It was only later that I realized what my instincts must have been, and that they’d been good ones.
On the first Thursday of Pennsylvania’s 2010 archery season, I’d spent a rainy morning in a newly hung stand and climbed down mid-morning. I made quite a bit of noise clearing additional shooting lanes, stomping over a couple of small saplings and using a piece of dead pole timber to break some lower gnarly branches from an oak tree.
I was walking back to the house, just ready to step across a small path of clover I’d labored over for three years, when a really good buck rose from his bed to my left, only 60 yards or so away. We locked eyes for an instant, and he made two half-hearted crow hops away before stopping to give me another look.
I turned and ran away from him, down the clover path, running like my life depended on it, my pack thumping me on the back like a boulder. When I ran out of air, I dared a look back. He was standing in the same place watching me.
I walked away at a fast pace, hoping he’d just go back to bed — the bed I’d made for him.
“I found a dead deer, small buck,” my friend Bill said. “It was down in that thick stuff by th creek.”
Bill is a training buddy, one of a group of us who meet Sundays at my small farm for pointng dog training. He’d arrived while I was out getting the newspaper, and decided to run one of his dogs before I got back.
I already knew about the dead deer, a 3-pointer that I’d guessed had been hit by a car or train and died down by the creek that cut through a corner of my property. I’d seen buzzards one day and gone to investigate. It was about a month before archery season.
I’m not big on rules, but the small farm had one. No going into the bedding area unless you’re blood-trailing something. I’d only gone in to see what was dead in there.
“Bill, if you saw that dead buck, you were in the deer bedding area,” I said. “You have to stay out of that area, and especially have to keep dogs out of there.”
“All right,” he said, a little begrudgingly and a little bemused. “But it’s not like you’re going to hold a big buck on this little patch.”
He was wrong.
About four years ago, I bought a hopelessly dilapidated 28-acre Pennsylvania farm. As one of a legion of Pennsylvania hunters, I had long had a dream of walking out my door and hunting on my own property, no matter how small.
The run-down farmhouse had a slew of problems — an old metal roof with a patchwork of tarred areas, an electrical panel with a hand-lettered sign with the misspelled word “carful” on it, ancient wood windows, no heating system, lots of rot and a huge colony of resident chipmunks, not to mention snakes. I knew my priorities weren’t in order — two years later I was still using a flashlight to go upstairs to bed, but I had established a few food plots outside.
I’d always felt most at home in an old hunting camp, and now I lived in one.
Deer were using the food plots, but not the way I’d hoped. With the twin aims of improving the soil and attracting deer, I’d planted three acres in a turnip blend made by Heartland Wildlife Center called Buck Buster Extreme. After the first frost, the deer hammered the turnips, but they used the food plots like a fast food drive through.
An adjoining property included a mix of hardwoods, woodland creek and prime bedding — a tangled mix of hemlocks and laurel bushes. By the time the deer left the bedding area and made it to my food plots, or even my property line, it was black dark.
Each year, I arrowed a doe or two for the freezer and got a turkey in the spring and the fall seasons. But it seemed as if the big bucks were just passing through, like ships that bump in the night. How could I fix it?
One day, while I interviewed Craig Dougherty (www.northcountrywhitetails.com) for an article about food plots, he made a comment about the importance of bedding areas. Well, yes, I said, but what if your property is pretty small? What if it doesn’t have a bedding area?
Make one, he said.
After seeing the big buck, I coached myself to stay out of the area for at least three days. I made it two days. Saturday afternoon, I was back in the same stand.
I’d seen nothing but a couple of squirrels for the first two hours. Then, in the approximate middle of the bedding area, one of the squirrels perched on a small maple, making that accordion-like whining sound they make when they’re extremely agitated about something. The squirrel lashed his tail around angrily, like a cat that has missed a mouse. I couldn’t help but notice — the squirrel was mad about something that was near the same spot where the buck had risen from his bed.
My friends became masters of the averted eyes. Hey, I’d say, if I get a chainsaw, will you teach me how to use it? Everyone seemed reluctant to volunteer, and I couldn’t blame them. I’d been attempting most of the farmhouse remodeling myself, and had recently had to lop off 8 inches of my ponytail due to an unfortunate incident involving spray foam insulation and a German shorthaired pointer puppy.
So rather than get a chainsaw at one of the big box stores, I went to a Stihl dealer. The owner of my local archery shop, who heats his home and business with an outdoor wood burner, recommended the best model for me, and the dealer agreed to give me lessons out in back of the shop.
Have you heard it said that diamonds are a girl’s best friend? This is incorrect. Chainsaws are a girl’s best friend. (Well, and bows, arrows and ATVs …)
I’d created the buffet, but I hadn’t created the security of a bedding area. Dougherty had told me that water is a key ingredient for a bedding area, so my choice of location was easy. A second important consideration is choosing an area where you can minimize disturbance — an area that can be skirted during normal activities on the land.
Does size matter? I only had 28 acres, and the bedding area I created is approximately two acres. According to a recent study by Dr. Mickey Hellickson (as published in the excellent book, “Whitetail Advantage,” by Whitetail Journal columnist Dr. Dave Samuel and Robert Zanglin and available on amazon.com), bucks are inactive (bedded) nearly 60 percent of the time. I figured that meant finding a secure bedding area was highly important to a buck, since he’d be spending so much time there.
Bucks have a big home range, about three times the size of a doe’s home range. But the better the food and security, the smaller the home range. Within that home range is a “core” home range, where the buck spends 50 percent of his time.
I wanted that to be my little farm.
Armed with my Stihl and using Dougherty’s recommendations, I began making a mess in the woods, trying to create a two-acre bedding area. It was fun to drop trees without having the additional work of removing small branches and cutting them into woodstove length. I created structure and future forage by hinge-cutting maple trees, and also dropped large trees to open the area to sunlight and encourage undergrowth and briars.
Stay tuned for Part II!