I’ve been fortunate to be a wildlife biologist or researcher for the past 28 years, and a lot more than just the color of my hair and beard has changed during that time. During that time, many myths have been dispelled by researchers and numerous breakthroughs have been identified. A recent NDA Deer Steward class made me reflect on how we’ve evolved the course since its inception in 2007 to stay current with new science and how I’ve personally changed several hunting and habitat management strategies or practices.
As hunters, we often get caught up in beliefs based on outdated information, poor science or old wives’ tales. To keep with the times, here are three hunting and three habitat management practices I personally do much differently today than in the past.
Hunting #1 – Aim point
As a young hunter I was taught to aim “behind the shoulder.” Today we know better, so I changed my personal aim point as well as where I teach new hunters to settle their pin or crosshairs. When shooting at a broadside deer with a rifle or bow, come up the front leg and aim halfway up the body. This location will hit the top of the heart, go through both lungs, and create a very short blood trail. If you’re hunting with a firearm and hit this location, the deer will drop on the spot. No trailing will be required.
Shorter blood trails, higher recovery rates, and easier tracking jobs are all a bonus, and that’s exactly what this aiming point provides.
Habitat #1 – More Young Forest
I no longer believe mature forests are the most important component of deer habitat. Many hunters in heavily forested areas think forests are necessary for healthy deer herds. However, many of those same folks consider South Texas and Kansas as exceptional places to hunt deer. I agree, and both states provide great deer hunting in areas with few or no overstory trees. Deer in extreme northern environments need overstory coniferous cover to survive winter, but in most cases we can provide for higher quality forage and cover by replacing some portion of mature forests with young forests anywhere older forest dominates the landscape.
Mature forests only provide 50 to 100 pounds of browse per acre, while young forests provide superior cover and 500 to 1,400 pounds of browse per acre depending on management technique and intensity. That means young forests provide five to 28 times more food per acre than mature forests. This is a monumental difference, and it’s why each year I work to convert more acres of mature forest to young forest on our property to maintain a diversity of forest ages.
Hunting #2 – Food Plot Watcher
I no longer hunt all of our food plots with stands overlooking the plots.
The quickest way to encourage deer to use plots before shooting hours or after they close is to spook them while they’re in the plot. Hunters do this every time we enter or exit a stand overlooking a plot when deer are feeding in it. It’s easy to get in a stand on a food plot for an evening hunt with stealth, but it’s impossible to get out if deer are in the field. A couple of times of this and your sits start getting pretty quiet and lonely.
You can correct this by selecting a stand site close to but removed from the food plot. It should be along a trail deer use to access the field so you can intercept them en route to their evening meal or following breakfast as they head back to their bedding area. You sacrifice some viewing opportunity, but this setup allows a much stealthier entry and exit, typically provides sightings with more available shooting light, and allows the stand to be productive for more sits during the season. This is a great tradeoff and is why several of my treestands and ground blinds no longer have planted food in view.
Habitat #2 – Fallow Food Plots
In addition to hunting my food plots differently, I no longer plant all of my food plots. Each year I designate at least one to leave fallow. It’s typically a plot that was in corn the year before as the standing stalks provide additional structure in the field, and this greatly enhances the quality of the plot. Corn also does a good job shading most weeds out so the next year when I leave it fallow you get a flush of annual broadleaf plants, many of which are high-quality deer forage. You get all of this without planting any seed or applying any fertilizer. In essence, a fallow food plot is free food and cover. A bonus is this food and cover is also available in the spring before most food plots produce anything. These fallow plots are easily transitioned back into rotation the next year.
Hunting #3 – Thermals
I have closely monitored the wind while hunting for the past two decades. However, today I realize there’s far more to it than simply wind direction and speed. Now I also pay close attention to thermals.
Thermals are columns of rising air created by uneven heating of the ground by the sun. Warm air rises, so when the sun warms the ground, the air above it then warms, and this process continues pulling air up as it goes. This can continue until the air temperature in the rising thermal equals the surrounding air temperature.
We can’t see thermals, but we can see their effects. Any time you watch a bird soar higher and higher without flapping its wings, you’re watching it ride a thermal.
From a hunting perspective, a rising thermal can pull your scent up and away from even the most cautious whitetail. This is good, but while the air in a thermal is rising you also have air surrounding the thermal dropping. This is due to the cooler air at the top of the thermal being replaced by the rising warmer air. As the air drops it can pull your scent and carry it far away, sometimes even to deer that appeared to be upwind from you.
During your outdoor pursuits, have you ever come across a place where the air suddenly feels cooler? This is the edge of a thermal. Terrain features play a big role in these, and deer love these locations as they can receive a tremendous amount of information from scent in the area. Pay attention to these areas and map them. As hunters we should absolutely pay attention to the wind, but understanding and monitoring thermals can pay huge dividends in the deer woods. A good rule of thumb is to hunt high in the morning and low in the evening.
Habitat #3 – Old Fields
Building on the second habitat approach I do differently today, I’ve also transitioned some food plots and other open areas to “old fields” that provide early successional vegetation. These early successional plant communities provide exceptional food and cover at almost no expense to me. I don’t have to plant them, and in most cases I don’t have to lime or fertilize them either.
With proper management these fields can provide 400 to 4,000 pounds of high-quality deer forage per acre, and they provide it during spring and summer when deer need it most. Many hunters consider fall food sources, but good managers realize antlers start growing and does begin lactating in spring. So, if you want to maximize body and antler growth and milk production, then the land needs to be “rocking” with high-quality forage way before soybeans, oats or brassicas are providing anything in your food plots.
Converting acres to early successional vegetation helps me meet the annual nutritional demands of deer using our farm, reduces my food plot budget, and provides outstanding new hunting setups since deer move more freely in early successional vegetation during daylight than in forests or food plots. To demonstrate my seriousness about this, there are over 32 acres of early successional vegetation on our farm that were in a different stage three years ago.
Managing deer and habitat is a ton of fun, and it’s an ever-evolving practice. Researchers learn more each year with regard to providing high-quality cover and forage and establishing better ways to manage deer herds and meet your target harvest objectives. NDA is proud to help get this information into the hands of folks who are truly making a difference on the ground.