Build a Kill Factory
Manage your land for future wall-hanger moments.
Hunting whitetail deer successfully year after year takes either luck or dedicated planning.
If you put yourself in the woods enough, with high deer numbers across most areas of Michigan, you’re bound to see deer and get some decent opportunities. However, if you want to have consistent success on really good deer, this takes some very strategic planning - on both public and private ground. Both are worthy conversations, but the two are totally different animals when it comes to strategy and “how to.” So I’m going to forgo public land hunting for now and attempt to tackle the latter. I say attempt because there are many details to consider, and one article just isn’t enough to go in-depth with them all. Nevertheless, we’ll hit some “big picture” points to consider that should put you on a trajectory to manufacture your very own assembly line of churning out good deer year after year. Let’s look at building a kill factory.
When you have your own parcel of land, your strategy boils down to some very calculated and measured steps to do more than just “luck” into deer. Three words to remember are goals, plans and control. You have the ability and brainpower to look at every element of the property and do as you wish. This is very powerful but can be overwhelming and leave many not knowing where to start. The best place to begin is with some clear goals that include both 1-2 years goals as well as 5 -10 year ones as well. I suggest goals centered on deer, not your land setup or composition. Think about deer herd size, age class, general health, buck-doe ratio, and their frequency of use of your property. I’m not here to tell you exact goals you should set, but highly suggest this one: to get the deer you want to shoot to make their home on your property. I’ll make my suggestions from here on with this one in mind. Good goals will be the guide of your decisions in making a comprehensive land management plan.
Being able to manage and manipulate your land is a huge advantage over public hunting land where you cannot engineer the land or environment. Many people, unfortunately, overlook or underestimate their ability to impact their land and miss the true potential it holds. It’s your property, so come up with a plan for it. Through it you are seeking to control both what deer do and your impact on them. An animal, or herd of animals’ behavior isn’t something you can totally dictate, but you can do more than you think to influence their choices of how and when they use your property and how they move throughout it (think training animals like dogs or horses, which is very possible with stimulus-response and understanding their needs and behaviors). A well-thought-out and executed plan is how you will accomplish this, and controlling your moves (hunting pressure) when hunting greatly impacts how and if deer follow your “guiding.”
Step 1: PUT IT UNDER A MICROSCOPE. Whether you’ve had your property for decades or just purchased it, the first step is to understand every inch of it and how deer currently use it. This will involve scouting it on foot and taking detailed notes of all sign (trails, rubs, scrapes, bedding areas, transition zones, food sources).
When scouting, pay special attention to details that tell seasonal patterns and how deer (does and bucks) are using it throughout the year, which may drastically change (summer, early season, pre-rut, rut, post-rut, winter). Also you should lean on observation throughout several seasons to help you get a bigger picture and put all the pieces together before you undertake major projects. Trail cameras can help with this, and tell you how different bucks, as well as how bucks in general use the property. Look for patterns. From my experience some properties hold more bucks throughout the year, while others may tend to only get bucks during the rut. For example, one property I hunt in Ohio doesn’t show big bucks typically in the summer or early fall, but they show up in droves in late October through November to check for receptive does. In contrast, another nearby property seems to hold bucks with many sticking around all season.
It is my belief that the better you know the property, its features, and how deer use it, the better you’ll be able to make a plan for improvements to your benefit. The larger the parcel, the more time you should probably use to get to know how deer use the property (as well as neighboring properties which will add data to help your game plan).
Step 2: PUT IT TO PAPER. Half the work, and probably the most important part, happens in your head and on paper before you ever think about grabbing a shovel or firing up a chainsaw. Now having a thorough understanding of the layout of your property and how deer use it, you can make a map of where key structures are and how deer currently use it based on facts, not guessing. What is currently there, should be worked with not against to achieve your desired goals. For example, if you have a brushy thicket that deer currently like to bed in, and open woods in another part of your property, you should work with that as best as possible to enhance it without doing major changes unless absolutely necessary. Don’t turn the brushy thicket into a food plot and don’t cut down the forest to make a bedding area. Extreme example yes, but think of it like momentum, which you already have some of and go with it for the easiest and quickest gains.
Those are obvious ones, but look for more subtle ones and how you can further encourage deer toward certain behaviors and ways they travel through it by slight changes to aspects of your land that will benefit you. Take as much time as necessary to draw changes on your map until you get something that fits your needs, goals, and accomplishes it in the easiest, quickest way. As you plan, remember our major goal of getting deer to stay on your property and not leave it if possible. The more time they stay there, the more it is home, the more likely you are to have opportunities at them. And the more of their needs you meet, the less likely they are to leave. So excellent bedding, food for all times of the year, easy and secure travel corridors for deer, and concealment structures to allow you to hunt and move about your property undetected need to be planned.
Specifically, look for areas for your food sources (like food plots, acorns, and fruit trees) that take the least work and that you can easily get into and out of to hunt without disturbing your existing or planned bedding areas. Plan your stand locations according - based on easy and completely concealed entries and exits for varying wind directions. Once you have food source areas established, and ambush locations planned around food sources and travel corridors, then you can add elements of concealment for your travels to and from your stands and plan nuances around this basic skeleton. Another thing to consider is setting aside and/or developing a large percentage of your property as “sanctuary.”
This is an area that you almost never set foot into, and that is completely safe for deer. It should be as thick as possible, so creating security cover is key. Look into switchgrass, miscanthus giganteus, for shorter-term fixes, and clear-cutting for long-term bedding solutions. If you already have this area on your property, then all you have to do is leave it be and set your stands or ambush points in safe locations around it along your engineered pinch points and travel corridors.
For example, if you plan a food plot and a short transition from your established bedding area to it, and you’ve created a nice guiding funnel to it (via plantings of miscanthus giganteus or hinge cutting around a clear path for deer to travel), a stand along this route with easy access is a perfect kill spot (given you’ve made access that is low-impact and different than what deer will use). Low-impact access should also include similar engineering for visual barriers and consideration of wind that will not disturb your bedding areas or food sources.
Food plot considerations should include: what is easily made tillable, what is accessible with machinery, where soil is already fertile, areas that have good light, and good water drainage of these areas. You’ll need available light and good soil that won’t give your crops wet feet to be successful. Things like pH and adding nutrients can be fixed, but again, the closer it is initially to “plant-ready” the better. My buddy Tim has a place up north that is mostly sand. It’s taking him years to establish food plots because the soil just doesn’t hold the nutrients or moisture, and building the organic base takes time. In contrast, my backyard plot is low-lying and organic-rich on its own, and I saw good success with my plantings the first year.
It really does just depend on your land and even areas on your land, so keep this in mind and choose as wisely as possible when planning. Once your paper plan is thoroughly thought out, and as bulletproof as possible, it's now time for the ultimate test.
STEP 3: PUT IT TO ACTION: As you implement your plan, keep in mind that some of your land engineering will make immediate impacts (hinge cutting for funnels, cutting trails, annual plantings) while others will take years to see the benefits (tree plantings like fruit trees, trees for screening plantings, etc.). Even getting your food plot well established may take a few years depending on your soil and what you’re planting. Consider using a mix of “quick fixes” as well as long-term and more permanent fixes so you see continuous improvements. Try egyptian wheat for immediate visual barriers (planted annually),
miscanthus giganteus or evergreens for long term barriers, and hinge cutting low-value trees (poplars, pines, maples) for permanent barriers as well as creating funnels to steer deer within shooting distance of your easy-access, low-impact stand locations. A side note on hinge cutting, don't overdo it and be double sure before you cut. There are a lot of resources out there to research specific to hinge cutting, so maybe get further educated on that before you go nuts cutting too many trees.
As you research food plot seeds and options (there are almost too many), my advice is to keep it simple and also remember most of the blogs and videos on YouTube are promoting products that make them money. These opinions might not be completely objective, so beware. The local elevator may sell seed mixes for food plots that are much cheaper than name brands and accomplish the same thing. Focus on a mix that will provide food as long as possible. This means having food options that deer like in the summer, early fall, and when it gets cold in late fall and winter. To further “magnetize” and draw deer into your property, consider strategic non-food draws, as well. Establishing a communication hub of mock scrapes and providing supplements like minerals (when legal) are great ways to do this.
Look at the habitat around your property, see what’s lacking, and make yours fill those needs or do so better than anyone else to attract and keep deer on your property.
Let's look at my backyard plot to put this all together with a tangible example. When I bought my house with its mere 6.5 acres, I didn’t expect much other than having a spot to play with and maybe shoot a doe from time to time. However, I saw potential right off the bat. Of the 6.5 acres (including house and yard), about 3 acres were grass and brush with an old overgrown food plot area already established. Some access trails were present, and its strengths were the thickness and security cover already present as well as neighboring bedding areas and agriculture. Deer trails and tracks were present as well as some old rubs. I thought it through and realized there were a lot of enhancements to make and focus on to hopefully make it a “kill plot” that I could count on consistently for good bucks.
First, I decided to expand my area for food and structure by tilling part of my backyard and planting it. This has taken several years and is still a work in process (as killing off crabgrass and establishing clover, alfalfa, and switchgrass has proven difficult), but yearly consistency has made it better and has added food, increased cover, and added value for deer to my property. The existing food plot area was killed off, tilled, and planted along with several new apple trees (still not producing, but good future food sources). Since my property holds water in spring and early summer, it took several years but I’ve established what works for my ¼ acre kidney shaped plot: a ring of clover on the outer rim, an area for annual egyptian wheat planting for screening my approach and making deer feel more safe while in the plot, and a small central area for a planting of oats and turnips.
These provide food and safety for most the summer, fall, and winter. In addition, I have many mock scrapes established in my plot that draw bucks consistently, as well.
Since proximity to houses (four within 150 yards) is my biggest problem, I’ve really focused on adding as much security as possible. For long term visual and sound screening, I’ve planted over 300 conifers of various species. For short term screening, I’ve plowed strips along the food plot and my entry/exit routes that I plant with egyptian wheat. I’ve also seeded a tall switch grass ring around a known bedding area near my plot for added security, and have established miscanthus giganteus rows in strategic areas as well. With this plan, and consistent work and revision every year, I’ve seen continuous improvements. Shooting two mature deer in my first three years at my house (pictured 10 point here - 2020; pictured tailgate 8 point up top - 2021),
I feel my goals and plan has rather quickly turned a mediocre candy shop deer visit from time to time into something at least closer to what I’d consider a mature buck kill factory. It takes goals, research, a thoughtful plan, and consistent work, but proves it is possible to manage your land for future wall-hanger moments.
About the Author: Adam Lewis is an avid whitetail hunter with 30 years of experience. His writing
is found in a wide variety of outdoor magazines including Bowhunter, North American Whitetail, Deer and Deer Hunting, and Woods N Water News. He is a sought-after speaker and founder of soundbarrierhunting.com. To contact him about speaking or writing, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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