Hailing from a non-hunting family, Jeff Sturgis is a self-taught whitetail habitat expert. With a passion for bowhunting bucks and the very little food plot guidance available in the 90s, he was forced to just figure it out.
Three decades and hundreds of designed parcels later, Sturgis said “there are no secrets” for solving the whitetail habitat puzzle. Rather, improving whitetail property is about striking the perfect balance for each specific parcel.
“You can have too much food, and you can have too much cover. There’s a great balance of both.” he told Wired To Hunt. “And once you have that balance, you’re trying to make the property as attractive and the movement of deer as defined as possible on the parcel so you can still get on and off it without spooking them.”
Manage the Level of Attraction Although food plots offer the highest level of attraction per square inch, Sturgis warned they can hurt hunters if sites are not properly positioned or cover too much of the property. The old-school mentality of dropping a food plot on any open spot might draw in deer but doesn’t account for keeping them there as you climb into your stand.
“If your food plots are setting yourself up for spooking deer, then they can really be doing a lot more harm than good,” he said.
And this doesn’t just go for your own ground. Staging a food plot on the outer edge of your property—just past cover on the inside—might send deer through to the next property, where a neighbor’s poorly positioned stand along the boundary could ruin your chances.
“Ultimately, the lowest hole in the bucket is hunting pressure,” Sturgis said. “And there’s no amount of quality habitat that can overcome that. In fact, a lot of times, the higher the quality of habitat, the more risk you have of not being able to manage that attraction on your parcel and creating that nocturnal herd.”
The goal is to hold deer on your land while minimizing pressure that could turn it into a “nighttime property.”
Maximize the Depth of Cover Poorly located food plots can infringe on your depth of cover—something critical to keeping bucks around.
As bucks age, their daylight home range shrinks, becomes well-defined, and shifts to more remote settings. “I look at an older buck as a grumpy old man,” Sturgis said.
Does bed closer to food sources, then mature bucks push beyond that area into the recesses of a property. But if you’ve fragmented your land with a lot of different food sources or placed one smack dab in the middle of your back 40, you’ll run out of room for a mature buck to bed on the edge of your property.
The ideal bedding area will depend on the terrain, deer density, predator population, and hunting pressure of your property. But switchgrass interspersed with early successional growth is a Sturgis favorite for quickly converting an open field into sufficient cover.
“You’re trying to match the size of the bedding area and how tightly constricted that bedding area is, how far a deer can see, how many different ways they can escape in how many different directions, and you’re matching that to the number of deer and the amount of cover you have.”
To compact deer movement and get close, Sturgis likes to create a high-quality screening cover on the edge of a food plot. It gives deer a sense of security while still allowing him a clear view from 20 feet up. This thick layer of cover can also draw bucks out of the woods to scope out the action.
“You’re looking into their world without them ever knowing you’re doing it,” Sturgis said. “Screening sets up that first line of security to deer to where they now feel comfortable bedding 30 yards into the cover from the food plot.”
Define Daily Movement Sturgis manipulates the position of these bedding areas and food sources to determine the daily movement of the herd and, ultimately, select stand sites.
“The more you can define that movement, then you can go hunt. And not the other way around,” he said. “You have to match those habitat improvements to each other. It’s not like you’re just going to send deer around on a carousel on your property all the time. You’re trying to create the movement.”
He uses mineral sites and water holes along travel corridors to help steer movement and sometimes even creates these transition areas with some subtle cuts. Then he can strategically ambush these high-traffic areas where he knows deer will be without getting busted.
“Their defined movements make my hunting approach highly defined,” Sturgis said.
Customize the Approach While these same concepts work across the board from public Pennsylvania big woods to private Midwest farmland, Sturgis said the application of this balance is different from one property to the next. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and it’s always a bit of a gamble.
“You play poker in the deer woods a lot,” he said. “You’re making decisions based on balance and a little risk versus reward.”
But if you’re strategic and leave little trace, you up your odds.
“If yours is that one property where you’re setting the daily daylight table for them, you’ve maintained that consistency throughout the entire hunting season, you hunt like a predator, you match your habitat improvements to hunting a mature buck…then you really can have an exceptional opportunity.”
To learn more about Jeff Sturgis’s strategic approach to land management, listen to Episode 210 of the Wired To Hunt Podcast.
Feature image via Captured Creative.