Small Property, Big Plans

Evaluating this small plot:

April was the month I first stepped foot on that thirteen-acre piece of land. I immediately fell in love. Right away, I knew I was going to make an offer on that Ohio property and the home that came with it. My fiancé and I had been renting an old farmhouse about thirty miles north of this piece and we were ready to leave that drafty old house. I had a good deal fletched out with our landlord in that eccentric house, we were paying month to month and occasionally he would let me hunt his forty acres. Those hunts usually ended in frustration as the owner would forget he had given me permission, subsequently his son would rip through a drainage on a Polaris at prime time. It was due time to break out on our own and we knew it. We enjoyed living in that farmhouse but between the snakes, birds, mice, and spiders, our patience was wearing thin.

Snapback to our house search; we arrived at what would be our future home and I immediately took a walk to the back property line. Driving in, we saw the biggest Tom Turkey I had ever laid eyes on, and that excited me. The real estate agent arrived seconds after us and could not understand why I wouldn’t look at the house first, I however knew what I was after. Were there deer here and would they use this property despite it being a small piece of land? I accessed the back corner of the thirteen acres as the sun was setting below the neighboring tree line. Among the shells of acorns and beechnuts, pressed into the sandy clay soil I saw what I was looking for, big deer tracks. As that glowing sun dipped below the horizon, I arrived back to the area that held the house and seventy-year-old tobacco barn. “We’ll take it!” I yelled to the agent. “You haven’t even looked inside!” she exclaimed. I knew this house was a brand new build, a project house from the agent that had purchased the land, I was not worried about the state of the home, the land and surrounding properties were what I needed to evaluate and I had just completed my mission. 

We closed on our home at the end of May. I, however, would not be able to seriously think about deer for the next three months. You see, I fell in love with a girl who happens to also love horses and as rewarding as horses can be, they are a lot of work. Especially if that work involves transitioning a seventy-year-old tobacco barn into a horse barn. Any decent hunter will tell you though, deer are always on a hunter’s mind and as soon as we closed, I put up trail cameras. The first few weeks were slow, I was ripping out the old corn crib in that barn and building a hayloft, all in the summer heat. Then something happened, on that third week at the new house I saw the buck I would deem Moses. I wrote about this ten-point buck in the article “Mental Games” and this buck immediately had my attention. I knew I had to set a stand in the front corner of our property and it wasn’t seven days into the season when I took that deer. This small property was already producing great deer and now I had a job to do, set this land up the right way in order to pull deer for many years to come.  

Planning and Work 

Food:

Southwestern Ohio is a farm country, there is no disputing this fact as you can take a drive in any direction and find corn, bean, and wheat fields for many miles. Small farms dot the landscape of this terrain often with white and black barns. Occasionally a swath of tall timber will rise alone in a field as a sentinel for wildlife. Oftentimes, these protective bands of trees connect to create pinch points and runways from smaller foliage to larger. This presents a lot of mast foods that are readily available for deer, turkey, and a plethora of other fauna. It was imperative that I set up our property with food and water sources these creatures could utilize during any season. When it came to mast-producing trees, I was lucky to have purchased a property with Oak, Beechnuts, and Hickory. That doesn’t mean I didn’t plant some oaks of my own. 

Swamp white oaks now dot my CRP fields. In the spring I planted Sun Hemp and Sorghum in a large trailing swath from east to west and north to south (blue areas; Picture A). This proved to provide not only a comfortable travel corridor and bedding area for whitetail but food as well. The Hemp and Sorghum will be around as a food source in the late season once the surrounding crop fields are pulled off. With mast, grains, and legumes covered, I had to focus on additional food sources for whitetail deer. This is where I looked to clover and cowpeas. I can access all of my plots (red areas; Picture A) with my mower and that allows me to keep the clover cut low and soft. Deer who tend to like softer greens when they can get them, seem to be more partial to a cut clover plot. Cowpeas have proven to be a fast grower on this land and something I will likely plant for seasons to come. Even with some burr growth, the cowpeas seem to thrive and use the stalks of the burrs as a trellis. In seasons to come, I hope to rotate these crops in order to avoid a monocrop situation and hopefully enrich the existing soil by allowing the legumes and stalks to stay in the field by tilling them in. 

Picture A

My largest undertaking to date is establishing an orchard on the front acre of my property (white block; Picture A). This will provide that key food source that times itself well with the hunting season. In the fall we will have apples and deer love apples. Between a one-acre swath of woods and brush and the pasture for our horses (Yellow square; Picture A) I plan to plant 3 different varieties of apple trees. This strategy is a long play, we won’t have apples for a few years but as the trees grow they will provide cover for deer. My hope is to build up a consistent food source that will not only provide a forest environment but another location to hunt on this small property. Furthering the theme of fruiting plants, I have propagated blueberry and blackberry patches between the century-old oak with which my clover plot lies beneath and my CRP fields. I hope these areas not only serve as a visual block from my neighbor’s drive (north lane; Picture A) but also an additional food source that will drive deer movement into my fields and bedding areas. 

Cover:

The biggest hole in my game at this point was cover. There is a small swamp (See Picture A) on the southwest side of my property that seems to hold a lot of deer bedding. However, this is the only spot that was holding deer, and that needed to be remedied. As discussed above I have planted Sun Hemp and Sorghum in the blue areas in photo A. Leaving these areas to die down in the fall and winter will provide a four-foot to a six-foot-tall area that lends to bedding and cover. I have also left the “in-between” areas (all areas not marked on the photos) to grow as wild as they can be. My hope is that these areas will eventually grow naturally; maple trees, sycamore trees, and shrubs creating thickly wooded areas that deer can enjoy. Creating cover seems to be a labor of patience. I have planted white pines, Norway spruce, Leyland cypress, and cedar trees all over this property. I am very excited to see how the cover areas develop on this land in the next five years. 

Understanding the surrounding property and accessing Cervicide tools:

The best lesson I have learned thus far in the property set up process is to ask for help and to constantly seek outside perspectives. A lot of times it is hard to make a definitive decision on a small property as every move can likely be seen from any position on said property.  I like to use the resources provided to me by Cervicide to evaluate my property and those lands around mine. In talking with Toren Shirk and other Cervicide members, I have come to realize that the deer in this area use my property to travel from one side of the road to the next. This has slightly changed how I have set up a few cover areas and food sources on my property. Mainly adding trees to the outskirts of my property and building up the swamp and orchard. Having the ability to bounce ideas off of another experienced hunter who can take a fresh look at your land is priceless. Cervicide has been great for providing those resources, I would highly recommend any member or non-member, who needs advice, to seek it out in the group or with an individual member of Cervicide. 

Now, it isn’t always what is on a small piece of property that makes it a solid piece for a deer hunter, in fact, this is rarely the case. The surrounding property is far more important than the small piece you own although your piece can be an integral puzzle piece for deer movement and bedding. When we looked at this land I discussed trekking to the back of the property to look for deer tracks, I was also looking for houses, roads, and barns. This tiny piece of property would only workout for my hunting benefit if there were larger pieces of property surrounding it. Photo B shows just this, large swaths of land with timber, farm fields, and hills all owned by one or two families. This is the key to making my small property a deer haven. I have noticed more hunters around me this season and that has affected the movement on my property. This, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. Bedding areas are more prominent on my property now than ever before, does and yearlings love to use the property to safely feed and sleep without threat from predators. I will not take a doe on this property and that, I feel, makes all the difference. 

Picture B

Best laid plans:

Sometimes our best-laid plans can be shot to heck like a piece of Swiss Cheese on your all-day sit sandwich. Having a small piece of land to hunt on can be frustrating. Everything from neighbors target practicing, the mailman dropping off packages, and even surrounding landowners cutting wood can seem like they are ruining your hunt. The key here is patience, if big deer are living around your property and you have set up the land to support those deer, they will give you opportunities for success. The key move here is to be in the right place at the right time and eliminate possibilities of detection at every opportunity. Do not focus on the negative and sit and wait out those neighboring noisemakers. That big buck on your camera knows the guy behind you cuts wood, after all, he uses that property to get to yours. Anger will only lead to frustration and frustration will pull you further from success. This is a hard lesson I have had to learn on my land. I always try to keep in the back of my mind, all of the work put into the property, all of the time, and all of the resources expended. All of the apple trees, clover plots, cowpea plots, sun hemp and sorghum cover plots, the spruce and oak trees placed on this land for the distinct reason of shooting deer. I have set this property up, now I just need the property to set me up with an opportunity. Just be there when that opportunity arrives. Oh, and don’t be afraid to buy a small piece, it may just be your best; big buck property, in your arsenal.                         

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