Steps You Can Take to Make Private Land Hunting More Productive
If you’re fortunate enough to own some private land hunting ground, you should be very thankful. Whether it’s a small hunting shack situated on 40 acres “up north” in the woods or simply the family farm you grew up on, private land is a real blessing. You have so many possibilities before you. These endless possibilities include shaping the land the way you would like it to look. Not only do you have the ability to keep a property in your family’s heritage, but you can help mold it into whatever you want. Some landowners scoff at this, realizing they may not personally ever see the fruits of their labor. But this is sadly short-sighted, particularly if they have family members who will one day inherit it. Owning private hunting land allows you to create a real and lasting legacy on your property for generations after you. Even if you only intend on selling it instead of keeping it in the family, managing your property for timber, wildlife, or other purposes often adds value to it, which you can recoup upon sale. In short, a little work now is worth the end result.
For those who can only hunt on public land or private hunting land for lease, it’s inconceivable that anyone would even question this. Public land hunters have many possibilities open to them, but very few of the ones this article will discuss. They can’t alter the land they hunt or improve it in any real way, and they have to share it with everyone else who decides they would like to try hunting there. Private land hunting doesn’t have these issues. Aldo Leopold once famously said in A Sand County Almanac, “A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke [of the axe] he is writing his signature on the face of the land.” It doesn’t matter if you like whitetail archery hunting, or prefer a firearm either. These techniques will work in either situation. Without further ado, let’s discuss the tactics you can use to make your property more attractive to wildlife, which effectively makes it more attractive to you as well.
Have no fear if you often wonder, “What do whitetail deer eat on my property?” Deer are well-equipped from getting everything they need from nature. So instead of fighting this or trying to outdo nature, sometimes the best course of action is to manage the natural habitat first. Smart management practices help improve the diversity of age classes, structure, and species in a forest or prairie. Management activities could include timber harvest, hinge-cutting trees, burning, or planting, to name a few. Let’s look at each one of these.
If your property consists of a lot of mature forest, you may want to consider a timber harvest. While mature forest is nice for bow hunting deer, it doesn’t offer deer very much in the way of food or cover. Consult a state or private forester to come tour your property so they can advise you on the best harvest practice. This is a long-lasting decision that could affect resale value if you’re going to take that route, so please consult with a professional before having a contractor cut anything. With some species and stands, a clear-cut is the best option (e.g., aspen trees), while for others it might be better to do a shelter wood cut (e.g. oak trees). The aftermath might look devastating, but it’s actually a fresh start for nature. The disturbance resembles a natural blow-down or fire event, and the sudden amount of sunlight to hit the forest floor will sprout up all kinds of herbaceous and woody plants, called early successional species. This young forest opening is perfect feeding and bedding habitat for deer, turkeys, grouse, and all kinds of other animals, which makes public land hunting even better. These areas are often the best for box stands for deer hunting, since you can hunt them stealthily all day while deer wander through a combined bedding/feeding area.
If you’re not quite ready to conduct a full clear-cut, but still want to improve your habitat and even add some variety to it, a hinge-cut could be a good idea. This practice involves only cutting non-desirable trees (from a timber or mast perspective) to release desirable ones, opening up the canopy, and adding horizontal structure at ground level. It can be done on a large or micro scale, and can easily be done yourself if you’re comfortable with a chainsaw. These DIY management activities are what make private land hunting so great. For larger canopy trees, many people fully cut them down and use the trunk as firewood instead of letting it rot. The hinge-cutting is best done on smaller trees, roughly less than 6 inches in diameter at breast height (dbh), for safety reasons anyway. To do one properly, slowly cut halfway through the tree on the opposite side you would like it to fall. Once halfway through, start slowly pushing the top until it leans over and falls. Cut a little more if you need to until it slowly falls over. You need to leave enough tree material connected so the roots can still keep the top section alive. This will extend the useful life of your hinge-cutting and allows the tops to produce tender growth at deer level, which they will browse heavily. This practice will also look very messy when you’re done, especially compared to surrounding mature forests with wide-open views. But that structure provides great bedding for deer, which can be great for bow hunting deer stands.
If your private property has a lot of old fields or native prairie remnants, burning is a very good practice. Many prairie communities evolved with natural fires, so they actually require an occasional fire to recycle nutrients, reduce the mass of organic material, remove woody species from taking over, and encourage tender new growth to sprout. Again, this is another practice you should do only with professional help unless you’re experienced in doing it, as it can quickly get out of hand and do a lot of damage. Prescribed burns, no matter how small, can do a lot of good at regenerating native species and providing lush new food for animals.
Finally, you could also plant native or beneficial tree, shrub, or herbaceous species on your private hunting land. Any wildlife planting you do should either provide hard or soft mast, or provide a good source of cover. For example, oaks and apple trees provide consistent food either now or in a few decades, depending on what you plant. Cedars provide a dense thermal cover for deer to escape from harsh conditions. A hedgerow of wild plum or crabapple through a field provides both food and cover. If you’re going to plant something, do it right by protecting your investment with necessary cages or tubes, and maintain it so that other species don’t immediately overwhelm it. In a few years, you should have a fairly self-sustaining landscape that provides much more than it once did.
Food Plots for Private Land Hunting
Earlier we said that most deer populations don’t strictly need food plots to survive, but almost any population could benefit from them. A well-managed food plot can produce a tremendous amount of highly digestible and nutritious food that helps deer to reach their full genetic potential. And they are certainly nice when you plan on bow hunting deer. Food plots are probably the number one reason people would like to own their own hunting land. It’s no wonder, as planting food plots can be an extremely addicting hobby.
While you can divide up food plot types in several ways, we’ll classify them as either feeding or hunting food plots in this article because they have very different outcomes. A strictly feeding food plot is meant to provide calories to the deer herd in an unpressured environment. Corn/bean fields and hay fields act as feeding plots from spring through summer. Private landowners often plant clover as a perennial food plot, which help nursing does and antler-growing bucks during the summer. Some people even plant fall food plots strictly to help deer through the winter and never hunt them. These plots are useful for building the resident deer herd on your property, and are amazing when used in or near a deer sanctuary area.
Hunting plots, on the other hand, are the secret weapon of private land hunting. They are generally much smaller than larger, destination feeding areas. Because of their size, they physically cannot support very many deer in them at any one time and are easier to hunt without educating the deer herd to your intentions. Bow hunting for whitetail deer is especially useful in these plots, since a hunter can shoot almost all the way across them in any direction. Additionally, deer are far more likely to use these hunting plots during daylight hours since they are so secluded and surrounded by cover. Hunting plots are usually planted with a highly attractive fall annual species, such as brassicas, cereal grains, or winter peas. When these species really start growing, you should have your best bow hunting stands hung nearby. By planting these plots on your hunting properties, you can strategically pull deer onto your land in the fall. Luckily, this is exactly the time you want them to hang out on your turf, so neighboring landowners can’t shoot them.
Private Land Hunting Strategies
This is the fun part, when you can pull all the pieces of the puzzle together. It’s the time that makes private land hunting so much more effective than public lands in many cases. One of the curses of public land hunting is that you could let a deer pass by, and they might get shot within a few hundred yards by another hunter, giving you no incentive to let bucks mature into older age classes. You can’t completely remove this problem on private land, since deer can easily wander to a neighboring property, particularly if you own a few hundred acres or less. But you can mitigate it a little using the hunting strategies below.
It’s risky to leave ladder stands or lock on stands on public lands, and impractical/illegal to set up a box blind. But there are no such restrictions on your own property. While not completely devoid of theft risks, private land hunting offers a much better place to leave your tree stands in the woods or set up box blinds in a perfect location. With more permanent stand locations, you can also manage the habitat or plant additional screening cover to hide your entry and exit route. That way, you should be able to sneak in and out of a hunting situation without alerting deer to your presence. Box blinds offer high concealment value and are useful near food sources or bedding areas alike. They are particularly nice when the weather takes a down turn or you want to bring younger kids hunting with you. Big Game Tree Stands has a Trophy Box kit with wide window openings and a flip-up trap door opening.
Speaking of tree stands, they’ll only be useful if you hang them in the right locations. Expert deer hunting stand locations are critical as you chase older and more experienced deer. As we said, hunting on large destination fields is a risky move. It might pay off, but you could also alert a dozen deer to your tree stand location in the process, making them very wary of it or anything like it again. You’re better off sitting over a hunting food plot. If you plant feeding food plots near the center of your property with quality bedding cover on the perimeter of your land (which you can establish with the habitat work from above), deer have fewer reason to leave the area. Then you can strategically plant a few small hunting plots between the bedding and feeding areas, which will intercept deer in the mornings and evenings. By having a few well-spaced hunting plots that are different shapes, you can hang several deer stands to hunt different wind directions. Simply having multiple options for different conditions can be enough to fill your buck tag.
On this topic, you can find and kill a deer in most places without too much work. But if you’re after a specific mature whitetail deer, you need to always pay attention to the hunting conditions. The smaller your property, the stricter you need to be. Bow hunting whitetail deer in a tree stand with the wind blowing right into a food plot or bedding area isn’t going to do you any favors. To get a truly old monarch buck, you should wait for the perfect conditions before hunting a stand, which can be really hard to do if you’re getting daytime pictures of one. But hunting in anything less could jeopardize future encounters with him.
Whether you plan on bow hunting deer in the early season or firearm hunting in the cold fall, improving your property is a great way to invest your time and resources. With more homesteads and farms being sold to developers every year, private land hunting is disappearing in some places. But if you develop a lasting legacy on your property, it will be enjoyed for years to come.