Hunting and Habitat Equipment on a Budget

By Tom Peplinski

This month I am responding to a question about buying equipment on a budget. Paul from central Iowa asks, “I recently just bought some land for hunting whitetails. My daughter and nephew will be hunting with me. They have been hunting for some time, but I am relatively new to the sport. I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about hunting whitetails but with so much stuff out there I don’t know where to start. Should I buy good hunting equipment, or should I be spending my money on stuff for food plots. I only have about $500 to $1000 a year to spend but I also want the best hunting I can get as soon as I can. Do you have any ideas that would get me on the right track?

Like most hunters, Paul is on a budget and simply can’t afford to go out and buy a ton of equipment. He needs to set priorities with what he invests in. He does have one thing going for him that many hunters do not, and that is he is starting from a position of having his own hunting land. Having access to land that can provide you with a good hunt is the most important step that many hunters forget about. I’ve seen over and over again where hunters will spend enormous amounts of time and money worrying about all the latest and greatest gadgets available to them, while forgetting that where they hunt has more to do with their success than anything else. Owning your own land can be a huge step offering you years of great hunting

Paul is not unique in questioning what is the next step? Open any hunting catalogue or watch any hunting show and you’ll learn quickly that there are more than enough pieces of equipment available to the hunter to consume all of your resources. And, even if you had the money to buy all this stuff, in only a year or two a newer, better model would be available. The answer is simply that in most cases, hunting gear will not bring you more quality hunting experiences. Now, some warm hunting clothes and a comfortable tree stand will surely help, but if this type of stuff takes away from your access to quality hunting grounds or making the land you have access to better and better through habitat improvements, then you’re wasting your money. So, then what does a hunter invest in so that they can have the best hunting that they can afford?

Invest in Habitat First
Spending your time and money on improving your hunting grounds will give you the highest return on your investments. Hands down, habitat improvements will get you farther and faster on your goal of having more successful hunts than any other expenditure. Whether you are hinge cutting for better cover, planting native woody browse, or putting in food plots, these methods will offer you great rewards in your hunting. There are some tools that can help you along the way in creating better habitat. An inexpensive but reliable chain saw like the Stihl MS170 (I think that’s the model) is under $200 but is a great investment into hinge cutting, creating good shooting lanes, or removing trees from blocking your trails. Every land manager should have a lightweight chain saw! A backpack sprayer will cost you a little over $100 and if you take care of it will last you a long time. Your backpack sprayer is like part of a starter kit for food plotting but can also help you with maintaining exit and entrance trails. A hand seeder like the Earthway 2750 is another great investment for under $50. It too could be part of a starter kit for a food plotter. This seeder/spreader can be used for fertilizer, seed, and pelletized lime and has rate adjustments that are pretty easy to use.

Some investments that you can save for but would be well worth the money could be an atv with a disc harrow, or better yet a small tractor with a disc. You might be spending a few thousand dollars on this setup but in terms of saving you a lot of work and helping you put in some great food plots, a small tractor is a great tool. Craigslist is a great place to go looking for used implements and with some patience you can get some decent stuff! There are a bunch of older lower horsepower tractors out there that are still very reliable and easy to work on. If this is something you can’t afford right now, set aside some money each year and make it a 5 or 10-year goal to buy one. Forget about all the expensive food plot implements marketed towards deer hunters…just get yourself a small tractor or larger atv and you’ll have no problem doing most chores on your land. A disc harrow is the best all around tool for food plotting on a budget…again don’t get caught up thinking you need anything more than a disc to plant your food plots.

Many hunters forget about native plantings to improve their habitat. Whether it’s establishing some patches of switch grass, creating a brushy fence row of hazelnut, or thickening up bottom ground with dogwood, planting native woody browses and grasses can have huge life long impacts on your hunting grounds. State nurseries can provide you the biggest bang for your buck when buying woody browse plantings. If you want to improve the habitat on your land without spending a ton of money, these types of plantings have high returns. I used to be a huge fan of establishing apple trees too on my properties. I don’t recommend apples as much today as I used to because you have to take care of them the first 4 or 5 years pretty extensively. I’ve lost many an apple tree to bucks destroying them and rodents girdling the bark. Even though I’ve fenced them off and wrapped the trunks it still seems like I lose them at a high rate. Having said all that, a nice apple orchard on your property adds not only a great place to hunt whitetail, but it also increases the property’s value.

Another great idea that I recommend to any hunter trying to make their property hunt better is to add a fence row along with some fence jumps or crossings. Many times, this can be done by simply making an existing fence better so that it hinders deer from crossing it while making an opening or easier place to cross where it is convenient for the hunter. Fixing existing fence in this manner can cost very little money and can have some pretty big reward value. Even establishing a new fence for the sole purpose of having a fence crossing to hunt is not that much money relatively speaking. I can justify spending money on something like this because it has instant positive effects on my hunting and it lasts for years.

After the Habitat
If you want better hunting on a budget, always think habitat improvements first. Always! For Paul, this means sticking his efforts into his own property. If you don’t have your own land, and don’t have access to a good place to hunt, buying every gadget in the world isn’t going to make your hunts more successful. Start with gaining access to great land first or making the land you have access to great! Only once you have step one accomplished should you ever worry about what broadhead to use and which pair of optics to buy.
There are some things however that will make your hunts easier and more enjoyable. An adequate number of stands is always a good idea because this allows you to move around to take advantage of wind direction, changing food sources, and even localized hunting pressure. As I get older I’m really starting to like the comfortable ladder stands more and more. If you can buy one every other year you’ll have a decent collection of stands in a few years. I do have some decent hunting clothes that are mostly non-brand name (or off brands). Warm clothes can keep you in the woods enjoying your sport longer. Quality wool hunting jackets and bibs can be purchased used for half the price of less quality but new brand name stuff. My bow is 10 years old but still shoots straight…no need to upgrade there. And, my backpack is filled each fall with the hunting gear I’ve used (calls, optics, etc.) for the past 20 years or so. My point is some equipment and gadgets do add to your hunting experience, but most do not.

The bottom line for Paul or any other hunter looking to maximize the dollars they spend is to invest in the things that give the highest return. Investing in access to great hunting grounds or improving your own is the best way to make sure each fall is successful and each hunt is enjoyable.

Generating Extra Cash
Paul and other land-owner/hunters have another option that would increase their available cash each fall and help them improve their properties faster. It involves bringing on an additional hunter or two to spread out the money burden. Let me explain…around 1999 or so I was looking for a lease with a group of friends so that we could gain access to some better hunting grounds. We found a larger lease from a farmer who was simply looking to generate some extra cash. We did all the work on the farm in terms of deer habitat, stands, etc. and the farmer got to reap the benefits for his own hunting. The value of his farm also increased as many of the things we did had long term positive impacts on his farm. He was able to continue hunting right along side us without spending hardly a dime. In the beginning it was strictly a business transaction as we paid a modest lease. Over the years we became very good friends even though we eventually ended the lease. Our money funded all the habitat improvements, food plots, and other things while he provided the land. It was a good deal for both parties. Any landowner/hunter that wants to improve their properties faster should consider “sharing” their land with other hunters in a mutually beneficial way that could bring in extra cash. There are always hunters willing to contribute time and/or money in this way.

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