Dawn was breaking on a beautiful mid-October morning viewed from my tree stand in Ohio. I was situated near a bedding area on a fantastic 480-acre chunk of the thickest cover you can imagine.
Half of the area had been timbered 10 years ago, and the other half was a shrub-filled thicket of blackberries and goldenrod, 6 feet high and impenetrable except for the myriad of deer trails.
Four years ago the Marcellus shale folks put survey lines through the area, and two months prior to bow season I took a four wheeler and made trails over several of those lines that ended near my stand.
It worked perfectly as deer were walking those trails to and from their bedding area. This was the first morning I hunted there since I’d created those trails. Fresh tracks told me the trails were working, but nothing was seen until 8 a.m. Then he appeared, about 80 yards down one of my trails, headed right for me. Two hours later he was gutted and loaded in the back of my Jeep. A dandy 6×6 buck.
Key Property Management Tactics
Yes, there are things you can do to move deer where you want them to go. And, of course, there are habitat-related things that will help keep and bring deer to your property. Food plots are one answer, but I live in an area that is almost 100 percent forested. And I have friends who own smaller pieces of hunting land that are totally forested. Creating food plots in such areas can be expensive, and it often requires some farm equipment and time that many don’t have.
Here’s something I hear all the time. “I see bucks early, but come hunting season they are gone. My area is 100 percent forested, but I just can’t afford to build food plots on this property. So, how to I keep deer on my little 180 acres?” My friend Erich Long at Drumming Log Wildlife Management has some answers. He knows how and where to build food plots, but he also knows that you can do a lot in your forested lands to create deer food without building food plots. He is a big proponent of making small openings with a chainsaw and getting sunlight on the ground.
- Get out your chainsaw and create pockets of openings. Go to an appropriate place on your property where you want deer to frequent and cut some small 100-foot diameter openings. Make three or four of those in one area, and do this in five to 10 areas on your property. It puts light on the ground and that will create tons — literally — of deer feed.
- Craig Harper, Wildlife Extension Specialist at the University of Tennessee and an expert on maximizing deer forage, notes that a clearcut can increase browse for one to five years and yield 1,000 pounds of forage per acre. Now, the cuts recommended by Erich Long mentioned above are not clearcuts, but in essence are mini-clearcuts and the forage yields can be high. Leave the mast trees and make some of these mini cuts.
- What about fertilizing white oaks to increase acorn production? Dr. Harper has looked at that over an eight-year period. During those eight years, they had three years of good acorn production, one fair year and five poor years. He grouped trees into production classes. Eleven percent of the trees were excellent producers, 28 percent were good producers, 21 percent were fair producers and 40 percent poor producers. They then fertilized some, and did crown releases (cutting around the oak) on some. His conclusion: “Our data suggest fertilizing white oaks in the woods is a waste of time and money with no impact on acorn production.” He goes on to say that you should save your fertilizer for food plots and not waste it on oaks. However, doing crown releases around good acorn producers increased acorn production by 25 percent in one year.
- Harper also suggests that low-intensity fires in your cut areas every three to four years will keep the food where the deer can get it. Burn with moist duff layers and move debris away from trees. Low intensity is the key. His conclusion is that cutting and burning is not only good for forage production, but it also is a great way to increase soft mast production (berries, cherry, etc.).
- Do I want white oaks or red oaks on my property? We know that white oaks are sweeter and most preferred, but deer also eat red oak acorns. White oaks drop fast and last about two weeks. White oak acorns mature (from flower to falling off the tree) in six months. They are high in carbohydrates. Red oaks mature in 18 months, drop slower in the fall and thus are out there for deer longer than white oak acorns. In fact, you can often find good red oak acorns available for deer into the winter. Red oak acorns have some tannins that make them less palatable, but are high in fats that provide more energy.
- There is a good reason to find the best acorn-producing oaks on your property. When you see lots of acorns under a tree, mentally (or physically) mark that tree for future reference and do so for several years. Once you know the best producing oaks, do a crown release around that tree if needed. Cut the trees that are encroaching on that good producer, and you’ll get even more acorns. We know that around half of trees are poor producers and 11 percent produce 40 percent of the acorns. Find those trees, crown release them and you’ve got a deer attractant.
- Given all that, having both species of oak is beneficial and frankly it is rather common to find both species in the same area. If you have both, then in years when the white oaks do not produce, you have the reds as a source of food. Do some cutting around the good acorn producers and hold and attract more deer to your area. But understand, that even if you do some crown releases, there will be years when you won’t get acorns from either species.
Dispersal is a one-time movement from a natal (where born) home range to a different adult home range. It’s different than a migration where deer repeat the same movements over and over. The dispersal study with the largest sample size (almost 600 bucks that were yearlings) was done in Pennsylvania. They found that 75 percent of yearling bucks dispersed. They completed their movement in one day, with half moving in May and June and the other half moving in September and October. The average distance was five miles though a few will go much further before settling down.
Now why am I bringing up this topic? Because how you manage deer on your property can determine the number of yearling bucks that leave. A study was done on the eastern shore of Maryland, where they examined the impact of quality deer management on dispersal. They compared pre- and post-QDM dispersal evaluated the maternal aggression hypothesis by comparing dispersal rates of orphan and non-orphan yearling males determined by genetic maternity analysis.
Prior to implementing quality deer management, their yearling males dispersed at a rate of 70 percent. In response, they put restrictions on shooting small bucks — no yearling harvested — and shot does to equalize the sex ratio. After quality deer management, the dispersal rate dropped to 54 percent. That may not seem like a lot, but let me rephrase their findings. Before QDM, if you started with 100 yearling bucks, within a year, you had 30 still there. After QDM, you would have 46 still there. So every year if you start with 100 yearling bucks, after dispersal, you end up with 16 more bucks, year after year, when you implement QDM. That adds up.
Interesting was the pre-QDM survival probability of yearling males was 44 percent, but jumped to 72 percent after QDM. Of course that is one main objective of QDM, and it works.
I understand that with dispersal some of your bucks leave and some from other areas come to you. However, if you’ve done habitat work to make your property better habitat to grow better bucks, then you’re going to have quality yearlings and you sure don’t want to “replace” them with lesser yearlings from five miles away.
You can have some control over deer on your property, either via habitat management or deer management, or both. The good thing about the ideas listed are that they are not expensive, and they can be done on smaller properties (though QDM obviously works better with larger acreages). There are other habitat-related things you can do, such as creating small sanctuaries in the center of your property by making cuts or plantings. The bottom line is that you do have some control over the deer on your property or hunting area. Give them a try and good luck in the fall.