As farmland is transformed into parking lots and large wooded lots behind our homes turn into subdivisions, many hunters are forced to hunt deer on small tracts of land. Twenty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for hunters to have hundreds of acres to hunt on by knocking on a farmer’s door or making a phone call. Times have changed. Now many of us end up hunting on 50 acres or less. If we are lucky, we have an 80- or 100-acre lease. Trying to hold deer on a small piece of property and harvest a large buck can be challenging, but it’s not impossible.
Noted whitetail biologist C.J. Winand spends a lot of time hunting on small tracts of land in suburbia, largely to thin out deer numbers. He says deer can live anywhere. “Deer are very good at adapting to the amount of woods they have available,” Winand says. “Just because hunters are forced to hunt small woods doesn’t mean they can’t harvest a whopper. I’ve seen several large bucks taken off small parcels of land that I manage. Keeping deer on small parcels of land requires food and shelter without a lot of pressure.”
Hunt Where They Are
A few years ago, I experienced what Winand was talking about behind a local church in a small woodlot that is about 15 acres. I would occasionally see deer milling around on the property, so I decided to place a camera in the woodlot to see what kind of bucks the small tract had to offer. To my surprise I got pictures of several bucks. A few of them were nice deer for my area. One scored well over 125. The 15 acres offered the big buck everything it needed. “Suburbia deer often have it made because they have water, food and no hunting pressure. They can survive on small tracts of land for years,” Winand explained.
Move Your Stands
If you have 40 acres to hunt in the middle of farm country or in the middle of town, you can increase the amount of time deer spend on your property if you are willing to do a little work. “Everyone knows that bucks respond to pressure very quickly. On small tracts of land, it won’t take much human pressure to make a buck change his routine,” Winand noted. A recent study shows that permanent stands that have been hung in a tree and left there for years can ruin a great hunting spot. “Studies reveal that deer will go 60 to 100 yards out of their way to avoid treestands when they know they are there,” Winand says. How many of us have one or two stand locations that are in the same spot every year? Deer quickly catch on to that game. “I suggest hunters move their stands occasionally. All it takes is moving a stand 20 or 30 yards and deer are back in the zone,” Winand says.
Keep human activity on your property to a minimum. “Deer quickly respond to an increased amount of human pressure in their core area, so it is best to get in and out when planting plots, putting in scouting cameras and hanging stands,” Winand advised. “Unless you are hunting an area that sees a lot of human activity constantly, staying out of the woods as much as possible is important.” Winand suggests never hunting a stand location more than twice a week. Any more than that and the deer will probably avoid the area.
Making sure the deer have something to eat on a small piece of property will keep them on the property more often. “The biggest problem with small woodlots is that deer will travel through them but don’t live in them. To make a deer stay on your property you must provide them with food and shelter, which isn’t as hard to do as many people think,” Winand says. He suggests planting fruit trees. “Deer love apples, but many hunters don’t think about planting trees on their property because they believe they take forever to grow. Many crab apple varieties and normal table apples can be grown quite quickly with a little bit of care. Placing cages over them and around the trunk will keep weeds at bay so the tree can get plenty of nutrients,” he says. Fertilizing and watering helps trees produce fruit faster than simply planting a tree and walking away. With a little care, a fruit tree will produce enough fruit to hunt over in a few years if the tree is a few inches in diameter when planted.
Oaks are another good option. Hunters know that deer love acorns, but most think that oak trees take years to mature to the point where they produce large numbers of acorns. This isn’t the case anymore. “I now plant a burr oak/white oak cross that matures very quickly. They start producing large numbers of acorns in a few years if the tree is properly cared for,” Winand says. The good news about oak trees and apple trees is they drop their fruit in the fall. This keeps deer on your property at the most important time of the year.
Winand also loves planting corn. “When most hunters think about food plots, they think of clover, but corn is a great food plot for small parcels of land because it provides food and cover, which is something many small pieces of land are missing,” Winand noted. “After corn grows a few feet tall, deer start bedding in it. It gets them out of the sun and the wind. The soil is often cool, so deer stay cool while bedding in corn. After the corn matures, the deer have another food source.” The saying is knee high by the Fourth of July, but Winand doesn’t like that saying when it comes to corn being planted as a food plot. “Research shows that deer prefer corn when it is about to tassel out, so I plant corn in the summer so it tassels around October 1,” he says. “That’s a great time to hunt near the edge of it.”
Create Bedding Areas
Creating good bedding areas will keep deer on a piece of property. “Studies show that deer that live in big woods may have a core area where they spend 50 percent or more of their time. On small pieces of property, a deer may have a core area of 50 acres or less,” Winand reported.
“Creating bedding areas helps keep deer on a small parcel.” There are several ways to create bedding areas. Some people plant switch grass or thick bushes. Winand likes planting pine trees or cutting large trees down. “White pines grow quickly and within a few years, several rows of white pines will be a great spot for deer to bed,” he says. Cutting down trees can also create great bedding areas. “Deer love bedding in the middle of a nasty thick bunch of downed trees. Creating this environment requires a chainsaw,” he says. “Thick brush will soon grow where trees once stood and deer will start bedding in the middle of it.”
To keep bucks on small pieces of property, Winand advises shooting does. “Does push button bucks out of their home range when they reach maturity. This means the buck will be forced to leave and the doe will still be there. Harvesting does will likely result in more bucks in the area and less pressure on the food sources,” Winand explains. The more pressure there is on food sources, the smaller the bucks will be because there won’t be enough food to go around. “Some studies indicate that a deer will consume five pounds of forage a day, which is over 1,800 pounds a year. Reducing the doe population will keep more bucks in the area and help keep the remaining herd healthier,” he says.
Know What’s Missing
Every small piece of land is different. Before starting an aggressive management plan, Winand suggests taking a good look at what your property has to offer and what it is lacking. “When considering what to do on a small tract of land, hunters must look at their property and the property around them. If there isn’t any water for miles, digging a pond will help keep deer on a piece of land. If there is lots of food but no cover in an area, build bedding areas. If a hunter or group of hunters creates what the deer are lacking — whether it is food or shelter, there will be more deer on the property,” Winand says. Small parcels of land can be difficult to manage. Let’s face it: you’re not going to keep a 200-inch deer on your property from daylight until dark if you own 50 acres. However, if you provide shelter, he may stay there during daylight hours. If you give him food, he will stay there more, especially if the does are feeding on that food during the rut.
Winand and most land managers I talk to agree on one thing: Every piece of property can be improved. Creating and staying out of bedding areas and only hunting a piece of property a few days a week is probably the easiest thing that can be done to make a piece of property attractive to deer. Planting trees, food plots and tightly managing the doe population takes a lot of time, effort and money, but the more you do to make your parcel attractive, the better chance you have of seeing large bucks on your land.