It was 20 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. My eyes light up as I think back to that crisp November morning. I was in a cedar-choked waterway in southern Iowa, and a good buck had slunk halfway out of a thick stand of brush 15 yards from my stand. I still had the rattling antlers in my hands and had to slowly swap them for my bow. I held it together just long enough to make the exchange, draw, anchor and slip a Muzzy through his lungs. That 3½-year-old buck didn’t make it 40 yards before crumbling in a sea of red oak leaves. He wasn’t a monster by most standards, but he was my first archery buck that would go over 125 inches, and I was as overjoyed as I’d been while afield. That buck and three more like him were plucked from the same 20-acre funnel over the next few seasons.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average size of a farm today is 441 acres compared to just 147 acres in 1900. Although farms may be getting larger, fewer farmers own that land, and getting permission to hunt larger tracts is more difficult than ever. Deer cover on those farms also often fades as fast as an ice cube on a hot summer day as farmers clear more and more land for crops. Add the ever-expanding development of suburban and other rural areas — those small 20- to 40-acre “ranchettes” — and getting access to large, huntable tracks is as difficult as ever.
The good news is that small parcels can yield great bowhunting if you limit pressure and scent dispersal. Finding those micro-habitats that hold deer after crops are harvested and taking advantage of hunt pressure on adjoining acreages is key.
I’ve been blessed to hunt small properties in several states over the last 25 years. Some were average and some were very small. I’ve hunted via permission, public land and even had exclusive access on a few small pieces. In some areas, 40 acres is a fair chunk of land, especially if there is good habitat. On the western range of the whitetail world where cover is often sparse, 80- or even 160-acre sections are considered small. Let’s dive in.
Assessing the Lay of the Land
It’s not the size of the property that matters, it’s the habitat and location compared to what surrounds it. Learn the area by scouring over Google Earth and paper aerial and topographical maps, and by driving the perimeter of the property in the offseason. While driving, locate likely looking spots along riparian habitats or even suburban areas where deer abound but firearm hunting isn’t allowed. Thick or hard-to-access parcels that act as sanctuaries can be fantastic as well.
Scout the area during the offseason on foot and learn every nook and cranny. Be nosey. You don’t have to worry about spooking deer, so get in there and take your time dissecting your chosen tract. As the season draws near, scouting should often be done from an observation stand just outside of the anticipated main travel routes. This allows the opportunity to observe one or two days prior to slipping in on a known commodity. In areas with good visibility I like to glass from a distance to watch undisturbed movement. Take notes on movement patterns, wind direction and sightings. This approach can be invaluable, especially on small properties.
Trail cameras provide concrete evidence of where deer are moving and what’s out there. Get as many of them as you can afford and put them to use scouting travel routes. Just remember that more cameras mean more in-the-woods traffic. Once the season starts, I only check my cameras when I pass by them going to or from a stand. Spend too much time tromping in and out of your small honeyhole, and it will quickly become a ghost town.
Take note of land-use patterns. Are there destination feeding areas? How about human activity that may cause deer to avoid certain spots during specific times of the day or year? Some of the best small deer parcels can be found on ground that provides a distinct travel corridor, such as a creek or another type of pinch that naturally funnels deer. Does your property sport such travel-friendly terrain?
Identify and Reduce Limiting Factors
An integral part of the initial property assessment is taking inventory of assets as well as limiting factors. Does the property provide nutrition, security and water? If nothing sets the property apart from the land surrounding it, you have work to do. In agricultural country, bedding and escape cover is often the low hole in the bucket. In a timbered setting, a small food plot can be worth its weight in gold. In the early season or in drier climates, a constant clean water source is often lacking.
On permission-type properties, a few options I’ve used are to haul water and fill a small plastic tub like a child’s swimming pool or old bathtub. You’d be surprised at the amount of traffic that a clean water source can provide. If you need to funnel deer closer to your stand, you can utilize dead tree limbs to create brush piles to guide deer in close. I also like to create licking branches, mock scrapes and rubbing posts to give deer something to investigate, ensuring they spend more time on the small parcels I hunt.
If my permission grants me access to alter the property further, I always build on the above tactics and add a small hidey-hole food plot or two. You can create a short-term food source for early-season bowhunting with simple hand tools, an ATV and some sweat equity over a weekend. For small-property scenarios I like to use easy-to-grow crops like oats, wheat, rye or brassicas. Obviously, the smaller they are, the shorter the timeframe that they will be available. On one of the larger “small” properties, I plant a couple acres of plots annually, and I offer a variety of late-season food sources like brassicas, corn and soybeans. In this ideal situation, I have a few acres of grain standing, and it creates some fantastic small-property bowhunting during November and December. Take inventory of the resources on your small property, and if you have the ability to increase them, get after it.
Keep It Quiet
After you’ve scouted, taken inventory and done what you can to improve deer traffic, the next critical step is figuring out how to hunt your small property effectively. You don’t want to overhunt it. From your aerial view, locate the terrain and screen that will allow you to get in and out undetected. Consider multiple wind directions during this planning session. Hunt only when the wind is right. I’ve learned the hard way that hunting with a sketchy wind can result in ruining a stand site or even an entire property for weeks. Deer quickly learn when pressured and always gravitate to where they feel safe and secure. If they feel threatened where they once felt safe, they will look for the next safe place. Any time you enter the property you should treat it as if you are hunting. That includes putting up stands, checking trail cameras and the like. You need to be conscious of lingering scent, noise and the overall human footprint you put on the property.
Minimize Your Footprint And Shave the Edge
Use any natural terrain features or screens to avoid being seen. Strategic entry and exit of a stand site is more important than hunting closer to the best sign. When running trail cameras, place them where you can check them with the least amount of disturbance, and don’t check them too frequently. Again, once season starts, check them only when going to and from stand sites.
Once you have a solid idea of how deer use the area, it’s time to determine when and where you should hunt. Compile all your notes, including the offseason perimeter driving, map studies, hands-on recon, wind patterns, trail cam pics and your asset improvements. By mapping out the resources, you can stack the odds in your favor by knowing when and where the deer will be most vulnerable. Set up blinds and stands for those locations and hunt when the conditions are right to boost your chances of encountering a big buck on a small property.
The small patch of hardwoods I used to frequent in Illinois is a culminating example of this advice. Because it was surrounded by open fields in which the deer fed, I couldn’t get near it in the mornings without bumping deer. After compiling the data points, I used a gravel road running through the farmer’s equipment yard and slipped along a small creek bed to access a steep cut bank that funneled deer through an open gate. I further sweetened the spot by adding another strand of wire to raise the fence height another foot or so to guide the deer into my kill zone on their way to feed each afternoon.
If you’re like most bowhunters, you don’t have large amounts of acres with everything deer want or need. Don’t let that stop you from hunting smarter and improving your odds of tagging a nice buck on your small hunting spot this fall.