Small Property Success — Whitetail Ghost Town to Island Oasis for Deer

By Jordan Howell

Most of us don’t have the luxury of hunting huge tracts of private land managed for whitetail deer. Instead, we hunt small farms owned by family or friends, and our trips to the woods each fall are usually limited by work and family obligations.

It’s no wonder when it comes to seeing and shooting mature bucks, the average hunter’s season is nothing like what we see on TV or read about in magazines. Being consistently successful at harvesting mature bucks on limited acreage might seem like a pipe dream. However, I’m sure many of you know someone who hunts small properties but seems to kill big deer year after year. Is he just lucky? Maybe, but other factors likely contribute to his success. Small properties can produce some great hunting opportunities if they’re managed with the right approach. Consider the journey I’m taking with one of my properties. In Summer eight years ago, I acquired 63 acres in northern Indiana. It was a sand and gravel pit but had been vacant for more than 30 years. I jumped into it hastily because the price was right. Actually, I never walked it until after the paperwork was signed. Having a property I could manage for whitetail hunting was a dream come true. I have a passion for habitat development, so having a blank canvas to work with gave me that kid-in-a-candy-store feeling. I quickly discovered, however, that I had some challenges to overcome.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Looking at an aerial photograph of my property, it appears to be a deer hunter’s dream. It’s 100 percent wooded, surrounded by massive agricultural fields and intersected by long narrow strips of woods connecting the land to other blocks of timber. It looks like the hub of a wheel. The timber on the property is incredibly thick, and the terrain has many elevation changes. Sounds great, right? That’s what I thought. It didn’t take me long to determine I had a major problem, though: There weren’t any deer living there. I didn’t understand why, but my trail cameras and time on stand the first year didn’t lie. Deer only occasionally traveled through the property on their way somewhere else. A neighbor told me I was wasting my time because all the deer lived on his property, and unfortunately, he was right. I knew I had to make changes if I wanted to be successful. The second spring, I contacted a state wildlife biologist and asked her to come to the property. I explained that my goals were to provide optimal wildlife habitat with an emphasis on whitetail deer. She quickly pointed out some things I had not considered. First, she addressed the tremendous amount of cover, which I had thought was a good thing. The property was overrun with an invasive species called Asian bush honeysuckle. It’s not the honeysuckle that grows throughout most of the South and that deer love to eat. Asian bush honeysuckle was brought to America as an ornamental plant for the red berries it produces in fall. It grows in thick clusters, with the base growing into small trees fairly quickly. It grows faster than most indigenous plants, so it quickly shades out native browse. The biologist pointed that out by having me kneel and look through the woods. There was almost zero browse on the forest floor. Other than the mature timber that was there before the honeysuckle, there were few other plants. The thickness was also really a façade, as the honeysuckle only became thick at about head height, where the smaller branches were. At ground level, you could see at least 50 yards in any direction. The biologist pointed out that deer don’t like to bed in bush honeysuckle for that reason, as they don’t feel safe. Deer like to feel secure, surrounded by cover when they bed. So although the property was incredibly thick, that vegetation was useless as bedding cover for whitetails. The infestation was severe enough that almost all of the native browse was gone. I did not have the right type of cover for deer nor any forage, either. It was beginning to make sense. The biologist recommended that I aggressively remove the bush honeysuckle. That was a tall task considering the entire 63 acres was covered in it. She suggested that I draw a grid on an aerial map and focus on one section at a time to keep from being overwhelmed.


I wrote a plan for the property, listing the goals I wanted to accomplish, and then prioritized them to figure out the order in which to tackle them to maximize my success. I acknowledged that with my limited acreage, I would never be able to make a mature buck stay on my property 100 percent of the time. So, I decided to offer a buck everything he would want or need throughout his life on my property in hopes he would spend more time on my land and not the neighbors’. I knew I needed to create ideal bedding cover to coax a mature buck to make his core area at my property. I also tried to figure out what my land lacked and surrounding properties had to make a mature buck travel there. The answer was food and does. Most hunters have heard the basics of whitetail habitat management: Food, cover, water and pressure (or lack thereof). I wanted to provide all of those on my property. I decided to focus first on the factors over which I had the most control and then move on to others. In February, seven years ago, I put my plans in motion.

Baby Steps

Although not at the top of my list, the easiest piece to my puzzle was water. I knew the property had a natural water source, where two springs ran into an old gravel pit, creating a deep 3/4-acre pond. With a reliable year-round water source for deer, the next thing I addressed was pressure. I knew surrounding properties had a lot of hunting pressure and figured if I could offer deer a safe place, some might spend more time on my property. I chose an area at the center of the property I believed would be the most difficult to hunt because of access. Also, the area was fairly swampy and not conducive for future food plots. I designated the 20-acre area as a sanctuary, which, when complete, I would never intrude into unless absolutely necessary. First, I cleared as much of the invasive honeysuckle as possible. Instead of burning the brush, I piled it around the edges of the sanctuary, leaving only a few gaps at select locations for deer to enter and exit. I then enlisted what I believe is the greatest habitat management tool available: a chainsaw. I did an aggressive hinge-cut throughout the sanctuary, dropping big dead logs and leaving the living tops of others touching the ground to encourage bedding. The added sunlight helped the native browse grow, giving deer nearby daytime forage. With the sanctuary and bedding cover done, I began to focus on my hunting strategy. I started in February and attacked the forest with a chainsaw, skid loader and later a bulldozer to remove the invasive species. You don’t often hear of a habitat plan that includes removing cover, but in my case, it was critical to implement the rest of my plan. I wanted to hunt the property effectively while managing the habitat, so I created a network of travel corridors resembling a spider web crisscrossing the land, and I cleared 1/4- to 1/2-acre areas alongside the trails at locations I had previously selected for stand sites. After I had cleared a few areas of honeysuckle, the ground exploded with new growth. The sunlight finally reached the forest floor, and seeds that had sat dormant for years came to life. By midsummer, sassafras, multiflora rose and young tree seedlings filled up the openings I had cleared. The deer herd was noticing, too, as several new trails appeared leading into the new bedding area, and browse pressure was evident in the small clearings. Now that deer were visiting the property regularly, it was time to address food. Although the fresh browse growing in the areas I cleared was attracting deer, the overall quantity and quality of the forage was poor. The biggest factor was the extremely sandy soil. Not many plants can thrive in soil that holds moisture about as well as a coffee filter. After a conversation with neighboring hunters, I learned they did not have any food plots specifically for deer but relied heavily on corn and soybean fields to attract whitetails. I knew I could not compete with that huge food source unless I added some high-quality forage. That’s where the Whitetail Institute became a part of the story. Deer would feed in the neighboring corn and bean fields no matter what I did, so nutrition was not my primary concern. I wanted to provide the most attractive food plot possible to entice deer to stop by before heading to the big corn fields, hopefully giving me a shot at a nice buck. I selected a 1/2-acre clearing between the sanctuary and the neighbor’s field for the first food plot. I wanted to plant Imperial Whitetail Clover, as I had enjoyed great success with it at other properties. However, clover is a shallow-rooted plant that doesn’t do well in sandy soil. I sent a soil test to the Whitetail Institute, and the results were not what I expected. I was pleasantly surprised that my soil had a near perfect pH of 6.9. It also contained high levels of phosphorus, calcium and magnesium, although it was deficient in potassium. The very low organic matter level — 1.4 percent — was to be expected with sandy soil, but overall, the nutrient level was much better than I anticipated. Armed with that information, I planted Imperial Winter-Greens for two reasons. First, brassicas can grow well in a well-drained soil, provided they receive adequate moisture. Second, I wanted something that would peak in attraction during November, when I would hunt the plot. I followed the fertilizer recommendations on my soil test and planted the 1/2-acre plot in August. Until then, I had never seen a buck older than 2-1/2 years on the property, even on my trail cameras. However, a camera overlooking the new plot produced photos of two beautiful 3-year-old 8-point bucks frequenting the spot in daylight almost daily. That was all I needed to know my plan was working. Those bucks were the best deer I had pictures of, so I had my sights set on whichever one gave me an opportunity first. I wanted to wait until the time was right to hunt the spot, though. When the season opened, I didn’t hunt the farm until all the corn on surrounding properties had been harvested. I hoped that with the deer’s habitat drastically reduced, my woods would become a major bedding area.

On a String

On Nov. 9, seven years ago, I climbed into my stand overlooking the small, secluded field of Winter-Greens. The plot was halfway between my sanctuary and a 200-acre picked corn field. A travel corridor I had cut through the timber connected all three, and I could barely see the edge of the field from my stand. As I watched the neighbor climb into his box blind, I suddenly heard sticks breaking and rapid heavy footsteps. A lone doe ran down the trail toward me from the field. I then heard the unmistakable sound of a mature buck grunting. The deer burst into the woods behind the doe, running at full speed. The pair ran straight down the trail and through my food plot. They were running so fast that by the time I stood, grabbed my bow and drew, the buck was almost through the plot and about to disappear. I yelled at the buck, and he slammed on the brakes, quartering away at 20 yards. As soon as my pin touched the crease of his front shoulder, I let the arrow go. The buck exploded into the air and disappeared down the trail leading to the sanctuary. Upon recovering the deer, I realized he was much bigger than I had first thought — easily a 5-1/2- year-old, scoring 160 inches. Sitting next to him that night was one of my proudest accomplishments as a hunter, as I thought about the work and preparation I had undertaken to get there. I still don’t know where the buck came from, but I believe my property had become a place where the doe he was chasing felt safe, as she was heading for my manufactured bedding area. That hunt motivated me to push my habitat management to the next level.

Outside-the-Box Management

I didn’t want to rest on the success of shooting one mature buck. I wanted to consistently get mature deer to call my place home. I decided to diversify the habitat so I could provide as many options for deer as possible, so if they were unpressured, they would live at the farm more of the time instead of passing through during the rut. I started by expanding my food plot program and have enlarged plots or added new plots every year. From one 1/2-acre plot of Winter- Greens, I currently maintain five plots, and the original plot is now 1-1/4 acres. I’ve tested many forages offered by the Whitetail Institute, and all have performed well. I credit that to high-quality seed and the time I took to match the right seed to the soil conditions. I rely heavily on fall annuals for my hunting plots. Each fall, I plant Winter-Greens, Pure Attraction, Winter Peas Plus and, my favorite, Whitetail Oats Plus. I also have a perennial plot of Imperial Extreme. I still wanted a way to grow Imperial Whitetail Clover in my sandy soil, so I found an unorthodox solution. The property was previously mined for sand and gravel, which left huge sand dunes from the mining process. A local grading contractor needed sand, so I struck a deal that whenever he digs a basement or clears away topsoil he needs to get rid of, he brings it to my property and spreads it where I want it. In exchange, I let him haul sand off of the property. I now have a 3/4- acre Imperial clover plot planted entirely in non-native soil. Getting creative has let me provide attractive food sources year-round. I’ve also used 30-06 mineral to help increase the overall health of deer for the past six years. I’ve also continued to improve overall habitat quality. One of the biggest steps has been enrolling the property in Indiana’s Classified Wildlife Habitat program. The state helps offset some costs of habitat improvement and will even help with suggestions to further your efforts. I continue to thin out bush honeysuckle each year, and the quality of the forest is rapidly improving. I have planted 1,000 crabapple, persimmon, white pine, Norway spruce and burr oak trees in areas I opened up. This past spring, I planted two acres of switchgrass and Indian grass along a power company right-of-way that cuts through the property. My hunting strategy has changed, too. I realized that pressure affects whitetails more than any other factor, and that’s magnified on small properties, as it’s much harder to hunt them often without educating deer. After observing deer patterns, I located all of my stand setups in areas with flawless access. If I cannot get into a stand and back out again without alerting deer to my presence, I won’t hunt that spot. I’ve learned to back off of smoking-hot sign and hunt the fringes. That keeps the property “fresh” no matter the time of year. I’ve also committed to only shooting deer I believe to be four years old or older and have passed opportunities at dozens of young bucks. Deer are not the only animals that have noticed the changes to the habitat, either. The property has become a mecca for turkeys, quail and small game. I doubt I’ll ever be satisfied with the property. I still have a long list of things I want to accomplish, including creating more food plots, secondary bedding areas, multiple small water holes and more fruit and mast-producing trees. It has become an addiction.

Changing Tides

Looking at where I began, it’s rewarding to see the changes. The food plots I’ve planted have been a major factor in changing the patterns and core areas of area deer. I won’t try to convince you that planting Whitetail Institute food plots is the sole reason for my success, but just like the other improvements, my food plots have been an important piece in building a complete habitat picture. My concept is simple: I know a mature buck will not spend 100 percent of his time on my small property. My goal is to have him spend as much time as possible on my property by providing everything he wants or needs. I’ve done that by providing food, water and a sanctuary, and by attracting does and limiting my presence at the property to minimize pressure. I hunt the property less often each year, but each time I hunt is more productive. What was once a whitetail ghost town has become an island oasis for deer. Habitat management is hard work and requires considerable time and resources. But the more I do, the greater my passion for it becomes. There’s a reason the record books are exploding with entries across the country. More hunters are actively involved in managing the wildlife and habitat than ever before. A lot of big bucks are coming off small properties, too. No matter how many acres you have to hunt, a solid management plan and outside-the-box thinking will benefit your hunting strategy. You don’t have to do it all at once, but taking the right steps at the right time can turn your land into a whitetail paradise.