Managing Small Acreages for a Whitetail Paradise

By Gerald Almy

Many people believe deer management and habitat improvement are projects best left to the State’s wildlife management division and large landowners with thousands of acres and expensive farming equipment. But dramatic improvements in the deer herd, the habitat and the quality of hunting can be made even on small parcels of land by individuals or small groups of sportsmen working together. Improvement of the land and the herd takes place one acre at a time and one deer at a time, no matter the size of the property or how many whitetails it holds.

 After more than 35 years of visiting deer hunting properties throughout the country, I’ve seen the benefits proper management and habitat work can bring even on small parcels of land. And for the past two decades, I’ve put many these principles to work on the 117 acres my wife and I purchased and live on in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Along the way, I’ve developed a set of guidelines for improving what I call the three H’s — the herd, habitat and hunting. Sound boring? Believe me, it’s not. One of the things I’ve found through the years is that managing the deer and the land and working on the habitat are immensely rewarding activities. In fact, lately I enjoy them as much, if not more, than hunting for the quality bucks and does that are the fruits of this labor.

Don’t own land? Don’t worry. Perhaps your hunting club leases a tract you could work on, or maybe a friend or relative has a farm or piece of property where you can put this program in place. Most landowners are more than willing to have improvements made on the property to help wildlife. And make no mistake about it, although you might be managing for deer and trying to improve the herd, other species such as quail, rabbits, turkeys, ducks and songbirds will also benefit.

It’s important to realize that managing small acreages for better deer hunting doesn’t just involve work on the habitat and the land. It’s a two-part equation and the other half involves managing people and where, when and how the hunting is done.

It’s challenging, for sure. But the rewards of putting this program in place are many, and they don’t just come during hunting season. Watching the land evolve into a model of habitat improvement, the deer herd become healthier and the bucks get older and bigger is a payback you reap anytime you visit the property — or every day if you’re lucky enough to live there.

Results you can expect in the whitetails include an increase in the body size of all the deer, larger antlers on bucks, an older and more natural age structure, a better sex balance in the herd, a more intense rut and healthier fawns. Hunting will be more exciting because more large bucks will be chasing fewer does during the breeding period, and more of that activity will take place in daylight.

As you start your improvements, keep in mind that managing deer on small acreages is a continually evolving process, one that never really ends. New challenges will always arise, and they come in many forms. You will become a farmer, logger, laborer, dam builder, wildlife manager, recreation planner, game warden and yes, a hunter. What you won’t become is bored. Here are some of the steps I’ve found that are vital for successful deer management on small acreages. About half are directed at people and their actions, and the other half working the land to better the habitat. One cannot succeed without the other.

Pass Up Young Bucks

 A one-year-old buck might have spikes or it might have four to eight light, spindly points. In any case, it should be passed up to reach more of its genetic potential. Some bucks are late bloomers, starting out with tiny racks and growing into magnificent animals later. Others start out on a higher level and improve more slowly. A one-year-old buck generally has a rack 1/10 the size it’s capable of growing as a mature animal. Such deer are easy to harvest, but unless they are passed up, a management plan cannot succeed.

Two-year-olds are slightly more developed than yearlings, but these bucks, too, should be allowed to grow another year. At three years, a buck’s rack will generally reach more than half of its full potential, and in some areas you might choose to harvest such deer. A lot depends on the hunting pressure surrounding the land you’re managing and the attitudes of neighboring property owners. In an ideal situation, pass these animals up, too, because bucks need five or more years to grow their best racks.

Harvest Enough Does

A tract of land can only hold so many deer. That could be nine does and one buck, or something closer to a 50-50 ratio; perhaps three or four bucks to every six or seven does. The greater the percentage of bucks in the herd, the more likely some will survive to older age classes.

A lower percentage of does means more competition among bucks for breeding rights and a more intense and exciting rut. Another reason to harvest does is that it keeps young bucks on your property. Studies show that does chase their yearling male offspring away when they give birth to new fawns, and those outcasts often travel long distances before setting up a new home range — probably off of your small hunting property. Harvest the doe, and the yearling buck will be more likely to stay put.

Establish No-Hunting Zones

You need at least one major sanctuary area near the interior of the property that’s offlimits to hunting. A location with thick cover or rough terrain where bucks feel secure is best. Try to make it off-limits to virtually all activity, even hiking.

On my sanctuary area, I go in only one time a year. That’s in spring, when antlers have dropped, to look for sheds. If you break down and hunt an off-limits area when deer get hard to find late in the season, you’ve defeated its purpose.

Sanctuaries are especially important on properties of 50 to 200 acres. Bucks certainly will wander off parcels of this size at times, but if you have an area where they have cover and feel secure during daylight, they’ll tend to return there. Deer from surrounding properties might also pile in when pressure builds.

Limit the Amount and Type of Hunting

Even if it’s just a matter of hiking a few hundred yards in to a tree stand and watching for a morning, deer — particularly older bucks — can sense this pressure. If you get four or five people doing this, with a few others choosing to still hunt or rattle occasionally and this activity goes on every day, you’ll wind up with one of two outcomes. Bucks two years old or older will most likely become nocturnal, or they’ll move off the property to find less-pressured ground. Restrict the number of people on the property, schedule rest days when no one hunts — do whatever it takes to limit the pressure so that mature bucks don’t flee or become night roamers.

Restrict the Type of Hunting

Stand hunting is best, with a limited amount of still hunting acceptable. Avoid deer drives. Yes, they are fun and productive. But if you want to create a whitetail paradise on a small parcel of land, they’re inappropriate. Save them for public land or large tracts of private land.

Cooperate with Surrounding Landowners

This might be a challenge, but you have to try it. Use a low-key approach, asking questions such as whether they’re seeing as many or as good a quality of bucks as they’d like. Tell them some of the things you’ve been trying to do and some of the goals you have. Teach by example, offer to help, and just maybe they’ll see the wisdom of harvesting does, passing up young bucks and improving the habitat.

Plant Food Plots

A one-acre food plot can provide more forage than 100 acres of mature woods. Not only that, but it can be high-protein food rich with the calcium, phosphorous and other minerals deer need to thrive. Food plots can take the pressure off native vegetation so it is less likely to be over-browsed. Food plots also attract deer into the open where you can evaluate antlers, judge the age of bucks and monitor the buck-to-doe ratio.

The more plots you can plant and maintain, annual and perennial, the better. Three percent to 10 percent of the land devoted to plots is not too much. Good crops to consider include clover, chicory, brassicas, lablab, forage soybeans and oats. You can use generics, but a much better bet is to buy carefully developed mixtures from the Whitetail Institute of North America. The company carefully researches which seeds do best in each region of the country and mixes them in just the right proportions so the plants complement each other and are available at different time frames so deer always have something that attracts them to your land. Whitetail Institute also has specially engineered plants that were developed not for cattle but specifically to appeal to the taste preferences and nutritional needs of whitetail deer.

Don’t overextend yourself, though. Plots require time and care for site preparation, soil testing, fertilizing, planting and weed control. Better to have five acres in high-quality plots than 10 acres poorly prepared and crowded with weeds. Be sure to plant two kinds of food plots, though. Plant some larger parcels that are designed exclusively to improve the nutrition of deer. Never hunt over those. Instead, plant a few smaller, irregular-shaped plots tucked away along the deer’s travel routes and close to bedding cover that you can hunt over lightly, skipping days in between sessions. If you hunt over the main larger food plots, mature bucks may stay away from them entirely or use them only at night. You can hunt trails leading to them, but don’t hunt over the plot itself.

Create Cover

Your food plot might attract a buck. Without cover he will not stay. All wildlife needs food, water and cover. Deer need cover for two reasons: thermal protection in winter and security needs year-round. You can create it two ways: by planting appropriate vegetation or by manipulating existing vegetation.

Planting evergreens such as pines is a good place to start. Place them in clusters in areas where deer might naturally bed if cover was present. They’ll not only offer visual security but also thermal protection. Low, bush-type plants are also valuable not only for cover, but also food in their leaves, stems and fruits. Plant bushes as hedges along a stream or at the edge of woods where they border a field. Planting warm-season grasses such as switchgrass, Indian and big bluestem is another option. These grow 5 to 7 feet tall and provide great sanctuary areas for bucks.

Open forests can be devoid of cover, but by taking a chainsaw to them, you can create cover quickly. Cut old, poor value, misshapen or pest-infested trees. Leave some of them, or at least the tops, on the ground. Clearcut a few small, irregular-shaped areas and the brush and low saplings that grow back will make wonderful, almost jungle-like cover in a few years.  

Construct a Pond

A deer needs an average of 1½ quarts of water a day. Some of this they get from vegetation, but during dry periods, having water available might mean the difference between bucks staying on your property or going to the neighbor’s.

Study the topography and you’ll see low spots that drain surrounding hillsides or hollows that would make good pond sites. They don’t have to be large. A quarter-acre pond will serve the water needs of an entire herd using a small property. You can even make small dams by hand on wet-weather streams with rocks, shovels and logs that can help hold water during summer.

Take Advantage of Government Programs

Biologists, foresters and agricultural specialists that know far more than you and I about wildlife and timber management, crops, soil, dam construction and other habitat topics are at your fingertips. Consult the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the State forestry department, your local agricultural extension agent and the Wildlife Resources Commission. Some of the services I’ve taken advantage of are an on-site analysis and long-range forest plan, a walk-through and habitat-improvement plan by a senior wildlife biologist and the development of a cost-share Wildlife Habitat Improvement Plan that called for planting acres of native warm-season grasses and shrubs along a stream lacking cover.

Cost? Nothing. In fact, the WHIP plan helped pay some of the cost of purchasing the warm-season grasses and shrubs. And those stands of warm-season grasses, mostly switchgrass, have turned out to be some of the best mature buck cover on the property.

Collect Data and Keep Records

Through time, you will see dramatic improvements with the steps outlined here. They will come gradually, though, and the best way to monitor them and see where you could make further improvements is to keep thorough records. Keep track of how many deer are harvested and their age, weight and sex. Measure the racks for antler circumference above the burr and beam length, and also keep complete gross-score measurements. Make notes on the productivity of various food plots, when it’s best to plant them, how well deer use them, dates when rutting activity begins and ends, number of fawns with does and other important data. You can’t store all this in your head, but with thorough records, you can see ways to change your approach and improve as you work on the constantly evolving process of creating a whitetail paradise.

It’s a project that never ends, but if you have as much fun with it as I do, you’ll never want it to.

Keep Your Expectations in Check

It’s crucial not to have unrealistic goals as you work on improving the three H’s: habitat, herd and hunting. Don’t expect every deer you see scouting or working the land to stay on the property or every buck you pass up as a youngster to live to a ripe old age. But the more effort you put into the program, the greater the rewards will be. Just knowing there are 3- and 4-year old bucks out there and that does and fawns are healthier is reward in itself.