How To Fool Patchwork Whitetails

Some of the biggest bucks live in small patches of cover where most hunters never expect to find them. Here's how to find and hunt these whitetail gold mines!

When asked to define deer habitat, many hunters think of big, endless forest. But much of the best whitetail cover is a patchwork of woodlots, cultivated fields, brush and human development. Viewed from above, it all looks like a patchwork quilt.

Big-woods hunting is an experience to be savored, but you may have better luck targeting small patches of cover close to home.

PICK YOUR SPOTS
In hunting patchwork habitat, the first obstacle is finding places to hunt. Public land usually means more hunting pressure, so if you want the best quality hunting, seek permission to hunt private land.

Because of personal or municipal reasons, some patches will likely be closed to all hunting. Don't worry, however! These patches act as refuges where big bucks can hide and grow old. This is why so many top bucks are often found in this type of habitat. Patchwork habitat may be second only to pay-to-hunt operations for producing trophy-class bucks.

LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
There are some simple, logical tips for gaining access to hunt on patches of private land. First, consult your state and local regulations to ensure that the area you want to hunt is a good choice.

Also, keep in mind that many landowners approve of bowhunters, but will think long and hard before allowing gun hunters on their land.

When approaching landowners, do so politely (during the off-season) and always thank them for their time, no matter what they decide. This could lead to your permission to hunt elsewhere.

Start seeking permission to hunt as soon as possible. Many landowners want only a limited number of hunters on their property, so be the first to ask.

Some states require written permission, others don't, but it's always best to have a signed piece of paper to present to anyone who questions your right to be hunting.

If you plan to be hunting with a partner, have that spelled out clearly as well. You can kill the golden goose if you get permission for yourself to hunt and then show up with 10 buddies on opening day!

Treat the land and the landowner with respect. Never litter, and pick up any trash you find -- whether it belongs to you or not. Never block farm lanes or other access roads. Close gates and do not knock down fences.

The list of potential courtesies is endless, so be constantly thoughtful.

When your hunt is over, thank the landowner for his generosity on your way out. Ask if he would like some venison -- and get permission for the next year.

POCKET TACTICS
Once you have your permissions in line, it's time to get acquainted with the property. It would be great to be able to scout first and then pick the land where you want to hunt, but this is a rare luxury unless everyone in the neighborhood knows you.

On small lots, the only chance you may have to take a buck will be during the rut, when deer move much more than usual. Big bucks are often taken in places where they have not been spotted during the previous 11 months.

The perfect place to hunt patchwork habitat is along a regular deer travel route between a food source and a refuge area (where no one is allowed to hunt).

Though rutting bucks wander for miles with complete disregard for nutrition, hunters can generally depend on the bucks being near or following the resident does.

One of the reasons why patchwork habitat produces so many big bucks is that it tends to be rich in forage, from natural mast to farm crops and even ornamental shrubbery. Learn the feeding habits of the local deer herd and take notes so you can make predictions and determine their patterns.

The best time to observe deer feeding in patchwork habitat is at night. This can be problematic: Neighbors who see you scanning with night vision optics may take it the wrong way. It's best to call the appropriate landowner and let him know that you will be out looking for deer after dark -- where it's legal, of course.

Even if you cannot find any deer sign, you are still in the game because bucks wander far and wide looking for receptive does. In fact, they'll travel for miles outside of their normal home range.

Regardless of what some hotshot deer expert might have said or written about the peak of the rut, bucks are looking for hot does for several more weeks after the rut peaks. Bucks are more than anxious to rendezvous with an amorous doe from about mid-October until as late as February, depending on the latitude.

It was once believed that bucks are more susceptible to winter mortality because they rut hard all fall and, for a few weeks during the critical pre-winter period, carry very little fat. However, a recent study in Pennsylvania indicated that the overwhelming majority of bucks that make it through the hunting season do survive until the next fall.

A big buck in your hunting territory that eluded everybody is probably still going to be there next year. And unless he is past his prime, odds are that he'll be even bigger.

TREE STANDS
Get the landowner's permission to erect tree stands, but don't damage any trees. Forget about those homemade stands that are spiked or nailed to trees. These can damage trees, rendering them worthless as timber.

Don't place too many stands in a plot of land, but do place enough stands (two, usually) to let you take advantage of various wind conditions. As a rule of thumb, you want the wind blowing your odors away from deer trails.

On the subject of deer trails, keep in mind that deer do not always move along well-defined trails. Often they will meander through feeding areas, browsing as they go. Placing a stand in a position where you are likely to get within shooting range may be difficult. In cases like this, look for "funnels," natural features that restrict deer movement. These can be briar thickets, a steep hill, a pond or any natural formation that forces a deer to alter its course of travel.

This may be the single most important factor in planning a hunt on patchwork habitat. Every situation is different, but if you find a trail through your hunting area that is used by virtually every deer in the area, be sure to place a stand nearby.

AREAS TO AVO

ID
It's true that one of the major advantages of hunting in patchwork habitat is that deer become accustomed to human activity. But even then, they can detect significant changes in human activity.


Big-woods hunting is an experience to be savored, but you may have better luck targeting small patches of cover close to home.
 

Disturbing their traditional bedding areas, for example, will usually cause deer to change their regular routine. The way to hunt bedding areas is by placing stands along trails leading to or from those bedding areas -- without getting too close.

You should place your stand far enough from a bedding area that you can get into and out without being detected by deer in the bedding area. Older deer may vacate an area once they realize they are being hunted.

If hikers or bikers have created a shortcut through your hunting area, use that shortcut to approach your stand whenever possible. The same goes for farm lanes or logging trails.

Don't feel that you are at any disadvantage because you are limited to hunting small patches of habitat. Remember, some of the biggest bucks taken each year often come from this very type of cover.

Hunting patchwork habitat can be challenging, but the rewards can far outweigh the effort it takes to succeed.

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