A few dollars spent on small-scale land management can buy you some priceless deer hunting.
To the untrained eye, it was merely a patch of long-neglected ground. Mature multi-stemmed pasture pines towered overhead. Beneath lay a dense thicket of honeysuckle and buckthorn. In the intervening subcanopy, gnarled old apple trees twisted toward scarce pockets of sunlight.
Because they're reasonably level and graded down to bare soil, skid roads make great food plots. With hand tools or a small ATV, you can prepare and plant these plots yourself.
A bowhunter would notice the subtle signs, though. Looking up, you might pick out spots where a few carefully selected branches had been cut off cleanly to allow more sunlight to reach the little opening. A closer look at the ground would reveal how deer trails had been carefully pruned to create a wagon-wheel effect, with the hub at the center of the clearing.
A really discriminating eye might pick up on the lush herbs growing in the muddy soil along an intermittent drainage and realize they're not native plants. To most it would be merely a piece of fallow ground, but to me it was a tiny piece of deer hunting paradise.
I didn't own the land but had secured permission to hunt on it and to trim vegetation where necessary. The landowner didn't object, particularly when I explained my intent of trimming back some of the overstory, which would allow more sunlight to fall on the old feral apple trees. Then I would prune back the apple trees to a more healthy state. I also would prune a few shooting lanes and open up some trails in the dense understory to encourage use. Lastly, I asked if I could throw a few handfuls of seed down -- "wildlife food," I called it.
Although not a hunter, the landowner seemed intrigued about the prospect of creating a more wildlife-friendly woodlot and gave me the green light.
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That was nearly 20 years ago. In the years since, I've taken a truckload of deer off that small patch of ground and missed a couple of truckloads more. I've also learned a lot about micromanaging woodlots, much of which I've since applied to my own land.
Food plots are all the rage nowadays, but not everyone has the ways, means, or time to build them. You can do plenty for little or no cost beyond your own sweat, often with surprising results.
The simple act of felling a single tree does several things to benefit you as a deer hunter.
If it's the right time of year, the twigs and leaves provide an instant food source. I was bowhunting in Montana early last fall where the only trees were big cottonwoods in the riverbottoms. In the process of hastily setting up a last-minute stand, we trimmed a few branches and tossed them in a pile nearby. The first deer to come by were a doe and two fawns. Rather than continuing on their way to a lush alfalfa field, they made a 90-degree turn and headed straight for the pile of limbs, where they munched on the otherwise unreachable fresh green leaves for a good 15 minutes.
There's a saying in the North Woods that deer will run toward the sound of a chainsaw.
That may be a bit of an embellishment, but deer will indeed concentrate in newly cut areas. As herbaceous vegetation dies, deer shift their diet to woody browse. The tops of felled trees provide an artificial windfall of food, and where logging is common, deer know it.
Leaving large downed tops also protects some of the underlying vegetation from overbrowsing -- an important consideration in areas of high deer densities. In the meantime, it provides dense bedding cover. You can also use felled trees to build natural barriers that redirect deer movement closer to your stand.
Timber Stand Improvement
Timber harvesting increases the overall quality and value of your property and can and should provide you with some hard cash, which can go toward more intensive management, like building food plots.
Twenty years ago I invested in a 100-acre woodlot. I set two acres aside for my house and saved the rest for hunting. It wasn't the best piece of ground around, but the price was right and it had a few deer. More importantly, it had potential. That first winter, I picked out a quarter-acre site, went in with a chainsaw, and cut every tree on it. The following spring that site became a lush pasture, and the stumps blossomed with woody sprouts. That fall I killed a deer there.
Seeing the success of my little cutting experiment, I wanted to do more -- much more than one man with a chainsaw could accomplish. My plans would require the costly services of a professional. After consulting a local forester, I discovered that not only could I accomplish my cutting goals, but I could make some money in the process. We signed a contract, he cut about 10 acres and sold the wood, and I received a fair percentage of the sale.
Money was still tight, and most of my profits went into building a house. I couldn't justify the cost of an excavator to pull stumps and a dozer to flatten the ground. However, the loggers left an unexpected surprise -- flat skid roads bladed down to bare soil. I reallocated a few dollars from the timber sale to lime, fertilizer, and seed, and applied them to the roads. The results were instant food plots that promised good results in the future.
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Even a simple firewood cut can enhance any wooded property. The stumps of many hardwood species produce sprouts or suckers a year after the cut. These can be an important fall and winter food source after deer switch from grazing to browsing.
Cutting also has the same effect as weeding your garden. All those trees are taking up nutrients from the soil. Removing less-desirable species leaves more nutrients for the desirable remaining trees. If you have a mixed stand of maple, ash, and oak, for example, concentrate your cutting on the maple and ash, which make great firewood and furniture.
Leave the oaks, and in future years they will produce more acorns, which are like candy to deer.
Thinning reduces competition for sunlight and nutrients. You can target certain species like oak, as mentioned above, or you can concentrate on individual trees such as wild apples. The process is called releasing. Simply put, you trim back any nearby trees and shrubs to release the apple trees from competition.
Upon buying my land, I found a couple of crabapple trees that were small and stunted due to shading from nearby white pines. A couple of years after I had released them, the crabapples shot up and began producing fruit. Although the soft mast was limited and available only for a short time, my trail cameras showed that deer were using the area more than in the past. Just to hedge my bets, I built a tiny food plot nearby. That fall I killed a deer there.
Fifteen-Minute Food Plots
As my skid road example shows, you don't need to break the bank to build effective food plots. In fact, you can create one kind of food plot in less than an hour and for a mere pittance. Well-known wildlife manager and whitetail enthusiast Dr. Grant Woods calls such creations his "hidey-hole" food plots. I prefer to call them subplots.
Whatever you call them, you can build them almost anywhere, although certain areas work better than others. "I try to find a natural opening in the forest where sunlight reaches the forest floor," Woods said. "The area around a tree killed by lightning, for example." Woods also prefers hardwood stands because leaf litter retards wild herbaceous growth that might compete with food plot plants.
You can enhance the hunting value of any subplot by positioning it in a prime location, say between a bedding area and primary feeding spot, or in any location where cover or topography funnel deer movement. If you build it, they will come.
"I try to set my stand and plot where sun, wind, and thermals are in my favor for a morning or afternoon hunt, depending on when I plan to sit," Woods said further. "And I don't hang stands right on the edges. You're only hunting a 20 x 20 area, so there's no need to."
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The what and how of building subplots is particularly attractive. Equipment and materials include a backpack leaf blower, seed, and fertilizer. More miserly souls like myself can substitute a rake for the leaf blower. I actually prefer the rake because I can scarify the soil while clearing my plot, which helps enhance seed germination. Seed and fertilizer volume will vary with plot size, but Woods generally figures on an area of 400 (20 x 20) square yards.
"That calls for one 50-pound bag of Triple-19 fertilizer and three to four pounds of seed," Woods said. Assuming you already own a leaf blower, or use a rake, your total cost will run less than $50. For seed, almost any fast-germinating annual -- winter peas, buckwheat, oats, or winter rye -- will work. Some wildlife seed companies now have mixes designed for smaller plots.
To build a plot you simply blow or rake the leaves away, then broadcast the fertilizer and seed either by hand or with a handheld spreader. Walk over the area a few times to tamp down the soil. This will provide better seed-to-soil contact and enhance germination.
Then, pray for rain. "The whole thing takes between 15 and 30 minutes, depending on walking distance," Woods said.
Small plots are not only quick and easy, but you can create them at the last minute. If you can locate a hotspot just before or during the hunting season, plant it and then hunt it, all in less than a month. "Sometimes I'll hunt in the morning, and then scout and build a plot on my lunch break," Woods said. The main variables for success are rainfall and length of growing season.
Subplots are short-lived, providing about a two to three-week window of opportunity.
"Often 80 to 90 percent (of the crop) is gone before I ever hunt," Woods said. "That's all right, though. You simply want the deer habituated, on a routine that brings them by your stand."
The key to improving the "huntability" of any property is to provide food, cover, and water in close proximity to each other, and in greater abundance than your neighbor. The quality results you can buy with a few hand tools, some common sense, and a lot of sweat is one of the best bargains in deer hunting.
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Go With a Pro
If you plan on any moderate to large-scale cutting, hire a licensed forester. Some states may require this. These professionals will cruise your stand and determine existing conditions. Then, they will write a prescription for how much and what type of timber to cut. It's important that you identify your goals up front so they can customize their prescription to best meet these goals.
Generally, the landowner receives a percentage of the timber sale. While most woodcutters are fair, honest businessmen, some may not be. If a logger tells you he'll cut at no charge but makes no mention of sharing the proceeds, find another. If you're not sure you're getting a fair cut, you can always go back to your forester or ask for assistance from your local state forestry department.
You should also understand that logging isn't pretty. If the bare stumps, skidder ruts, and slash piles look like a bomb site to you, think long term. In a year or two, new growth will cover the scars. To preserve aesthetics, ask your logger to remove unneeded slash piles and skid roads. The added work may cut into your profits, but it will make for a neater and more huntable site.
However, keep in mind that slash piles and skid roads can aid your hunting. Direct your logger to pile slash strategically to influence deer movement where you want it, and preserve select skid roads as future food plots.
The when of cutting can be almost as important as the what and where. If you cut in the fall, you create instant food plots for hunting. Winter, when food is most scarce, is best for the deer.
The author is an outdoor writer and wildlife biologist from Pownal, Maine.