Keep Whitetails Close By Providing Optimum Living Conditions

By Bob Humphrey

 Sitting in my tree stand, I was texting a friend from up North who had inquired how my deer season was going.

“Miserable. Six days, haven’t seen a set of horns yet,” I responded. I had barely hit send and slipped the phone back into my pocket when I heard a distant “brrrrrrrrrp-brrp-brrrp” and knew immediately what it was and what it meant. My gun came up to the shooting rail just as a flash of brown materialized into a doe that stopped in an opening in the evergreens. She looked back over her shoulder, flicked her tail and was gone. The next deer in the opening was a racked buck, which paused just long enough for me to settle the cross-hairs on his vitals and squeeze off a shot. The buck went exactly three feet — straight down. I pulled out my phone to continue the conversation with one word: “Done.”

Then I went back and looked at the time stamp to see how much time had elapsed between texts — a minute and 30 seconds. Think about all the deer you’ve killed. Now consider how much time elapsed from when you first saw them until you pulled the trigger. If you hunt in the woods, I’ll bet the average is probably less than two minutes. It might run a bit higher for food plot hunters, but not much. That shows how important every minute is and why a landowner and manager wants to maximize the number of minutes deer spend on their property, particularly on smaller parcels, and where your neighbors might not share your management philosophy. Fortunately, the solution to prevent your deer from becoming rolling stones is fairly simple and straightforward, and it starts with providing optimum living conditions.


Several studies show that home-range size is a direct result of habitat quality. Give deer what they seek to keep them happy. The basic elements of habitat are food, water and cover. The more diversity of each your property has and the closer in proximity they are to one another, the more time deer will spend there. Remember also that deer prefer edge habitat — the ecotone or transition area between various cover types. Again, the more habitat diversity and, therefore, edge on your land, the more time deer spend there.

Brown Sugar

One of the best ways to enhance habitat and keep deer on your property is by providing an attractive food source or several sources. Feeding only represents a small fraction of a deer’s daily activity, but outside of the rut, that’s when they’re most vulnerable. You do this by establishing food plots and mast orchards and enhancing natural food sources, especially woody browse. We need not go into detail, as plenty of other articles do that. Just remember that you want to provide quality year-round nutrition. First, this produces healthier deer. Second, it keeps them closer to home. Deer that wander off in search of food outside the hunting season will be more inclined to do so during the season, even if your land has ample food. If you build food plots, maintain a good ratio of cool- and warm-season plots and something that will persist through winter.

Gimme Shelter

Next comes cover. Deer spend most of their day lying down, so you want to make sure there’s adequate bedding cover on your property. What that actually means can vary considerably with local conditions. In the Southeast, it could be young, regenerating pine stands with a dense understory. In the Midwest, it might be CRP, and in the North, it could be adequate softwood stands. Figure out what type of habitat deer prefer to use as bedding cover on your land, and make sure there is plenty of it. Just because you can’t plant it or hunt it doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. More important than just any cover is security cover — places where deer feel completely safe. Various figures are thrown out as to how many acres or what percentage of your property should be maintained as sanctuary — places where humans rarely if ever go. The real answer is as much as possible. Equally important is the location of sanctuaries, particularly on smaller parcels. The optimal place for sanctuary cover is usually the interior of your property. That way deer dispersing out of it are still on your property rather than wandering onto the neighbor’s. However, what occurs on neighboring parcels might influence that. If your neighbor to the east is an avid hunter but your western neighbor doesn’t allow hunting, you might want to concentrate sanctuaries toward the western side of your land. This creates an even larger buffer between you and your hunting neighbor.

Before They Make Me Run

Obviously, you have to spend some time on the land managing habitat and, of course, hunting, but the less interaction you have with deer the better. First, keep non-hunting activities to a minimum. It’s best if you don’t ride ATVs, horses or mountain bikes on your land, nor shoot skeet or target practice. If you have no other land available and enjoy these things, do them as far away from sanctuaries and hunting areas as possible. Conduct these and other activities like scouting, setting stands, building food plots, checking trail cameras and trimming shooting lanes as far outside the hunting season as possible. Other activities, such as filling feeders, checking trail cameras or any work that requires multiple trips, is best done on a routine basis so deer become accustomed to your coming and going. Further, do as much as you can with an ATV or truck rather than on foot. Deer seem less disturbed by vehicles. During the season, you should still keep the disturbance to a minimum. Several studies of mature bucks fitted with GPS collars found, not surprisingly, that deer moved less during daylight and spent more time in thicker cover when exposed to hunting pressure. Researchers also found a correlation between the level and duration of hunting pressure, and recommended reducing hunting pressure as an effective way to “mitigate loss of harvest opportunities due to avoidance by whitetail deer of hunted areas.” I hunt a farm (about 640 acres) in southeastern Ohio every fall. Our group typically has five to seven bowhunters, and we hunt from fixed stands or blinds. There is an observable decline in deer movement during five or six days just from our daily coming from and going to stands. If you want consistent deer sightings and reasonable odds of taking a good buck, I recommend you restrict still-hunting and eliminate deer drives, as both alter deer behavior and put them more on alert. You should also keep the pressure down even when stand-hunting. Researchers from one study suggested that providing a break between hunting periods might result in increased deer observations. I seldom hunt the same stand consecutive days or more than two or three times a week. How you approach and exit stands is another important variable. Plan your approach carefully to minimize disturbance. That might mean taking a much longer route or avoiding certain stands altogether during certain conditions, particularly if the wind is wrong.

Following the River

Often the most overlooked leg of the habitat tripod is water. Several years ago, I did a geographic analysis of where the most deer and the biggest bucks were taken in my state. The variable that stood out most was proximity to water, usually a large river system. It makes sense because wet areas produce the densest (for shelter) and most nutritious (for food) cover. On a more local scale, that could be a stream, pond or simply wet bottomland. Outside of more arid regions, water is usually not in short supply, but even where it is plentiful, you can still enhance your land by making more available, particularly during dry periods. Digging small ponds or tanks is one way. Preserving riparian corridors is another. Wet soils typically aren’t conducive to timber production anyway, so you might just set those areas aside.

Midnight Rambler

Regardless of how attractive you make your property, bucks still have a proclivity to wander off, especially during the rut. Research has shown they make brief excursions outside of their core areas of roughly 24 to 48 hours. But you can influence this, too. Better habitat holds more does, which is what the bucks are leaving to find. The more does on your land, the less bucks have to travel to find them. Further, better habitat and more does might attract more bucks from surrounding areas. More research suggests that different bucks key on specific areas during the rut, presumably on concentrations of doe groups. Last, research also suggests that site fidelity increases as bucks get older. Yearling bucks have a natural tendency to wander and disperse, but after they’ve made it through a couple of hunting seasons, they’re far more likely to stick close to home, especially if not disturbed. Throughout the year, mature bucks use only 5 to 10 percent of their home range for core area activities. Even during the rut, they still use only about 30 percent of their home range. Let those young bucks go, and they will grow older and are more likely to stay on your land.


The only way you can be completely confident that deer will spend all their living minutes on your land is by putting up a high fence. Outside of that, there’s much you can do to increase the odds. You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might find you’ll get what you need.