7 Steps to Get Big Results From Your Small Hunting Property

April 3, 2024 By: Brian Grossman

With a good layout and detailed hunting strategy, even small properties can provide excellent deer hunting opportunities. In the three years I’ve owned my 15-acre property, I’ve had some great hunts, harvested a couple of decent bucks, and learned a lot about what not to do!

The author with a nice 4.5-year-old buck he harvested on his small property.
The author with a nice 4½-year-old Georgia buck taken from his 15-acre property.

In this article, we’ll look at developing a plan for your property that will guide your habitat management efforts and steer your hunting strategy to get the most out of every acre you have available so you can avoid some of the common mistakes I made along the way.

Challenges of a Small Property   

While small hunting properties can provide big results, there are a few things you need to keep in mind before developing a habitat plan and hunting strategy.

First, you have to accept that your results will be impacted, at least in part, by the actions — or lack thereof — of your neighbors. 

The average home range of a whitetail buck is roughly one square mile, or 640 acres. Of course that varies depending on factors like habitat quality and the individuality of the buck, but the point is, even with the best habitat around, you’re not going to hold deer on your small property 100% of the time. So, you have to layout and manage your property with neighboring properties in mind.

Secondly, we know from past research that deer react quickly and negatively to hunting pressure. And it’s very easy to overpressure a small property. To maximize your hunting opportunities, you’ll have to lay out your property in a way that minimizes the impact of that pressure. You will also need to hunt smart and make the most of the opportunities you get. More on that later!

With those limitations in mind, let’s take a look at how to start laying out your small hunting property.

Take Inventory

The first step in developing a plan for your hunting property is to take inventory of the current habitat composition of not only your property but those surrounding it as well. Fortunately, this is easier today than it’s ever been thanks to mapping apps like onX Hunt

I like to start by looking at surrounding properties first, because that will ultimately guide how you layout and manage your small parcel. Deer have three main survival needs: food, water, and security. In most of the whitetail’s range, especially areas east of the Mississippi River, water will not be a limiting factor. So for most small property owners, your focus should be on food and security. And that security comes in the form of good cover and minimal hunting pressure. For now, we’ll just be looking at the cover aspect of it.

Food plot on the author's small property.
The author created a small food plot on his property to draw deer across the property from where they bed on neighboring land.

Supply the Food

You can start the inventory process by taking note of any seasonal food sources available on surrounding properties. That may be food plots or agricultural fields, a fruit orchard, natural early successional habitat, or it could be acorn-producing oak trees. Mark these areas on your mapping app, and note when these food sources would most likely attract deer to that area.

Knowing what food sources are found on neighboring properties can guide you on what you may need to provide on your own property. 

For example, if the neighbor has a 100-acre field they rotate between corn and soybeans, it probably wouldn’t make sense for you to plant a 1/2-acre soybean plot on your place the same year they have them. 

In fact, the years they plant soybeans, you’d be better off planting a cool-season mix to provide food once the soybeans are done and gone. When they have corn planted, then you may do well growing soybeans of your own, or a similar warm-season plot (although you’ll need more than ½ acre for soybeans!). The idea is to complement rather than compete with one another. 

Being surrounded by agricultural fields also may present a great opportunity to plant mast-producing trees on your property — both soft mast species like persimmons, plums, crabapples, apples, and pears, as well as hard mast species like red and white oaks.

In my case, both myself and the neighbors had plenty of oak trees, but little else in the way of food sources. So adding a food plot to my property made sense. Another thing that was lacking around me was good cover.  

Don’t Forget Cover

While providing food for deer through food plots seems to get all the press, if you really want to draw deer to your property during legal shooting hours, you need to have the best cover around. You can provide the most desired food source for miles but still see very few deer from the stand without good cover. It’s consistently one of the most overlooked pieces of deer habitat. 

And the great part about good cover is it can provide a great food source as well.

By thinning parts of the open hardwoods, the author has created good cover and a great food source as well. This is an ongoing project.

There are a few ways to provide excellent cover on your property, depending on what’s currently there. If your property is mostly forested, then thinning your timber to get sunlight to the forest floor can be a great way to stimulate young forest growth that will provide excellent cover and browse for deer. 

If the trees are providing little wildlife or timber value, then you may even opt to clearcut a portion of the property. Again, this will provide a flush of excellent cover and natural food, and it also gives you an opportunity to guide the future forest composition by planting more desirable tree species.

Before you make any major timber management decisions, though, consult with a forester who understands deer management. 

If your property is mostly open land, then providing excellent food and cover is even easier! In many cases, you may simply be able park the mower and let nature take its course. If undesirable or noxious weeds are present, then it may be necessary to do some herbicide treatments. In most cases, though, you won’t need to plant anything.

If you do want to plant a food plot or plots, only plant sections of the field while leaving the rest fallow. That will provide cover for the plot and a wider variety of forage for the deer.  

Keep in mind open areas will need periodic disturbance like fire to keep them in a good, early successional state. Otherwise they will slowly be taken over by trees. 

Develop a Strategy

Once you have a good understanding of the habitat on neighboring properties, you can move forward with one of two strategies: either focus all your efforts to provide something that’s missing locally, or you can take a broader approach to provide every resource possible on your small property. 

If your property is very small and exists in an area where there’s an obvious lack of food during some portion of deer season, or a lack of good cover, then you’ll probably want to focus on providing that missing piece of habitat in the area. But if you have a little more ground to work with, then you can try to provide a wide variety of food and cover to address the seasonal needs of the local deer herd.

Again, you’re not going to keep those deer on your property 100% of the time, but you can certainly get them to spend a good portion of their time there..

On my small property, I know I can’t provide all the resources that deer in my area need throughout the year, so I’m focusing most of my efforts on creating good, thick cover that is lacking on adjacent properties. I do have a small food plot as well to draw them across my property during deer season, but it doesn’t provide a year-round food source to hold deer on the property. 

Map of the author's small hunting property.
A map of the author’s small hunting property with a simplified diagram of deer movement from bedding to food. The diagram highlights the need to create better cover in the open hardwoods along the deer’s travel corridor to increase daytime movement.

Lay It All Out

Once you’ve taken inventory of both your property and those around it, and decided what changes need to be made to the habitat, it’s time to develop a plan for where everything will go. I like to reverse engineer this part by thinking about how I ultimately want the deer to behave, and then tailoring my plan to guide them in that direction.

Start by thinking about where deer are currently bedding and feeding, and how that may be impacted by your habitat management plans. Based on those locations, how can you set up the property in a way that allows you to intercept those deer between the two? If there are already existing trails or travel corridors they are using to do so, then use that to your advantage. Don’t try to change their patterns if you don’t have to. Simply enhance the areas they are already using.

For instance, the food plot on my property has good cover around it and gets a lot of deer use, but typically only at night. That’s because the deer currently have to cross through my wide open hardwoods to get from where they bed on the neighboring property to the food plot. 

So a primary goal of mine moving forward is to continue thinning my hardwoods, leaving a few of my best producing oaks, until I have a nice, thick understory that allows deer to feel safe traveling through them during daylight hours. And somewhere along that travel corridor will be a great future stand location to ambush deer moving to or from the plot.    

You ultimately want to lay things out in a way to maximize your hunting efforts and minimize hunting pressure. However, in some cases, current habitat conditions may dictate where certain features have to go. 

For example, from a hunting standpoint, it may make the most sense to have a food plot in one location, but the availability of an open area with the right soils may dictate having to plant it somewhere else. You’ll have to consider those factors, like current vegetation, soil quality, slope, sunlight, as well as equipment availability and access to ultimately decide what is realistic to accomplish for any given location. 

Short of starting with the blank slate of a big open field, you’ll never be able to layout a property perfectly. You just have to do the best you can with what you have. 

Having a way to access your stands quietly and discreetly is important for all deer hunters, but even more-so on small hunting properties where pressure can quickly push deer onto adjoining properties.

Minimize Hunting Pressure

One of the biggest downsides to a small hunting tract is that it’s easy to overhunt. So, an important part of laying out the property is trying to do so in a way where you have the least amount of impact each hunt. 

One obvious way to do so is to plan stand locations to take advantage of different wind directions, with a heavy focus on the most common wind directions for your area during deer season. 

Going back to the travel corridor on my place, which basically runs from south to north, I need to have stand locations on both the west and east sides of the corridor to handle a variety of wind directions. That will allow me to hunt it on most any day other than those with a north wind. 

Aside from just stand locations, it’s equally important to plan your entrance and exit routes to those locations so you can access them in a way that doesn’t send your scent into nearby bedding areas or so the deer won’t have to cross your scent trail prior to them presenting a shot opportunity.

When possible, screen those access routes either by planting annual cover along them, like corn or Egyptian wheat, or by creating thick cover through timber management. You want to be able to access your stands as quietly and discreetly as possible. 

Hunt Smart

And the final piece of the puzzle will be to hunt smart. It only takes one bad decision hunting a small property to change deer behavior and really turn the odds of success against you. I’ve learned that through trial and error here on my own place. So, I recommend saving your hunts for when conditions are perfect, and you know the deer you’re after is using the property during daylight hours. Trail-cameras can be great for providing that information. 

And when you do decide it’s time to hunt, make sure you execute flawlessly. Watch the wind, take your time getting into the stand, and be just as cautious at the end of the hunt when you pack up to leave. The less impact you have on a hunt, the better your odds of getting another chance.  

Final Thoughts

Owning a small hunting property can be extremely rewarding, and the deer hunting can be phenomenal under the right circumstances. Having a good layout, excellent habitat and a well-executed hunting strategy is key. But when it all comes together, and you punch that tag on a great buck, all the planning and hard work is more than worth it.

About Brian Grossman:

Brian Grossman joined the NDA staff in 2015 as its Communications Manager and now serves as the Director of Communications. Brian is responsible for amplifying NDA’s educational message for hunters through social media, e-mail, podcasts, and the NDA website. He has been a freelance writer, photographer, videographer and web designer since 2003. A trained wildlife biologist, Brian came to NDA from the Georgia DNR Wildlife Resources Division, where he was a field operations supervisor, overseeing management of 15 Wildlife Management Areas. Brian currently lives in Thomaston, Georgia with his wife, Tina.