idea of what to plant during the months when food is scarce. Remember a lot of hard work and money goes into management and you want to get the most out of you project. There is no sense in planting something that won’t be eaten or can be detrimental to your deer herd’s health.
Another way to offer food all year round would be to designate 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.
Keep your food plots small, remembering that your property is small and space is a commodity. At most your plots should be no larger than one acre and no more than two to three plots are needed.
Plant trees, shrubs and grasses
Any property can benefit from planting trees, shrubs, and grasses especially one you want to manage for hunting whitetails. Planting vegetation will provide your land with more food sources (mast) and cover, both key components of holding and attracting bucks.
While relatively simple to do, plantings of any kind require 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 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 consulting a forester 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 and that they will survive.
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 forester make sure and tell them this information. In return they will recommend certain trees, shrubs, and grass species to best suit your plan.
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.
Planting 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 for the sake of holding more bucks 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 completely removing some trees you can greatly improve the canopy of the timber on your land. In return, the increase in sunlight that is hitting the ground will cause an increase in underbrush growth and development, making great cover for deer.
Removing some trees can also put money into your pocket for the sale of timber. Before you start hacking down any tree, ask your district forester or a logging company to see if any trees on your property might be worth selling.
Any given piece of land can only offer so much sustenance to deer. This means 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 the size of the property, 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. An elevated deer population that uses the property will out compete itself for resources, ultimately reducing the number of deer that use the property as they search for greener pastures elsewhere.
The goal here is to not eliminate all the does but to take a few out of the herd to balance out the doe to buck ratio. This in turn will improve your deer herd quality along with your land’s ability to bring in and hold other deer, for the sake of this article, 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 a 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, grasses, and felling old useless trees. Keep in mind though that this won’t be an instant benefit and will take time 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 haven or a buck haven. 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. Keep in mind that if you can’t pass on a 3-½ year old then your chances of shooting that mature 5-½ year old buck are rare if nonexistent.
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 shoot a “Booner”! Big bucks or small bucks aside if you want bigger and/or more you will benefit from a land management practice.
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. When summer approaches, stay off of the property as much as possible. Hang stands in the early part of summer, check trail cameras on an extended basis and know your prevailing wind patterns. Bottom line is to keep human intrusion at a minimum; the less you interfere with a deer’s daily life (particularly leading up to and during hunting season) the more comfortable they will be on your property.
This one is a tough one! Deer require water everyday just as humans but they get a lot of their 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.
If the property you hunt does not have a replenishing water source available, you may want to consider implementing one. However, 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.
While it’s a no brainer that large properties have a greater potential to hold deer than small properties, there are still plenty of ways to make your small land attractive to bucks. 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.