Prescribed fire has newfound popularity among wildlife habitat managers because it produces both a flush of new growth and a mosaic of food and cover that are beneficial to deer, turkeys, and small game. It can be used strategically to kill undesirable vegetation too, without soaking the landscape in herbicides.
Learning to burn can be daunting (and stories like the prescribed fire that raged out of control in Florida last June, consuming 36 homes, should make you cautious). But you don’t have to light 30 acres of overgrown field for your first burn. Smaller fires are easier to manage and a great way to learn to use the wind to your advantage with various firing techniques. A small, late-summer burn can work wonders for your early bow season too.
Marcus Lashley is an assistant professor of Wildlife and Fisheries at Mississippi State University, and prescribed fire is his area of expertise. He’s conducted extensive research on how deer utilize blocks of habitat both before and after a burn, and he found that on a large scale—hundreds of acres—deer temporarily avoid burned areas because the cover is gone. But on a small scale, adjacent to good cover, they treat a burn much like a food plot, thanks to all the new growth.
Recently, Lashley has been experimenting with what he calls “bow-range burns.” “We were burning quarter-acre sections, which have a 30-yard radius,” he says. “I had areas where I’d monitored deer use with trail cameras for years. We went in and burned half of them, and then measured how much the deer usage changed relative to burning. What we found is that during the opening month of bow season here in Mississippi, those small burns increased shot opportunities by about 13 times over.”
Lashley’s experiments were conducted in loblolly pine and upland hardwood forests. He’s quick to point out that this is a strategy to get a shot at a deer during the early season and not a long-term habitat investment. But these burns are great practice for anyone new to prescribed fire. You still need to call in the proper permits and follow your state’s regulations, but in most cases, you can make the needed firebreaks with a rake and leaf blower. “I get feedback from landowners all the time who were afraid of fire but started doing it like this and got more comfortable,” Lashley says.
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Most larger burns take place in the late winter and early spring, prior to green-up. If you’re serious about it, start putting in your firebreaks now. If you’re already using a tractor or ATV/UTV to break ground for fall food plots, you probably have the equipment you need to make a good break around your field.
If you burn small sections with careful planning, the average prescribed burn is anticlimactic. You’ll probably have a lot of time to lean on your rake and talk hunting with your buddies. What’s not to like about that?