A common question we get here at the National Deer Association goes something like this: “I hunt 150 acres in western Kentucky. It’s about 40 percent open with the rest in hardwoods. What can I do to improve the deer hunting?” Of course the location and details vary, but the underlying question remains the same — what steps should I take to improve my hunting land?
First off, that’s a tall order to fill in an email response! And as much as we’d like to help the person out, it’s an impossible question to answer with any specifics. Each property is different based on its size, current habitat, deer density and structure, as well as the goals and resources of the landowner. What the person is really asking for, whether they realize it or not, is a property management plan — one that outlines the necessary steps to manage both the habitat and deer herd to meet their long-term hunting goals.
Just as creating a management plan for someone through an email is unrealistic, so is trying to create one for each of you in a blog post. So, while I can’t provide you with a step-by-step guide on how to manage your specific hunting land, I can outline the things you need to consider for a management plan, what to include, where you can get assistance, and even provide you with a free management plan template to get your started. Then, you can decide if it’s something you should tackle on your own or if you need to enlist the help of a professional wildlife consultant.
Before you start doing any kind of real habitat or deer management work on your hunting land, it is important to have a firm understanding of what is currently there. Having a good inventory will go a long way in determining what steps you’ll need to take to get the property where you want it to be. Most of this work can be accomplished with a map in hand or sitting in front of a computer using your favorite mapping software.
Begin the inventory process by breaking the property up into units with similar habitat types. For example, each opening would be a unit, as well as any stands of timber similar in age and composition. The overall number of units may vary from one on a small property to a dozen or more on large tracts of lands like those I managed for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Once you’ve mapped your units out, you should do some ground-truthing to assess the habitat composition of each unit. This doesn’t have to be a complete inventory of every plant and tree on the property, but you do want to note the dominant species, as well as any potential problem plants — invasive species such as autumn olive, privet, Sericea lespedeza, bush honeysuckle, kudzu or a whole host of others. Be sure to mark these findings on your inventory map for future reference.
To get a true big-picture view of your property, it’s also important to have an idea what the surrounding properties look like, as well. Much of that can be determined with aerial photos and some drive-by ground-truthing. This bigger picture will give you an idea of what food and cover sources are currently available, as well as what may be lacking in your area. If you can provide a resource that deer prefer and isn’t readily available on surrounding properties, that can be just the ticket to draw deer to your property.
Beyond the property’s habitat, you will also want to get a grasp on the dynamics of the local deer population. It’s good to have at least a general idea of deer density, sex-ratio, age structure, and fawn recruitment. If you’ve hunted the property for a while, you may already have some of this information through personal observation, but a preseason trail-camera survey is a much better option for gathering some real usable data.
Start With the End in Mind
Once you have a good grasp of what is currently on the property, and a general idea of what the surrounding properties look like, you can start making decisions about how you’d like your property to look. Keep in mind this is a long-term view. Don’t get hung up at this stage on when or how you’ll get the work done. That will come later in the plan. This stage is simply to get on paper how you ultimately want your property to look.
With a new map in hand, start laying out the key pieces you’d like to have in place — things like bedding areas, food plots, hard and soft mast trees, fallow fields and sanctuaries. This is by far the most difficult part of creating a plan and the one that requires the most knowledge about deer habitat and management. Ultimately, you will have to make the decision about what your property needs to provide the best habitat possible based on what you currently have and what is available on surrounding properties. It’s important to understand the limitations of what you can realistically create and maintain, and plan accordingly.
Many land managers focus their efforts on food plot creation and maintenance, and that can certainly be beneficial for both growing and killing deer. Keep in mind, however, that without good cover to create a sense of security for the deer, much of the food plot usage will occur at night — especially by mature bucks. This cover can be created in openings by managing them for early successional habitat or in forested areas using timber stand improvement techniques or even clear-cutting small areas where appropriate. If you’re not comfortable making timber management decisions, don’t hesitate to enlist the help of a licensed forester. In fact, some states require a licensed forester to sell timber. Just be sure to seek one who has a background in wildlife and understands the QDM philosophy, as most foresters are geared toward helping landowners grow trees for maximum revenue rather than for wildlife.
Don’t forget to consider the huntability of the property as you are laying out food plots and bedding areas. You’ll want to consider the predominant wind direction, potential stand sites and entrance and exit routes for those stands. You wouldn’t want to spend your valuable time and money to install a beautiful fall food plot only to find out you can rarely hunt it because it requires and uncommon wind direction.
Many land managers focus their efforts on food plot creation and maintenance, and that can certainly be beneficial for both growing and killing deer. Keep in mind, however, that without good cover to create a sense of security for the deer, much of the food plot usage will occur at night — especially by mature bucks.
If you need help working through all the considerations of laying out your hunting property, consider taking NDA’s Deer Steward I and II courses. When completed, these two courses are designed to give you the necessary knowledge to create your own detailed property management plan. However, if you feel more comfortable with someone to bounce ideas off of, you may want to enlist the help of a qualified consultant. These professionals can provide valuable insight with their training and experience that will likely save you time and money in the long run from making those trial-and-error mistakes.
Another option is to seek the assistance of a biologist with your state’s wildlife agency. Some states, but not all, offer the services of a private lands biologist who will conduct a site visit to your property and make management suggestions based on your long-term goals. These services are typically offered free of charge and, while they may not be as comprehensive as the services of a private consultant, they may be all you need to get a good management plan in place for your property.
How Will You Get There?
Now that you know where you are, and you’ve laid the property out on paper as to how you would like it to look, it’s time to start laying out an actual game plan to get from point A to point B. Don’t get overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done. Depending on the size of the property and the amount and complexity of habitat work to be done, it may be a five-year plan or it may be a 20-year plan. From this long-term plan, you can develop smaller annual work plans where you decide what steps you will need to take in the coming year to get closer to the end goal.
Make sure, as you’re planning your improvements, you not only keep in mind time constraints of completing the work but the financial constraints as well. You may have plenty of time to plant 50 acres of openings this year, but the cost of buying 50 acres of herbicide, seed, fertilizer and lime may prohibit you from doing so. That’s okay. Little improvements over time can yield big results, so don’t worry if you can’t get everything you want done in the first or second year.
Don’t overlook opportunities to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. For example, while managing public lands for a state agency, we would often take advantage of logging activity to create openings for food plots and improve access with new or improved roads. As a condition of the timber sale, we would require loggers to make these improvements. Since they already had the equipment on site, it was relatively quick work for them and saved us from hiring expensive outside contractors.
Similarly, if you are having access work done outside of logging activities, consider tying it in with your management units. Roads can serve as excellent firebreaks if you are planning on using prescribed fire, so why not allow your access roads to pull double-duty?
Assess Your Progress
While not necessarily part of the written plan, an important aspect of having a management plan is regularly assessing where you are with your plan, and making any necessary changes to stay on track. This should be done on an annual basis because, let’s face it, things change. Weather events, equipment failures, financial situations and family emergencies can throw a wrench in your annual work plans. It’s frustrating, but if you have a good long-term management plan in place, you can simply step back and regroup. Sure, you may end up a year behind schedule, but it won’t be catastrophic to your big-picture plans.
To get the most from your hunting land, it’s important to have a detailed, long-term management plan in place to guide your efforts. If you enjoy a challenge and learning about deer and habitat management, don’t be afraid to get started! Now is a great time to grab a map and notepad and head to your property to start taking an inventory. As you get further in the process of laying out your dream property, you can always utilize the resources here at DeerAssociation.com, enroll in NDA’s popular Deer Steward courses, or enlist the help of a wildlife professional. In the end, you’ll have a plan of attack to guide your efforts, making for better deer and better deer hunting where you hunt.