Spring Cleaning Your Deer Habitat

So spring is here…or came and went and moved right to summer temperatures. Anyway, spring  usually means the always exciting activity of spring cleaning is here too. The thought of cleaning places unseen or touched with a mop since last spring are, well, let’s just say there’s good reason spring cleaning only happens once a year. But I’m not talking about cleaning the gutters; I’m talking about the more important activities (to deer hunters) that are part of spring cleaning your deer habitat.

Whether you own, lease, or have access to private ground, spring is when you lay the groundwork for success in the fall. Even if you’ve not begun your spring updates yet, it’s not too late to get started. Here are a few things to consider as you approach spring cleaning your deer habitat.

Clearing Hunting Access Routes

Having adequate access routes to and from stand locations is often one of the most overlooked aspects of a hunting strategy. We’ve all been guilty of taking the easy route to a stand that leads to jumping deer. This is the time to make adjustments to reduce those unwanted encounters.

Our farm access routes are relatively well-defined, as many are old logging roads that take minimal effort to keep clear. With that said, not all our routes provide ideal entrance and exit options. A few of my stand locations need a dedicated access route to keep my scent and noise from intruding a nearby bedding area on my entrance and exit. You don’t need fancy equipment to clear trails or create better access. In my case, I used a machete to create a small (wide enough for me, my stand and my bow to fit) more direct trail to my stand location through some undergrowth. When clearing or creating new access routes, you should do so with 3 goals in mind; remain hidden, keep scent away from known bedding and deer travel routes, and travel perpendicular to known deer movement or trails. Of course, the use of an ATV or chainsaw when doing any outdoor work  is helpful, but this job can get done the old fashioned way, too. And there’s something therapeutic about swinging a machete wildly after a long week of work.

Preparing Food Plots

Planting food plots occurs predominantly between spring and late summer, depending on the type of forage you intend to plant. Make sure you follow the planting instructions as indicated. With that said, many of us likely have a mixture of warm and cool season forage and will need to begin to prepare seed beds for the warm season plantings in early spring. Unfortunately, I have yet to plant our soybean plot due to rain and lower than usual soil temperatures. I’ve spent more time in May staring at soil temperature maps than anyone should.

For warm season plots, early spring is the time to spray and kill all vegetation in preparation for establishing a new plot, or burning down an existing plot to start anew. If you’re working an existing perennial plot, spraying for both grasses and broadleaf weed control is a must.

Whether planting an annual or establishing a new perennial plot, you’ll need to decide how you intend to sow the seed. There are a few options and each has its pros and cons.  You can till up the ground, creating a nice seed bed to provide good seed to soil contact. This is the option with the most successful rate of seed germination, but is time consuming especially without the help of some type of modern equipment. Using a no-till method can be quicker and help to better control weeds since the soil is minimally disturbed. This allows dormant seeds lying in the soil to remain dormant, but may require specific equipment. The required equipment to no-till can be rented if not already owned.  I’ve recently been giving thought to trying the no-till top sow method. This will require only killing the plot and broadcasting seed onto the dead vegetation. The upside to this method is it requires less equipment and less time than preparing a seedbed or no-till planting, but it will require spreading seed at a higher rate, therefore increasing seed cost. You’ll also want to plant something with small seeds to insure they find their way through the dead debris to the soil. I’ll likely try this on one of my smaller, cool season forage plots before using it on my larger plots.

As always, make sure to perform a soil test annually and follow the guidelines the soil test provides. This should help in determining what crop may be right for your land and how much lime and fertilizer will be needed for any of the described planting methods.

Cutting And Thinning Timber

Cutting and thinning timber is a great way to increase your habitat however, it can be a dangerous endeavor for even those folks most experienced with a chainsaw. First and foremost, make sure you are using all the necessary safety equipment before firing up the chainsaw or hire a professional.

Before heading out to the timber to start cutting, be sure to have a plan in place. Cutting timber without a purpose will likely ruin more hunting and habitat than it will help. Contact a local forester (a forester with QDM experience is preferred) to get a sense of tree species on the land and how to approach cutting to achieve specific timber and habitat goals. Determine your habitat goals and be strategic about where cuts or thinning is performed. Do you want to create bedding, change the way deer move on your property, or open the forest canopy to allow sunlight to hit the forest floor, creating growth from a dormant seedbed? These are important question to answer before entering the woods with a chainsaw.

My suggestion is to start with small cuts or thinning projects. It’s much easier for habitat to recover from small mistakes versus swinging for the fences and negatively impacting your hunting and habitat with large scale timber cutting errors. Large timber cutting mistakes can impact a habitat for years.

This year, we took a modest approach with the chainsaw at the farm. Our goal was to create a small doe bedding area near a food source. The hope is the bedding on the point of the ridge, 500 yards further to the southwest, will then be used as a buck bedding area. In a separate area we fell all the dead trees, opening the canopy to promote undergrowth. So far we’re seeing early returns. On a recent scout, the bedding we made is being used as we hoped, and the undergrowth cut has created a nice crop of green briar.

Scouting

Spring is a great time to hit the timber for some scouting. With hunting season months away, the little bit of pressure placed on a property during spring scouting will be long forgotten by the deer herd come fall. Pairing scouting with spring turkey season is a great time to kill two birds with one stone. Or in my case, miss one bird and gather deer intel. Identify any new travel routes, bedding areas, scrape locations and rubs from last season. This information gathered in spring may not hold true into the fall, but will provide a great foundational understanding of any property you intend to hunt.

Scouting this spring has the potential to pay off in a big way for me this year. A 40 acre mountain on our farm goes virtually untouched every year. The wind on the mountain is fickle, it’s a bear to climb, and you won’t get run over with deer, which can make for some long hunts. I’ve known deer are living on the top of the mountain, and have trail camera images over the past two years that suggests a nice buck calls the mountain top home. This year, I’ve set out to successfully hunt the mountain, if for no other reason than it’s one of the only locations in our area with little to no pressure. This past month during a spring scout, I found a prototypical “big” buck bed. I’ve hung a few game cameras on a nearby trail, hoping as bucks come into velvet I’ll get the proof I’m looking for.

Hanging Stands & Trimming Lands

Once it’s time to start hanging stands and trimming shooting lanes, I can almost feel the cool, fall air and taste the bad hunting camp coffee. Okay, maybe that cool air is the current reality of my May weather. Regardless, late spring is an ideal time to hang a few stands and trim shooting lanes. Again, it’s a few months until deer season, so no need to be concerned with placing pressure on your property. Spring also provides the perfect opportunity to get an accurate view of what the timber will look like, and how shooting lanes will need to be trimmed for the upcoming early season. It’s easy to forget that the wide open shot you had mid-November will be impossible with all the foliage in early October.

To be honest, I only hang 2-3 stands at most as I use a climber for just about every hunt. I also do very little trimming as I prefer the cover versus wide-open shooting lanes. That being said, I will take my climber and climb a few select trees, trimming what’s within my reach to make my climbs a little easier in the fall.

Final Thoughts

Let’s face it, for deer addicts our to-do list is never ending. Deer hunting is a year round obsession. So who cares what time of year it is. Get into the outdoors and play in the dirt. If nothing else, spring cleaning your deer habitat will keep you away from whatever the scary things that have taken up residence in your gutters.

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