At one point, I owned three different properties. All ranged in size from 28 to 30 acres, and all were mediocre pieces as far as deer quality and quantity was concerned. I managed to pick up all three in the span of about five years in a soft recreational real estate market. At the time, I had big dreams about habitat improvement.
I wanted it all. Food plots, apple trees, watering holes, hinge-cut bedding areas, you name it. What I quickly realized, however, was that I didn’t have the time or the resources to effectively improve three properties (or one for that matter). I half-assed all of them with random kill plots, trails, fruit tree plantings, all in an attempt to make them a little better.
While my trail camera recon showed plenty of deer usage on each piece, the hunting mostly sucked. I couldn’t really figure out why, until I started to think about access. This brought a level of clarity to the situation and made me realize what I had been missing.
You’ve heard it from a dozen different prominent whitetails voices—access is everything. When it comes to thousands of acres of public land, maybe. In regard to small properties—absolutely.
This lesson really hit home with me on a 30-acre chunk I own in north-central Wisconsin. Over the years I’ve carved out and cultivated a small kill plot, and it always hosts a few resident does and random bucks.
I thought I was being smart by parking as far away from that plot as I could get, which wasn’t all that far. But every time I’d hunt the plot, I’d see very few deer, if any. On a whim, I decided to park much closer to the plot, but also much closer to the two closest neighbors’ driveways. The first time I tried that, I arrowed a doe that walked in from an unexpected direction and was likely bedded within 100 yards of my truck.
It was a lightbulb moment that seems dumb now. Of course the deer were used to hearing cars and people noises there, because they do every day. Parking my truck there didn’t cause any alarm because it blended right into what they were used to hearing. That little switch in access made hunting that plot far more productive.
The lesson here is simple. On small properties you want to preserve natural movement by minimizing your impact with every hunt. Deer that hear, see, or smell where you entered their world will be negatively affected by it. Be careful, plan meticulously, and pay attention. The deer will tell you if they're onto your presence.
Everyone who gets their hands on a small property, and has the means, is going to put in a food plot. It’s a fun task that usually results in some decent hunting. But there are other things to consider, that might already be at your disposal.
Take, for example, other food sources. On the property I just mentioned, I planted eight apple trees in bear-proof cages as soon as I bought the place. Six years later, those apple trees are about 10 years from dropping any fruit. The rest of the property, I know now, is loaded with apple trees that were there when I bought it. I’ve been opening up the canopy to them ever since, and they provide plenty of fruit for deer, bear, and grouse.
The best way to approach this is to take a long look at what you have to work with on your small ground, and what is available for the deer on neighboring properties. If you’re surrounded by ag fields, you probably don’t need to focus on food. Bedding cover should be the main focus there. If you’re in a dry section, putting in a pond might do you more good than any food plot ever could. If most of the woods around you is old-growth with little browse, it might be time to bring in the chainsaws and get that sunlight to the forest floor.
Even if you only have 10 or 20 acres to work with, you have options. You might not be able to create a dreamy deer spot complete with everything a buck needs for his daily life, but you might be able to play off of something that isn’t readily available in your neighborhood. If you do, make sure you’ve got a way to get in there to hunt it without spooking everything. Then, even on tiny acreage, you’ll have decent hunting every time you go out.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.