4 Ways to Improve Your Habitat for Better Deer Hunting

Deer management is a numbers game and that includes the numbers of money. But management isn’t only for “rich hunters.” With a few simple tools, a little effort and time, and not a lot of money, you can create some wildlife enhancements that will help deer, turkeys and other game. (PHOTO: Bob Zaiglin)

Managing property to improve the quality of deer on it can be hard on the pocket book, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.

Today’s deer hunters are equipped with an exorbitant amount of applicable information pertaining to deer management and are more than willing to dedicate their energy and resources to apply what they have learned to improve the quality of the deer they pursue. Managing a property to benefit deer, particularly antler quality, can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be that hard on the bank account, particularly when basic management practices are conducted.

Prior to managing a landholding, regardless its size, those involved must understand the biological importance of the age structure, nutritional condition and genetic composition of the deer herd. And although all three function synergistically, the age factor has the greatest impact on just how big those calcified appendages can get, and more importantly, it is the most affordable method sportsmen can apply when it comes to increasing the number of larger antlered bucks on their property.

The principle is simple — it doesn’t cost a thing to let a deer walk. Just let young bucks live longer, and larger-racked bucks will materialize. In fact, if young bucks are not protected, the benefits of applying other management practices become less obvious, particularly when it comes to antler size. Wildlife management is not that complicated, and results can be realized by applying basic yet proven management practices.

For example, if you have ever hunted deer in a pine forest, it probably wasn’t long before you realized most deer concentrated in cut-over areas and not within the open understory, often referred to as a ‘biological desert,’ that characterizes a mature pine forest. Deer gravitate to disturbed sites because of the availability and diversity of nutritionally beneficial plants, including young trees, within their reach. The maze of regrowth also provides them with protection.

I am not recommending that you clear-cut the farm, ranch or lease, but I do suggest that small clearings 50 to 75 yards long and 20 to 30 feet wide be established. A few of the taller, less desirable trees can be felled with a small ax or handsaw in order to allow more sunlight to hit the understory, facilitating the germination of the various weeds and forbs that remain dormant without the valued sunlight.

By doing so, the nutritional aspect of a deer’s diet is positively impacted, while providing them more protective cover, making such manipulated areas more attractive to deer. More importantly, these natural-looking linear clearings can be easily maintained every other year to ensure that the herbivory remains in that early, most attractive and beneficial stage of development for deer.

Providing supplemental food sources and minerals may improve the health of deer on your land if your commitment is firm enough.

PATHWAYS TO SUCCESS
In the maze of thorn scrub in South Texas, a small chainsaw can be used to cut narrow shooting lanes that diverge away from deer blinds like the spokes of a wagon wheel. The small clearings not only enhance visibility for the hunter, but become extremely attractive to deer that benefit nutritionally from the rapidly developing regrowth. Deer also use the clearings as travel lanes. These same areas can be fertilized in an attempt to elevate the nutritional component of the naturally occurring regrowth, which I refer to as natural land enhancement.

Clearing pathways based on wind direction that lead to a favorite deer stand is another way of improving hunter access while benefitting the deer’s diet. For example, I had deer blinds situated on the periphery of a number of food plots in South Texas that could only be entered by walking through the planted field. But even when entering the field early in the afternoon, some deer were disturbed. To circumvent this problem, I cleared narrow pathways to the blinds based on the prevailing wind pattern that afforded me a stealthy approach to the fields without disturbing the occupants.

If deer were present, I could remain at the edge, concealed by a natural barrier of brush. These pathways represented an opportunity to check out several fields in the morning or evening without disturbing the deer. It increased my observation capabilities, while the regrowth developing in the serpentine-like shaped clearings became especially attractive to deer as well.

The development of food plots is an ubiquitous part of deer management because they are extremely attractive and nutritionally beneficial to deer. But the one prerequisite that must be satisfied is water, and nowhere is this truer than in the southwestern portion of the United States.

THE GOLD STANDARD
For years wildlife researchers have investigated plants that can develop in these semi-arid regions, but nothing can overcome prolonged drought- like conditions. The gold standard of grain planted in much of southern Texas is oats. This cool season cereal grain planted in the fall benefits deer as well as the hunters planting it.

One of the preferred food plot grains in Texas is oats, although some landowners and ranch managers will provide more diverse supplemental foods in their plots.

The nutritional benefit comes at a time when most plant growth is dormant, but its most unique feature is the time it provides sportsmen to critique the animals they pursue. By hunting over this winter delicacy, deer demonstrating undesirable antler traits can be critiqued correctly before they are harvested, and more importantly, the age of deer can be verified. The effectiveness of such plantings, however, remains dependent on rainfall, which is less than predictable.

In South Texas, based on my 30+ years of establishing such plots, an adequate crop of oats will develop seven out of 10 years. It’s those dry years that are so discouraging to managers. However, those same fields erupt into a diverse array of nutritionally fortified weeds and forbs following spring rainfall. The result is those fields planted in the fall that failed to materialize have another opportunity to benefit deer in spring during the critical initial stage of antlerogenesis.

Soil disturbance is a means of manipulating the plant community, which can be accomplished by something as basic as dragging a railroad tie or some other heavy structure, preferably with spikes attached, behind a pickup truck or four-wheeler. Any disturbance to the environment results in the reversal of the successional development of the herbivory. The importance of this reversal in plant development is the fact that plants in the early successional stages are more palatable and generally have higher levels of crude protein, thus are extremely attractive to deer. While disturbance generates diversity and availability, fertilizer can augment its nutritional benefit. Spot fertilizing can be employed to develop a robust vegetative community. Whenever a plant community is disturbed by a select cut, thinning or disking, it remains prudent to investigate the impact fertilizer has on enhancing it even more.

WATCH: THREE THINGS YOU’RE DOING WRONG WITH DEER MINERALS

ANTLER-BUILDING MINERALS
Providing bucks with antler-supporting elements such as phosphorus and calcium is another economic method of augmenting antler size, particularly since bucks are normally unable to obtain sufficient amounts of these two valuable antler-building minerals in the later stages of antler growth.

To supplement these valuable minerals that are often less than adequately available when required most, natural mineral licks can be implemented where legal to do so. Sportsmen are aware that deer are attracted to natural salt licks, but seldom do they think about providing them a natural source of calcium and phosphorus.

For years I tested soil on different ranches to determine the presence of calcium and phosphorus. Amazingly, I found calcium and phosphorus to vary greatly, sometimes changing dramatically over short distances on the same property. Understanding the critical role these minerals play in antler development, I began to test ways to provide deer more of these antler-building blocks. What I discovered was that the distribution of a nitrogen-lacking fertilizer into a shallow 5-inch-deep hole was an easy and economical method of compensating bucks with these valuable minerals.

The establishment of these mineral licks, distributed in a shallow 5-inch hole 2 to 3 feet in circumference, was almost immediately utilized by Hill Country deer, but that was not the case in South Texas, that is until they discovered the licks. In other words, some deer took longer to locate or acquire an interest in the natural yet artificially created mineral resource.

One affordable method of providing wildlife a water source is to build a water guzzler, which is nothing more than a V-shaped roof that captures rainfall and delivers it to a holding tank, providing a continuous supply to various troughs via gravity flow.

WATER WORLD
Water is imperative to the survival of all wildlife. Windmills and submersible wells are ideal water providers, but are expensive. One affordable method of providing wildlife a water source is to build a water guzzler, which is nothing more than a V-shaped roof that captures rainfall and delivers it to a holding tank, providing a continuous supply to various troughs via gravity flow.

In areas void of water, a guzzler is an opportunistic way to attract and hold deer on a property. Constructed throughout the area, the guzzlers can also be employed to distribute browsing pressure, which alleviates the excessive burden deer place on native vegetation, particularly when forced to concentrate around limited water resources.

A variety of creative and cost effective techniques can be implemented to make a particular piece of deer turf not only attractive, but nutritionally beneficial to whitetails. But regardless the techniques employed, it’s important to remain realistic regarding the outcome. Regardless of the amount of money spent, you can’t develop big deer without allowing them to mature. And to harvest an old buck you helped to develop is truly gratifying.

— Bob Zaiglin is a certified wildlife biologist from South Texas. He has been a D&DH contributor for more than 20 years. He is the CWB Coordinator of Wildlife Management, Southwest Texas Junior College.