The HOT-POINT Approach for Creative Habitat

By Scott Bestul

My friend Ted Marum had nine whitetail bucks travel past his tree stand one November morning this past fall. And those weren’t mere sightings; every deer passed within an easy bow shot of his platform. Though three of those bucks were 3 ½ years old, my selective buddy passed on them, hoping they’d gain another year of maturity.

Then the tenth buck arrived. This deer — a heavy-beamed giant Ted would be happy to tag — was about to make his final steps when a distant doe caught his attention. We can all write the rest of the script. One more impending slam-dunk buck encounter thwarted by a slickhead. Don’t like shooting does for management reasons? Adopt a different philosophy — revenge. It’s much more gratifying.

Back to Ted. His multiple-buck morning fascinated me on several levels. First, we all dream of those days when the timber erupts with buck activity. But this was no right-spot-right-time-lucked-into-a-hot-doe morning. Though no one can make deer appear, it’s possible to dictate significant portions of their movement after they’re on their feet. Ted had made that happen, and his technique was simple: He used a chainsaw.

The previous winter, Ted had clear-cut a sizeable chunk of timber in this area. But before he fired up the implement, he studied the ground carefully. Terrain features created a handful of nice funnels, but my friend was determined to steer deer toward a site where the wind and other factors was in his favor. After he’d picked the spot, he completed the clear-cut so all the trees fell in one direction. The tangle of close-lying tops was a nightmare for deer — even cantankerous bucks — to travel across, forcing them to swing around the cut for easy travel and a walk within bow range of my friend’s ambush site. As the 10-buck morning proved, the creative logging worked like magic.

Managing a whitetail property is a dynamic project. We can never rest on a spade handle or sit on a seed drill and say, “Well, my work here is done.” In addition to the preparation, planting and maintenance of food plots, habitat projects should be part of any landowner/manager’s annual plan. I like to call these projects “hot-point” work, because they frequently generate heat from the worker(s) or tools used. Hot point also refers to a small, specific area that can benefit from some rehabilitation or improvement and make life easier for whitetails. And finally, hot point can also refer to a hunting opportunity that occurs because of such a project. Let’s look at a few examples.

Chainsaw Capers

Aldo Leopold said the most important tools for managing deer were the ax and the rifle. Well, if the chainsaw had been around in Leopold’s day, there’s little doubt the father of modern game management would have updated his tool list. Creating the dense regrowth whitetails adore for feeding and security cover is made easy by the chainsaw, and any whitetail enthusiast without one lacks an important tool.

Clear-cutting some tree species is the best way to increase browse abundance and regrowth. Just this past weekend, a friend invited me to walk a piece of property he’d purchased. Because the parcel is relatively small (80 acres), Dave wanted to do all he could to attract deer. We weren’t long into our walk when I found the perfect place for his goals; a rolling ridge covered with mature aspen (popple) trees. Clear-cutting is the preferred method for harvesting aspen and is also the best way to encourage regrowth of this fast-growing species, which is a top browse source for Northern whitetails. Naturally, deer also love the dense security cover provided by young saplings.

Aspen is one of several species that offer a triple-bang: timber value, deer food and cover. There are many others that provide a double-bonus — deer food and dense cover — when they are clear-cut. In my region, low-value tree species such as elm or box elder can be clear-cut or hinge-cut (sawn part-way through, and then tipped over) in strategic areas. The resulting opening of the tree canopy is a boon for sun-loving young growth of many species, which sprout almost immediately and provide browse and cover for deer. Though clear-cutting can be done at any time of year, late winter and early spring are often best, as fill-in species will have a full growth season and be of maximum benefit to deer.

The chainsaw is a hunter’s best friend in yet another project: creating funnels and steering deer. Some of the most savvy food-plot experts I know use a saw to fell trees around their plots, creating blocks that prevent whitetails from circling downwind of their stand sites or forcing deer to enter a food plot at Trail X instead of Trail Y. And of course, a power saw can be used to make the food plot itself, especially the small, secluded plots that can be created simply by clearing a small opening in the timber and planting a variety such as Whitetail Institute’s Secret Spot.

Friendly Fire

Perhaps nothing better defines hot-point work than the use of fire. And although burning is a commonly accepted technique for upland-bird managers, deer hunters have been slower to see the benefits of this age-old practice. For example, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources undertook a project to restore an endangered habitat in my native bluff country. Steep hillsides commonly sported grassy/brushy openings on their southern and southeastern faces. These “goat prairies” were important habitat for various species, and were maintained by wildfire or early settlers, who would burn such hillsides for livestock grazing. But during the past several decades, invasive, fast-growing eastern red cedar trees had all but eliminated those historic openings.

When the DNR announced a project that entailed clear-cutting large areas of cedars, and then conducting burns that would restore native prairie grasses, many folks — especially deer hunters — were skeptical. Didn’t deer adore those cedar-choked hillsides in winter, when the trees offered thermal cover and respite from wind? And what about shotgun season, when bucks loved cedar thickets for escape cover during the high-pressure atmosphere? I shared their skepticism at first but vowed to keep an open mind, especially because some of this clearing and burning would be done at my father’s property and an adjacent city park.

In the three years since, reducing the cedar stands and burning to encourage and maintain prairie grasses has been a boon for area whitetails. In fact, if anything, the slopes have become more important to deer, mainly because they offer more food. Red cedar, I’ve learned, is a water-greedy tree that robs a huge percentage of moisture from other plants. Also, it out competes important grasses, forbs and brush. Knocking back the cedar has allowed these native plants and browse species to flourish and given deer a year-round food source. And cover? Even the biggest buck can lay down in a stand of big bluestem and disappear. These days, when I see a crew preparing to burn a hillside, I cheer them on.

Of course, burning has many applications for a deer manager. There is no better method for maintaining prairie or CRP plantings to encourage wildlife-friendly species such as big bluestem, switchgrass and others. As a native of the upper Midwest, I once gave little thought to the importance of grassy openings for deer, as such areas only concerned me when I was pheasant hunting. But after years of hunting Iowa, Kansas and, more recently, Nebraska, I’ve come to appreciate how much deer use these areas while bedding and feeding. Fortunately, I’m not the only woods-lover who’s expanded his definition of deer habitat. In fact, I recently visited a property owned by another Minnesota deer hunting buddy, who spent as much time pointing out the health of his prairie grasses as he did the acres of timber on his land.

Naturally, conducting a burn — whether to regenerate grass or browse or create an opening — is not for the untrained. Properly starting, monitoring and extinguishing a burn is best left to professionals who have the right equipment and understand the best conditions for the practice. For best results, contact an area wildlife biologist with experience, and make it a point to help them the day of the burn so you can gain some knowledge before attempting this on your own.

If you doubt the importance of that step, consider the story of a Wisconsin manager with years of burns under his belt. A few years ago, he and his crew started a burn at a property. At first, it was going well and showed all signs of being under control and actually moving much more slowly than they preferred. The slow-moving fire lulled them into complacency, and they left the scene briefly. When they returned, the smoldering fire had taken on new life and jumped a property line. By the time they’d extinguished the blaze, it had damaged close to 80 acres of high-dollar oak timber on the neighbor’s land. The take-home message was to seek professional help and stay on top of things.

Final Thoughts

To this point, I’ve used the term hot point in reference to projects that involve heat-generating tools. But I’d suggest that definition be expanded to include any aspect of a whitetail property that falls short of expectations. Remember, every tract of real estate is in a state of constant change, and it’s a rare year when no projects beg for attention. Therefore, adopting a hot-point mentality keeps us looking for elements of deer food and habitat that need to be fixed.

At the end of each hunting season — or better, during the hunt itself — start looking at your property with an analytical mind that seeks to fill habitat holes. Has a clover plot run its course? It’s time to start anew. Do deer need to leave the property to find water? Dig a pond. Have the trees on a favorite ridge matured enough to benefit from some logging. Hire a forester to analyze the situation. Have your old bedding areas seen less and less use by bucks? Time to recharge the cover and suck ’em back in there.

Most experts agree that 3-10 percent of a property should be devoted to food plots. That means at least 90 percent of that ground is there, waiting for upgrade (or maintenance) into whitetail heaven. Sound overwhelming? It should be anything but, provided you have a hot-point mentality, develop a long-term plan and are willing to work with tools that generate some heat.