July 19, 2023
Most hunters have long thought it’s difficult, if not impossible, to shoot big, mature whitetails on small tracts of land—especially on a regular basis. However, this is a false belief.
I’ve taken four Pope & Young bucks on the 50-acre Kentucky family farm I’ve hunted most of my life. Similarly, a 180-inch buck frequented a 40-acre Ohio lease I used to hunt, though he never came within bow range the two times I saw him.
Meanwhile, I’ve taken 120-, 140- and 142-inch bucks on my current Ohio lease, which only has about 30 to 40 huntable acres. I also filmed my uncle harvesting a big non-typical buck on a 10-acre property that I set up specifically for the encounter we had.
Long story short, you can absolutely kill big deer on small plots. Here’s how.
A BLANK CANVAS
The best 50-acre property is one you plan and set up yourself. Rarely, if ever, is a property turnkey and ready to hunt. It takes planning and work to polish a small hunting property into a shiny diamond, so start with a blank canvas—not one someone else has already messed up.
First and foremost, the property should be in a good area, which can mean many things. Neighboring hunters should be on the same management wavelength as you. Even better is a parcel with no neighboring pressure, such as a property bordering un-hunted refuges or long-term landowners who don’t allow hunting. Whoever owns the adjoining properties, establish a good relationship with them, as wounded deer on small tracts commonly cross property lines.
You want to be in a good area because deer won’t spend all their time on your 50 acres. A buck’s average home range is 600 to 700 acres, with the average core area being about 50 to 100. So, try and find a property with good neighbors and the right habitat as a starting point.
Also, look for land with as many of the following features as possible: good, mature, mast-producing timber, solid early successional habitat, aged clear-cuts, cedar stands, CRP and CREP, ditches and drainages, edge habitat, isolated cover, large brush piles, leeward ridges, low hubs, marsh islands, oxbows, ridge points, suburban pockets, swamp interiors and timbered draws.
1. MAP IT OUT
Many factors go into designing a small property for deer hunting. Plot out all work before making any changes. A big-buck hunting property revolves around security cover, and there are two schools of thought here.
The first philosophy involves situating all bedding at the property’s center and away from boundaries. Then, food sources, food plots and water holes create an outer ring around the bedding. This is the optimal course if hunting occurs on neighboring tracts (or might in the future). The downside is you’ll harbor fewer deer on the property, as deer—mature bucks in particular—require a degree of isolation in bedding areas. If you’re the sole hunter and plan to fill one or two tags, holding fewer bucks might not matter as much.
Option two is creating multiple bedding areas throughout the property, then pairing each designated bedding area with dedicated food and water sources. This increases the number of deer that spend time on the property, especially bucks. If multiple hunters will hunt that land, it increases the likelihood of having several target bucks. However, this places deer closer to neighboring property lines, making them more vulnerable to other hunters.
Bottom line: Go with the situation that best fits your scenario. With either plan, don’t waste any space. Use every acre for something.
After choosing plan A or B, plot out bedding areas, food sources, water sources, travel routes and, most importantly, access routes to stand locations. Chart these in a manner that prevents deer from seeing, hearing or smelling you throughout the approach and departure.
2. CREATE BEDDING COVER
There are numerous ways to create daytime sanctuaries deer use during legal hunting hours. This approach will vary based on terrain, topography and other geographic properties. However, the best way is to create bedding in stages and of various types. Offering a variety increases the property’s attractiveness. Include a mix of early-successional bedding cover; hinge-cut timber (in moderation), which offers immediate horizontal cover and opens the canopy for additional undergrowth; and native grasses.
Also, consider seasonal bedding factors, such as cool settings for spring and summer. Plus, think of solar bedding (southern-facing slopes, which can’t be created, only found) and thermal cover (stands of conifers, including white cedars, spruces and pines), which is essential in colder climates.
3. CARVE OUT PLOTS
Once bedding areas are mapped and created, plant associated food sources. Again, variety is key. Promote and plant native browse species, which comprise at least 60 percent of any herd’s diet. Support existing hard mast trees and plant additional ones, including red oaks, white oaks and chestnut trees. Plant soft mast trees—apple, pear, persimmon, etc. And plant more and smaller food plots, rather than fewer and larger ones. This increases the number of bucks that use the property. Optimize each plot not only for feeding deer but also harvesting them.
When creating these food sources, anticipate what time of year bucks will use certain bedding areas. Then, pair those areas with food sources that fit that time of year. Offer a balance of off-season, early-season, pre-rut, rut and late-season food sources. Mineral, where legal, is a bonus.
4. ESTABLISH WATER SOURCES
Establish small to moderate water sources on the fringes of bedding areas and food plots. This provides a crucial need, keeps deer on the property and encourages a line of movement that gets deer up and traveling toward your stand locations. If using large equipment to dig ponds isn’t possible, bury large, heavy-duty watering tubs in the ground instead.
5. CONSTRUCT A NETWORK
When planning and creating your perfect property, view everything as a network. Everything must flow. Deer should rise from the bedding area and naturally progress through transition zones, staging areas, water sources and food sources. Create purposeful trails for deer to follow from A to B to C and so on. Arrange these so deer are less likely to pass onto neighboring properties until after dark.
Also, position treestand and blind entry and exit routes so deer are less likely to cross them. Deer shouldn’t be able to see, hear or smell approaching or departing hunters. The best entry and exit routes minimize scent (ditches, drainages, shallow streams, etc.) and offer cover (Egyptian wheat, giant miscanthus, steep banks, rolling topography, etc.).
6. DEPLOY THE ARSENAL
After completion, deploy your gear. Place hang-on treestands in designated bow spots. Position ladder stands with gun rails in gun spots. Set enclosed, hard-sided blinds in areas where you want their cover and/or where the wind swirls.
Consider trail cameras as well. You don’t want to constantly check cameras on small properties. Instead, where permitted, post cellular cameras paired with solar panels or external battery packs. Oftentimes, certain cameras can last entire seasons with external power.
7. BE REALISTIC
Whatever design you use, realize it’s still just 50 acres. A mature buck won’t live there all the time. More likely, the property will peak during one or multiple phases—early season, pre-rut, rut, late-season, post-season and pre-season. Bedding cover and food-source types affect this most. And, once you have the perfect 50-acre property, don’t hunt bad winds or sit too often. When possible, hunt the property’s fringes.
- Note: This article on deer hunting was published in the West edition of the June-July 2023 issue of Game & Fish Magazine. How to subscribe.