March 01, 2022
Come March, the worst of the East’s winter is typically over, yet the region’s woodlots are still quite barren and look like they will for much of hunting season.
With warmer weather and open vistas, now is the time to make the areas you hunt more appealing to whitetails—especially those places near your stand sites or on the way to them.
In short, whether you hunt on 5, 50 or 500 acres, a chainsaw can make your stand sites more productive.
Here are five do-it-yourself projects that can help you be more successful this autumn.
1. Thin Around Oaks
Simply stated, the more sunlight that reaches white and red oaks, the better they will produce acorns. Every September, on opening day of West Virginia’s season, I bowhunt from a ladder stand on land I own.
In 2010, every oak within 75 yards of the stand was daylighted with a chainsaw. Non-producing trees such as white and Virginia pines, yellow poplars, red maples and a host of others were leveled.
Just as importantly, the largest and healthiest white and red oak family members were left so that more sunlight could reach their crowns and more nuts could be produced. Keeping those prime future bearers also means that you will likely have to cut oak family members that are smaller and/or poorly formed—something many hunters and land managers are often unwilling to do. Don’t hesitate to level those lesser oaks.
Because of that thinning 12 years ago, I expect to arrow a doe every opening day from that stand, and I often see numerous deer not just that first Saturday, but throughout the season. Although not every oak present will bear acorns annually, a large number will—usually resulting in steady deer traffic the entire season.
2. Daylight Soft Mast Trees
While you’re eliminating trees around your best oaks, keep that chainsaw fired up and head for soft mast producers. For example, on the Virginia land where my wife Elaine and I live, we have paid special attention to increasing soft mast production. On our property come fall, native persimmons are the most important soft mast draw.
About 10 years ago, we made a conscientious effort to closely examine every patch of our 38 acres and seek out native soft mast producers that were hidden among clumps of trees.
To our surprise—and joy—we discovered five persimmon trees we never knew existed. I’ve daylighted every member of that quintet, and one persimmon in particular has become a major producer of golf ball-size orange globes.
I’ve also removed competition around the native cherry, haw and pawpaw trees that now flourish on our place. Every Eastern state hosts a number of different soft mast species. Learn your local trees, identify the ones on places you hunt and thin around them.
3. Hinge-Cut Non-Mast Producers
Another worthwhile project is to create more cover on the land you own, lease or have permission to hunt and improve. Many hunters have designated deer sanctuaries and strive to stay out of them.
That’s a prudent policy, of course, but the late-winter/early-spring period is a time when you should enter those refuges to make them more appealing to deer come fall by creating dense patches of ground cover. The local whitetails will easily recover from the intrusion by the time hunting season commences again.
For example, within the two deer sanctuaries on our land, red maples, redbuds and cedars commonly grow in abundance. Hinge cutting the former two can create more browse, while hinge cutting cedars, especially in bedding areas, can generate denser copses for whitetails. For those note familiar with the practice, hinge cutting is a delicate operation in which you cut two-thirds to three-fourths of the way through a tree that is 6 inches or so in diameter.
The goal is to cut just enough so that you can bend a small tree over until it’s parallel to the ground and deer can take advantage of the cover created. Rarely do trees die quickly from lack of nourishment. A tree that is correctly hinge-cut could be of service to deer for four or five years or perhaps even more.
4. Eliminate Invasive Trees
I also like to deploy a chainsaw to cut down invasive trees and shrubs. Possible targets in our region include ailanthus, Norway maple and autumn olive to name a few. In the East, the ailanthus, also known as stinkwood or paradise tree, is perhaps the most widespread and the worst of our invasive flora.
Don’t do what I did when I first tried to eliminate ailanthus from our property. I felled a tree and assumed that was the end of the task. A month later, dozens of small stinkwoods had sprung up in the general area, as the tree had regenerated itself from its roots. When you level any invasive tree flush to the ground, give the base a shot of herbicide designed to kill woody growth.
5. Create Shooting Lanes
This last project is a simple one—create shooting lanes or widen existing ones at all your stand sites. All my ladder stands are situated either in thinned oak groves or in natural funnels. These sites produce year after year and are classic places to encounter whitetails. A chainsaw or a stout pair of loppers will make sure that no obstructions exist between you and your quarry come autumn.
Some places are too deep into a forest to establish a ladder stand, and that’s where I position hang-ons. Those locales also are good places to visit now and improve shooting lanes. And while you’re out cutting paths, search for future stand sites that need brush or trees trimmed or removed.
During late winter and early spring, I enjoy using a chainsaw to improve my hunting grounds, and the pleasure gained then leads to one of the greatest joys in deer hunting—tagging a deer in an area where I’ve helped to improve the habitat.