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As all deer and land managers know, improving the landscape for deer is an evolving and never ending process. Such is the case for our Iowa property.
In my previous article, Paradise Under Construction, I described the initial deer management practices my brother Jason and I implemented on a 350-acre farm we purchased in southern Iowa.
Since that time, we purchased additional land and not only continued our existing management practices, but we have also strived to develop and implement new practices. Hopefully, sharing our management ideas will help you with the deer management on your own land.
The "Honey Hole" comes to life
One of my most enjoyable habitat management practices has been designing and creating a "honey hole." I first heard this term used by Dr. Grant Woods, a frequent contributor to Quality Whitetails, during a presentation Grant gave at the 2005 QDMA Convention.
In that presentation, Grant described planting soybeans during early fall in a very small timber opening, usually less than a quarter acre. The idea behind this type of food plot was to provide something highly attractive to deer to boost hunting success over a short window of time.
Soybeans, a warm-season annual legume typically planted during early spring, was selected because it is one of the most palatable and attractive plants to deer when it first germinates. Concerns about the effects of cold weather on the warm-season soybeans were not a factor because Grant knew that the beans would quickly be consumed within only one to two weeks of sprouting, and the goal of the "honey hole" food plot would be achieved by then.
In designing our "honey hole" food plot, I selected a 70-acre timber stand, which is the largest contiguous block of timber on our property. Using a topographic map I then selected what appeared to be the most secluded, sufficiently-sized bottomland area available within this timber stand.
Although I suspected that this bottomland soil was likely some of the best soil on our farm, I still reviewed the county soil survey booklet to insure the specific soil type was adequate for forage production.
This past winter I then "ground truthed" this site on foot to verify that the topography was appropriate and to take a soil sample. At that time I also selected and flagged the boundaries of the plot itself.
This onsite inspection was critical because I was able to carefully select the optimal plot area that even included an elevated peninsula jutting into the plot. The timber on this elevated area was not dozed allowing for the ideal location for a stand site.
During summer, while we had a dozer operator under contract for a larger-scale job on this same farm, I walked in front of the dozer and led the operator to the "honey hole" so that he could clear the plot area of all trees and other vegetation.
Next, we applied the recommended mix of lime and fertilizer on the new plot and raked it into the soil to allow as much time as possible for the lime to alter the soil pH before planting in August.
I then referred to the QDMA's book Quality Food Plots for help in selecting the best food plot plants to be seeded over the new plot. Perennial varieties were preferred to reduce the need for replanting and to reduce the likelihood of erosion problems.
Obviously, shade tolerance was also an important factor, as was palatability. I finally settled on a commercial blend of shade tolerant perennial red and white clovers and chicory; and a different commercial blend of brassicas, clover, wheat, and cereal grains.
The brassicas in this mix were important to provide attraction during late fall and winter after the clovers had stopped active growth. The quick-to-establish wheat and cereal grains were important to protect against soil erosion while also serving as a "nurse" crop to better allow the more palatable plant varieties in the mixes to become established.
In the future, we will also seed fast germinating, highly palatable annuals such as soybeans just before scheduled hunts.
The stalking trail
My idea behind the development of a "stalking trail" was to create a narrow trail that meandered through our larger blocks of timber. The goal behind the trail was to increase hunting success, as well as our range of hunting options, by creating a secluded area to still hunt during midday.
By midmorning deer activity at our hunting plots has waned and deer have retreated to their bedding areas in the timber. Therefore, the trail would offer a place to go after the morning stand hunt where odds of a buck encounter were increased.
Midday hunting opportunities are especially important in Iowa where the firearms season is a ridiculously short five days. Obviously, the trail can also serve other purposes outside of the hunting season, such as a scenic walking path.
The trail was designed to include several turns and blind corners to allow a hunter on foot a better chance of ambushing a deer. With careful planning, the brush that is cleared to create the trail can even be stacked at strategic locations near turns to provide a visual barrier to improve stalking success.
If the trail is designed for bowhunting, long, straight stretches in the trail should be avoided. Ideally, straight stretches should not extend much beyond the effective range of your chosen weapon. Our trail followed contours whenever possible to reduce slope and minimize potential soil erosion. We also had small culverts installed at all ditch crossings to further reduce erosion concerns and to increase the life expectancy of the trail.
Our trail was constructed at the same time that the above-mentioned "honey hole" site was cleared. This reduced costs and insured that the trail would connect to the "honey hole," providing not only a way to access the stand at this new food plot, but also allowing for the ability to still hunt your way to or from this stand.
We instructed the operator to use the dozer blade to clear all ground vegetation so that we could reseed the trail to shade-tolerant varieties of perennial forages more attractive to deer. As a result, we were also better able to harrow the soil and apply lime and fertilizer.
However, the operator was also instructed to remove only the minimum number of larger trees required to allow the dozer through the timber. Whenever a tree needed to be removed, I helped him select the tree of least commercial and wildlife value.
In August, this trail was then seeded to the same mixes planted on the "honey hole" food plot. The lone exception was the addition of a locally available variety of perennial rye. The perennial rye was added to the mix to provide a quick-to-establish perennial that would protect against soil erosion. Erosion was more of a concern along this trail because some areas of the trail were steep, highly erodible sites that needed a year-round cover crop.
Creating buck funnels
Another habitat feature that I love to design is a funnel to bottleneck buck movements at specific ambush sites. All deer, including mature bucks, are surprisingly lazy and, unless they are pressured, will nearly always select the path of least resistance.
Several funnel techniques have been described in previous articles by others, such as altering existing fence to create areas near stands where crossing the fence is made easier. Some hunters will even add string or strands of wire to the top of the fence at other areas further away from the stand to deter deer from crossing out of range.
My brother and I were recently faced with the need to replace some old fence within a timber stand on our farm. The fence had not been properly maintained and had grown up in brush and trees.
While we had a dozer on site for another project, we had the operator clear this fence line and remove the old fence in order to create a brush-free lane for the new fence. This new lane was purposely cleared wider than necessary to better allow access in the future for maintenance and tree removal.
In designing the new fence we selected net wire (or woven wire) instead of the five-strand barbed wire fence that previously existed. Although net wire is initially more expensive, it is longer lasting and requires less maintenance, so is likely cheaper than barbed wire in the long run.
The net wire also provides a better deterrent to crossing deer. As an added deterrent, the four-foot fence was installed so that the bottom strand was 12 to 15 inches above ground to result in the top strand being at least five feet above ground. Next, instead of installing the gate at the original location, we had the gate moved to the place where the terrain features best funneled deer traffic.
We then instructed the dozer operator to doze a shooting lane 100 yards in each direction, perpendicular to the fence line, with this lane intersecting at the new gate location. Next, we used our ATV and a spreader to add lime and fertilizer to the fence line and lane.
We then reseeded all areas of disturbed soil that were within shotgun range of the new gate location to the same attractive blends used on our stalking trail. The final step was to install a carefully concealed hunting stand downwind of the new buck funnel, based on the predominant wind direction.
Timber ponds as buck funnels
Another very effective way to funnel buck movements is to construct a pond inside the timber. Admittedly, this requires more expense than most habitat improvement projects.
However, if the pond is relatively small, the cost is not much more than the cost to clear a new timbered food plot of similar size. And if the pond is carefully designed, the additional cost is more than justified.
Timber ponds serve as buck funnels in two ways. First, the dam itself provides a level, resistance-free path through the timber. Therefore, the dam should be designed so that it leads straight to your hunting stand.
Second, once the pond is full of water, deer are forced to travel around the pond. Traditional trails that deer used before pond construction are now underwater, so unless the buck decides to swim, it is forced around one end or the other of the pond.
The ideal location for a timber pond is where a creek enters a block of timber at one of the corners. At a corner location the dam site should be located so that when the pond is full, the water line will extend outside of the corner of the timber. This will funnel buck movements toward the dam most effectively because bucks will be reluctant to leave the timber during daylight hours to cross at the opposite end (tail waters) of the pond.
Topographic maps should also be referenced to narrow the selection of a specific site to the area where the least amount of dirt fill is required, such as an area where the drainage is bottlenecked by a perpendicular ridgeline. Less dirt fill means less dam construction cost.
An additional consideration is the source for the dirt fill. Of course, a lot of the dirt will be taken from the drainage area upstream of the dam to add depth to the pond. However, the operator should also be instructed to remove dirt from the area between the dam and the most likely stand location. Once this area has been cleared you will have a wide open shooting lane to the pond as well as a new location to seed a food plot!
Our timber ponds are designed to be as multifunctional as possible. Of course, our primary objective is to funnel buck movements, but secondarily, ponds obviously provide drinking water for deer and therefore also serve as their own year-round attractant.
Ponds are "conservation friendly" because they slow water flow and thereby reduce soil erosion downstream, which is the primary reason most ponds are constructed in southern Iowa. Ponds are also very aesthetic and scenic, serving as "environmental kidneys" that filter water of heavy metals and other contaminants. They increase wildlife and plant diversity and add a whole new dimension to your management options when you take into consideration the potential to develop the pond for fishing, waterfowl hunting, and so forth.
I was surprised to learn that around 40 new ponds are constructed each year just in our county in southern Iowa. The local Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) agents that we deal with are experts at designing ponds and their guidance should be pursued as early in the planning process as possible. The NRCS office can even help to provide low-interest loans for the cost of the construction.
Improving access while minimizing disturbance
Often one of the first improvements made to a new property is the installation of roads and trails. Obviously, without proper access, new landowners are unable to take full advantage of their property. However, because these roads will hopefully be around for the rest of your lifetime, and because new roads can quickly have a negative effect on deer use of your property, they should be very carefully planned ahead of time.
When we first purchased our property, a few dirt lanes existed that either dead-ended at farm fields or connected farm fields together. It was apparent that the previous landowner's priority with regard to lanes was to access farm fields. Obviously, our objectives were much different.
First, we wanted a system of roads that maximized access. Second, we wanted a road system that minimized disturbance to deer. Clearly these can be competing objectives and therefore require thoughtful planning.
Our first step was to review aerial photos and topographic maps of the property. All existing roads and lanes were then clearly marked on these maps. We next outlined the most sensitive habitats, such as designated sanctuaries and critical deer bedding areas, so that these areas could be avoided when designating locations for new roads. As a general rule, roads should be concentrated along the property boundary to minimize disturbance. If public roads serve as property boundaries, these roads should be accessed whenever possible.
The most critical access roads should be converted to all-weather roads if possible to allow access regardless of weather. Rock should also be considered for all highly erodible areas as well, such as road sections on steep slopes and hillsides.
In addition, culverts should be installed at all ditch and creek crossings to increase the life expectancy of roads in these areas. Although culverts and their installation add considerable cost, the cost of re-working washed-out sections of roads after each "gully washing" rain event soon surpasses the costs of building these areas the right way in the first place.
Most rural property now changing hands across the United States is being purchased for recreational purposes. Many of these new landowners are buying recreational land for the purpose of hunting, and deer are most often the primary target.
This new breed of landowner likely has very different management objectives than did the previous owner. This change in objectives has resulted in a whole new mindset.
For example, very few landowners 20 years ago would have considered planting a food plot for deer, much less paying for the expense to clear timber to create a honey-hole food plot or a stalking trail. And I can only imagine what a landowner 20 years ago would have thought of the idea of constructing a pond inside the timber for the primary purpose of funneling buck movements!
Now-a-days however, more and more landowners are "thinking like a deer" and are altering the landscape for the benefit of the deer herd.
Hopefully, the ideas we have shared will not only help you with the deer management on your own property, but will also inspire you to approach each new project from a different perspective — a deer's perspective!
For more information on the Quality Deer Management Association, visit www.qdma.com.