I remember getting that sinking feeling in my stomach when I would go in to scout one of my hunting areas prior to the season, only to see muddy skid trails and trees hacked down. I’d think to myself, It’s only a month before the archery season opens, and everything I know about this area is about to change!
Even though all of that is true, I now look at logging cuts as a blessing rather than a curse. When hunting in the “big woods,” it’s almost inevitable you will run into logging activity in your hunting area at some point or another. Timber cuts of all ages provide significant food and cover benefits to deer that inhabit the area. They also improve the health of the forest itself. It may seem counterintuitive that cutting down a bunch of trees actually helps the forest, but the canopy of an old-growth forest prevents so much sunlight from reaching the ground that it is difficult for new growth to occur. This not only hinders forest regeneration but limits the amount of browse available to deer. When an area is cut, sunlight is once again able to shine through to the ground, spurring a plethora of new growth that provides a bounty of food and cover to deer and other woodland creatures. The vegetation in a recently timbered area is also more diverse than that of a mature forest. This variety and abundance of food helps deer maintain healthy body weight and can, in turn, help bucks spur antler growth to achieve their maximum potential.
Understanding how logging cuts are used by deer, depending on the age of the cut, is crucial for successful big-woods bowhunting. In this article, I’ll break logging cuts down into three general categories and discuss hunting strategies for each.
Fresh Cuts (0-3 Years)
Food Sources: When an area is first cut, the loggers tend to leave the tops of the trees laying on the ground for an extended period of time — and sometimes for good. These tops provide food for the deer, with them browsing on the leaves and twigs they couldn’t reach high up in the canopy. If the weather is cold enough, deer might even start feeding in these areas while the logging operation is still in progress. Other times, it may take a few weeks after the logging has ended for deer to start feeding in these areas. As the fresh timber cut begins to age, new growth sprouts, creating even more browse for the deer to feed on. In some areas, logging cuts will be fenced in at this age for forest studies and to see how much “damage” the deer do to the new growth. Believe me, in a big-woods setting, deer will flood into these new-growth areas! The skid trails, landing pads (where the logs are staged) and other barren areas will grow grasses that the deer will also feed on.
Bedding Areas: In newer logging cuts, the treetops can provide great bedding areas for both thermal and security cover. Even though these cuts are generally open, the deer will bed in the tops to cover their backside with the cover while being able to see openly in front of them. Out of all the ages of logging cuts, this is probably the least time they will be used for bedding, but nonetheless, they are still used for this purpose.
How to Hunt: Based on the knowledge we have in terms of food sources and bedding, we can put together a plan of attack to hunt these areas. They are most productive on cold days, as deer will be digging and eating the grasses while browsing on the new growth that is popping up from the additional sunlight. Hunting the corners or edges provides travel from the cover of the bigger timber (or maybe even an older cut) and acts as a funnel for the deer. Focus on low-lying ditches or ridges for travel zones and trails.
Hunting in the middle of the cut at this age does not provide a lot of benefit. It’s easier for you to be picked out of the tree, if you can even find one to get into. Sometimes, these areas will be “select cut,” meaning some of the bigger trees are left standing to seed the ground and be harvested at a later date. That being said, you will most likely stick out like a sore thumb.
Middle-Aged Cuts (3-8 Years)
Food Sources: As the logging cuts begin to age, briar, dewberry and blackberry bushes are starting to grow thick in areas. These add some cover to the open landscape, and deer love to browse on them. The new-growth trees are reaching heights of five to eight feet, providing even more food and cover. The skid trails are beginning to grow up with luscious grasses that provide grazing and easy walking paths for the deer to navigate through the thickening vegetation.
Bedding Areas: I believe that logging cuts of 3-8 years of age are optimal for deer to use as bedding areas. They are getting thick from the new-growth trees and bushes and provide most of the food they need in one location. During this time, the deer will bed all throughout the cut. This can make it difficult to pinpoint areas of deer concentration, but generally speaking, deer will like to be somewhere close to an edge between thick vegetation and an opening of some kind.
How to Hunt: When a logging cut reaches this stage, it is hands down my favorite time to hunt it. You can hunt cuts in a variety of ways, which makes things interesting. As stated before, the canopy is generally five to eight feet tall, allowing deer to feel safe as they are bedding and walking through these areas. If you can find a bigger tree that hasn’t been cut overlooking a grassy skid trail or, even better, where multiple trails meet, it can be great to set up in. Look for big evergreens left standing as prime candidates for your stand. As an added benefit, these types of trees offer excellent cover that will help you remain undetected on stand. Skid trails tend to be great for the deer to scrape and rub alongside as they travel. These scrapes, especially ones with a big licking branch broken off, can be the perfect place to set up. Similar to new logging cuts, setting up on the outside edges can be productive as deer enter and leave the surrounding big timber that may have oak and cherry trees providing alternate food sources.
Lastly, a hunting style that is rarely used but can be extremely effective is still-hunting. Still-hunting typically works better during the rut as you slowly navigate the skid trails on foot with the wind in your face. You can get lucky by coming across a buck while just slowly walking, but the real magic happens when you interact with them by calling. Use a grunt tube as you are creeping down these skid trails, and don’t be afraid to snap a few branches under your feet while doing it! I learned this tactic from my father, who has used it successfully many times, convincing big bucks to get up from their beds and come looking for a fight. You better be prepared, through practice and knowing the anatomy of a deer, to take the frontal shot as he comes charging in!
Old Cuts (8+ Years)
Food Sources: As logging cuts reach this age, mushrooms start to grow on old stumps and logs, providing a new food source for the deer. In addition, chokecherry trees that will sometimes grow in these areas start to produce little red berries (chokecherries) that provide a snack. Although not as prevalent, you can still find briar, dewberry and blackberry bushes, too.
Bedding Areas: The trees are growing taller and thicker in diameter, which can start to choke out some of the new undergrowth. In my opinion, the deer don’t like to bed here as much as the previous stage, but some will still use it for bedding. In this case, I tend to catch more deer bedded on the edges rather than in the center.
How to Hunt: At this age, the logging cuts can be extremely difficult to hunt because most trees are still too small to support a stand but tall enough to obstruct your vision (and shooting) even if you can find a larger tree to climb. Hunting the edges can be really productive, and I’ve found some of the best rub lines I’ve ever seen along the outer edges of old logging cuts. The bucks will continue to use the skid trails through the middle as travel routes, leaving scrapes and rubs along the way, but I believe hunting the outskirts is your best bet. Hunt the big timber on the outer edge, over or near a community scrape, during the end of October for your best odds. Only hunt these areas when the wind is in your favor.
More Food = Bigger Bucks
Hunting the big woods is different than hunting farm country in a variety of ways, not the least of which is the antler size of the average buck. Simply put, there is more quality feed available in farm country, and that means bucks of the same age class will generally sport larger headgear in agricultural areas than they will in vast expanses of timber.
That said, I’ve definitely found that areas with regular logging activity tend to produce bigger bucks than areas of old-growth forest. This is due to the greater variety and amount of food logging cuts produce. Think about it this way: Big-timber, old-growth forests are known for providing mast crops such as acorns, but they’re not available all year or even every year. Logging areas, on the other hand, provide a year-round smorgasbord of food for browsing and grazing, in addition to the mast crops often available in adjacent big-timber areas. This allows deer to obtain the necessary nutrients to maintain healthy body weight and grow larger antlers. I’m not saying the average Appalachian Mountain buck will rival a corn-fed Iowa bruiser, but some do.
The next time you see a logging truck or skidder headed toward your hunting area, you should get excited, because there is good hunting to come!