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Tools of the Trade for Off-Season Whitetail Habitat Management

One man's equipment list of useful items when performing whitetail habitat work.

Tools of the Trade for Off-Season Whitetail Habitat Management

Successful habitat management starts with reliable tools you feel comfortable using. (Photo by Zack Vucurevich)

Being unprepared will send you home faster than any other circumstance. The good news is being unprepared is completely avoidable. As a wildlife biologist and habitat consultant, I travel far and wide to help landowners transform their properties from a hunk of dirt into the wildlife and hunting paradise of their dreams.

Due to the nature of my work—outdoors in the elements—I always carry a backpack to keep track of my gear. On any given summer day, whether completing habitat improvements on my family farm or working with clients around the country, the contents of my pack rarely change. To keep things brief here, I have omitted no-brainers like multi-tools, toilet paper, insect repellent, snacks and PPE such as chaps, a helmet and earplugs.

I put together the following list to give you a template for a pack that’ll keep you safe, productive and, most importantly, in the field to make the most of your habitat improvement work this summer.

THE PACK

My daypacks are usually retired hiking packs, which range in size from 24 to 30 liters and can accommodate a water bladder. While a 2-liter bladder is great, a 2 1/2- or 3-liter bladder is preferred. A waist strap is also a great feature—even better if you can find one with hip-pocket storage. I always choose a pack that is brightly colored (my current one is mustard yellow) so it’s easy to relocate if I ever take it off quickly. I recommend against using an old camo hunting pack unless you have no other option. A rainfly is nice but optional.

MAPPING SOFTWARE

As the list of mapping software and applications grows, pick one you understand well and stick with it. I am partial to onX, as I have used this program for years. As long as you can mark waypoints, draw polygons, take notes (pictures are excellent) and see topography lines, you will be able to stay organized with your habitat plans and progress.

If you are more old-school and prefer to take notes on paper, I suggest getting a Rite in the Rain all-weather universal journal. I was introduced to these journals as an undergrad in the wildlife and fisheries management program at West Virginia University and have used them ever since.

The paper can withstand steady rain and works with any pencil (the company also sells waterproof pens). While I’ve not tried using the paper as a fire starter, its wax content makes me believe it would serve well as a crumpled tinder bundle.

FLAGGING RIBBON

Flagging ribbon is an indispensable visual marker for the land manager. While I tend to hang most of my flagging ribbon during the dormant season, I always keep a couple rolls of different colors in my pack throughout the year.

The list of colors and color combinations is endless, so be smart with your choices and designations. I typically add a note (and photo) to my onX indicating the color and what it means. For example, if I hang a red ribbon on a tree, it always means the tree is to be cut. A blue ribbon means “save this tree.” When marking areas for future projects, such as a bedding thicket cut, invasive species treatment or crop tree release, walk the perimeter and add ribbon as you see fit. Once the leaves are down in a few months, your “flags” will be much more apparent.




I cannot emphasize this point enough, so I will say it one more time: Keep track of what you are marking on your mapping software! If you can stay organized, you can mark food plots, new trails, fresh sign or anything you want. If you change your mind about the project, remove the old ribbon. There are few things worse than stumbling across an area you previously flagged only to realize you can’t remember what you were marking.

land management for deer hunting
A collapsible handsaw is easy to pack and comes in handy for removing non-native vegetation and even felling small trees. (Photo by Zack Vucurevich)

COLLAPSIBLE HANDSAW

Most of the forest stand improvement (FSI) projects I work on during the summer involve invasive species. Summer is a great time to focus on bush honeysuckle, multiflora rose, buckthorn and autumn olive, all of which are small- to moderate-sized shrubs and trees. A good-quality handsaw will quickly work through the trunk, exposing the fresh stump for herbicide treatment. Make sure to apply your herbicide within half an hour of cutting; it won’t take if the plant is allowed too much time to heal. Use the saw to cut a ring around the trunk of larger trees to create a makeshift girdle. After you ring the tree, apply the herbicide immediately to the entire wound. This will kill the tree and leave it standing.

HATCHET

The hatchet you choose doesn’t need to be anything fancy. Whatever you can find lying around the barn should work, though given the option, I prefer one with a bit of heft. I use an old hatchet my grandfather gifted the family before he passed away. It feels great to use a tool whose lacquer was worn thin through use on countless weekend projects. I use this tool for hack-and-squirt projects to kill (and leave standing) trees too big to cut down with the handsaw.

Recommended


SQUIRT BOTTLE AND NITRILE GLOVES

Any spray bottle designed for cleaning products will work for our intended purposes. I buy cheap bottles from the hardware store, expecting to replace them regularly. The herbicides and adjuvants added to the bottles will inevitably clog the spray nozzles and filters, so don’t expect a lengthy lifespan for your bottle. If your backpack doesn’t have a water bottle holder, consider purchasing a pouch or other means to hold your herbicide bottle. (Back at home, always store your bottles in a liquid-proof container—I use a 5-gallon bucket.)

Any time I am working with herbicides, I wear nitrile gloves. Whether measuring chemicals at the barn or using the spray bottle in the field, they are always on my hands. I know it’s hot. I know your hands will prune from the sweat. But I also know that nitrile does a much better job than latex at protecting you from chemicals.

FIRST-AID KIT

Since I often work alone, keeping a capable first-aid kit on my person can be the difference between getting home safely and spending an uncomfortable night in the woods. Notice I said “capable” instead of “robust.” Items I deem essential include a basic wound-care kit (antibiotic ointment, several bandages, sterile pads), Imodium (take at the first sign of an upset stomach), Benadryl (angry hornets, bees, pollen) and a tourniquet (for any “oh, s#!t!” scenarios).

VERSATILE CONTENTS

The moral of the story here: Bring enough to be prepared to cover a couple of different activities. Whether it’s a scouting-and-marking project or you’re cutting and treating invasive species, be ready to make the most of your day.

In the event the weather shifts, put down the herbicide and work on some hinge cuts. Or flag off the perimeter of a future edge-feathering project (don’t forget to mark it on your map app!). Stay busy. If you get a booboo, clean it, patch it up and move on. Every bit of effort now gets you one step closer to punching a tag this fall. Have fun out there and be safe.

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