For Iowa big-buck expert Terry Drury, no two words carry more meaning to him and his brother Mark in their evolution as deer hunters than “sacred ground.” The concept is simple: Where do deer feel safe?
Through long-range spotting and low-impact scouting on a property, you zero in on a thick or rugged area where whitetails go to bed and escape pressure. Then you vow never to step foot inside it. That’s no matter the size and location of the sanctuary — regardless of how excellent it looks for hunting.
“If you can show restraint and live up to that vow, you’ll hold and hunt some mature bucks on the land,” Drury said.
Identifying a Buck Sanctuary
A sacred ground is the major bedding and security cover for the whitetails. That’s where they live and travel through a property. There are smaller satellite covers situated around the woods, but here we’re talking about the main safe zone.
Most of the time, a sanctuary looks like an overgrown pasture or CRP tract. They’re dotted with cedars and tangled with briars. There can be 5-year-old regenerating clear-cut and pine thicket, as well as long, nasty, brushy draw. Think back to the cover and topography of the lands you hunt. Now you get the picture.
Generally, when it comes to sacred ground, the thicker it is, the better it will be. In a Maryland study, researchers found that GPS-collared bucks were drawn like a magnet to a greenbrier-and-thorn copse that was basically impenetrable to humans. “The only way you can get in is to find a deer trail and get on your hands and knees and go in there,” said Dr. Mark Conner, who led the study.
In the same study, the researchers found sacred ground for other mature bucks was a designated and restricted waterfowl sanctuary around ponds and marshes.
“It’s almost the opposite of the other sanctuary,” Conner said. “It’s very open, but like the [thicker] sanctuary, there is no human disturbance.”
Conner and his team noted that these two diverse areas were not only sanctuaries. However also core areas where multiple bucks spent 50 percent of their time and more during hunting season.
Size-wise, consider the total acreage of a property when determining how much of the cover you should designate as sanctuary. If you’ve got 1,000 acres with 500 acres of thick cover, you might set aside half or a third of the cover as sacred ground. If you hunt 100 acres, a third of which is cover and the rest is open ground, the entire third or most of it ought to be your stay-out zone. Use a common-sense approach as to how much security cover to set aside. Every property is different.
The Food Factor
Along with cover, you need food for the deer. If there isn’t a good food source or two within a reasonable distance of your sacred ground, or if the food isn’t sufficient enough to sustain or maintain a good number of deer, you can’t hold animals in your sacred ground for long periods of time, no matter how thick and secluded it is. Always be conscious of the amount of natural food that’s available in the area. This could include soybeans, corn and acorns. If the food is not there, the deer are not going to stay there long.
Related: Food Plots: More Or Less?
Making Ground More Sacred
Once you’ve identified and set aside sanctuaries on the properties you hunt, the off-season is a great time to make them even more enticing to deer. Any time you thicken and diversify a cover, it becomes more attractive to mature bucks.
“Big bucks, like big bass, are drawn to structure,” said New York habitat specialist Neil Dougherty. One way Dougherty said he creates more structure is to grab a chainsaw and make what he calls “living brush piles.”
It’s not as much work as it sounds. Dougherty said to pick out low-quality, 3- to 6-inch trash trees in and around a sanctuary. Cut them low, but do not sever from the stumps. Just cut until the tops topple to the ground. The trees will live for a year or maybe two and provide browse for deer. The fallen tops will provide excellent travel and staging cover for bucks.
(Note: Be careful. Wear goggles and chaps when operating a chainsaw. If you lease or just have permission to hunt the ground, get the owner’s approval before you cut a single tree.)
One of Drury’s favorite tactics is to disc and plant five, 10 or more acres of switch grass. Do this preferably alongside an established cover. “Deer love that stuff,” he said. “It’s one of the thickest, most natural places for bucks to bed.” You could also plant several acres of pines, which provide especially good thermal cover for deer in colder climates.
As mentioned, you can have the best security cover for miles. However, if there is no quality feed nearby, deer will not stay there for long. Put in food plots if you have to, and plant them in strategic places.
“My brother, Mark, and I look for spots where we can plant strips of food tight to a sanctuary,” Drury said. “That lets us create travel corridors and funnels from the bedding area to the feed. We hang treestands on the edges of the plots and along the travel corridors back toward the security cover, and we only hunt them on a good wind. It’s one of the ways we hunt mature bucks near sacred ground without exerting too much pressure on them.”
Drury added that when they put in small plots and strips tight to thick security cover, they plant short crops, like clover or soybeans. “That way we create both feed and diverse edges, and we can see deer from our fringe stands,” he said. “But when we put in bigger plots, say five acres or more, we like to create even more cover and extend the bedding area out into the feed. So, we typically plant corn, which grows tall and provides good cover.”
In the End
Noted whitetail researcher Dr. Karl Miller from the University of Georgia summed it up best. “Whether sanctuaries attract bucks to the area because it is more secure for them, or bucks that frequent those areas just get older because they aren’t hunted that hard, we aren’t sure. Either way, it doesn’t matter. We know mature bucks inhabit those areas,” he said.
And that’s why you need to factor sacred ground into your whitetail plan.