Set Up Small Acreages for Better Harvest Opportunities

By Dean Weimer

Many modern deer hunters believe that managing a reasonable deer herd takes at least several hundred acres of prime land. And although it would be nice if we all owned and managed large chunks of whitetail real estate, that is far from reality for most of us. Moreover, I guess that leads to the next best thing: managing small acreages for better harvest opportunities. In a sense, I hit the lottery more than 14 years ago when I took a job at a local factory in my hometown.

It was not such a bad gig. I worked four 10- hour shifts, which let me have extra hunting days each fall. In the process, I became friends with a workmate who graduated with my brother, Dennis a few years before I did.

It did not take long to learn that John “Big John” Sliger was equally consumed with deer hunting. I can remember looking back and realizing we probably spent as much — probably more — time talking deer as we did actually working. Maybe that is why neither of us lasted long at that plant.

A friendship was forged, and it turned out that John was also a farmer on his family’s land outside of our hometown. Soon, John invited me to check out his land. What I saw was an awesome chunk of nearly 200 acres of Indiana farmland divided by a county road. At that time, just more than half of it was set aside in the Conservation Reserve Program. This spot was radically different from the strictly woodlot habitat in much of our area.

The gently rolling hills of tall weeds and wild grasses, intermixed with two woodlots, were ideal for whitetails. And it was aesthetically gorgeous, too. After the CRP plants turn dormant in fall, it is like taking a step away from the woodlot habitat of northern Indiana and entering land somewhere out West.

About 10 years ago, I began to hunt with John on his property a bit. I really had another great spot to hunt, but our friendship turned into a hunting partnership as well.
Big John takes a soil sample on
the clover plot several years
ago. Notice the coffee can we
used for that first sample...
we now know not to use a metal can.


 Within a few years, we began to talk about managing Big John’s farm. At the time, this meant that we actually wanted to try to produce some bigger bucks and a better quality experience. However, in the early days, our goals were hard to meet, and we really did not have a definitive plan on how to begin.

It is important for me to note here that the Indiana Department of Natural Resources had instituted the statewide one-buck rule, which took effect during 2002. This would affect our management plans.

In those early days, we got some fleeting glimpses of some dandy bucks, but harvesting those elusive titans was a different story. They were rare, and everyone knows how hard it can be to consistently harvest true mature bucks on a yearly basis anywhere, but especially so when they are scarce. We continued to pass on immature bucks, which is a good start in any management scheme.

We noticed that many of the older bucks we had on or near the property did not sport large racks. Part of it, we thought, was that we did not have the best antler genetics. Sure, there were some good ones being taken in the area, but for whatever reason, we did not have any of the real brutes on John’s place, at least on a consistent basis.

Being a student of 21st century deer management, I understood there is not a lot you can do to change antler genetics on a free-range herd, but there are a couple of things you can do to improve the deer using your land.


 The most important thing to do for whitetails anywhere is improve their overall annual nutritional intake. With John’s farming experience and equipment, and my desire to improve the nutrition, we began to formulate a plan.

In the fall about six years ago, we put our first Imperial Whitetail Clover plot on a small piece of ground. At that time, we were cutting our teeth on food plotting, and we did not go through all the necessary steps to make sure that the plot would shine, and unfortunately it did not fare too well.

We took our food plotting more seriously a year later. That next spring, we plowed a strategically placed chunk of ground, did the soil tests, limed the plot to get the pH right, added the needed fertilizer to the soil, sprayed it with glyphosate, cultipacked, broadcast Imperial Clover and culti-packed again.

After the seed germinated, that plot really took off. We were very pleased to see how the deer used it. Our main goal was to improve the overall nutrition for the deer on the farm — filling in any gaps in nutrition that might be found there in the warm season — but we also made sure it was in the right spot packed neatly between the two woodlots on the property.
The author with a great bowkill buck that had been passed on the year before.

Interestingly, we each harvested reasonable bucks on the property that fall. Although their racks were not of true record-book quality, the bucks were impressive. Both of them were the largest-bodied bucks either of us had taken.

John’s Pope and Young class 10-pointer field dressed a whopping 225 pounds and right before Thanksgiving I took a respectable 8- pointer that followed a hot doe into the Imperial Clover plot. It dressed at 206 pounds. We were impressed with the amount of body fat on John’s buck in particular.


 John has always had plenty of deer on his farm. The CRP holds many doe family groups because it is amazing habitat. I knew from my readings on whitetail biology that we were likely still suffering from an overabundance of deer. Northeastern Indiana has one of the highest deer densities in the state.

Indiana’s long firearms season — 32 days of total firearms and muzzleloader hunting — has traditionally put a tremendous amount of hunting pressure on our bucks, and when you couple that with an historic under-harvesting of does, it’s easy to see why the numbers have been so high in the area.

What compounded the problem is that our buck-to-doe ratio was so heavily skewed toward does that it created many issues, none of which are positive. Even in the agriculture-rich Midwest, you can experience social stress on your bucks if your numbers aren’t brought into a more natural balance. We have been fighting it ever since.

After our first food plot began to help with the nutrition on the farm, Big John and I decided it was time to start selectively harvesting as many mature, adult does as we legally could. Although that's much easier said than done, we satisfied our appetites for venison with the older gals and continued to let the little guys have their walking papers. Just years before the implementation of our management plans, the state had changed its doe tag system. Under the new system, each county was allocated a separate number of antlerless permits per hunter, and we could purchase them over the counter. This simple yet effective tool would fit very neatly into our plans.


 Many hunters are still under the impression that harvesting does isn’t a positive hunting option. For whatever reason, many hunters refuse to do it, and in many situations, they’re actually hurting their mature buck hunting chances because of it.

However, slowly but surely, more hunters are starting to come around to the concept of doe harvest, because many recent studies on the subject have been opening eyes. Even if you would happen to take too many does — which is all but impossible in my hunting area and many others — more will move in from surrounding properties. A bonus is that you can actually bring in some new genetics with them.

Also, you can produce more quality animals with a combination of the proper food sources and habitat management, in conjunction with the correct harvest strategies.


 Recent studies have shown that a buck’s home-core areas can be as small as 80 acres. And if you provide everything those deer need in that area, you can keep them there more of the time. In a sense, you can shrink an individual buck’s home-core areas by having everything — from a habitat standpoint — in your area. Food plots are a must in this situation, even if you have loads of agriculture in your neighborhood.

Habitat, by my generic definition, is everything that a deer needs to survive and thrive. This includes food sources, water sources and more traditional habitat features, such as timber, transitional areas, edge habitat, CRP fields and more. Give deer every reason to stay on your acreage and you can reap the benefits. Again, proper food plot or plots is vital to this strategy.

And, you can continue to improve and expand your habitat through various means. In fact, in spring of this year, Big John and I will be addressing some thermal cover needs on his farm by planting several hundred trees of a few select species as his CRP contract runs out.


 This past year, I wrote a piece for Whitetail News about how nutritional voids or holes can be filled with the right food plot plantings, even in the Midwest where many hunters think food plots aren’t needed.

Finally, this past fall, we put out Pure Attraction on a different part of the farm. The Pure Attraction is a mixture of a cool season oat variety and brassica. This plot is designed to address the cold season’s nutritional needs. It received immediate attention from deer. In fact, on Nov. 5, I had a shooter buck and a presumed hot doe come to that plot just after legal light ended. I would be back in that same stand the next morning. I called John to have his son Nathan pick me up with his farm truck so I would not spook the deer.
At first light on Nov. 6, I saw that buck with a group of antlerless deer head to neighboring woods. I changed position a bit later to get closer to the action. After a very eventful all-day sit, I ended up taking that 10-pointer later that evening.

At 5:33 p.m. he cautiously followed a hot doe to the Imperial Clover plot. My decoy brought the little doe to my position, and I arrowed her suitor soon after. He ended up dropping in the Imperial Clover plot about 50 yards away, ending one of the best days of deer hunting I have ever witnessed. However, the fun didn’t end there.

John caught the area’s dominant buck cruising, looking for some female companionship just more than a week later, with about 30 to 40 minutes of legal light remaining. One shot from John’s 12-gauge sent that buck to the dirt. This buck was a 195-pound dressed brute of an 8-pointer.

Both of those bucks were the largest-racked deer ever taken from the property. Our early management plan was beginning to take full form, and we were having a blast in the process. It is important to let you know that those bucks were spotted during the previous season on multiple occasions but they were off limits to us that year. Giving them one more year worked out magnificently.

We were confident those bucks would still be around, as John’s property comprised at least a portion of each buck’s home range. Having the food plots in strategic locations helps keep the doe groups in the area, which is critical during the rut. They have everything they need on his farm.

Now, an up-and-coming buck from the same gene pool will step up to claim that area, or a new buck from an outlying area will likely move in to fill the void left by the others. With luck, both scenarios might play out. Who knows, maybe two new mature bucks will take up residence in the area and provide us with another opportunity at a double.


 Don’t let the fact that you have a small property deter you from creating the overall habitat to improve your chances for success. And definitely don’t let anyone tell you your efforts will be fruitless. Even tiny landholdings can provide opportunities if you give deer all the reasons to stay there. At least you can create a small chunk of one buck’s core area, and it could likely lead to a harvest opportunity at some point during the season. With the right planning, you might even create an area that comprises or overlaps the core areas of many bucks.

Take these steps for big buck success. First, set up a harvest strategy depending on the demographic makeup of your herd. If necessary, harvest does to ensure that the deer numbers are acceptable. Also, increase the annual nutrition available to deer on your slice of heaven with Whitetail Institute’s proven products. In addition, be patient knowing that it will take time to get things set up the way you want them, and enjoy great hunting year after year. And, most important, have a blast in the process.