May 21 • 09:37 PM

Bucks in small places

October 01, 2007
It was the last day of Michigan's first archery deer season and my unused deer tag felt like it was burning a hole in my pocket. Even when the odds are low I always keep a positive mental attitude when deer hunting. It was crunch-time though and I knew full well that my chances for success were remote at best and dwindling fast. I sat tight in my treestand well beyond the point of enjoyment. Finally the penetrating cold, a sore behind and the lack of deer sightings convinced me to head for home.

My house is situated on a small parcel of land and while my back woods are not what I'd consider prime deer hunting, it does hold a decent population of whitetails and the convenience of walking out my back door to hunt is awfully nice at times.

Commitments precluded an evening hunt, so I slowly still hunted on the way back to the house to give myself one last chance at success. I had barely covered 200 yards when the glimpse of a deer moving ahead caught my attention. My growing despair quickly turned to optimism when I saw antlers. It was a decent buck, not a huge one, but on the last day of the season, any adult buck would have looked like a trophy.

The buck scooted past me well out of range on an obvious search and destroy mission for does. Once he was out of sight I raced ahead to try and cut him off. After sprinting the 200 yards out to the road, I quickly ran up to my driveway huffing and puffing all the way. I ran past my garage and then cut back to the edge of the swamp where I hoped the buck would come through. I knew my property like the back of my hand and I was well aware of a deer trail leading through this natural funnel. I knelt down and hoped that I'd beat the buck to the spot without spooking him.

I kept up my vigil kneeling in the tall swamp grass lined with brush and small trees. With my arrow nocked, I scanned in the direction where I anticipated the buck might emerge. Unfortunately, after fifteen minutes without further sighting, my enthusiasm plummeted.

As a last ditch effort, I pulled out my trusty grunt call and pressed it to my lips. It was a cold, quiet, blue-bird day with very little wind, so my grunts floated out for quite a distance. After several calling sequences with no responses, I was ready to submit to defeat. I was feeling lower than a snake's belly in a wagon rut when all of the sudden I heard a gentle swish from behind me. Turning around, my disappointment instantly melted away as a different and much bigger buck materialized through the brush. I was a little shocked at this sudden turn of events and my heart let me know the magnitude of the situation by thumping like a base drum in my chest.

In preparation for a shot, I slowly pivoted around and began scanning ahead for a possible shooting lane along the buck's approach route. When he closed to within 25 yards, he abruptly stopped quartering towards me behind a thin screening of sumac brush. If he proceeded ahead, he would pop into the clear at about 10 yards distance. With no cover separating us at that scant range, he would certainly spot me ruining any shot opportunity so I decided that it was now or never. When he turned broadside to look over his back trail, I drew back my Mathew's bow from a kneeling position. There was a fist sized hole through the brush that was conveniently lined up with the center of the buck's chest. Instead of concentrating on a specific spot on the deer as an aiming point, I trained my sight pin on the gap in the brush and then carefully squeezed the trigger on my old reliable Cobra mechanical release. At the shot he whirled and bolted across the marsh with a wide swath of crimson plainly visible down his side. After 100 yards, he slowed and began to falter; seconds later the muddy quagmire swallowed him up like a dog inhaling a steak scrap.

After waiting about an hour, I approached the fallen buck which had died right where I had last seen him. The incredibly lethal shot had taken out both lungs causing him to expire within 10 seconds. That "Back Yard Buck's" beautiful head mount now adorns my office wall. Once again a small place had produced a filled deer tag and just in the nick of time.

A growing trend these days in the whitetail woods is hunting on smaller and smaller parcels of land. Increasingly, larger holding are being carved up into pint sized properties and at a record pace I might add. Urban sprawl and escalating real estate prices across the country are the main culprits. These days it seems like everyone wants to buy a parcel of land in the quiet country for a building site or just to own their own piece of turf.

Over the past decade, I've noticed some drastic changes in the woods on both private and public property: It's becoming more crowded and the hunting is being reduced to tighter and tighter quarters. I really can't complain too loudly about these developments though, because in the past decade I've experienced the best success of my entire deer hunting career which spans over thirty years. My recent success has been distributed between private and public land hunting spots to. The secret to my success in these demanding locations is to apply smart "small place" hunting strategies.

Learn the Land

One major advantage of deer hunting in a small area is being able to develop an intimate knowledge of the land. I can safely say that I know every deer trail on the 38 acres that I call home. The deer's preferred feeding and bedding areas at different times of the year are also etched into my mind. In addition, I also know where deer are likely to travel during daylight hours. Basically, I know the property well enough to hunt it very effectively.

Harry Hawkins shot this 22 point buck hunting on a parcel measuring just a couple acres.
Know Your Neighbors

It doesn't matter if you hunt on private or public property, prudent deer hunters need to develop an intimate knowledge of the hunting pressure or general human disturbances in any given hunting area. On small private parcels, the property where you'll be deer hunting will typically be surrounded by lands that will be pounded by others. Talk to the owners of adjacent properties and find out who is hunting where. Open communications often reduces conflicts and also makes deer hunting more enjoyable and successful for all.

It is a good idea to have an agreement with neighbors before the season starts concerning recovering wounded deer. My neighbors and I have an agreement that if one of us hits a deer and it crosses a property line, we must first call or visit and let the property owner know what's going on before venturing onto their property. This small courtesy eliminates the need to needlessly have to investigate a possible trespasser; besides, this policy eliminates the temptation of rushing the follow-up and often results in a helping hand.

Public hunting grounds pose a unique challenge when deer hunting. Often, I actually scout more for the presence of humans than for deer. I simply will not deer hunt, especially with a bow, in an area that is being actively hunted by others. In this pursuit, I typically spend countless hours searching for the right combination of seclusion and available deer. Quite often, I will concentrate my efforts on a very small chunk of land in the middle of a vast public forest. I may only have one or two stand setups that are worth hunting among thousands of acres of land.

Hunt Wisely

On small parcels, overhunting and burning out a stand becomes a real problem. Even on my 38 acres, I have erected six different treestands along with several ground stands. I only hunt a particular stand when the wind is favorable. I will typically hunt my own land in conjunction with other public and private parcels so the pressure is spread out as much as possible. If you start noticing a reduction in deer sightings in an area, then the spot is probably being overhunted.

Entry and exit routes to and from stands need special consideration. I plan and clear those courses carefully so I can access my stands with minimal disturbance to deer. Even if it takes five times as long to get to a stand, it's better to avoid any contact with deer.

Enhance the Land

Small parcels of property can be made into deer utopias by adding a few enhancements. Deer need quality cover and nutrition to thrive and they also require a steady water source to survive. A well placed food plot or two is one of the best ways to attract deer to your property. However if you can provide a nearby bedding sanctuary along with a constant water source close to a food plot, then the deer will really take notice. I also like to spice up my property with plenty of 30-06 mineral sites. With proper planning you can attract and hold deer and also make them very "huntable" in the process.

Suburban Hot Spots

I once attended a party at the home one of my wife's co-workers. In the past, I had some discussions with this guy about the subject of guns and hunting. He is not an anti-hunter, but like the majority of people in this country, he is just a non-hunter that doesn't understand modern wildlife management practices.

We are both avid gardeners and when I asked our host how his garden was doing, he said, "Mike, grab your beer and come look at this." He then showed me the remnants of his once beautiful garden. All the strawberries, tomatoes, beans and other plants were chewed off right down to the roots. He pointed into the dirt and said, "Do you recognize those tracks?" I replied, "Looks like you've got a deer problem." He then said, "Those !@#$% deer have ruined my garden and I've tried everything including repellents and even fences, and those !@#$!@#$ are still coming into my yard." I was shocked because I had never heard this normally soft spoken guy swear or get bent-out-of-shape before. It's kind of funny how a little deer infestation can change a person's attitude. It only takes one or two bad encounters and most people are more than ready to have someone take out some deer.

I've had several opportunities presented to me in urban and even suburban areas where home owners are being devastated by hungry deer. It really pays to present your hunting activities in a positive manor to anybody that will listen at work, church, school, clubs or wherever you go. Networking really pays off, especially when deer become nuisances.

Bigger is Not Always Better

Small hunting spots are basically what you make of them. I would rather have eight to ten isolated, small, hunting areas than one large property to hunt. With many separated small spots, a prudent hunter can rotate stands and properties keeping things fresh. Each spot would be composed of a separate deer herd and the deer would be taken by surprise on each outing.

In Michigan, I often attend off-season hunting sports shows like the Deer & Turkey Spectacular. At last year's show, the Spectacular's annual deer contest was dominated by antlers coming from southern Michigan, the most populated region of the state and an area dominated by small parcels. It never ceases to amaze me that the majority of the biggest bucks in Michigan, some of which are Boone & Crockett candidates, are taken from this region. "Big bucks in small places:" Need I say more?

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