Food plots are all the rage, but natural foods can be just as appealing to deer -- sometimes even more appealing. I learned that a couple years ago when old friend Clay White from Rutwear invited me down to hunt their lease in southeastern Kansas. After a couple fruitless days of hunting the edges of standing crops, they decided to move me to a new location, which was little more than a patch of ground too steep for planting.
When I reached the summit, I cringed. By the time I'd ascended to my stand, I was about ready to cry. Here I was, perched on top of a hill, on a very warm, very windy afternoon. The nearest soybean or corn field was a good quarter-mile away, and in front of me was little more than a fallow field. Good thing I brought something to read, I thought, anticipating a long, boring afternoon.
The field was mostly overgrown with weeds and small, scattered shrubs. Someone had obviously brush-hogged it several years earlier, leaving only a small island of shrubs and small trees barely the size of a single-wide trailer. Odd, I thought, until I realized what they were: persimmons!
The persimmon's scientific name is Diospyrus, which means fruit of the gods. If you're a deer hunter, you'll agree the name fits. That warm, windy afternoon -- on top of the hill and well away from hundreds of acres of corn and soybeans -- I saw 10 different rack bucks and countless does visit that small copse. Whoever had the foresight to leave those persimmons was a genius in my mind.
Nowadays, whenever the topic of habitat management for deer comes up, we automatically think of food plots. No doubt their effectiveness accounts for their immense popularity with hunters, not to mention deer. However, not all of us have the ways and means to clear a patch of ground, grade it, turn it over, test the soil, add the recommended lime and fertilizer then seed and cultipack it.
Fortunately, conventional food plots aren't the only way to alter the habitat for more productive bowhunting. A lot can be done simply by modifying what's already there. Besides, most management plans call for putting between 2 and 5 percent of your land into food plots. That leaves more than 90 percent of the land unaccounted for. Even if you are planting food plots, don't you want to take better advantage of the remaining land? Here are a few ideas:
Begin by taking stock of what's currently available. Which preferred food species occur on your property? Where do they occur, and how abundant are they? Once you've answered those questions, consider ways to maximize usable space. It may be part of a larger management plan or merely making one location more huntable.
Can't See the Forest for the Trees
In the woods, sunlight equals forage. Increase the former and you automatically increase the latter. Doing that can be as simple as a small firewood cut or felling a few hardwood trees. In winter, a deer's diet naturally shifts toward woody browse, which is often scarce in a mature forest but abundant in a regenerating one. Cut a small area in late fall and leave the downed tops. You've created an instant and easily available source of preferred food (food plot) that you can hunt over right away.
The following spring, the area will sprout with lush, new growth. Herbaceous growth will provide a welcome source of nutrition through the spring, summer and early fall -- often into hunting season. But wait; there's more! Tree stumps will also sprout suckers that provide an abundant source of nutritious woody browse in late fall and winter. And, as long as the deer keep the suckers browsed back without overbrowsing, it should continue to be available for several years to come.
Yet another way to improve natural habitat conditions is, as the opening anecdote illustrates, releasing mast trees. That includes soft mast such as persimmons and apples or hard mast such as beech, oak and hickory nuts. Like weeding the garden, it's a simple matter of reducing or eliminating competition from other trees. Apple trees often pop up in old fields but eventually get shaded out by faster growing species. Over time, they produce less and less fruit. But knock down the overstory and they'll bounce right back, providing an abundant, and more importantly to the bowhunter, concentrated source of preferred food. Incidentally, clear cuts often regenerate with soft mast like raspberries and blackberries, probably some of the most underrated deer foods. Numerous studies have shown that when available, acorns are the No. 1 most preferred food of whitetail deer. Hard mast trees usually do a better job of competing, at least for sunlight, but they still have to compete with their neighbors for soil nutrients. Just a little thinning could turn a moderate producer into an overachiever.
Here, as with the above examples, you want to keep in mind your objective. If you want more deer and overall better habitat, you can apply your management over a larger area. If you've already got good habitat and just want to make it more huntable, minimize your activities so they increase the concentration of preferred foods in a confined area.
Out Here in the Fields
Obviously, there's not much you can do to increase the amount of sunlight reaching an open field, but you can increase its attractiveness to deer without building a full food plot. One way is by simply dropping a match. Fire will very quickly and effectively convert older and less nutritious vegetative growth into elemental nutrients. It also removes unwanted species, often allowing more palatable species to grow. Certainly you can't just go lighting wildfires, but with a little help from trained personnel, you can conduct a controlled burn.
To Each His Own
The above examples are just a few of many ways you can manipulate native vegetation to increase hunting opportunities on your hunting property. Each parcel is different and poses its own unique challenges. It also has unique potential -- if you can recognize it. Become more familiar with your hunting grounds. Examine its potential. Get in to some of the more impenetrable areas and who knows, you just might find a diamond in that rough.