— By Dana R. Rogers
In the world of hunting, the word “inventory” can mean a variety of different things, and the offseason provides deer hunters with a great opportunity to analyze all aspects that will help yield improved results during the fall. In other words, the spring and summer months are a great time to evaluate your property and local deer herd.
I’m constantly taking inventory, but one of the best times to do that is in very early spring with shed hunting and postseason trail-camera surveys. In late spring, trail cameras can also greatly improve your ability to evaluate where you stand in terms of animal health and quality.
Trail cameras can help deer hunters identify does and fawns, as well as develop a sense of what the survival rate was with the wildlife in the area. This information is important to have on hand during the late summer and early fall when you begin selecting where to hunt and then, more specifically, to determine stand locations.
By locating sheds, finding rubs, scrapes and trails in the spring you can get a sense of which deer survived the season and where they often traveled and spent much of their time. Trail cameras are a key part of my toolkit virtually every month of the year except April and much of May. The rest of the year I have many out looking for clues and taking inventory.
Assess and Address
Complacency can be one of the biggest obstacles that can stand between success afield and failure. No matter your past success, there is always room for improvement, and once you have embraced the fact that you can always improve, then you can assess and address any perceived weaknesses. Simply stated, evaluating your deer hunting approach and techniques and then striving to constantly improve your habitat and conservation methods make a great recipe for increased success each fall.
The offseason is a great time to begin an assess-and-address summer project. The offseason provides you with plenty of time and opportunity to think through the trials and tribulations of the previous fall, understand what went wrong and develop solutions to the problems you encountered.
Now, we all go through the process of assessing and addressing on the fly each fall; however, the offseason provides us an opportunity to take a more formalized approach to the process. Without feeling the pressures of making an equipment change or adjusting strategy during the season, assessing your strategy for the upcoming season and utilizing information you gathered from the previous fall will greatly help you develop a game plan moving forward. Using current information such as offseason trail camera surveys and offseason scouting efforts can help paint a clear picture of which areas need improvement before fall arrives.
Other things that I assess each year are my available food and habitat resources and limitations. I like to do soil tests to see what amendments need to be made and also look at areas where more habitat, such as thick winter thermal cover and browse, can be added.
Contact your National Resources Conservation Service or local wildlife department office for free advice and information on cost-share programs to help with food plots and conservation tree plantings. Each management zone in a given area should have a conservation biologist available to help you acquire the right information on how to improve the habitat on your properties. South Dakota, for example, has several great programs that are available to private landowners to provide cost-share assistance on conservation tree and shrub plantings, as well as cost share for food plot programs and free seed to cooperating landowners.
If you don’t have the equipment or farming background, please understand there are other options available. You could hire a local farmer to do a small planting or even hire a wildlife habitat professional.
In fact, that’s one of the services I offer through Rogers Outdoors, LLC. I can work with you to develop a wildlife management plan, as well as run trail-camera surveys, plant trees and food plots, offer advice, and even do the work for you on a daily or package rate.
With that in mind, here are five ideas you can carry with you into the field this spring and summer that can benefit the properties you hunt and the wildlife that calls them home.
1. Hinge Cuts
While the Dakotas aren’t known for large stands of timber in most areas, there are some rare cases where they can be found. And if you are fortunate enough to have some sizeable areas with shelterbelts or areas with standing timber, one option to improve cover is using a concept called hinge cutting.
By making a cut about 1/3 to 1/2 of the way through a hardwood tree about 3 to 4 feet above the ground, you can push the top of the tree over creating thick, low cover. If the tree is less than about 8 inches in diameter, it will have a great chance of staying alive. That results in shoots coming up from the felled top and creating a lot of browse in addition to more low-hanging vertical cover at eye level.
You can do this with a light chainsaw or even a handsaw on smaller trees. Saw the applicable depth through the trunk, and push the top of the tree down to the ground.
2. Prescribed Fire
“Smokey Bear did too good a job.” That’s what my old South Dakota Wildland Fire crew boss used to say to me when discussing prescribed burns to improve habitat.
The public is risk averse and afraid of fire, and there is certainly a reason to be careful and cautious when talking about using prescribed fire for habitat improvement. However, when done safely and correctly at the right time of year under the right barometric, wind, relative humidity and overall weather conditions, it’s extremely safe and effective.
By creating a fire break around the burn area, mowing down the next level and using the principles of effective back burning, you can easily pull off a very safe controlled burn with the right tools and countermeasures. In fact, I conducted a prescribed-fire burn on three stands of native grasses two years ago, and it went off flawlessly due to proper prior planning and contingency preparation.
Prescribed fire is by far the cheapest method of habitat improvement and manipulation available for creating better nesting and bedding cover and removing old duff. This also results in a significant surge of protein-rich new growth in forbs just days after the burn.
Enlist your neighbors and a local volunteer fire department, do a little research or even hire a trained crew, and you can achieve great things in your habitat improvements with the safe and effective use of prescribed fire. Here in the Dakota, that most often occurs in late March to early May with the proper conditions.
3. Plant Trees and Shrubs
In addition to providing a valuable food resource, mast trees and fruit trees can also provide great cover, and planting a few each year can go a long way to improving the health of your habitat and your local herd. Prior to planting, check your soil type and then consult a local conservation department or nursery on which trees would work best.
If you do decide to plant, I highly suggest putting in a weed mat, wire shelter and tree tube to improve survival rates of young trees.
Which type of trees shrubs work best are relative to each property, but it’s been my experience that white pine, plum, apple, persimmon, blackberry, and various deciduous trees and shrubs provide some great food and thermal cover. Common plantings like cedar and Russian olive are good to mix in, as well, given our soil and latitude.
4. Get Dirty
Another relatively inexpensive way to increase high-quality, nutrition-packed food sources on your property in late spring and summer is to promote broadleaf weed and forb growth by using nonselective herbicides such as Roundup or by light mechanical tillage to just disturb the soil. Quite often, cool-season grasses such as brome and Kentucky bluegrass can outcompete better forage sources long term. To kill off those cool-season grasses — which provide very little value to wildlife — I like to implement a chemical application or a light mechanical tillage regimen.
You can purchase a backpack sprayer if you want to cover the area by foot, or mounting a small tank sprayer on your ATV won’t break the bank.
Get some Roundup, mix it to the proper rate for the application and kill off those undesirable grasses right away. What will follow will be a flourish of broadleaf weeds from the existing seed back in the underlying topsoil that’s just been waiting for the chance to grow. Not only will these broadleaf weeds and forbs provide an awesome nutritional source that you can bet wildlife in the area will notice, but they will also enhance the habitat by offering even more structure for cover.
A small disk can also be purchased for an ATV, or you can borrow or rent a small tractor and disk from a neighbor if available. I don’t recommend deep tillage — just a light 1-2 inches to knock down the vegetation and disturb the soil. This will also provide the right conditions where broadleaf weeds and forbs will come back after the grass layer is killed off.
5. Plant a Food Plot
Food plots are awesome if you have the opportunity to plant them. I put in about 35 acres of food plots on our own property each year, specifically for deer in various forms at different times. You don’t have to be a huge farmer to plant a small food plot, but the type of planting should definitely be taken into consideration if you are limited on acreage and equipment.
In addition to corn, I plant several acres of soybeans from Real World Wildlife Seed Products each year. Those two plantings require sizeable parcels of at least 3 acres (in my opinion), or the deer will browse them down and kill them before they even get a chance to produce.
If you are limited to an ATV or hand tools for planting your own food plot, I’d suggest clover, wheat, oats, rye or brassicas such as radishes or turnips. All of those plantings are separated into warm-season plantings or cool-season plantings.
Clovers can be planted in the spring with a nurse crop of small grains such as wheat and oats. In late May or June you can plant your soybeans or corn if you have the equipment and acreage to make it worthwhile. Later in the summer, say late July, I like to plant radishes and turnips.
The final cool-season planting I love to use is a mix of winter wheat, oats and triticale planted right around Sept. 1. All of these dates are predicated on your first frost, soil types and other limiting factors, but you can use them as ballpark guesses when you’re solidifying your offseason game plan as far as food plots are concerned.
In conclusion, there are myriad things you can do throughout the spring and summer on the properties you manage to improve your deer hunting chances come fall. It’s a labor of love for me and a 365-day-a-year management practice. Take a few of these ideas and make your property a little better this year and do some research on how to hunt your property more effectively.
As always, respect the land, respect the landowner and respect the wildlife.
About the Author: Dana R. Rogers grew up in central South Dakota before serving in the U.S. Air Force. He now lives in the Black Hills and can be reached with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.