Due to the massive popularity of Whitetail deer hunting, the value of hunting property has forced most hunters into having to lease their hunting acreage. Pay-to-play is the new norm, and a lot of hunters are now in charge of figuring out how to manage these newly acquired leases. Most landowners discourage hunters from making any type of permanent or substantial ‘improvements’ that would be noticed, so oftentimes new lease holders have to accept the landowner’s limitations and overcome. For the first timer, this can be an intimidating undertaking, but is doesn’t have to be. Here are some low impact methods that will allow you to get the most out of a new lease.
Before you can set goals, you will need to know what you have to work with. This will involve taking a deer survey. If are fortunate enough to get a lease early, way before hunting season, you will have the freedom to scout every square acre without affecting the routine and habits of the deer herd. Unfortunately, most people find leases right before or during hunting season. If this happens to you, speed scouting will be your key to success. Speed scouting is the true definition of low-impact; it will allow you to get a feel for what kind of deer numbers that your lease holds, while being a simple method to use.
While wearing a pair of rubber boots and a pair of binoculars, start your mission looking for deer sign. There are two tells which expose unseen deer; deer tracks and deer trails. To find tracks, start with the obvious. Look at a map or a satellite photo of your lease and find any creek, low spot, or swamp which may hold water. Water means mud and mud means tracks. A single creek with water that runs completely through the lease is as good as gold. By respecting the wind direction, you can walk an entire creek and see a representative track of just about every deer that has walked through the acreage. Not only can you get a peek into what is happening around these creeks, but you can mentally mark where the heaviest trails are and find those small spur trails that only bucks like to use. These buck trails are subtle and often parallel the larger general traffic trails.
While looking for tracks and trails, keep your eyes open for other signs. Use your binoculars and scan for old and new rubs. Only a portion of Whitetail rubs are made during the rut, so don’t ignore rubs that are made weeks before the rut. These early rubs often indicate where deer like to hang out, and many of them are used as community rubs long before the rut begins.
Another thing to scan for is food sources. Look for any fruit, White Oak and Persimmon trees. No matter where they are located, these trees can be potential destinations of cruising deer that you might see during your hunt.
Now that you have a decent idea of what kind of deer are using your lease, you will need to start narrowing down your target stand locations with more precise scouting. Most people cannot afford multiple trail cameras, so if you have one, use it at a high percentage location. For example, if you find a buck crossing a creek at a location you can get to without risk of spooking deer, set up your camera there. Don’t be tempted to put your trail cam up at major trails and junctions; anyone can get pictures of does and young deer. Find a shooter buck.
Another excellent use for a single trail camera is to set it up by a mineral or salt lick. One major mistake that some hunters make is that they use a mineral/salt block, like the ones intended for cattle. Some deer will use these for sure, but it is not natural for a deer to stand at a location and lick something, and catching a trophy buck doing it is even rarer. Instead, use a granular mineral supplement and chop it up into a dirt spot. It is a deer’s natural instinct to stay on the move, and they more apt to visit a mineral location where they can get a mouthful and move on. This is a deadly spot for a trail camera to catch a trophy buck stopping for groceries, and a mineral/salt lick won’t disappear like a pile of bait will. These tricks will help you decide where you want your stands or blinds.
Finding and picking up antler sheds is a great tool to see what bucks have been in the area, but if you don’t find any, do not be discouraged. Remember that most deer shed their antlers in the winter time, so when you find a shed, it just means that the deer was there after hunting season. No big deal. Secondly, in many states, deer antlers are chewed on so fast by mice and squirrels that they only lay on the ground for days. So, finding sheds is a bonus, but they really are not a quantitative measurement of how many bucks your lease will be holding during deer season.
If you watch TV hunting shows, you might think of a food plot as a large area where tractors and ATVs have tilled the soil and planted a crop. Don’t fall for it. Some of the best food plots I have hunted over were no-till, hand sewn food plots that made very little impact on the land. There are seed companies that cater to hunters who wish to plant a no-till plot. By broadcasting seed by hand in open areas that can get sunlight, you can have enough salad to attract deer throughout the season. Investigate this under-advertised resource and use it. It works. Try to speak with a seed company representative so you can match up what will work best in your region or state.
One last practice that will enhance your property is to establish a sanctuary area. Almost every piece of property has a thick, impenetrable area where deer feel safe and secure. Try to identify where this area might be and never treat it like a nuclear waste dump. Never be tempted to invade it, or you will be infected with ‘no deer-itis’.
After you have completed your survey, scouting and food plot logistics, you should be ready to experience the satisfaction of enjoying your new deer hunting lease.