Whitetails have adapted to survive on small tracts, and if you’re going to hunt these homebodies you might need to shift your tactics.
Many big game species struggle to survive in close proximity to humans, but white-tailed deer are an exception. In fact, the whitetail’s incredible population recovery over the past century is, at least in part, the result of its ability to thrive on the edge of urban environments. Perhaps more than any other big game animal in North America, whitetails have responded to a burgeoning human population by making the most of their new neighbors. The way that these deer live has changed, but the way we hunt them, in many cases, has not.
Slowly, however, hunters are changing their tactics. They have to. Why? Simply put, the opportunity to hunt big tracts of land is decreasing. As a kid growing up in Ohio, it took no more than a knock on the door and a smiling inquiry to gain access to hundreds of acres of prime hunting property. Since that time those same farms have been gobbled up by sprawling human development or locked down under lease. That has pushed more hunters to public land, which is all too often over- whelmed during the whitetail firearms season in many states.
But like the deer they pursue, hunters are proving to be adaptable. One example is Chad McKibben, an Ohio hunter who has a proven track record of downing big bucks. Chad is fortunate because he isn’t limited to hunting small plots. He has a fairly large farm that is his to hunt exclusively. But in 2016 he opted to hunt a small piece of private property just up the road from his house, a place not more than a dozen acres that consists of a couple of small grain fields and a tract of woods that is small enough to throw a baseball across. I wondered why McKibben opted to switch from his home turf to this new property and his reasoning was simple — that’s where the deer are.
In the patchwork landscape of big farms with big woods where McKibben normally hunts, this little corner of land had been overlooked by everyone but the deer. Two really good bucks were living within a few hundred yards of a busy house and a busy road. While everyone was hunting large tracts of land all around this spot, the deer were keeping tabs on them from afar.
Hunting deer on small patches of land requires a shift in tactics as well as a change of techniques. Don’t overlook the giant buck that might be hiding in a piece of property you’ve neglected to scout because it is too small or too close to humans. Big bucks are becoming specialists on small acreage, and you should, too.
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WHAT DEER NEED
McKibben killed a fantastic buck on that small sliver and based on his research that deer was spending a great deal of time there. The reasons were simple; it afforded plenty of cover, there was food and water available, and the deer on that property weren’t getting continually spooked by hunters.
While scouting, many whitetail hunters seek out food sources and water, but in truth, most whitetails have ample forage close at hand in the form of agricultural fields, mast crops and even the landscaping in more developed areas. In short, food is available. Water, too, in many areas. Since these resources are widely available, whitetails do not need to take risks to meet their basic requirements. Instead, deer are seeking out places that afford them maximum refuge while still remaining within easy access to food and water.
To avoid predation by what is certainly the whitetail’s primary predator (hunters), deer are clinging to protective cover. That doesn’t mean big acreage necessarily, but rather a place where they know they will be safe. And by now they have figured out that a tiny woodlot on the back edge of a housing development is oftentimes safer than a larger patch of timber that is littered with stands and cameras.
Don’t be mistaken into thinking that deer rely solely on timbered areas for cover, though. We tend to associate big deer with big woods, and that’s a mistake. An old whitetail is just as likely to use a patch of cattails on the edge of a marsh, a tangle of blackberry thorns or a tall swath or CRP ground. These are the places that so many hunters look past, though, and it’s no coincidence that more and more stories of big buck kills are starting out with this line: “You’ll never believe where I killed this deer!”
For the past five months I have been tracking deer populations at night using a FLIR Scout III thermal camera, and the results have been quite surprising. I suspected that deer would be using the agricultural ground across the street to feed, and that’s true — sometimes. The vast majority of deer I’ve witnessed weren’t in the woods or in farm fields, though — they were within a couple hundred yards of a new home that’s being constructed nearby. It’s no surprise to see a half-dozen deer hanging out near the basement walkout or bedded in the overgrown brush that had not yet been cleared at night.
Even on my own property, deer are frequently making use of flowerbeds and bulldozed brush piles. The FLIR offers me a more dynamic view of deer movement than I can achieve with a fixed-motion camera, a clearer view of what the animals are doing under the cover of darkness. Right now it seems that they are spending the bulk of their time — roughly 90 percent — within a 200-yard radius of the only two homes in the vicinity.
I suspect there are two reasons for this, and they’re pretty basic: these properties offer opportunities for food and a certain level of protection. If the deer didn’t feel safe they wouldn’t be here, but they have chosen these sites on purpose. On about 120 acres I’ve monitored, deer are spending the majority of their time in areas that measure perhaps 5 or 6 acres.
Would these findings be the same in other areas? It’s hard to say, but I imagine so. And although it’s hardly a long-term scientific study, it points to a very important fact about whitetails — they are perfectly at home on very small tracts of cover close to human habitation.
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TACTICS AND GEAR FOR
The tactics used when hunting big-timber whitetails will differ slightly from those used when hunting small plots. On small acreage there isn’t as much ground to cover, but there are special challenges that go along with hunting deer on fractured land. The first and perhaps most important consideration is how to move into a whitetail’s small bedding or feeding area to set up without being discovered.
One primary reason whitetails frequent these areas is they are much harder to approach. If a deer is bedded in an isolated 3-acre patch of timber surrounded by open fields or lawns, it’s more difficult to sneak in for a shot. This means you’ll have to pay attention to every aspect of your setup. This starts with good intel.
If you know when deer are using the area, when they are feeding and when they are moving, you have a better opportunity for success. But gathering that intel can be a double- edged sword; the more time you spend in the woods hanging cameras, setting up stands and scouting the sooner deer will realize their sanctuary has been compromised. For that reason, it’s important to disturb the area as little as possible. It doesn’t take much interference to cause deer to vacate these small parcels, so you might have to rethink your plan of attack.
For this reason it’s a good idea to scout small acreages from afar. Setting up at a distance and glassing these areas allows you to scout without actually setting foot on the land. With a good binocular and spot- ting scope you can still gather a lot of important info — identifying food sources, rubs and watching deer — and all of this can be done without disturbing the animals.
It’s important to always pay close attention to wind direction. This might mean abandoning the hunt on days when the wind is fickle or blowing in the wrong direction if there is no way to approach the area without either giving up your scent or crossing open ground. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and deer will follow a regular routine, but you have to be particularly conscientious when hunting small properties.
One way to approach and set up on these deer is by using landscape features in your stalk and setup. In McKibben’s case, there was a small barn located between the landowner’s residence and the small patch of woods where he killed his deer. Bucks in that area were accustomed to human movement at the house, but the surrounding grain fields (which were harvested and open during hunting season) made it almost impossible to stalk a bedded buck in there.
McKibben used that barn as a setup point and that put him in position and within range when the buck finally moved, allowing him to get a shot that might not otherwise have been available. Scent control and cover are extremely important, and you can also take advantage of the same natural cover that the deer use, hiding in an overgrown fencerow that leads into the property instead of, say, setting up a ground blind right in the middle of a prime bedding area. Shots in these types of habitats are rarely long, and for that reason, smaller, lighter bows and rifles and even handguns make sense.
I’m a fan of handgun hunting and use a pistol when hunting small properties because they are easy to carry while sneaking into position and on small properties I’m not really hampered by their range limitations. Light, compact rifles are also a good choice for the same reason, and carbine-length guns such as lever actions, ARs and compact bolt-action rifles are a great option here. Hunting small properties presents some challenges, but as the future of whitetail habitat changes so must your hunting methods if you want to be successful. There are plenty of big bucks that elude hunters each year, and they might just be in your own backyard.
— Brad Fitzpatrick is a whitetail hunter and outdoors writer from Ohio.