Management from a Bird’s Eye — Take a Big-Picture View of How Whitetails Use the Landscape

By Scott Bestul

I’m just dull enough that I don’t experience many “ah ha!” moments, so when they happen, I tend to remember them. One of the best (related to deer hunting, at least) occurred a few years ago, when I was scouting Wisconsin’s big woods with my buddy, Tom VanDoorn. A logger and expert deer hunter, Tom has dragged me through some rugged and remote country that he knows like some Hollywood stars know rehab centers.
We were on such a scouting mission and had just found a dandy buck rub on a hemlock tree as thick as my thigh. As deer nuts will, we were using that clue to formulate a strategy for killing the buck. I was looking at the cover adjacent to the swamp edge where we’d found the rub. But Tom — infinitely smarter and more intuitive than me — seemed to be thinking deeper thoughts when I looked at him.

“What’s on your mind?” I asked, after noticing his deeply furrowed brow. Tom laughed. “Well, actually, I’m kind of projecting,” he said. “Like in a film?” “Um, well, no. Like in remembering what’s around here for surrounding cover and how that relates to this rub. There’s a green cedar swamp about a mile from here. And an oak ridge off to the west a half mile, that’s a huge food source in a good acorn year. Then, about another mile to the south, there’s a clearcut that’s just about three years old. The buck that made this rub probably uses all those spots. And I’m just thinking about when he uses them and how this rub fits into the whole picture.” Have you been around people who are just, well, a lot smarter and more intuitive than you? People who are great teachers and they don’t even know it? Well Tom is such a guy, and he taught me a lot about whitetails that day — and he wasn’t even trying. What Tom got me thinking about was something I’ve kept in my head since: taking a big-picture view of how whitetails use the landscape. At the time, I limited that experience to hunting those vast woods of northern Wisconsin. Later, I realized the concept also applied to habitat and whitetail management back home in my decidedly more civilized farm country.

Avoiding Tunnel Vision

Obviously, the goal of most land managers is to make our property more attractive to whitetails. An admirably simple goal, of course, but our struggle is more complex. What do area whitetails need that our property can offer? And unless we own a seriously large chunk of real estate, it can be more difficult to make our property attractive to deer in all the ways we’d like. The land might not have the capability in size, cover or topography. For example, in my area of Minnesota, winter whitetails love to bed on south-facing slopes. Not only do these hillsides provide warmer ambient temperatures and lower snow depths, they usually have the browse, grass and forb species that feed winter deer when other food sources vanish. So if I own a chunk of real estate that doesn’t have south-facing slopes, I’m far better off focusing less on winter bedding cover and focusing more on improving some other food or habitat need. Conversely, although my property doesn’t have the topography for prime winter bedding cover, it will certainly have other features I can enhance: a superior oak ridge that will feed deer if managed properly, prime openings that can be converted into food plots or tree species that can be clear-cut to maintain the young growth whitetails adore for other bedding or feeding needs. How does taking a big-picture view play into these management decisions? In my view, it’s a matter of looking at surrounding properties — what I like to call “the neighborhood” — to get an idea of how whitetails use the entire landscape (including your acreage) for food, bedding and travel. The better I understand how deer use the real estate surrounding my property, the more effectively I can enhance the ground I hunt and manage. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for getting a better look at the big picture.

Expand Your Scope Google it: If you’re a pilot and have access to a small-engine plane, you already have the greatest big-picture scouting tool going. But if you’re grounded like me, you still have access to one of the coolest aerial scouting tools: Google Earth. And you can get it for free on your computer or smart phone. If you haven’t used this wonderful tool, consider this a gentle slap on the wrist. GE lets you zoom in on a specific area and then view satellite photos in sometimes-shocking detail. Depending on where you live (more civilized/populated areas seem to have the best photos), you can zoom in close enough to see details as small as a kiddie pool in a backyard. It would be nice to check out rubs and scrapes, but that technology is not yet available to ordinary citizens. I’ve used GE to scout and pre-select stand sites in terrain funnels and help buddies decide where to put food plots — all on properties on which I’ve never set foot. This is a favorite tactic of my hunting buddy Dave, who lives in upstate New York. Dave has called me several times to tell me about properties he recently accessed. We’ll hop on our computers and call up Google Earth, and Dave will get me locked in on the property. Then we’ll comb over the satellite photos together and scout the ground virtually. The beauty of GE for land managers is it lets us “walk” not only our land but our neighbor’s. The beauty of the latter is — assuming we haven’t been on the ground — it lets us see exactly where the cover and food on those properties are and, consequently, how deer using our property also use the neighbor’s. This can be critical information that helps us decide if we can offer something on our property that deer can’t get on the neighbor’s. I’ve used GE to determine where cover and potential food sources are on neighboring grounds and used that information to make management decisions on real estate I can hunt.

Ground-pound it: Scouting from the air is undoubtedly helpful, but nothing beats putting boots on the ground and walking it. If your neighbor is a deer hunter, there’s a chance he won’t want you on his property, and, of course, that’s OK, and you can’t walk it if he denies you permission. However, there’s a growing effort to create cooperatives, in which neighbors join forces to manage area deer in a joint effort. If you’re lucky enough to be a part of one, it’s a wonderful chance to take a broad-picture view of the neighborhood and then take the management of habitat and food to a higher (and usually more successful) level. I’ve also walked some properties that were off-limits to me during fall by gaining access during the off-season. I’m usually doing something in the woods every month of the year, whether it’s shed hunting, tapping maples during the syrup season or turkey hunting. I’ve gained permission for these activities many times through the years, and when I’m lucky enough to do so, I always keep an eye open for deer activity and food/habitat status. One easy example occurred during the past few maple syrup seasons. I tap trees on neighboring State land as well as a neighbor’s farm I can’t hunt. Walking these tracts made it clear that lots of the surrounding property contained little-to-no bedding cover. The next winter and spring, I worked with friends to hinge and clear-cut trees on land I could hunt. This created two marvelous bedding/sanctuary areas that were more attractive to area deer because such cover was lacking in the “neighborhood.”


It’s important to remember that getting an accurate view of the big picture in your neighborhood can take time. Scouting, finding sheds, studying trail-cam photos and previous knowledge you’ve gained by observing and shooting deer should be combined with your expanding knowledge of what’s happening in the area. Keeping a journal will help, and if you hunt with one or more partners, combine your observations and knowledge to create a clearer picture of your management plans. Keep that long-term mindset active as you create food plots and start habitat work. It’s often tempting to knock out a quickie food plot, but sometimes that spot where it takes a little more work and effort is a better location for you and the deer. Habitat work — especially timber management — is also critical. Don’t start up a chainsaw until you’ve carefully thought out your plan and, if possible, consulted with a knowledgeable professional. It takes minutes to cut down a tree but years for the regrowth, and there are few “little mistakes” with timber harvest. It’s been a few years since my buddy showed me a rub in a vast forest and then taught me to fit the obvious element into a picture that included habitat a mile or more away. But it’s a skill that’s paid huge dividends for me since, and I trust it will do the same for you.