Does Size Matter?
Some hunters might think sanctuaries only work on large properties. Woods’ Missouri property, for instance, covers 1,500 acres, and he manages one-third of it as sanctuaries. Also, the Iowa properties Hellickson manages are part of a hunting cooperative covering 4,000 acres.
Even so, some hunters argue that intentional, well-managed sanctuaries are even more vital on smaller properties covering 200, 100 or even 40 acres. Why? Refuges are more likely to form on larger properties, especially those with few hunters. Meanwhile, a typical family farm might average one or more hunters per 40 acres. Unless some of the property’s more challenging terrain is managed as a sanctuary, deer will likely seek shelter elsewhere.
But even if they do, it doesn’t mean they’re impossible to hunt. Deer have no concept of property lines and neighborhood cooperatives. If they consistently take cover in 5-, 10- or 20-acre pockets of brushy cover that humans seldom enter, it doesn’t matter to them if it’s in the middle of one man’s 50-acre property or a neighbor’s 1,000-acre spread.
What deer understand is predation. When hunger pangs increase and hunting pressures decrease, deer feel compelled to move, and they’ll warily leave their sanctuaries. If you set up on them properly and don’t take risky shots, you can surgically remove deer with little commotion.
The largest buck I’ve shot with a muzzleloader fell at midmorning on a subzero day in mid-December. The buck was following a string of does and fawns toward a neighbor’s posted, unhunted property. I assumed they came from another neighbor’s large, secluded and half-harvested cornfields beyond the woods I was hunting. Only 100 yards of ground and a four-strand barbed-wire fence stood between the buck and its sanctuary when my 250-grain Barnes bullet punched through its chest.
How to Hunt Sanctuaries
In many cases, though, evening setups work best when keying on post-rut, late-season food sources. Hellickson said his Iowa group has become increasingly successful the past 15 years by hunting from large box blinds on the sanctuaries’ perimeters and waylaying bucks as they head for uncut cornfields before dusk.
“Hunters often think deer avoid box blinds, but we’re careful when we hunt from them,” Hellickson said. “Plus, we hunt them lightly. We aren’t going in and out of them all the time, so we’ve shot some very big bucks from them.”
He said they occasionally hunt their box blinds in the morning, but only when the wind is right and they can get in quietly. Reaching the box stands often requires crossing fields and woodlots where deer are still feeding or lingering before dawn. Spooking deer at this time drives them back into the sanctuaries.
Likewise, Hellickson’s crew won’t use the blinds when conducting drives. “We do a lot of drives, but the box blinds are in our ‘no-drive’ zones,” Hellickson said. “We only use them when hunting food sources. We want deer to think it’s safe to leave the sanctuary when it’s time to eat. If you drive or spook them out of there early in the day, they won’t head that way late in the day during shooting hours.”
When conducting drives, try to push deer from your property’s perimeter and head them toward interior sanctuaries. “Sometimes we start the drives first thing in the morning,” Hellickson said. “In many Midwest and Northeast states, you’re dealing with large groups anyway, so it’s tough to do anything quietly, especially getting everyone to their stands. Plus, the neighbors are often doing drives, so we’re hoping they’ll push deer into our sanctuaries. As long as we don’t follow them into the sanctuaries, they usually settle down. When they head for the fields late in the day, we’ll be in our box blinds.”
Whether you hunt your own property or spend most of your time on public lands, keep analyzing the land for potential sanctuaries, and devise strategies to capitalize on each site. For landowners, this might include overhauling and fine-tuning areas you’ve designated as sanctuaries. Most consider this recreation. Ask your typical landowner/deer hunter if they prefer a new deer rifle or the latest chain-saw, and they’ll pace with indecision. There’s something therapeutic about felling trees and exposing ground to sunlight, especially if it pays off in better cover and food for deer.
Likewise, when studying topographic maps, aerial photos or Google Earth images, public-land hunters look at everything a little differently as they try to identify refuges. After pinpointing potential deer sanctuaries, they keep studying the surrounding lands, now viewing terrain and cover features as opportunities instead of obstacles.
Either way, functional deer sanctuaries tend to produce more satisfying and successful hunts. This is particularly true late in the season when most hunters seek more convenient pursuits.