10 Tips for Finding and Evaluating Productive Deer Hunting Land
Whether you are looking for private hunting land to buy or lease it’s never too early to start the search for your next (and improved) piece of hunting ground. The first thing to understand is that the world is smaller than it used to be. There is more competition for private hunting lands than ever, more people and more hunters willing to travel further. To make matters worse, good deer hunting land continues to be converted to subdivisions, shopping centers and restaurants. Go anywhere and the reality is that we’re not in Kansas anymore. It will only get tougher with time.
That said, there are still plenty of good places to hunt. Finding quality deer hunting land is not that hard. However, it is difficult to find GOOD ground that is affordable, not already over-hunted, or available for lease or purchase. There is plenty of poor hunting land available as well. This article will help you to avoid that stuff. Unfortunately, some property owners and lease brokers are simply camouflaged used car salesmen. Don’t fret.
Becoming a hunter takes preparation and patience, but becoming a successful hunter means possessing the knowledge to know when and where to focus your efforts as well as the skill to seal the deal when a little bit of time is all that separates a good day from a great one. These same traits can help you identify your next deer hunting property. Whether you’re looking to buy land or lease it, I think these 10 tips for finding and evaluating hunting land will help.
1. Deer Hunting Property: The Basics
White-tailed deer need habitat that provides food, cover and water. Ideally, your hunting ground should have all three present. If not, you can always add it after purchasing or leasing. The most difficult aspect to add is cover, so pay attention to trees, brush and even tall grass when you’re making a site visit. Those buying will have a longer time horizon and more flexibility for developing cover versus those leasing.
Also, “cover” varies a lot within the whitetail’s range, so that do not think that a property must be a forest or woodland from end-to-end, but it also should not be a short-grass prairie either. Try to imagine what the place will look like after the deciduous trees and shrubs drop their leaves. Will it still offer bedding or travel areas for white-tailed deer then?
2. Deer Habitat: Size Matters
Size matters when it comes to tract size and hunting. Generally, the smaller a property is in size the more cover it will need on a percentage basis to HOLD deer. Large properties, however, can buffer disturbances and hunting pressure simply by their shear size. This rule-of-thumb does not necessarily mean that smaller acreages will not offer good deer hunting. After all, there are some great pint-sized properties that have deer super-highways running through them and these would make for a great acquisition.
3. Productive Hunting Land: Location!
Whether buying or leasing, we are talking about real estate here and that means “location, location, location” is paramount. I’ve seen some great properties with excellent deer habitat and very few, if any, deer. The reason? They are surrounded by other properties that lack suitable deer habitat. For example, a 100 acre tract of woods may be a prime piece of hunting ground, and it may even produce the buck of a lifetime, but don’t expect it to be covered up in deer (all the time) if it’s located several miles from the next block of woods. On the flip side, pressured deer may seek refuge in this island of habitat later in the season, after being bumped from other areas. This scenario could be applicable to woodlots in farm country or prairies.
Ideally, if you’re looking for deer hunting ground then you want a property that is connected on at least two sides with other properties through either contiguous trees, brush or travel corridors. This is especially important for tracts less than several hundred acres in size.
4. Predict Deer Movement
Topography is important. Properties that are more or less flat with homogeneous habitat are not all that exciting to me. From just a deer-sighting standpoint, when everything is the same it makes it difficult to identify where the deer want to go. As hunters, we want to identify where whitetail will move and travel. Whitetail deer tend to naturally use the lowest areas, where the soils are usually the best, food is often more plentiful and they are least likely to be silhouetted. For this reason, the best deer hunting properties will have riparian areas on them, such as rivers, creeks, streams. Even draws within a watershed can work.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Any property located between the confluence of two major rivers or a tract of land situated between two creeks, rivers or combination thereof, but maybe not necessarily adjacent them, is still going to be good deer hunting land. Also, lands with flat topography can can offer good hunting, but you have to look at them from a different perspective… from above.
5. Go Aerial for Hunting Success
Get high. Yep, it helps to get a birds-eye view of the property you intend to buy or lease (as well as the surrounding land) before setting foot on the place. Pay attention to funnels, corridors, and pinch points since deer will be moving through them. Often times, an aerial view is all that’s needed to make an educated guess as to where most of the deer activity is taking place. You can ground-truth these assumptions once you make a site visit. If the should-be whitetail “hot spots” lack deer sign then you may want to consider skipping down to the next property on your list.
Aerial photos can also help in planning hunter distribution, specific stand and feeder locations and even entrance/exit strategies when head to/from your stand. Keep in mind that a property does not necessarily need a lot of cover if it’s well connected (through corridors, waterways, etc.) to neighboring lands. Additionally, whether looking to buy or lease, walk or drive the perimeter and take note of what the neighboring lands have going on. Aerial photography is a great tool when searching for real estate, but it will not tell the whole story. Get on the ground, too.
6. Scouting for Deer: Keep Your Eyes Open
If the hunting land that you’re looking to lease or buy has deer habitat on it that looks good from above, then the next step is a site visit. This means a good ole fashioned scouting trip. This is when you know it’s getting serious, and fun! Don’t just stick to the roads on the property. They will be (and should be) limited. Instead, put on your walking boots. The more country you can cover the better.
Get back in the thick of things and look for deer tracks, pellet groups, old rubs, old scrapes and maybe even some fresh sheds if the timing is right. Concentrate your search on the obvious areas mentioned previously (#4). If there is not any sign of deer in those areas then don’t let the gate hit you on the way out.
7. Land Use Matters for Whitetail
How is the land currently used? This is an especially important piece of information for hunters looking to lease land for whitetail hunting. The current and future land use as well as the intensity of those practices will impact deer activity on a property and any attempt at deer management. Almost certainly, the property you’re looking at will likely be farmed, grazed or in timber production. If leasing, you will likely have zero control over what the landowner wants to do with his or her land, but it never hurts to ask about future plans since you will be putting some of your own money, time and labor into the place.
This means livestock; cows, goats, whatever. Pay attention to the habitat. If it looks overgrazed and you are going to put up a feed pen, prepare to protect it like Fort Knox. Pass on properties that graze goats; they have already eaten all the best natural forage, the same stuff that whitetail seek. Keep an eye out for turkey feathers, droppings and roost as well as hog wallows around water, which could be a plus or minus for you.
8. Use Your Spidey Senses
There are some great people in the world, but there are a few out there that just want your money. Find out early on if you’re dealing with the hunting lease owner or a broker, then try to get some information on either. A web search of the owner’s and/or broker’s name could pay quick dividends. Bad news spreads quickly on hunting forums. If that doesn’t pan out, drop name/s at the local feed store, deer processor, sporting goods store or chamber of commerce during casual conversation. Call the local state biologist or NRCS/USDA office. Red flags tend to rise quickly, when warranted.
Be a little suspicious if the land owner request that you call each and every time before you head out for the weekend. This could be because there are some extracurricular activities, i.e other hunting/hunters, on the property (in your stand) when your not there. Of course, the property owner may just want to know when someone is out there, and since it’s their property they do have that right. Also, make sure you know who else will have hunting rights on the property and for what seasons. Will it just you and/or your group?
Pay particular attention to hunter density. There can be a tendency for lessors to exceed the hunter carrying capacity of a property, meaning hunting pressure will be high. This will keep quality buck numbers low… and maybe even total deer numbers low. Each additional hunter equates to another wad of cash in somebody’s pocket, so back away if the cost of the hunting lease seems high compared to the quantity of land you’ll be hunting. Keep in mind that a small tract of land in the right location, however, can offer excellent hunting for a couple of hunters.
It’s always good to hunt with people you know, but that’s not always an option. If you’re joining an existing group ask a lot of questions. Ask to see some game camera or harvest photos from the year prior, just out of curiosity, of course. Ask why the previous hunter/s left. If you get a weird vibe then ask for names and phone numbers. This should not be an issue if everyone has been truthful.
Get a contract if at all possible, even if it’s just a one-pager; something that states the important points (dates, seasons, bag limits, hunters) that everyone signs.
9. Impact of Weather on Deer Hunting
Environmental conditions impact deer activity. This is true everywhere, but especially at lower latitudes where fall and winter temperatures can be quite mild. The reason that this is important is because what you see on your new deer lease that very first hunting season may not be representative of the actual deer herd. In other words, habitat conditions impact deer movement and activity in a big way.
When natural foods are abundant (think mild temperatures and an abundance of rain) there will appear to be less deer than are actually in the area. On the other hand, when natural foods are low (think dry and/or very cold) there will appear to a lot more deer moving, hitting feeders and mowing down food plots (if there is enough moisture for plots to grow at all). Do not get completely discouraged if you are seeing deer sign, but no deer. They are there, but hunting conditions may not be in your favor at this time. Unless the place is a total loss, give a hunting property at least two seasons before moving on.
10. Go for it: Better Deer Hunting Awaits!
Lastly, do not be afraid to pick up and move to another property in search of better deer hunting opportunities. Sometimes, areas that offered good hunting in the past can decline over time for a number of reasons. This can result from changes in land use such as development, widespread overgrazing by livestock in an area, lands going into or falling out of cultivation, “clean” farming practices, increased forestry operations, the overharvest of deer in an area or a number of other factors.
There are many things that can impact white-tailed deer populations. In addition, mediocre hunting properties can improve substantially because of the implementation of deer management practices on site and/or on neighboring properties. Find new land to buy or lease or find a way to improve the property that you’ve got.