October 03, 2022
The definition of a small hunting property varies according to your circumstance. For some wealthy landowners, 1,000 acres of whitetail heaven may seem too tiny. For a blue-collar worker on a limited budget, 20 acres of hunting property could be the only option. One of my friends hunts a trifling portion of woods less than 10 acres. That may seem miniscule, but he has taken bucks ranging from 150 to 180 inches off the postage-stamp-sized property.
If you hunt a compact piece of land, do not assume that the deer you kill on it must wear small headgear. Size does matter, but you can still find success on the smallest of properties. Even if the location isn’t optimal, your hunting strategy can ensure favorable encounters.
Whitetail biologists have long contended that most whitetails live in an approximate 1-square-mile home range. Core home range—defined as where they spend 50 percent of their time—is often smaller, sometimes less than 100 acres. The size of a core range varies by region, but it illustrates that even your small hunting property could be smack dab in the middle of a deer’s home territory.
Some small properties could connect whitetail food sources with bedding cover, or provide escape habitat, or lead to an adjacent area of high deer density. Local wildlife behavior, seasonal farming changes, vegetation blooms and even hunting pressure can affect the way a deer population utilizes a property and the outlying properties. Look at every whitetail connection and how it relates to your small tract.
Does the property have food, refuge and corridor connections? Can you add or manipulate any of these factors? Deer require these elements, but all do not need to be found on your property. If they are, great. If not, put emphasis on those elements you can highlight for deer. It will make them more likely to jump on your byway and use your small property as a rest stop. Bottom line: Before making any changes to your property, note what it already offers and make sure that’s readily apparent to deer.
A food plot is the most obvious addition to make a small property more attractive to deer. Your property may have ample room for farming. If so, add a food plot that offers variety. Use seed mixtures or partition your plot, but plant several varieties to appease palates before and after the frost season. Early-season deer are drawn to browse options that are high in protein. As winter’s grip tightens, deer transition to carbohydrate-heavy, high-fat crops. Split your food plot or mix the seed to offer all. Companies like Mossy Oak Biologic manufacture seed mixtures such as their Outfitter's Blend to include everything required from September through winter.
But what if you only have a small glade available for a food plot? Well, even a modest green stopover can help attract deer onto a small property. To ensure deer investigate your ambush site, consider a no-till plot planted with a product like Biologic's Hot Spot Plus. Rake it in and hope for rain. Wheat, radish and other seeds are included in this pre-fertilized mix. Once surrounding crops have left nearby fields, a woodland plot on a small property could garner big attention.
Water can also lure deer onto a small property if it's lacking elsewhere in the area. Options include filling a commercial tank frequently, digging out a small reservoir or tapping into an existing pipeline. Fresh water adjacent to food options creates a duo that causes deer to brake.
Finally, create sanctuary. The easiest option is to simply make the thickest habitat off limits and hunt the perimeter. Of course, some properties may be lacking, but you can add in habitat by planting tall crops for deer to hide in or hide behind. Crops like sorghum, Egyptian wheat, corn or even landscape reed grass can create a sense of security for deer. It can also cloak your exit after the hunt.
If farming isn't an option, chainsaw work can offer a habitat alternative. Dropping dead timber and gathering downed trees to push into piles offers escape cover for all wildlife, including deer. Most animals seek out brushy deadfalls for bedding and refuge. Some selective thinning of live trees may also be considered. Just consult with a forester before undertaking this task.
MAP ENTRIES AND EXITS
A big mistake of many hunters on big or small properties is following the path of least resistance. This leads to using exit and entrance routes with a predictable pattern that deer learn, causing them to avoid the area. Your goal, especially on a small property, is to not be patternable.
As you deliberate ingress and egress options, consider the predominate winds for a property and establish—at minimum—two routes in and out. Do that for every corner, edge and ambush location you deem important. Keep in mind your deer sanctuary and avoid that no-trespassing zone.
A hunting app like HuntStand or onX provides updated aerial views of your property and helps you consider access routes. You’ll likely have to park at gates or along established trails, but always try to keep deer guessing. Oftentimes, I use rights of way to pull off and sneak into a small property instead of using a farmer’s trail or field edge.
Although your instinct will again be to walk the path of least resistance, choose routes that allow you to remain invisible. Think ditches, hills, coulees and riparian lowlands to veil your presence. For years I have utilized eroded river and creek banks to hide my form as I walk the water’s edge below. When the water freezes later in the season, you can even sneak in on the ice, but do so at your own risk.
Your access routes should all lead to ambush sites. Be creative in where you set stands or blinds based on the personality of the property. Ensure you establish a series of ambush options, not just a single site. This correlates directly to varying your entrance and exit routes.
You want to keep deer guessing. If you repeatedly use the same stand on 10 acres of land, deer will avoid it like the plague. By rotating between four or more stands, deer may feel more secure in tiptoeing through a property. More stands also aid in flexibility with wind conditions.
LIMIT YOUR HUNTS
The hardest part of hunting a small property correctly is establishing a self-imposed limit to your time on stand. Each property is different, but on most small properties, too much pressure leads to fewer and fewer deer encounters. You need to determine the best time periods for success and only hunt then. A range of factors can determine when you should be hunting a small property.
First, are you sharing the hunting rights of the property with others? If so, determine when they will be hunting and schedule around their visits. On several small properties I have hunted over the years, I’d query the other hunters and discover most were tied to a weekend hunting schedule. I have more flexibility, so I simply let the property sit a day or so and then hunted midweek. The deer were a bit more relaxed, and I had all the top locations to myself.
Another factor that could determine hunting success, and when you should hunt, is agriculture. If a sea of standing crops with other refuge opportunities available surrounds your property, hold off on hunting until later. If you reveal your game plan early, it gives deer options to relocate. But if you wait until crops are harvested and deer have fewer choices for a domicile—like your property—then it’s game on. Your refuge, small plot and even water could all add up to a new crib for a rutting buck.
A final reason to only hunt prime time is simply seasonal preference. A small property could be a deer oasis in the early season if it has a plethora of oaks or other mast-producing trees.
Deer may flood an oak-riddled valley for a few weeks as they beef up on the fat-rich acorns. In another scenario, a rugged chunk of river bottom may be ideal winter habitat for local deer. As the temperatures drop and snow piles up (if that is your climate), then deer could begin utilizing the area more. Good scouting and speaking with local landowners will help determine these unique traits of a property that can either make it a brilliant hunting locale or a boondoggle.
Small properties don’t have to be a depressing option for whitetail hunters. Oftentimes, they are the only choice. Looking back over decades of whitetail hunting, that option has paid off for me many times over in inches of antler and venison meals galore. And all that success started by formulating a small-property plan using the ideas above.
Formulate a scent strategy to convince whitetails that your property is deer central.
Want to give your small property the atmosphere of a primo whitetail hangout? Use scents to create the impression of nonstop deer activity. A deer’s most important sense is smell. Whitetails use it to communicate, recognize other deer, establish territorial dominance and know when females are ready for mating. By utilizing scents stationed throughout a tiny tract, you can fool deer into believing it is the place to be.
Optimize your deceit with mock scrapes. Whitetails scrape naturally, so adding a few additional dirt markings in shooting lanes surrounding your ambush sites makes good sense. Plus, mock scrapes on major trails and trail junctions invite repeat visits and pause deer to give you a solid shot on a stationary target.
Scraping sign begins in earnest in September, and by late October it explodes. Nevertheless, you can lay the groundwork for deceit any time—whether preseason or in the middle of it. The best location for a mock scrape is in an existing line of scrapes along a busy trail. As you search for old or new scrape lines, take note of what trees the bucks prefer to scrape under. Copy that preference and even rob branches from a preferred species to zip tie to a tree in your ambush location.
Wicks can be used in impromptu setups, but a better and more economical way to disperse scent is with a dripper. Companies like Wildlife Research Center package kits with prime scent like their Golden Estrus and Golden Scrape. I have used their Magnum Scrape-Dripper for years to pattern deer to a specific ambush location on properties small and large.