Walking the property, I knew I'd found a winner. Sure, it was only 100 acres, but it was the thickest cover the area had to offer. Outside of browse, all the food was on the bordering lands. The area also got pummeled by meat hunters each year, but I was confident that I could turn it around.
There was a solution to every problem. A dozer could create my food plots, strategically staggered about 100 yards in off the neighboring food sources. Doing that would provide food for the bucks, delaying their arrival to the neighbor's killing fields, and increasing the odds that some of them would live to maturity — and the growth of their best possible antlers.
It couldn't have worked better. A mid-season afternoon found me in a stand covering a pinch in one of my new food plots. The fine 10 point didn't have a clue he was in trouble, until the Rage-tipped Easton blew through his vitals.
Understanding what to look for in a deer hunting property and how to effectively improve it helped me connect with a great buck. It really is quite easy, once you understand the formula and strive to make every improvement help your hunting as much as it helps the deer.
Keys to Focus On
When looking to buy or lease a new piece of ground, one must first identify what traits a property should have to be a real producer. Obviously, it's best when the land already has a well-established history of producing good bucks. However, if one is willing to invest a year or two into turning a property around, the presence of key traits is what makes it possible to transform coal into diamonds.
Simply put, if you can provide deer with better cover, food, water and sense of security than they can find elsewhere, they will spend a disproportionate amount of time on that property. Of the factors one needs to draw and hold deer, cover can be the hardest to alter in the short run.
When cover is limited, if deer sign is at low levels, you may want to keep looking for a better property. If sign is abundant, ask yourself what you reasonably could do to thicken available cover. If options are available, you may still have a property worth considering.
If it's lacking in food instead, explore the feasibility of putting in food plots, but don't limit yourself to thinking food plots can only be put in existing open areas. It's much cheaper to contract a dozer operator for a day than most realize. With a little digging around, I've always been able to find them for under $80 an hour.
Providing deer with a sense of security is really up to the hunters. All it takes is setting aside some thick areas as sanctuaries and hunting the rest intelligently.
Focusing on Details
Once a property is secured, a mistake most make is trying to improve it before they fully realize what they have. Remember, everything done to improve a property impacts the ease and effectiveness hunting it. To achieve the maximum benefit, you need to know the cards you hold before you start making bets.
Understanding how deer currently use the property is important. One should determine where they are bedding, their travel corridors, feeding locations and watering areas.
It also helps to know what bucks are on the property. Not only will that help guide any management plans you may generate, but it does little good to set a goal of taking a 160 incher if 110 is the current top end on your land.
Strategically placing scouting cameras on food and water sources is a great way to get a quick picture of the deer quality on the property. Practice scent control, time your trips onto the property for midday hours and space return trips by a week or two.
Remember, we want these deer to feel safe here. Bumping them when we check our cameras every couple of days shatters that goal.
Along with that, learn the land. Finding features that can funnel deer movement is important. So are features that can help hide our access and departure from potential stand sites, such as creeks, ditches, overgrown fences and so on.
In a nutshell, the better we know the deer, how they use the property and what features we can use to our advantage, the better we can plan both our improvements and our hunting strategies. Learning this before breaking ground for a food plot or attempting to add cover allows us to most effectively make changes to help both the deer and our own hunting efforts.
Creating an Action Plan
Which begs the question, how does one pull off improvements to best benefit the hunting? The first steps are already accomplished by knowing the property and its deer.
The next really revolves around always factoring in how every improvement can help our hunting. That sounds like a no-brainer, but it's amazing how many hunters slap a food plot into a back corner of a field without even questioning how they will get in and out of the stand without getting busted by deer using the food plot. Since the deer enter from various locations, these hunters also give themselves no safe wind to hunt it. If it blows back into the woods, some of the deer will smell them before they reach the plot. If the wind is blowing into the plot, the early arriving does bust them before the buck gets there.
On the flip side, careful planning can create very safe stand options that take advantage of habitat improvements. Not getting spooked eventually makes the deer feel safer and they will move more during legal shooting light. That's what makes gathering info on the property and how deer use it so critical. For example, let's say there happens to be a ditch running behind the opposite corner of the field we haphazardly slapped the previous food plot in. That ditch is steep and most of the deer cross in one location to get to the field.
As luck would have it, the bedding areas are located so we can reach and walk the ditch without worrying about spooking any deer, so long as we have any type of a north wind. With the field still over 100 yards away from the ditch, a food plot in that corner is vastly superior. As a bonus, because we are walking the ditch in to backdoor the food plot, we can effectively hunt it both mornings and afternoons.
Finding a diamond in the rough really boils down to identifying properties that have potential and polishing them through our improvement efforts until they shine.
Web Exclusive: Hire a Land Manager
Hiring a full-time land manager is likely prohibitively expensive for most hunt clubs, so a good compromise is hiring a land manager to evaluate your property on a one-time basis. Most charge on a per-acre basis, and that can run from cents per acre to several dollars per acre, depending on experience and distance he has to travel.It's entirely appropriate to ask a prospective land manager for several local references. Call them and see if the manager was worth their money. Some managers will put you light-years ahead of where you would have been figuring it all out on your own.Land managers know what land is available in your areas, so tap into them for help finding land. We opted to go it alone in our DIY Deer Camp project. If we did it again, we'd be calling Matt Haun with Quaility Timber and Land Management. He's plugged in, and could help us get into a better lease than we have now.Like an experienced hunting guide, a good land manager can teach you more in a day that you'd pick up on your own in a week.
Once you decide on one, expect the land manager to talk with you about your goals for the property. Are you looking to shoot trophy deer? Hosting friends for hunting outings? Using the land year-round? What is the budget for developing food plots or taking down trees? He should walk the property with you, and put together a written plan that covers the history of the property, current condition and recommended improvements.
Other services run the gamut. From putting together a trail cam survey to managing projects like building roads, lakes or structures, all the while working with your lease company. Or, he could put together a "Shoot" book that shows trail cam photos of all the resident deer, including which deer hunters should harvest and which should left alone.
In the end, the results should be a well-thought-out plan that takes into account the limitations and opportunities of the property, and how to attain your goals with the budget you have. — John Geiger