Until now, we’ve always had to hang stands in places deer already go. Scouting and stand placement have been reactions to whitetails’ preferences. Sometimes this works out pretty well, but most of the time we have to make compromises. The wind isn’t quite right at one location, or there’s no structure to bottleneck deer at another…it’s always something. Not anymore.
A revolutionary way of thinking is changing how we approach whitetail hunting. We’re not just referring to food plots. We’re talking about completely altering the playing field so bucks walk where we want them to.
To show how the concept works, we created the accompanying map with the help of Neil Dougherty, one of the top deer-woods architects in the country. For the past 13 years, Neil and his dad, Craig, have been cutting, plowing and planting their 500-acre tract in Steuben County, N.Y. Their sweat has paid off. In a region not known for giant whitetails, the Doughertys have gone from seeing forkhorns and spindly six-pointers to bagging bucks that score over 130 points Boone and Crockett.
The best part is that you don’t need 1,000 acres or Bill Gates’s bank account to use these techniques. Neil says, “Most of the people we work with on land-improvement projects have from fifty to five hundred acres and a dream of growing and shooting bigger bucks. We show them how to change the rules of the game to make that happen.”
ABOUT THE MAP
Our hypothetical 250-acre tract is representative of many areas you’ll find across the whitetails’ range. It’s composed mostly of mature hardwoods. There are old fields on the northwestern and southeastern corners. Primary access to the land is via the paved road and parking area in the southeastern corner. Old logging roads cut through the property. A creek that runs from east to west provides water. As with much of the country, the predominant winds are from northwest to southwest.
Going on the assumption that we just purchased the land, we’ll begin by creating major browse cuts, planting feeding areas and designating sanctuaries where bucks can go and not be disturbed. Next month, we’ll put in some of Dougherty’s signature food plots and further tweak the habitat.
THE MAIN DRAG
Before we go in and saw the first tree, we need to establish interior roads. This is our first long-term investment. We’ll maintain and use those roads for as long as we manage and hunt the land. To save a lot of money, we’ll build and improve the roads in conjunction with the major timbering project that Dougherty recommends. In this case, we’re lucky. Our loggers can widen and clear the old tote roads that cross the property.
We’re creating a main southeast-northwest drag that will provide access to the browse cuts and hunting plots that we’ll scatter across the west-central and central portions of the land. We’ll also have loggers cut and doze a few spurs for access to future food plots. Note that the main road never crosses the aggressive browse cuts or the deer sanctuaries. “Whether you’re working or hunting, do everything you can to keep from spooking whitetails and pushing them off your land,” says Dougherty.
The road improvements also create strips of browse for deer. Soon we’ll plant all the logging roads with high-protein green forage. We’ll cable off all roads at the property boundaries and tack up plenty of “No Trespassing” signs.
AGGRESSIVE BROWSE CUTS
Our mature woods lack year-round browse, so Dougherty sees an immediate need for a major timber cut that will spur massive plant regeneration. He advises us to hire a good forester (many state agencies will send one out for free) who will recommend a reputable logging company. “Look at a logging crew as free labor,” says Dougherty. “The timber sale should more than cover the logging costs.”
We’ll tell our forester we want an extra-aggressive browse cut running north to south through the heart of the property. The loggers will take out most if not all of the trees, from 20 inches on down, creating a giant swath that receives plenty of sunlight. (They’ll try to spare mast crop producers, such as white oaks.)
The loggers will leave many of the treetops on the ground. The downed trees provide deer with browse in the first year, and cover after that. The north-south cut will quickly become the major deer highway. As the animals turn west toward the sanctuaries and food plots we put in, they’ll feel good with the predominant wind in their faces.
Over the course of several weekends, we’ll hop on our ATV, strap on a chainsaw and ride the property lines. Snaking through the woods and sawing trees and logs here and there some 60 feet inside our boundary, we’ll establish a trail that runs along the perimeter of our tract. We’ll also open the old logging road on the east side. We’ll ride these trails year round. During bow and gun season, the trails provide quick and easy access to stands or blinds in all corners of the property. With the prevailing winds, we’ll most often use the east-side trails to approach western browse cuts and food plots, but we can always shift gears and go west and north when the wind swaps around. The more time we spend on the trails, the better. Our presence tells people on the neighboring lands that we are out there a lot–hunting, watching and keeping tabs on our budding whitetail paradise.
MAIN FOOD PLOT
A woods tract needs at least one major “feeding plot” of three acres or more to attract whitetails from miles around. Dougherty suggests the southeastern corner, where access to an existing five-acre weed field is easy. Before turning the first clod of dirt, however, we’ll plant a triple row of pine trees along the paved road and up the western side of the plot. The fast-growing pines shield bucks from passing cars and keep us hidden from bucks as we drive or walk on our main road.
Like most hunters, we don’t own a 50- or 100-horsepower tractor and large farm implements, so we’ll hire a local farmhand to clear, spray herbicide, disc and ultimately seed and fertilize the field (we can handle our smaller plots with an ATV). We’ll plant 60 percent perennial and 40 percent annual plants for maximum productivity year-round. Dougherty recommends BioLogic blends of clover, chicory and brassica. He says that in a good, moist year, this plot should grow about 40 tons of high-protein forage, much of it up and available during the critical spring and summer months, when bucks grow antlers and does lactate.
Note that the plot is on the downwind tip of the property. This is fine; we don’t plan to hunt it. Bucks will gravitate toward the sanctuaries and smaller plots we’ll put in next month.
Dougherty advises making at least 20 percent of your land off-limits to humans. Deer need only about five heavily wooded acres to feel safe. A sanctuary should be so gnarly that a buck can lie in bed and never see you walk or ride by on a quad 30 yards away. We’ll go in and drop trees to create this heavy cover. You might also designate any steep, rough, wind-swirling spots on the property into a sacred ground for deer. “You can’t hunt it,” says Dougherty, “so turn it over to the bucks.”
We established our primary sanctuary in the center of the property. Whatever the wind direction is, bucks will be able to move easily from the bedding cover to the browse cuts and food plots we’ll scatter all around. Also, when the guns start booming on surrounding lands each fall, many deer will pile into our sanctuaries. The two satellite sanctuaries provide bucks with convenient “rest stops” they can use when feeding on acorns or nosing for does on the north and east sides. Our goal from this day on is never to set foot in these areas: no hiking, no working, no scouting–nothing at all. We’ll certainly never hunt in or near any of the sanctuaries. That would blow our entire plan of holding some big deer on our small piece of land.
SEE FOR YOURSELF
During the off-season Craig and Neil Dougherty open their 500-acre whitetail paradise to the public. You can tour the North Country Whitetails Demo Center with Neil and see just how he cuts the timber, designs and plants food plots and otherwise improves the habitat. You can also read more about the Doughertys’ methods in their book, Grow ‘Em Right: A Guide to Creating Habitat and Food Plots. (www.NorthCountryWhitetails.com; 585-388-6990)
CUTTERS: Invest $500 or so in a heavy-duty chainsaw, an axe, wedges, a safety helmet, chaps, goggles and earplugs. Then get to work. “Everybody talks about food plots, but cutting strips and clearings is every bit as important because it creates a diversity of food and cover for deer,” Dougherty says.
PLANTERS: A 4×4 ATV is your workhorse. Use it to seed logging roads and put in small food plots. Dougherty says to check out the Plotmaster (www.theplotmaster.com). The all-in-one ATV implement features a disc, dragger, seed/fertilizer spreader and roller. Add a sprayer attachment for treating plots with herbicide.