If you’re determined to make your hunting area as productive as possible, every acre must produce maximum benefit—either prime food for deer or excellent habitat. If even a single acre falls short of this standard, it is worth making changes. In this short piece I will offer several tips to help you maximize your whitetail habitat.
First of all, with regard to prime habitat, deer feel most secure in thick cover. Not all habitat needs to be thick to hold deer, but if you hunt in an area with moderate to heavy hunting pressure, thick cover will be a definite asset because it will give the local deer population a place to run to when the shooting starts. I like thick cover for another reason too: It makes the hunting area of my property much larger. When the deer can see me walking from 200 yards in every direction, it is very hard to sneak in and out of my stands. Reducing that distance to 50 yards really improves hunting success.
As for prime food sources, you need roughly 1 acre of food plots for every six deer. Divide the food plots into 30 percent clover and 70 percent fall/winter foods such as corn, beans, winter wheat and brassicas. Also, keep in mind that during the winter, you are likely to pick up deer from neighboring farms, so factor in those hungry mouths, as well.
Second, look at your current habitat acres. Do they all offer areas of thick cover for security? How are your water sources? If you don’t have these covered, then improving the cover and the water sources will help you hold more deer and it will make your deer easier to hunt.
Improve Timber Stands
There is only one way to grow foliage at ground level in areas with mature timber—you have to open up the canopy and let in the sunlight. This may tie your stomach into a knot, but it is actually healthy for the timber when you cut it back occasionally. First, engage in a commercial timber harvest and follow that up with an aggressive timber stand improvement campaign designed to remove most of the remaining junk trees. The timber harvest reduces competition for nearby quality trees and allows sunlight to reach the ground, which thickens the cover considerably and encourages regeneration.
Don’t begin a commercial timber harvest without first consulting with a local forester (as opposed to a timber buyer) to determine the best strategy. The forester can guide you through this entire process and even help you apply for government cost share, if applicable in your state.
Place the pond toward the top of a ridge, near a bedding area where the deer are likely to use it often. Look for terrain features that naturally funnel a small amount of runoff during each rain. That will be enough to keep reasonably fresh water in the pond. You can purchase EPDM rubber pond liners in just about every size. A quick search on the Web will turn up a number of suppliers. They aren’t cheap—ranging from 40 cents per square foot—but they do work and they can eliminate a lot of time and effort spent digging for clay. After laying the liner in the bowl-shaped pond, cover it with a few large rocks to hold it in place.
Grow Your Own Habitat
I like timber cover, so I am inclined to plant trees. I have planted tens of thousands of seedlings over the years only to watch most of them die due to stress and drought the first year. Instead, I now plant the seeds directly.
Work the soil first as if you are going to plant corn. In other words, spray with a comprehensive weed killer like RoundUp then till to a fine seedbed. Broadcast the acorns or other tree and shrub seeds and then disc them in to the prescribed depth (typically 2-4 inches). During the second and third years, treat the area with a weed killer, such as Oust, prior to bud-break in the late winter to suppress competition for the coming year.
There is actually a complete set of instructions related to direct nut seeding online. To view them, search “Direct Nut Seeding” on the Web and you will find the Iowa State Forestry Extension Notes on this subject. That is the bible I used when implementing this approach on 27 acres of otherwise useless, marginal open land on our farm. The result was very impressive, a mini-forest in just two years. The small oaks are in their third growing season and some are nearly 3 feet tall. Survival rate was roughly 25 to 40 percent; easily enough to guarantee a beautiful stand. I bought the seeds through a local forester, but you can also purchase an acorn roller and pick them up yourself.