Since the food plot boom of the early 2000’s a lot has been written on the subject as it relates to deer hunting and food plotting and rightfully so. Not only is there an enormous market dictating such, but food plots are pretty looking, fairly easy to establish, and they hold the luster of the “magic ticket” for this upcoming hunting season. Are we right? PLANT IT AND THEY WILL COME is common moniker tossed around, but what about the other 90 – 95% of the habitat a deer spends its life?
Food plots are great and all and we certainly aren’t discrediting the importance of food in a sound habitat management program, but maybe we all should consider the importance of the other big player – quality cover!
Too often, the quality of native cover goes overlooked when it comes to improving a deer hunting property. Is it because it’s not as sexy as a lush green food plot? Is it too much work? Or maybe it just stays back-of-mind because you don’t know exactly what to do or where to start. Whatever the reason is we hope this article will help you channel your inner Paul Bunyan and put you to work...but maybe swap out that big axe for a chainsaw instead.
Why You Should Spend More Time on Enhancing Deer Cover
A mature buck spends well over 90% of its time bedded and travelling in areas he feels secure. If you don’t have these areas, chances are you won’t have the bucks either. The biggest thing when it comes to analyzing quality cover is to think like a deer. A deer’s world exists from ground level to about 5 feet up, and anything above that basically becomes irrelevant. So when you take a step into that picturesque hardwoods, ask yourself, if I were a big buck, would I feel secure here? Often times that open hardwoods turns into a biological desert by the time fall rolls around and the leaves begin to drop. While deer may still use it as a travel corridor from time to time, this is not quality cover. The canopied tree tops prevent any sunlight from hitting the forest floor, thus there’s very little cover growing in that 0-5ft. range. This is the same reason you’ll often see or jump bucks bedded on the edge of a hardwood patch because that’s where the sunlight has hit floor creating a denser, thicker edge.
Creating Quality Cover For Deer and Hunting Purposes
Before you run into the woods going hog wild with your chainsaw, it’s important to come up with a solid and strategic plan of attack. Unlike planting a food plot and watching it grow in a few months’ time, creating quality cover usually takes a lot more time, effort, and patience on your behalf.
Hinge cutting is the popular timber stand improvement process in which you saw half-way through a tree at waist high height and then bend it over to the ground in order to provide living cover and browse for deer. While you can really hinge cut trees during any time of the year, winter is the best time. For one, the trees are dormant during the winter, thus, you’ll experience a better survival rate. Secondly, it’s comfortable working conditions – it’s not hot out, and there’s no bugs and leaves to annoy you all day. It’s also a lot easier to see what you’re doing and where the trees are falling in winter compared to the green jungle of summer. Also, you won’t be making any major disturbances close to hunting season.
Lastly, hinge cutting during the winter allows time for deer to find and utilize these new sanctuary thickets and browse areas. Mapping out pockets of proposed hinge cut areas is a great way to visualize how deer or more specifically, a mature buck might utilize these areas.
Establishing Native Grasslands and CRP
Establishing native warm season grasslands whether they are part of a CRP program or not is another way to immensely improve whitetail cover on your hunting property. There’s a reason why giant whitetails thrive in the prairie states and that’s largely because they have the cover and nutrition to reach maturity while also expressing their full genetic potential. Whitetails absolutely love bedding and hanging out amongst the cover of native warm season grasslands for the simple reason of feeling secure at all times. This goes back to the principle of having cover at the optimal height of where a deer lives in that 0-5ft. range. The dense jungle of native grasslands provides exactly that.
If you’re looking for areas to turn into quality cover in the form of native warm season grasses, look no further than the open agricultural fields. It may be hard to swallow some of the potential income from cash renting those fields, but there are several great programs that help offset the costs of this transition and establishment. The most popular program is Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is a land conservation program administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA). In exchange for a yearly rental payment, landowners enrolled in the program agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality. Contracts for land enrolled in CRP are 10-15 years in length. The long-term goal of the program is to re-establish valuable land cover to help improve water quality, prevent soil erosion, and reduce loss of wildlife habitat.
By taking even as little as a 20 yard buffer strip around a field edge and converting it to native warm season grasses, you can dramatically improve the edge cover that whitetails oh so love.
Timber Stand Improvement (TSI)
The overall majority of privately owned woodlands in this country are poorly managed and would benefit greatly from some sound timber stand improvement practices such as selective thinning and clear cutting. Again, breaking up that homogenous landscape and providing cover at a height more conducive for deer will only help to hold more mature bucks.
Before you dive in and start dropping trees, it’s always advised to walk the land with a qualified forester and come up with a plan that meets your goals as they pertain to wildlife and hunting. In most cases, reducing the competition in order to release the valuable trees and increase sunlight to the forest floor is the goal.
When reducing the competition by thinning, it is important to consider the following:
• Trees benefitting deer include oaks, persimmons and other hard and soft mast bearing species.
• Economically valuable trees are those with straight and single stems (not split).
• What areas will allow the best hunting opportunities once thinned?
Where should you create cover?
Creating areas of enhanced cover on your property in order to have better hunting is a bit of an art and there’s no two properties alike, so it’s important to map out these areas first. By mapping out proposed cover enhancement areas, you can then determine and make assumptions as to how deer might utilize and travel amongst your property. Whether it’s creating a bedding area near a food plot that you can hunt on a west wind direction, or simply designating an area as a sanctuary, mapping it out will allow you to see the big picture and put you in the right spot to capitalize on your work efforts.