I became a wildlife biologist so I could become a better deer hunter. Once I understood the relationship between deer and their habitat, I started to tip over more deer on a regular basis. But, the road to understanding proper deer habitat and management can be tough when you actually put boots on the ground.
Location, location, location is the universal mantra from any real-estate agent. The market value of any property is where it’s located. The same scenario can be said of understanding deer hunting and management. Using the real-estate analogy, deer management equates to habitat, habitat, habitat. This parameter can’t be underestimated.
Deer management can be described as the three legs of a stool. Biologists and land managers must constantly balance: (1) existing deer populations, (2) hunter-management objectives, and (3) existing habitat. Although all three of these components are very important, understanding deer habitat is the key. For bowhunters, the existing habitat is the most important element when considering the value of a treestand location.
The quality and quantity of habitat is always a primary factor when assessing the value of a hunting property or treestand location. Additionally, the composition and location of various vegetation types on the property is where we put the pedal to the metal. This is where the art and science of wildlife management comes into play.
Recently, University of Tennessee Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist Dr. Craig Harper authored a book entitled, “Wildlife Food Plots and Early Successional Plants.” The beauty of this book is that it is actually two books in one. The first half meticulously details food-plot management and how food plots fit into a deer-management plan. The second half is a Plant Identification Guide that teaches hunters the importance of naturally occurring plants (from north to south), their value to wildlife, and how to get rid of them if they are undesirable. Without a doubt, the information you can glean from this book is unparalleled in educating hunters on food plots and understanding deer habitat.
The commercial food-plot industry was born back in the 1980s. Almost every deer hunter thought the world evolved around this “new” management technique called food plots. Well, we’ve come a long way since then. Obviously, there is a lot more to managing deer than just food plots, and Harper nails this point by saying, “Food plots do not replace other habitat-management practices, but complement them.”
Harper uses decades of research from himself, his graduate students, and other professionals to disprove some old-time beliefs. He uses biological research as opposed to commercial bias or hearsay, or even “this is what we’ve always done,” (which is true with some government agencies) to give new insight to habitat management for deer and other species in a very objective and understandable manner. Harper provides information on soils, establishment of food plots, plant mixtures, and management advice that can be used anywhere. Without question, the information on herbicide use for managing food plots and early successional communities is unmatched by any other resource.
Harper explains plant phenology (timing of growth), nutritional requirements of deer, and how and why deer select the various plants they do. This information is provided in a way that helps deer hunters understand what types of food plots are needed for different times of the year. In addition to information on deer, the book also contains chapters for other species, such as wild turkeys, mourning doves, and waterfowl.
Oftentimes, hunters plant food plots and within a month or so there’s nothing left. Was there something wrong with your planting? Maybe. But chances are you have too many deer on your property. Instead of spending all your time and money on another planting failure, you probably should start managing your woods and fields and consider lowering deer density on your property. And yes, on many properties this is easier said than done. One big advantage of food plots is that they can significantly help reduce the deer-browsing pressure on a recovering forest understory.
Harper also adds another valuable point when he says, “Wherever you grow food plots, plants arising from the seedbank will also grow. It only makes sense to recognize the importance of both, and to use plants occurring naturally to your advantage when possible.” In other words, since the seeds are already supplied naturally (and are free), why not use them to your benefit? Many hunters rely solely on food plots, and yet neglect the native vegetation.
Food plots should have a minimum of four hours of overhead sunlight, with screening cover no more than 100 yards from the middle. Compared to a square-shaped food plot, a long, linear food plot has a better chance of crossing the home range of multiple deer. Additionally, pinch-points made up of woody debris, shrubs, or evergreens are very beneficial along linear food plots. Treestand locations taking advantage of these “squeezed-in” funnel areas can be very beneficial.
Harper emphasizes that considerable thought should be given to prevailing winds when deciding on your food-plot location. And probably more important, entering and exiting your stand during the nighttime hours. Educating deer while hunting wrong winds, or going straight to a stand location, can kill all your plans. Having your trail curve prior to your stand location can help immensely in hiding your approach and exit. Sometimes, planting a tall visual break such as switchgrass is all that’s needed.
Harper recommends food plots should maintain a 50-foot buffer next to an adjacent tree’s rain-drip line. Additionally, thinning undesirable trees up to 100 yards from your food plot can create a natural progression from forbs to shrubs to saplings to mature trees.
Food-plot management practices influence a deer’s daily movements and home-range size. Yes, food will attract deer, but high-quality cover is what holds deer on your property. This is where the composition and design of your food plot and adjacent cover helps immensely. Remember, food plots should not replace habitat-management practices, but complement them.
C.J.’s Summary: A deer biologist’s job is to maintain deer numbers at or below the carrying capacity of the property, so they do not destroy the habitat in which they live. Harper’s book gives hunters a college-level degree on managing deer. Because the name of the game in advancing your hunting education is understanding habitat quality, this publication will help you become a better deer hunter. Noteworthy within the book is the Plant Identification Guide. The Guide contains more than 300 commonly found weeds and other plants found in food plots, fallow fields, and other early successional communities. Each plant species contains multiple color pictures, a description of the plant, wildlife value, and recommended control technique if undesirable. “Wildlife Food Plots and Early Successional Plants” is a book you want to read and digest fully.