Most of us recognize that imroved habitat and nutrition will attract deer, keep them on a property and help them achieve greater body weights and antler growth. But these improvements might not actually make your hunting better, especially if tagging a mature buck is your goal. As we all know, older whitetails are notorious for nocturnal movement. They're also incredibly wind-wary, decidedly lazy and often intolerant of rival bucks. These factors can—and will—exist no matter how diligently we work to make life easier for them.
But according to whitetail habitat expert Neil Dougherty, hunters/land managers can increase their odds of hunting success by creating a blueprint of bedding, feeding and travel areas that will encourage deer to behave in a more consistent and predictable manner. Neil, along with his father, Craig, operate the North Country Whitetails Research Facility in upstate New York.
"I call the process 'advanced property layout'" Neil said. "I've worked on dozens of properties totaling more than 100,000 acres, and in almost every situation, Mother Nature favors deer over hunters. Prevailing wind directions and topography are factors hunters can't control, and deer have mastered them as they use a piece of property. But other factors that influence deer movement—food sources, vegetation and travel corridors—can be controlled or manipulated by a property owner or manager. Advanced property layout is the process of taking an overall view of a piece of land and then deciding on concrete steps that not only attract and hold deer on the property, but also keep deer on their feet and allow us to hunt them effectively."
While many modern hunters are already well into the food plot experience, Neil says the best plots do far more than offer bucks a buffet. "The general rule in food plotting is to devote approximately 10 percent of your total acreage to food sources," he said. "And the natural temptation is to make one or more big food plots in an attempt to provide more tonnage of feed. While it's a great idea to have these larger plots on a property, when it comes to actually shooting deer, plots measuring 2 acres or more present several difficulties for hunters.
"First, mature bucks quickly learn to pattern hunters when we revisit the same plots constantly," Neil said. "A big buck will stay 200-300 yards from a food plot and scent-check it before entering. This means on the days we hunt, he's not hitting that source until well after dark. In addition, one large plot will also concentrate doe/fawn families, and this situation only makes mature bucks tougher to hunt because they don't have to search for does."
The solution to this problem is to have several smaller plots (often called hunting or harvest plots). "Spreading these smaller plots over the property gives deer multiple feeding options throughout the season," Neil said. "They'll also force bucks to get on their feet and search for does during the rut, and this situation makes them more vulnerable to hunters." Neil recommends setting up these small plots in a linear fashion, taking into account topography and prevailing fall wind directions for your property. Hunter access routes—both to and from the stand—must also be taken into consideration. He stresses that hunters must be able to slip in and slip out without busting deer.
Neil recommends taking advantage of established small openings, such as meadows, log landings and areas of scrub trees or brush. In many cases, bulldozers or other heavy equipment will be required to create these mini-plots, which escalates costs. "Of course, you only do what you can afford, so for some guys it might take a few years to achieve their design goals," Neil said. "The main thing is to have a plan in place and try to follow it. One of the most enjoyable things for me is to put a sheet of clear plastic on an aerial photo and start sketching in potential areas and deciding how they'll work together. Planning is cheap, but it's essential to achieving your goals."
The second piece of the design puzzle is creating travel corridors that link bedding areas to food plots and, indeed, food plots to each other. Neil says these travel lanes give bucks a sense of security as they walk, because he manipulates vegetation to create a lane of cover that not only hides deer, but allows them to browse as they travel. Naturally, these corridors are also laid out so they give hunters a better chance at shooting the bucks traveling them.
"The best travel corridors essentially play connect-the-dots between the small harvest plots you lay out," Neil said. "I build corridors by cutting 60-70 percent of the trees in about a 50-yard-wide swath. I leave the treetops right where they fall as they create cover for the short term and, as they rot, produce soil nutrients for the brush and young growth that will appear after the cut. That young growth—brambles, saplings, etc.—will provide deer with the browse species they love, as well as the cover that gives mature bucks a sense of security as they travel. Ideally, corridors should be located so they swing upwind of the small harvest plots you create; this allows you to place stands along the plots and not be detected by incoming deer."
The final piece of the layout puzzle is the creation of sanctuaries. While designating a certain percentage of your property "hands off" might seem difficult to swallow (especially on small tracts), Neil insists this step is crucial. "Sanctuaries provide the security cover whitetails—especially mature bucks—need to consistently use a property," he said. "When deer have everything they need in one spot—food, cover and safety—there's no need for them to search for better habitat. But take away any one of these factors, and you've diminished the attraction of that place."
Naturally, sanctuaries should be selected carefully and designed to work in conjunction with food plots and travel corridors. Neil suggests 20 percent of a land parcel be dedicated to sanctuaries, and that space is not to be invaded at any time during the year (with the obvious exception of trailing/recovering a deer). In actuality, designating sanctuaries isn't difficult; all you need to do is select areas that are already used by deer for security, and that are also tough to hunt, due to fickle winds, rough terrain, poor access or a combination of all three.
One of the great temptations of land managers is to hurry and get projects like food plots behind them so they can race toward their true goal—hunting. But according to Neil, thoughtful planning and precise property layout should come first. "My experience has proven that you need to start there," he stressed. "Get an aerial photo, put a sheet of clear plastic on it, grab a marker and start drawing up some ideas. The good thing is that at this stage nothing is set in stone. You can draw in a food plot, think about prevailing winds, how and when you'll hunt it, and decide it's not set up right. So you erase that plan and start over. No waste of time, money and energy."
Almost every single hunter has limited time and money to spend, and when they make a decision on a habitat project, it needs to be the right one, the first time they make it.