Have big success on small hunting tracts.
Many outdoorsmen do not have access to large tracts of private land nowadays for hunting opportunities. Leases can be too expensive for the average hunter, and the ability to gain landowner permission has been on a sharp decline in the last few decades. Being successful on
small tracts, hidden woodlots, and even in backyards is relevant now more than ever, and very possible with the right plan and a few of the right factors coming into alignment. But what does it take? Does your small tract, with obvious limitations, have the ability to produce quality whitetail? Is the work required worth it, or is this just a pipe-dream waste of time? I asked these same questions, and was quite skeptical this past year too as I set out to transfer my backyard into a micro whitetail honey hole. The answer, however, may surprise you, just as it surprised me with a two yard encounter with a big ten-point one November morning.
I bought my house in the spring of 2019 with the goal of having some land and possibly a small place to hunt. I was hoping for around 10 acres of woods surrounded by fields and other ideal whitetail habitat. What I signed papers on was 6.5 acres, with only 2-3 acres of that even being potential whitetail habitat (surrounded by 3 other houses as the property was L-shaped). Not ideal, but what I could afford. There were few trees on the property, but thick briars, autumn olive bushes, and goldenrod field comprised most of the huntable area. Signs of old rubs and a few dried out tracks gave some indication that deer at least passed through the backside of my new property, and also a raised hunting blind with a weed-choked old food plot showed at least some hunting potential. But with this a mere 60 yards behind the pole barn, and 100 yards from the back porch of my house as well as two other houses, I had my work cut out for me. The silver lining, however, was the surrounding ag fields and 40 acres of pristine whitetail bedding directly behind my yard that I found out rarely got hunted.
In 2019 I tilled two large portions of my backyard grass near my fenceline in an attempt to expand the area deer would frequent and feel safe on my property. Also, I planned to have the best food around and give them even more reason to go out of their way and venture near my house. Days were spent spraying roundup and tilling the yard plots and old overgrown food plot by the elevated blind until they were finally ready to plant. In both the backyard plot, and the old elevated blind plot, I planted a mix of beans, winter peas, clover, and oats sure to make the mouth of any whitetail salivate. Shortly thereafter, the record rains of 2019 wiped out all my work. After weeks of drying, the crabgrass overtook the clover that survived in my backyard plot, and I decided to just do a late summer turnip plot back by my elevated blind. It came in nicely as summer turned to fall, but with neighborhood noise increasing by the day, the challenges to building a buck honey hole became soberingly real. With most of my best spots on state land, I ran a trail camera on some mock scrapes and checked them every 3-5 days. To my surprise, five good bucks, including a twelve-point, a couple 8’s, a ten, and a heavy half-horn older buck made appearances in daylight. These were always at random times, usually in the morning when the neighborhood was quiet, but told me the potential was there. With two bucks in the freezer by mid-November, I turned my attention to 2020.
The arrival of covid and the spring quarantine of 2020 allowed me extra time to scout and prep my backyard honey hole. The plan this year was a bit more clear. The deer did need a good reason to enter my property with good food, as expected, but even more they needed very good cover. They simply had to feel safe enough to enter my property during daylight, which trail camera intel from 2019 told me was not often. I had to find a way to get food they wanted growing, and build some short, and long-term cover solutions. Being friends with a farmer has its perks, and after receiving free bags of soybean and corn seed, I planted both plots in a diverse mix that would provide food and cover throughout the entire fall and early winter. Besides the beans and corn, which would draw deer in late summer and hopefully in November respectively, I added sunflowers, sugarbeets, and clover. For instant cover I arranged a ring of Egyptian wheat around the raised blind plot that would shield it to the houses, and rows of the same in the backyard area to segregate it from my house. For improved cover in the long term, I planted strategic pines and spruce at various places in the property (several hundred), all aimed at secluding the elevated blind plot even more, and also plowed a ring around a good bedding area just south of the plot. Here I planted a tall-growing switchgrass screen, that would increase the buffer between the plot and my barn, and give more holding
cover on my property. The stage was set, that is until record flooding hit once again, killing all seed in both plots except for the Egyptian wheat and switchgrass. Frustrated, and feeling a bit defeated, I planned to put something more “guaranteed” in the plots - an alfalfa and clover mix. I re-tilled, replanted, and waited for rain,... which never came. A drought and no way to water my new seed allowed weeds to reclaim my attempt at whitetail oasis number two. I was feeling pretty hopeless for my backyard plot dreams, but there was one more chance, and I took it. Attempt number three in mid-August was an oat and turnip blend that had grown well in 2019. I planted it, and began prepping in early September for a potential ambush in the most secure corner of my plot. (Above is the plot before seeding attempt #3)
I had noticed the year prior that deer liked to use the south corner of my elevated blind plot the most. I believe this was due to it being furthest from the noisy neighbors, closest to my best cover, and also closest to the bedding cover on my neighbors to the West. The elevated blind erected by the previous owner looked nice, and I had tried to improve it in 2019, but it had fatal flaws: it was noisy and just had too much light entering it (from huge house windows, a metal door, and creaky wooden steps). I placed and brushed in a ground blind in the secluded corner of my plot, mowed an easy path through the goldenrod directly to it, and made 5 mock scrapes
within easy shooting distance of the blind. The plot began growing in nicely, the Egyptian wheat began filling a nice barrier, and I patiently waited to see if any good bucks showed again in early November. I did not plan to hunt it much, and concentrated on my 60+ public hunting land spots that I prepared in spring and summer. I would only hunt it if I received good intel that a 3.5 year old buck was shootable (meaning making daylight appearances). As October progressed I started getting a few smaller, and then medium size bucks showing up to hit my scrapes. These were not what I wanted to fill a tag on. Shooting a nice nine point on October 15th, and a giant sixteen point in Ohio later in the month, I returned home to try to find a big buck near home. Checking the elevated blind plot camera, I found a very nice ten-point. Since it was an early
morning appearance, however, I did not think he was shootable and didn't give it much further thought. On the morning of November 7th, I went to a secluded state land bedding area I’d wanted to rut hunt all year with no luck. Upon returning home midday, I checked the trail camera at the elevated blind plot. I should have hunted there.
At daylight that morning the heavy antlered, thick-bodied ten-point with unmistakably tall brow tines wandered through the plot and hit my scrapes. He was a great buck, obviously felt
comfortable in my backyard, and was now daylight active. All the pieces were in place, and I decided that between myself and my father that we would hunt it every chance possible between November 8th and the opener of gun season November 15th. Maybe if we did one of us would get a look at this great backyard buck.
That next morning, before church, I decided to slip out to the ground blind. I had the perfect approach (after all it was 100 yards behind my house). I slipped out the side door of the garage, and snuck behind my barn to the path I mowed for the most screening and least impact. I slipped in a half-hour before light, and waited.
Only the front two windows were open to minimize light and ability of close deer to
see me, and to maximize chances I could pull off a close-quarters shot. Right at first light I heard a noise behind me, a crunching in the dry goldenrod and switchgrass I’d planted. It was close, and sounded like one of the many possums or skunks that frequented my yard. For five minutes I listened to it, and it came closer and closer to the blind, at one point making me believe it would crawl in through the small opening in the back. This continued, and it moved just two yards beside the blind making its way to the food plot. It finally dawned on me that this could be a deer, and in one more step was shocked - large tines appeared in the Egyptian wheat, just two yards outside my left window. It was him! Casually and completely relaxed, he stepped out just five yards in front of my blind and stood broadside, nibbling on some oat shoots. His huge neck and body almost dwarfed his impressive rack. I’d never been that close to a mature buck of that caliber. I clipped on my release, but realized shooting would be impossible with him that close.
I’d have to wait until he walked further into the plot. Just then, he turned his gaze into the blind. Seemingly unalerted, we stared at each other for quite some time. I honestly felt he would not realize what I was, and keep moving on his way into the turnip plot. After several moments of the staredown, he saw something he didn’t like, snorted, and took several quick bounds out into the plot. I immediately drew, and he stopped broadside just under 20 yards and looked back giving me a quick shot. Dirt flew as he bolting up a trail and toward my neighbor's sanctuary. Amazing encounter, almost like it was planned. The story goes on, but for sake of this article and time, the blood trail ended on my neighbor's property about 100 yards later with a piled-up, bruiser backyard mature buck.
FACTORS for SUCCESS:
That’s the story, and you can probably pick out some of the factors vital to my success on this micro, backyard plot. But I want to spell a few out that I believe were necessary, and anyone can key on to help make their small acreage a potentially big honey hole.
1. THE BIG DRAW: There needs to be some big reason for deer, and a good buck to come into your backyard or small tract. Is it the best food? The best cover and least pressure in the area? Both would be good, and you should make a goal of being the best whitetail habitat in the area. You’re competing against the land and other hunters around you after all. Research and get the best food that deer want to come out of their way to get to, even if it means coming closer than they want to houses. In my case, there wasn’t much food plot competition nearby (main food sources were crop fields and acorns in neighboring woods that kept them in the area). I just needed something
different, and better to entice them to come over onto my property to get it. If other food plots with the exact same thing would have been nearby, my drawing power would have decreased. Keep this in mind when planting your plots.
2. INCREDIBLE COVER: If the draw is the #1 reason, then cover has to be #2. But in reality, they BOTH have to be in place to get deer to use your small acreage in daylight hours. If you don’t have sufficient cover for deer to feel safe when the sun is up, then you cannot effectively hunt them. Make significant plans to increase the cover in your small tract, so it feels bigger and safer to deer. My Eqyptian wheat and tall switchgrass barriers helped accomplish this along with the thick brush already present. Plant hedges, brush, trees, and map out bedding areas for short and long-term structure that deer feel safe traveling and potentially bedding in. The second part to cover is what I couldn’t control, but I cannot look over as a big factor. The 40 acres of prime sanctuary bedding behind my property was a definite key, and if you’re buying property, look for neighboring lands that fit this mold, and aren’t pressured, as well.
3. SHOOT FOR DOES: In my mind I didn’t think big bucks would necessarily bed in my backyard or routinely peer in my windows. My goal was to get the low hanging fruit: the local does to start frequenting my plot. If I could do this, I knew cruising bucks would also swing through at the right time of year. My whole setup revolved around this concept, and it’s the easiest goal to attain in most areas. In doing so, however, realize that impact is very easily made on small tracts, and your plan has to be executed flawlessly so deer see your parcel as a sanctuary all year and never something to be avoided due to human intrusion. Yes, it’s your backyard so they are used to a human presence to an extent, but also make sure to keep some small area less visited, or a micro-sanctuary. For me, this was the spot around my elevated blind plot and the small bedding patches just to the south and north. Also, once September hit I made visits to the plot and bedding areas minimal, was mindful of scent control, and did not hunt it until I knew the time was right.
4. PERFECT TIMING: In my setup, I knew it was futile and would be unproductive to hunt my backyard until the exact right time. I had other spots that had better sign, where I had better chances, and so I hunted them. All the while I kept an eye on what was going on in my backyard by checking my trail camera. I knew it wasn’t my #1 spot, but if intel told me, it could become that in an instant. From the previous year I knew there was a good chance a good buck or two might show in daylight in early November, and so I kept out completely most of October. I hunted a total of three times. One evening in Mid- October when I’d seen a couple of bucks start hitting my scrapes, one morning shortly thereafter, and then on November 8th when I’d seen the big ten-point show at daybreak the morning prior. With backyard plots and small hunting tracts that you meticulously manage, it’s about surgical precision and a strategic strike, not persistence in hunting it. Yes, my father and I would have hunted it a handful of times betting he would show,
but I knew we may get one chance at this (or some other) good buck and therefore was willing to make this our one attempt in the backyard plot for 2020. By treating yours the same, and strategically hunting it, you will have the best luck at catching deer off guard in the backyard.
5. PERFECT APPROACH: The last piece of the puzzle was entry and exit to the plot, and being incredibly stealthy. With paths mowed, approaching silently was easy, but planning visual barriers is also important so nothing can see you coming and going. Only hunting when the wind was perfect made for a bulletproof and ultra low-impact hunting situation, as well. This is what you need to plan for. In my case, the huge elevated blind with noisy windows and door, and too much light entering the blind was a huge liability and why I chose to brush in a ground blind in early September. This was much easier to slip into and out of with almost zero intrusion. The
morning I shot the big ten-point was a testament to this, as he was somewhere near or in my backyard when I slipped into the blind that morning, and hadn’t a clue the owner of that backyard he felt so comfortable in was laying in wait just 5 yards away. (pictured in blue - path of buck, red X where he stood in front of blind)
It’s not easy, it takes persistence, it takes making and sticking to a good gameplan, but small or backyard tracts can produce big hunting opportunities for those willing to work hard and smart.
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