It’s February in Iowa and deer season is officially in the record books. 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 ways you’re happy, knowing one more year of that deer on the hoof means hopefully one more year of antler mass & tine length, but 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 and hunt also, they have more money, better equipment, etc… You’ve tried everything that you’ve read in magazines or seen on TV, bought all of the new food plot mixes, off-season food supplements & minerals, you name it, and you’ve tried it. So why do you keep coming up short?
I’ve spent many years in the deer woods, working with some of the most knowledgeable persons in the hunting industry, 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, don’t claim to be and your property, this small 40 acre tract, is unique in its own, there is not another 40 acre 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 already 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 just 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, yet the deer didn’t really care for it, why? 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 (www.googlemaps.com), Hunterra Maps (www.hunterra.com) 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 writing down stand locations during season so loved ones know where I am hunting that day in case of an emergency, food plot locations, known trials, 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 first step in being successful as a land manager & 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 & arrival times to food plots, etc. 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 also. To better help understand this process were going to use a map of a 40 acre piece that a friend of mine has. This property, as you will see, has some advantages & 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, second jobs etc. 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, were not going to assume that you sit in a stand or field all day from dusk to dark 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 year or decade and made notes. It’s the offseason; the rut is over, so now what? Most of us like to shed hunt, some of us like to turkey hunt, these are both great times to survey the land and start to make changes to it when weather permits. 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, an 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.
1. 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 to access to and from your neighbors’ property.
2. 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 North West corner of your property line, but it’s pretty far back and not visible from your area. There are fingers of trees on the neighbors 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 & scrapes. You notice that there is one main trail leading into your smaller South West corn field from your neighbor’s property and made note of it.
3. 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.
4. The Eastern part of your property is also bordered by a road, 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 2 main trails leading to your Eastern corn field, one coming from the alfalfa field on top and the other coming from the smaller bedding area. The Eastern edge of the corn filed has a row of trees, and some brush but 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, you can now 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; you want to narrow it down for them. This is easily accomplished by moving downed trees, branches & or brush in front of the not so heavily used ones, allowing you to “funnel” deer through designated trails you selected depending on stand locations & 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 produce stump sprouts for future growth as well as making a barrier and providing edible browse to the animals. Being able to identify the specie of tree on your property will also help you select the trees that you should cut. Once you’ve blocked off the trails you want, 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, a safe passage of travel. Again hinge cutting can be utilized at these locations to create that barrier on either side, or maybe you have an area where you need to remove some trees or branches. 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.
Not 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 4 categories we will discuss. Food plots, whether they are planted just for the deer or it is row crop on your land that is harvested, minerals & attractants that you put out & improving the natural browse deer prefer as well as 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.
1. Food Plots are not considered baiting in the state of 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, this is due to the nature of the corn & beans still being available at that time. Alfalfa has proven to be a great deer attractant and is fairly easy to establish depending on the soil & amount of water that it gets. A great company to use that is close to this region is Arrow Seed Company, arrowseed.com. Their Trophy Banquet Perennial mix is one of the best around. 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 do to access by the farmer. These row crops still attract deer, just limit your shooting ability as well as are visible by passer-bys from the road.
2. 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 & feed sites help to keep the deer coming to a location and become familiar with your property and what all it has to offer. 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 & 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 around a thousand of them available. I tend to stick with ones that are nutrition based no gimmicks. 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 & minerals up off of the ground help you to get better pictures, but also help keep the supplements up out of the mud & animal feces. Do dome research of your own before you supplement your deer herd, check with local DNR representatives or contact the state headquarters and ask for clarification.
3. 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. Using the map of your property as a tool and marking 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.
4. Watering holes, creeks, ponds or man made 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 on it first and foremost. The easeiest 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 (banksoutdoors.com). 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, mineral sites may or may not have been introduced depending on state & local regulations. It’s time to literally watch the fruits of your labors 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, shooter or not a shooter. These locations need to be monitored monthly so come hunting season you know which one is used at that time of year, which will help you tweak your stand locations. So let’s go through some Trail Camera 101:
1. Use a quality camera of choice paired with the biggest memory card and best batteries that you can afford. There are numerous cameras available, now days they all work pretty darn good. 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.
2. Always try to position your camera facing North, this will allow for the best images all day. You may need to use a camera mount, metal or wooden post, tree stump or what have you to position your camera for this angle. The key is to face it North as best you can.
3. 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.
4. 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 able to angle the camera down or up the trail at 45 degrees so you can see how the deer use the trail and you give your camera ample amount of time to fire once a deer is within range. Do the photos show them running through it or gingerly walk through it? This will let you know if your cover around the trail needs to be improved or not. 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.
5. 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. Try to hide your cameras, yet leave them as accessible as you can, call it your insurance policy. The use of security boxes, python cables and locks is also a good way to deter theft where applicable.
6. 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, and the least amount of time spent checking your cameras means more time the deer are in front of them.
7. Cataloging & sorting of photos is a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. The new 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 & hard steps out of it. You can set profiles for deer, stands, camera locations etc.. Then you only keep the photos that you want, always a click away. 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 you need to be in the stand. You can read more on it by going to HuntForce.com.
Stand location is all based off of the observation of everything we’ve done to date. Once all of the photos have been reviewed and trails have been established, food plots installed, etc., you can 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, and where they are going and where you don’t 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 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. If being successful in the field was easy, everyone would do it. It’s the dedicated individuals that have continued success. I don’t measure success in the amount of monster deer on the wall; I measure it in the amount of time that my family and I get to spend in the field, watching the improvements we make improve the quality of the deer that go in our freezer & on the wall. I hope that this article helps some of you realize that no matter your financial abilities, you can harvest quality animals on your property when you want to with just a little bit of planning and hard work. While we can’t do anything about deer genetics in our area, we can however change the way they use our property and increase their health at the same time through selective harvest and land improvements.
Keep Calm & Hunt On!