Habitat Improvement 101 for the Bowhunter

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Habitat Improvement 101 for the Bowhunter Lessons on habitat improvement 101 for the Bowhunter by Brian Halbleib

The sun began to drop below the tree line, triggering an explosion of crimson, salmon and cantaloupe hues across the clear, sapphire sky. The shadows continued to grow longer across the bright green field to the west of my stand location. Cereal grains in the form of rye and oats were to blame for the neon glowing emerald buffet in a sea of the muted brown and gray tree trunks of late autumn. What seemed like infinite hours of sitting still in a stand this season revealed to me that this was the time and the place I wanted to be this evening. The Wensel brothers always say that there is one tree in an area that more whitetail deer walk by than any other and I hoped I was in that tree.

I did not realize how intently I was trying to sit still and scan the area with only my eyes until a few footfalls in the leaves snapped me out of my trance. It was not the heavy antlered buck I had seen in the area but it was a lone, very healthy, mature doe making a beeline to her evening supper table. With the help of a steady wind and the allure of green acres, she had no idea I was there when my homemade longbow came to full draw.

We all know our limitations when it comes to hunting with archery equipment. As a close range pursuit, our equipment limitations are usually expanded with the application of decent woodsmanship. Knowing the game we are pursuing and the habitat they call home to the best of our ability goes a long way when it comes to consistently killing game with a bow.

I know many of you are like me and are constantly looking for new ways to immerse yourself in this lifestyle, always seeking the next challenge. After years of building and hunting with bows that I crafted myself, I was looking to take it to the next level. As a suburban kid growing up with dreams of someday owning a little place in the country, I was fortunate enough to be able to do just that a few years back. The property is in prime whitetail habitat in the State of Ohio, a little over an hour from my home in the rural suburbs of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Now, before some of you start thinking “Here we go again, more examples of hunting becoming a rich man’s pursuit in another hunting article”, that is the furthest from the truth in this situation, and most situations that you may read about here. It is more about priorities than having and endless supply of funds, which, unfortunately, I do not. I have blue collar buddies that buy a $50,000 plus pick up truck every three years who question how I was able to buy my own place out in the country while I drive a ten year old, used Suburban with no payment. Of course I could not buy a ranch in Texas, but plenty of decent recreational land can be had for the price of a new pick up truck or two within an hour or two drive of where I live.

This article is intended to give you a brief summary of habitat improvement and how it can improve your close range encounters with the game you love to pursue. I am not an expert and have no formal education in wildlife or habitat management, but I will share with you what I have learned over the years and give you some basic information to expand upon should you decide to start improving the places you hunt. You certainly do not need to own your own land to apply these habitat improvement tactics but certainly make sure you have the landowners permission beforehand.

One of the simplest, least expensive ways to add big benefits to your woodlot is Timber Stand Improvement (TSI). A simplified definition of TSI is the removal of undesirable trees that are in direct competition with the trees that are desirable for wildlife. What constitutes a desirable or undesirable tree is a very subjective topic, based on your area and what your management goals are. For example, in the Southwest, tall, towering, yellow pines offer little to deer and are undesirable for whitetail management but they are desirable to the owner as a cash crop when grown for timber production. It is important to learn the difference in your area and try to focus on the trees that offer little value in any category.

The beauty of TSI is that it requires little more than your time and a chainsaw. By removing the undesirable trees, the overall condition of the forest improves and wood growth is concentrated on the desirable trees. Oaks and other mast trees will get more sunlight, mature faster and provide food for wildlife and increase timber value at an accelerated rate compared to the oaks struggling to compete in the understory. Managing your timber is not very different from any other agricultural crop. Proper care given during its lifetime allows it to produce top quality trees and gives the landowner the highest return for timber value. For those of you familiar with farming or gardening, you would not throw out some seeds and never return until harvest time expecting a quality crop. Like any other good crop, the timber requires cultivation and attention during its lifetime if you expect a healthy stand.

Many undesirable tree species respond well to hinge-cutting, the practice of not cutting completely through the tree and allowing it to hinge over to the ground while still being connected to the stump. This encourages sucker growth which will provide instant security cover while allowing the desirable trees to get more sunlight. Hinge-cutting is a great tool for manipulating the movement of game animals as well.

There is a ton of great, free information out there related to TSI and the internet is an excellent source. Knowledge and safety go hand in hand when it comes to TSI. Felling trees is always dangerous and I highly suggest you educate yourself with a chainsaw, a safe cutting method and always wear the proper, recommended safety equipment.

Food plotting needs no introduction these days but for me, it goes way beyond the commercialized side of hunting and antler obsession. Diehard, deep woods and mountain bowhunters excluded, many of us were getting permission to hunt on farms long before pictures of giant bucks started showing up on feed sacks at our local sporting goods stores. As with TSI, food plotting does not require much expensive equipment to achieve good results.

Some of the simplest, easiest and cheapest seeds to get going are clover, cereal grains and brassicas. Clovers include your red and white varieties that have countless sub-varieties in each group. Cereal grains like rye, oats and wheat are cheap, easy to get and germinate just about anywhere you throw them. Cereal rye has properties that also improves the soil naturally. Just be sure to always get cereal rye, which is a grain, and completely different from rye grass which has little value to wildlife. Brassicas include your everyday radishes, turnips and mustard greens to name a few.

Tractors, tillers and no plow planters are great and are essential when food plotting on a large scale when multiple acres are being planted. For our purposes of enticing game into our bow range, small, secluded food plots located inside or close to cover are more desirable. I have cleared some one-eighth to one-quarter acre food plots in secluded timber and overgrown fields with a weed eater or push lawnmower in one day. You can also take advantage of naturally occurring open spots in the timber, like old, overgrown logging roads, saving yourself the time and labor of removing trees. Other excellent spots are the south edge of a tree line in an overgrown or harvested field.

If possible, find the clearings that run east and west or that are on the south edge of tall cover to take advantage of the sunlight that is also moving from east to west. Obviously, the more sun hours you can get on a clearing the better. Do not be afraid to thin any undesirable trees on the south edge of your clearing to get more sunlight on the ground.

Once cleared with a weed eater, push lawnmower or a weed killer like Round-Up, simply broadcast the seed onto the bare dirt. Try to do this just before a rain event or within a day or two of a predicted storm. If you have the time and ability, scratching the bare dirt with a rake will promote more seed to soil contact and improve the germination of your seed. There is no need to rake over or cover the seed, tiny seeds like clover and brassicas do not need to be covered by soil to germinate. In fact, if covered too deeply, they will not germinate at all. Cereal grains will certainly benefit from being slightly covered but if broadcasting is the only method available, go a little heavier on the seeding.

This method works great in harvested fields as well. Of course you want to speak with the landowner, or in my case the farmer I rent some of my fields to, to make sure whatever seeds you plan to sow will not interfere with their farming practices. Some of my best plots have been on the northern edge of a harvested field along the timber. The deer will feed on the corn and soybeans until the farmer harvests them. Once that food source is removed, the deer will move on to find another food source. By broadcasting cereal grains, brassicas and clover into standing crops, you are ensuring another food source will be coming up and will be desirable to the deer after the main crop is harvested. An added bonus of the brassica, cereal grain and clover mix is that the clover will establish itself before the frost and will come on strong in the spring providing much needed nourishment to the deer and the soil.

At home in Pennsylvania and on my farm in Ohio, getting this mix in the ground by Labor Day is essential to allow enough growing time before the killing frosts come. I normally shoot for mid August to allow for any weather delays or if I just cannot find the time to do it. Six weeks before your areas first frost date is a good rule of thumb for getting seed in the ground. Be sure to read the application rate per acre for the seeds you choose. For smaller plots like the ones we are discussing, picking up a designer, buck-on-bag brand from the sporting goods store is fine if that is your only option. There are many farm supply and co-ops around that will sell you seeds by the pound in the small quantities needed for these micro plots without the mark up for hunting celebrity endorsements and outdoor TV advertising. I have had great luck with white Ladino clover, cereal rye, oats and purple top turnips. Mixes or strips of different seed varieties are more desirable to single variety plots. Each variety is desirable and palatable to deer at different times. By incorporating a mix of seeds or separate strip plantings in the same plot, you are ensuring there is always something there that the deer want to eat, in turn, keeping more deer in your area.

The final part of the Habitat 101 equation is water and cover. Your TSI application may have already addressed part of the cover issue. Thick cover in deep, dark timber is not the only security that deer need. Think about the late season, how cold it is and how good that warm sun feels on you when it finally reaches your tree stand. It is no different for deer. While the deep, dark cover in the timber is great when needed, that cover provides no thermal advantages along with the security the deer demand. Tall, warm season grass fields and even feral fields left to grow up a few feet provide deer with plenty of cover at ground level with the added benefit of allowing them to bask in the solar rays without any tree canopy robbing them of the heat from the sun. This type of cover is also fairly easy and cheap to establish. Simply allowing a clearing or part of a harvested field to become overgrown can instantly provide thick, bedding cover for the deer that will allow them to take advantage of the heat from the sun. The addition of some slow, low growing spruce or cedars throughout the warm season grass or feral field will provide additional thermal cover as a windbreak for bedded deer.

Whitetail deer, especially mature deer, will not tolerate being over pressured on a regular basis. They will find places that have little to no human intrusion to spend most of their time. Consider making a portion of your hunting area off limits to all human activity, basically establishing a sanctuary to provide the deer in your area a place to escape without any human intrusion. Including all the improvements in this article into a sanctuary can really make a mature deer spend much of his life in your area.

Addressing the need for a water source does not require bulldozing large ponds around the property. Simple dugouts less than 10 feet in diameter and a few feet deep can satisfy all the deer in your area. You want to find a naturally occurring low spot, preferably in or close to cover. A couple guys with shovels can turn out a decent watering hole in no time provided the ground is not too rocky. Gradually tapered banks are preferred to steep drop offs to make it easy for game animals to get near the water source. These smaller watering holes can be deadly if located in thick cover, especially during any dry spells.

You may feel the need to skip this habitat improvement if you have a stream or creek running through your hunting ground. After many years of observing deer and hearing stories from other hunters on the subject, deer seem to prefer to drink out of a secluded, quiet, still, watering hole over a babbling brook in the open that interferes with their sense of hearing and sight in the moving, noisy water. I also heard a biologist discussing the many nutritional benefits of ponds and watering holes in the form of minerals that naturally occur in them compared to moving water.

So keep an open mind when it comes to new ways to bring game animals into your bow range. Of course this goes way beyond just another way to help you kill a deer. The benefits of habitat improvements like these not only benefit the entire deer herd, it also provides food, cover water and edge to countless other species in the area. You will gain added enjoyment by extending your time outdoors outside of the hunting seasons and see the fruits of your labor with the germination of every seed. The game animals we pursue have given so much to us over the years and it is just a natural fit to give back and improve their surroundings.

There are numerous resources on habitat improvements from books, magazines and the internet. I recommend all the above but specifically for whitetail deer, it is hard to beat the free forum on the Quality Deer Management Association web site. You can find the forum under the resources tab of their site or just enter QDMA forum in your search engine. There is also a link below. I have learned more there than any other resources since I began improving my habitat seven years ago. I you have the means to buy a little land for yourself I would encourage you to do it, we all know they are not making any more. And the best time to plant a tree is today. Leave a legacy for your children and grandchildren to enjoy and carry on.

 

Quality Deer Management Association

Copyright 2014 | Brian Halbleib | All Rights Reserved

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