Hunting Land: It’s Only as Good as You Make It

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A slow walk down the dew-covered trail at dawn renews your spirit. It’s deer season, but you have no intentions of shooting anything. Maybe you’ll check some trail cameras or just lean up against a tree and watch deer funnel back through to their bedding areas. There are no worries of disturbing other hunters. You have finally achieved every serious deer hunter’s dream: having your own piece of ground.

By Jeremy Flinn

The closing signatures have been put on paper, and the land is under your control. You think the toughest task is done and you’re ready to start manag- ing for better deer hunting, but what’s next?

One of the most common mistakes new landowners make is to start throwing money into the land or make drastic harvest decisions before developing an appropriate management plan, which could save thousands — yes, thousands — of dollars and be the difference between just having land and the big-buck paradise of which you dreamed.

What Do You Want?
One of the hardest tasks facing a landowner is determining the goals for his property. Do you want big bucks or a healthy and balanced herd?

Often, clients I’ve worked with define several property goals, from creating a healthy, balanced herd with emphasis on big bucks to increasing the quality of hunting for their family. Aren’t they very similar? Not necessarily. For example, when creating a better deer hunting experience for family, I focus on pushing the deer herd size to carrying capacity or the maximum before it begins negatively affecting the habitat. This is often the goal of many state agencies.

Conversely, when creating a balanced, healthy herd with an emphasis on mature bucks, I seek a very close buck-to-doe ratio, and attempt to keep herd numbers lower so there is more food and space per deer. This can lead to better nutrition and bigger antlers.

No one knows what you want better than you. Don’t be afraid to play with combinations of goals. You can grow big deer on your property while maximizing recreational opportunities for your family by focusing on shooting does and protecting younger bucks. You will start to see more mature bucks with larger antlers.

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Improving your hunting land doesn’t mean you have to spend money. In fact, most states employ local wildlife biologists who can help you map a plan for improving your habitat.

How Do I Know I Can Reach My Goals
Well, that’s simple. You don’t. Deer management is a science, but it’s just as much an art. It doesn’t have any blueprints or basic instructions. What might work on your neighbor’s property could be a complete failure on yours. Food plots are a great example. Just because your neighbor plants a successful alfalfa plot does not mean you will, too. Soils vary between properties and also within properties based on several factors, including topography and previous land practices. Your neighbor might have treated his plot with lime for several years to neutralize the soil pH, or the area in which he planted might just feature great soil.

Likewise, you must consider what type of hunting or management your neighbors are doing, particularly if you own less than 500 acres. One of the most common questions I get is, “Can I grow big bucks on my (less than 500) acres?” My answer is always, “It depends.”

SEE ALSO: Great information on scouting, managing and hunting!

There are many factors at play, including your perception of a “big buck.” I’ve worked with clients who have one mature buck using their 700 acres, but other clients with just more than 100 acres have seen five mature bucks on their land. I’ve never worked on a property I didn’t think had poten- tial to produce a mature buck. If you’re looking strictly for Booners, that’s a different story, but most properties almost always provide the possibility to produce and harvest a mature whitetail. It just takes patience, hard work and guidance from someone who has the knowledge to assist you.

Who Can Help Me?
There are several directions you can go. The most important thing to realize is that you’re the customer, whether you have a federal, state or private biologist come to your property. They work for you, so make sure you let them know what your specific goals are.Otherwise, you might end up wasting a lot of time. To help you figure out which entity is best for you and your property, let’s look at each option in detail.

Federal Biologists
Several federal government agencies employ wildlife biologists. The most popular are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Natural Resource Conservation Service.

A federal biologist can be extremely helpful to private landowners. Several federal incentive programs can be applied to properties. They create and protect valuable habitat and also provide financial incentives to landowners. However, in recent years, these programs have had money issues, and qualifying has become more difficult.

Federal agencies are also more concerned with threatened and endangered species or upland birds and waterfowl rather than deer. If your property goals are heavily focused on whitetails, solely using a federal biologist is likely not the right route. However, I encourage you to consider some of the federal programs they offer. Many, although not focused on deer, can provide excellent habitat for whitetails.

State Biologists
State biologists have the responsibility of managing the whitetail herd. Many states offer assistance to private landowners on habitat or herd management, including deer management assistance programs.

I’ve worked with several state agencies, and although it might be hard to believe, most biologists are just like you. They have a passion for hunting and the outdoors. Because they work for a free service, state biologists are typically stretched thin, particularly in the current economy. However, they can still provide great information to private landowners. It just isn’t possible for two to four biologists to cover the entire state and still dedicate adequate time to each landowner. This is especially true for states that only have one or two deer biologists who assume more administrative roles.

SEE ALSO: 5 Post-Season Scouting Tips You Shouldn’t Ignore

Although I’m not a state biologist, I try to remind hunters these biologists are responsible for the entire state’s deer herd. If you’re looking for them to make a regulation or management change, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Although rule changes often are recommended by biologists, a commission or commissioner often makes the final ruling. If you truly believe that something needs to change, attend a public commission meeting and voice your concern. Deer hunting is very emotional, but hunters often let emotions get the better of them, and their true message is never delivered.

The bottom line is state agencies can be a big help to private landowners by providing technical assistance. If you’re looking for some basic food plot ideas, reach out to a biologist. But if you’re looking to have a biologist help throughout the year, you might want to look in a different direction. If you are curious about what your state provides, call your local office and ask. The worst they can say is no, and you move on.

Private Biologists
If you’re paying attention to these groups, you’ll notice all have “biologist” in the title. Although this group is often termed “consultants,” there is a huge difference between a consultant and a biologist. Sadly, many people in the private sector give this group a bad reputation. If you Google “wildlife consultant,” you will find thousands of options.

What’s the difference, and who’s right for you?

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If you want to see deer like this one on your property, you’ll need to manage the land to provide everything he’ll need. That includes food and adequate cover. (D&DH photo)

The main difference between private biologists and consultants is education. Often, someone with farming experience will go into the wildlife consulting business, and although they might know crops, they likely know very little about proper herd or hunter management. A private biologist is educated to manage all aspects of wildlife, including the three H’s: herd, habitat and hunting. I always tell potential clients, “Even if you don’t decide to work with me, I recommend hiring a biologist and not a consultant, and I’d be happy to give my opinion on your candidate.”

Most wildlife biologists have at least one degree in a wildlife-related field (a bachelor’s degree) and typically a master’s degree. Don’t be afraid to ask a biologist for his credentials. Any real biologist will be proud to tell you where they spent six-plus years in the university system. The only downfall of private biologists is they don’t offer a free service. But in return, you will be given much more attention than you’ll receive from state or federal biologists.

Now that you know buying property is only the start, you can begin planning your next move. Having your own piece of ground is a satisfying feeling, but it’s up to you to make it what you want. Have fun, and enjoy managing your property to its greatest potential.

— Jeremy Flinn is a registered private wildlife biologist from Missouri. He has worked with clients across North America producing better deer herds and habitat. He’s is also an expert contributor on D&DH TV. He currently is the Midwest regional wildlife biologist for Cabela’s and an owner of The Buck Advisors.


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