Patterning Small-Woodlot Whitetails

You don't have to hunt wilderness areas to find deer. Instead, try patterning small islands of cover in suburban areas where few hunters can be found.

Photo by Bill Banaszewski

By P.J. Reilly

Beads of sweat trickled down my temples my first evening on stand a few years back in a small woodlot where I had permission to bowhunt. It was hot. Mosquitoes buzzed in my ears as the thick, muggy air hung motionless around me like a soggy wool blanket.

Despite my discomfort, I was tingling with excitement. One evening a few weeks before the season opened, I had spotted a bruiser whitetail buck skulking along a field edge on a trail barely 20 yards from my present perch. I made a mental note of the trail the buck was on but stayed out of the woods until the first evening of the season so there would be no chance the big buck would detect my presence. I picked my stand tree that evening and never went back till I walked into the woods with my portable tree stand and bow.

I was on stand for barely an hour when the big buck crossed a driveway skirting the edge of the woodlot and made a beeline toward my position. My heart pounded in my chest like a bass drum as I stood up and readied myself for a shot. The buck browsed on green leaves as he plodded along the trail, and then he was just 20 yards away from me. I counted eight long tines as I drew back my bow. When the buck buried his face in the greenery once more, I locked my sight pin behind the deer's shoulder and released my arrow. Twenty minutes later, the buck's antlers were in my hands.

Hunting whitetails in small woodlots - say, 20 acres or less - has always been one of my most successful deer-hunting strategies. Deer that live in these miniature forests are confined to relatively small areas, and that makes it fairly easy for a hunter to figure out their favorite travel routes and to select optimum ambush points. The key to working in this environment, however, is to pattern the resident deer without spooking them out of the woodlot until the season is over.

Whitetails are adaptive creatures. They live in dense mountain forests stretching for hundreds of miles. They live in expansive grasslands. And they live in broken forest habitat commonly found in agricultural and suburban areas. It's in these fragmented woodlands, where pockets of woods are separated by farm fields, roads, and housing and commercial developments, that hunters must learn to pattern small-woodlot whitetails.

To find out if a particular woodlot has whitetails in it, take a walk. Look for sign. including deer droppings, tracks, well-worn trails and antler rubs. Keep your eyes peeled for deer bolting (or, more often, slinking away from you). Finding deer sign in a small woodlot is great, but seeing live deer there is even better. If you find sign or see a deer, rest assured their presence in the woodlot is not a one-time occurrence. If deer are in a woodlot once, they'll be in it again.

Look for places where deer sign is concentrated, such as clusters of buck rubs, intersecting trails or evidence of many deer beds. When you find one of these areas, you know you're in a spot that deer use frequently and your odds of encountering a deer are high. Find a tree nearby for your stand and you are ready to hunt.

Do your scouting in late winter, spring or early summer. This will allow you to explore a small woodlot thoroughly and still leave enough time before hunting season so that all traces of your presence will be gone once the hunting season begins.

Once you've found whitetail travel routes and congregation areas in a particular woodlot, odds are those will be the best places to cross paths with a deer as long as the woodlot stays in its current condition. The least change in the habitat (tree-cutting, development, etc.) can ruin your hunt, so be sure to keep an eye on your hotspot as opening day approaches.

In small habitats, there are only so many places a deer can be. You can fine-tune your stand locations as the season progresses to key in on specific deer, but in general plan on putting your stands in the same areas year after year.

Keep in mind when you're hunting a small woodlot that, because the habitat is so small, it doesn't take much pressure to push the deer out, especially big bucks.

Over-scouting small woodlots can actually thwart the purpose of scouting - finding deer. I learned this the hard way back in my formative hunting years.

After gaining access to a 15-acre suburban woodlot, I spent every evening for about two weeks prior to archery season walking into the woodlot to a favorable vantage point to watch the resident deer. On my first three or four outings, I spotted the same 10-pointer with forked brow tines on the same trail at exactly the same time. And every evening I saw him, he caught my scent and high-tailed it out of sight. I stopped seeing that 10-pointer after a week of scouting and I never saw him during hunting season. When I went in to take down my stand a month after the season had ended, however, he was back!

After scouting the interior of your woodlot, step back and take a look at the surrounding landscape. Knowing what's going on around the woodlot will help you determine when you should hunt there.

If farm fields surround your woodlot, you'll probably find that most deer use the woods when the crops are still standing. After the crops are harvested, the woodlot's resident whitetail population will likely decrease as the deer move elsewhere to find a better food source or a more substantial forest for security. A 5-acre patch of open hardwoods surrounded by 100 acres of standing corn is a safe place for a deer. When that corn is gone, however, the woodlot will stick out like a sore thumb, and the deer are sure to abandon it at the first hint of hunting pressure.

On the other hand, that tiny patch of isolated woods is just the sort of place a wily old buck might pick as an in-season hideout once he notices that passing hunters generally leave it alone. Bottom line: Never overlook a small, dense "island" woodlot during deer season. It's a great place to put on a two- or three-man drive (where this is legal).

If you're a stand-hunter, plan on hunting such tiny farm-field woodlots early in the morning after the crops are gone. Head out to your stand in the dark before the deer get there to bed for the day. Stay away from it in the afternoon and evening, when you're likely to run the deer out.

If your woodlot is in a suburban area, you might find that deer activity there is largely nocturnal early in the season, especially when the weather is nice and re

sidents are out enjoying their properties on a regular basis. Once the weather turns cold and householders retreat indoors, however, the daylight deer activity is likely to heat up. So will the hunting.

Suburban woodlots bordering agricultural areas seem to contain the most deer once the hunting season begins. It's typically more difficult for hunters to gain access to hunt suburban woods than farm country; therefore, there's more hunting pressure on farms than in suburban neighborhoods. And farm deer invariably migrate to the more protected suburban thickets once the shooting starts.

Be sure to check your state regulations to find out how far away from houses and other buildings you need to be when hunting a suburban woodlot.

If you decide to pursue small woodlot whitetails, plan on encountering what I call the "feast or famine'' experience. Whitetails have an average home range of about one square mile. If you're hunting a 10-acre woodlot, you're only hunting a tiny percentage of a deer's home range.

It only stands to reason that there will be times that the deer using your woodlot as part of their home range will be somewhere else. There have been many times when I've been swimming in deer in a woodlot one week and the next week I could sit from sunrise to sunset in that same woodlot without seeing a tail. Be patient through these periods of famine, and your feast will come.

There are many variables affecting small-woodlot deer hunters that are of no significance to big-woods hunters. Farming practices, kids playing, dogs running loose, etc., can have an impact on your hunts. Plan on hunting a particular pocket of cover for a year or two before you can know what's really happening in your woodlot.

For example, I had hunted a 7-acre woodlot on top of a hill in farm country for two seasons. My experiences during those seasons taught me that, for some reason, that woodlot is a prime place to be once the rut kicks in, but it's not so great before or after the rut. I stayed out of the woodlot during the 2002 season until I was convinced the rut was on, and then on two successive hunts I saw a total of four bucks and finally arrowed a heavy-beamed 19-inch-wide 8-pointer.

* * *
If you're tired of chasing whitetails in habitat that takes two days to run across on foot, try hunting a small woodlot this year.

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