With the whitetail season behind us, now is a great time to head to the woods to get some winter projects done. A few days of woods work this winter can make all the difference next fall. Here are some useful projects.
#1 – Do a Post-Hunt Analysis
If you are seriously into outsmarting mature bucks, you can start by figuring out how they outsmarted you last hunting season. Head for your favorite stand locations and do a post-season analysis. Look for big buck sign downwind of your stand — where a big buck might have skirted you (knowing full well you were there), while you waited in vain for him to show up. You may still be able to pick up his tracks or see where he stopped to tear up a sapling along his route.
If you can pin down the route he took to avoid you last year, he might just use the same route this year. Neighbor killed the buck? No worries, another mature buck will probably move in and use the same avoidance route next year.
#2 – Prepare Next Year’s Stand Locations
Once you have the route located, you can prepare a stand site for next year. If the area is secure, you can hang a stand or at least select the perfect tree and remove any interfering branches. The idea is to keep your primary stand location but still have a backup stand to hunt from once you’ve hunted your primary stand a couple of times. Mature bucks are proficient at locating hunters’ setups and often skirt them by about 80 yards downwind to avoid danger. A third setup can be located downwind of the second location just in case you get into a serious game of cat and mouse.
Did you happen to notice that the wind was wrong, or the deer entered the plot from the wrong side of the field, every time you wanted to hunt a certain food plot or woods opening last year? Well, now is the time to remedy the situation by preparing a second or third ambush location. You may need to cut some new shooting lanes or trim a few limbs for your climber, but this is the time to get the disruption over with. You can even set up a natural ground blind in winter which will be perfectly fine with a little added vegetation next fall.
Freshly cut vegetation smells “new” for quite a few weeks after the cutting and puts mature deer on alert. October is no time to be stinking up the woods with man smell, which includes the telltale odor of freshly cut brush and trees.
#3 – Locate Late-Season Feeding Areas
This is also a good time to find out where the deer spent the last part of the hunting season. Scout around until you find some month-old feeding signs and take note. This might just be the place where they will head to for one last feeding frenzy as winter begins to set in and deer season winds down. Deer typically go through distinct behavior patterns during the year and big bucks generally feed heavily to rebuild their tired bodies after breeding is completed. Find those late-season feeding areas and you just might end next season with an old boy in your sights.
#4 – Break Out the Chainsaw
Cutting trees is a great way to increase food-per-acre ratio by allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor. Deer live in a world that maxes out at six feet–that’s as high as they can reach. What happens above that is of little consequence to them. What happens under six feet is all about food and cover for whitetails.
A word of caution, a chainsaw is the most dangerous tool an outdoorsman can get his hands on. You must wear protective chaps (made for chainsaw cutting), a hardhat and eye and ear protection before even thinking about firing up a chainsaw.
#5 – Create Food and Cover
A mature woodlot may produce little more than 50 pounds of whitetail food per acre. A recently cut woodlot with plenty of daylight reaching the ground can produce somewhere around 500 pounds per acre. Multiply that by, say 50 acres, and you can really start making a difference in the number of deer your property can take care of.
Cutting trees also immediately makes food and cover available to whitetails. Drop a 12-inch maple, poplar, oak, ash or similar hardwood and see how long it takes the deer to find it and start feeding on the tender branch tips. They will generally browse up and down the full length of the tree, nipping off the first two or three inches of any branch they can reach. This is pretty good stuff for winter whitetails that may have been winter stressed for the past 30 to 60 days. The branch tips should now be swollen with next spring’s leaf buds that will be ready to pop sometime in April or May. Leaf buds typically contain six to eight percent protein, a welcome treat to winter stressed whitetails.
Another benefit to chainsaw work is the structure that is left behind. We found that deer relate to structure just like fish do. If you want whitetails to start hanging out in a specific location, add some structure by downing some trees. Cut two or three trees so their tops all land in the same place. You’ll get all kinds of cover as well as protection for sprouting saplings. Deer love this kind of cover and will use it for years. Hunters often cut up felled trees for firewood, but they should leave the tops alone if they are trying to increase their deer sightings.
Winter is a wonderful time to be in the woods provided you leave the deer alone and don’t put any pressure on them. With the hunting pressure off, you will be amazed at how quickly they get used to your presence and associate the sound of a chainsaw with a free meal. They often stand close by, waiting for a fresh tree to provide them with another week’s supply of winter food.