The Right 40

By Joe Blake

Many hunters wrongly believe they must own hundreds or thousands of acres of land to successfully manage whitetails, but in truth the right 40 acres or less might be better than the surrounding land combined.

It was Nov. 12, and it was cold; in fact, at 19 degrees it was the coldest morning I could remember while bow-hunting in Kansas during the past decade. Despite the time of year and perfect conditions, the local bucks were not cooperating. For nearly a week, I had been spending every hour of daylight in the woods to no avail, but I had an ace up my sleeve.

Situated along a heavily-wooded creek bottom is a 20-acre farmstead I’ve been fortunate to hunt for several years, and although it might not look it as you drive past, it is a big buck Mecca. The land features heavy oak woods along the creek to the east and an 8-acre stock dam on the northern side, plus a good patch of timber to the west. However, what surrounds the parcel is what makes it such a hotspot. Across the gravel road to the south is a huge, heavily-wooded ridge, and a half-mile north across an open pasture is a huge, impenetrable valley of timber. Both are whitetail havens that harbor good numbers of deer and impressive numbers of giant bucks. The 20-acre piece in the middle is the glue that bonds the area and its whitetails together.

At 7 a.m., I heard the door open and close at the rancher’s house up the hill and soon the thunderous rumble of his old Chevy pickup as he left home for the short drive to his feedlot for his morning cattle chores. The close proximity to the rancher’s house forces most hunters to ignore this spot, but the volume of deer sign that funnels along the creek below the home site belies the exceptional hunting there. With any west wind, it's as close to a sure thing as I’ve seen in the deer woods.

By 9 a.m., the sun was warming the countryside a bit, and I stood to stretch the knots from my legs and back. That’s when I heard it; the unmistakable sound of an amorous buck. Scanning up the creek, I immedi-ately saw a small, nervous-looking doe drop down into the dense thicket to the north.

Behind her, shadowing her movements, was the buck of a lifetime. Although only a mainframe 4-by-4, this whitetail looked like a big muley, with deep forks on his G-2s and incredibly tall tines. With eye-popping mass and an inside spread approaching 20 inches, I figured the deer would gross in the 170s, but luring him away from that sweet doe would be a problem.

At one point, the doe stood almost directly beneath my boots, and I eased my longbow into position for a shot. But as quickly as she arrived, she swapped ends and rocketed back down into the thick cover along the oxbow, where the creek made a sweeping bend; and the buck cut her off again without presenting a shot. Finally, the doe had enough of this courtship and quietly slipped into the cold waters of the creek and swam across. From my elevated perch, I clearly saw her escape, but from ground level, in thick cover, the buck never knew his sweetheart had abandoned him. Now was my chance. I watched the buck bird-dog back and forth along the creek. I could almost see his frustration at the loss of his girlfriend, so I quietly eased my deer call out of my pocket and let loose one, long, plaintive bawl. That’s all it took. The buck snapped his head around like he was stung by a hornet and immediately began trotting toward me, and as I tracked his progress over the hand cradling my longbow, it appeared this monster would soon be mine.


Nowadays, deer hunting and deer management cannot be separated because they go hand-in-hand for hunters across the country. Unfortunately, land values have skyrocketed, leaving most would-be landowners frustrated to say the least. In Minnesota, where I live, you could have your pick of the finest hunting land for $300 to $400 per acre as recently as a dozen years ago, but now it’s often 10 times that price — sometimes more. What these escalating land values have done is effectively priced most of us out of the market — or has it? Obviously, it would be nice to own several hundred acres of prime whitetail habitat to hunt and manage as you saw fit. That way, you could build and control your own private deer herd by restricting access and harvest. But as mentioned, this is seldom possible anymore. Does this mean you must relegate yourself to hunting overcrowded public land? No. What many hunters fail to realize is they can purchase smaller, more affordable tracts of land and manage them effectively. You don’t need hundreds of acres to successfully manage game. In fact, the right 40 acres or even less might be better than the surrounding property combined.

First, you must acknowledge that on a small tract, you will not be able to hold deer all the time. Whitetails can travel considerable distances, especially during the rut, so you can’t expect them to stay on your smaller acreage all year. However, there are lots of improvements you can make to your land, no matter its size, that will make the property more attractive to deer and other game. Regardless of the property's size, deer need three basic things to survive: food, water and cover. Give them those necessities, and you will improve your land and your hunting.

The 20-acre property mentioned at the beginning of this article is a perfect example. The heavy oak woods along the creek and along the western end of this small piece offer thick security cover and acorns in the fall. Along with the mast crop, there are several apple trees and an 8-acre stock dam that holds water even in the driest years. So although the piece is very small, it's attractive to whitetails and offers excellent hunting.

This Kansas acreage reminds me of a small Minnesota hotspot I used to hunt quite a bit. It consisted of a good-sized cattail slough that provided deer with plenty of water and cover, and a small oak woodlot that offered cover and mast crops along with a couple of heavily-laden apple trees. Although the ground wasn’t larger than 40 acres, I always saw good numbers of deer there, and few other hunters even slowed down as they drove past en route to bigger  and “better”  areas. Several years ago on a cold, blustery late-October day, I arrowed a brute whitetail that fielddressed at more than 230 pounds and carried a massive 8-point rack, proving again that small acreages don’t necessarily mean small deer.


So let’s say you found a small piece of ground that you want to manage. How should you start? Well, first, I like to start with a definite plan. My wife, Kim, and I recently purchased a relatively small hunting tract in Minnesota, and I started planning its improvements
before we closed on the property.

The tract has three year-round ponds, but also has three smaller low spots that have filled in during the year. I'm bringing in a backhoe to dig them out. Our property will have plenty of water for the deer and other wildlife.

Second, the ground consists of about 75 percent heavy woods, which is predominantly oak, poplar and birch, with a couple of large apple trees. Immediately after purchasing the land, we began planting pine and spruce trees for wind protection and thermal cover, and we’ve planted nearly another dozen apple trees to provide fruit for critters.

Further, we have established four mineral sites in areas of the heaviest cover, where the deer spend most of their time. We keep them filled with Imperial 30-06, 30-06 Plus Protein and Imperial Cutting Edge to make sure deer and other game get the nutrition they need, even when extreme conditions hamper natural food supplies. Finally, on the 25 percent of the land that's open, we plan to establish food plots: Imperial Whitetail Clover on the lower, heavier ground, and Imperial Alfa-Rack Plus and Imperial Extreme where the ground is higher and well drained. Even though we won’t have enough ground to keep the deer and turkeys there all day, year-round, our property will be so attractive that game will spend a considerable amount of time there, and whitetails from surrounding properties will visit regularly. Obviously, it's not only possible to manage smaller tracts for quality hunting, it would be foolish not to.


As the big Kansas deer closed to within 20 yards, he reached the trail that led past my perch in the ancient oak, and I tightened my grip on my longbow’s riser. A few more steps, and he would be broadside and ready to grace my wall and freezer. He paused momentarily to scan the creek bottom before continuing on his way, but instead of turning on the trail, he inexplicably cut across the hillside through the tangle of briars and wild raspberry bushes. Try as I might, I could find no opening to release my arrow.

As the brute reappeared 40 yards uphill, it was hard not to be frustrated by the unfortunate turn of bad luck. However, I knew I would get another opportunity because I was hunting the right 40.