Whitetails 365: Chainsaw Habitat

By Tom Peplinski

When it comes to whitetail deer hunting, most hunters will spend an enormous amount of time and resources on their hunting gear. Whether it’s the time they spend planning their new equipment, or the money they budget and save for that big ticket item. Open any fall archery or hunting catalog and you’ll be bombarded with the latest and greatest…they are even starting to solve problems for hunters that I didn’t know we even had. And yet when I’m looking for my new latest and greatest, it seems like I’m never finding what I want.

There’s a simple reason for all this. While most hunters will spend the bulk of their time and money on the latest gear, I’m looking to spend my resources on better habitat. It wasn’t always this way for me. But I learned quite some time ago that having access to better land got me better hunting…and making the land I had access to as good as it could be through habitat improvements was and still is the best use of my resources. Without a doubt, my biggest return on any investment I make in my hunting grounds comes from using the existing habitat and making it exceptional with a chainsaw.

A Lesson in Timber Management
When I was 18, my dad started a required timber harvest on the family farm. The harvest plan called for the timber on the farm to be clear cut in three cuttings separated by five years between each. The timber on the farm had grown old and mature with very little undergrowth or diversity of habitat. In many ways, the farm was in poor health when it came to whitetail deer habitat. Immediately after the first cutting, the number of deer using and staying on the farm started to increase. However, even though the landscape remained “thick” for many years to come, the level of the browse grew out of range for the deer, and the diversity of habitat started to go away only a few years after the cut. By the time the second cutting was scheduled, the first cutting was thick for a human but offered very little browse reachable by the deer. Now, almost 30 years later, the timber is not yet ready for another harvest…yet there is very little there anymore in terms of browse or diversity of habitat. This timber harvest plan maximized the land’s production of marketable wood for logs and pulp, but gave only sporadic and short lived improvements for the deer. It was better than nothing.

A clear cut approach usually has maximum timber harvest and timber value in mind. A select cut offers much the same only instead of clearing all trees from the landscape, only harvestable timber is taken out or cull trees are removed to allow more space and sun for the remaining trees. In each case, the amount of sunlight reaching the forest floor increases, sometimes dramatically, but in only a few years the new young growth shoots past what is valuable for a deer. And because the trees are removed, very little horizontal cover remains for the deer herd. A timber stand improvement plan can have similar results as a clear cut or select cut…unless some trees are hinge cut and left for horizontal cover.

I saw these types of timber plans for most of my teenage years and going into my twenties. The amount of impact they had on positive deer habitat was usually minimal and short lived. However, they left an impact on me. I saw that deer liked the edges created by cuttings. They also preferred open spots within a cut where a more diverse group of plants like dogwood, blackberry, pockets of grasses, or other low woody browse grew in. Deer preferred the edges of the cover, thickets that were created, and areas that did not regenerate as good but grew up in what I would call briar patches. It was the diversity of habitat that they preferred. This then, would be what I would try to replicate in the future.

Why the Hinge Cut?
When I’m trying to create edges, pockets of cover and places where deer can bed and feed throughout the day, very few options work as good as a hinge cut. A hinge cut plan takes the existing timber and improves it in such a way that a hunter can manipulate where deer will bed and feel secure on your property. But a hinge cut is so much different than a clear cutting or select cutting because you do two very important things that are not done with traditional methods of timber harvest and management. First, when you hinge cut a tree and allow it to fall still attached to the stump, it will continue to grow and provide ground level browse for deer. In some cases, I’ve hinged cut trees like oak or box elder that are still alive today some 15 or more years later providing ground level food and cover. The second, and arguably the more important reason, is when you hinge cut a tree and leave it attached to its stump, you create horizontal and overhead cover that deer love. This horizontal cover is something you’ll never get with a traditional timber harvest when the trees are removed. Sure, with a traditional cutting you will get more sun to the forest floor which will stimulate new growth, but you will get very little if any horizontal cover. This horizontal cover is desired because deer love it in their bedrooms. They will often lie up against a fallen log or under the overhead canopy of a hinge cut tree. This is why, in combination with the amount of food it creates, hinge cutting is so successful in creating exceptional habitat.

Another reason I like to hinge cut is to protect new seedlings. I’ll give you an example. On one part of my farm, I had a section of almost entirely shagbark hickory. There was very little underbrush present and I could see where even when new trees like oaks would germinate from an acorn and try to get established they would immediately get eaten off. By hinge cutting pockets of the hickory, the tops of the hinge cut trees protected new seedlings as they would germinate and begin to grow. In this way, many new oaks and walnuts were able to get established because they were protected by the tops of the hickories. The hickories themselves didn’t last long even though they were only hinged…but they lasted long enough to allow the oaks and walnuts time to establish themselves. These pockets of cover hold a lot of deer too because not only do they allow for horizontal cover for many years, they are thick with briars and forbes intermixed with new seedlings of oaks, walnuts, buck brush, and other woody browse species.

Where to Hinge?
I’m a big proponent of having a plan well before doing anything on your property. It would serve you well to plan out your hinge cutting pockets before ever firing up the chainsaw. And, don’t make the mistake of thinking it is always a good idea to thicken up and create bedding cover all over on your farm. There are probably some places on your farm where you don’t want great habitat because frankly you don’t want deer to hang out there. If there is a certain part of your farm you need to walk by each time you enter for hunting…probably don’t want to create good bedding cover and habitat there. If you want to hunt a certain food plot you have with a west wind…you wouldn’t want to create hinge cutting pockets to the east of the plot. If done correctly, the newly created pockets of cover you are creating with a chain saw will hold deer. You then can decide or help to manipulate where deer will bed and spend a great deal of time on your property.

I like to plan my hinge cutting in a bed—to interior plot—to exterior plot fashion. So, I’ll look at the big picture first and plan out an exterior plot where I can plant a grain like soybeans or corn…making sure I can complement my exterior plot with a huntable transition area like a green interior plot just inside the edge of the timber. Following that same line, I’ll plan out my hinge cutting deeper yet in the timber. I’ll pick my stands and exit and entrance routes at this time too. Sometimes a great area to create bedding habitat won’t work that well because there’s no logical place to create a transition interior plot you can hunt. Or, there is no way to get in and out of stand locations because you’ve created security cover too close to your entrance route. The true beauty with all this is you are creating or manipulating the landscape…YOU get to decide where the deer will bed and feel at home. This planning out of your hinge cutting is what I would argue is the most important part of this process.

How to Hinge Cut
The actual process of hinge cutting is pretty easy. The whole idea is to cut just far enough through a tree to allow it to fall without compromising the entire tree itself. When the tree falls, a layer of wood and bark will remain keeping the trees trunk off the ground and allowing for a future path for the tree to grow from roots to leaves. In some cases, a hinge cut tree can last for dozens of years essentially growing on the ground. In other cases, like with most of my hickories, the trees will only last a year or two. My favorite trees to hinge are box elders, maples, hickories, and surprisingly oaks. Box elders are in my opinion very low value wildlife and timber trees…but they will hinge cut and grow like almost no others providing years of food and cover. Hickories, unless you can harvest them for logs, offer another great choice for hinge cutting. They don’t live nearly as long as a box elder, but opening up a hickory canopy is a great way to create awesome bedding habitat. I’ll also target oaks, especially in a thick stand. A hinged oak can last a very long time and will create far more food growing on the ground than they ever would in the mast crop it creates. And, I would argue, that when one oak is hinge cut in a stand of oaks, the remaining oaks will make up for any lost acorn production.

Earlier, I talked about creating these pockets of cover. I’m not a big fan of creating huge tracts of thick cover. Instead, I like to create pockets of cover within a larger section of timber. This way I can maximize the amount of diverse habitat and edges that deer love. It also makes for easier traveling for the deer in and out of these pockets, and reduces social stress because I can create multiple bedding sites within a section of timber. For example, in a 40 acre section of timber, I will create four or five one to three acre pockets of hinge cuttings. In future years, if one of these pockets starts to mature, I can either go back in and do more cutting in the same area, or hinge a new pocket alongside the original. Make sense? When I’m hinging the trees I usually let them fall where they want to and if possible, I will hinge several trees all to the same spot creating both horizontal and overhead cover.