You can figure out how to hunt any property if you focus on a deer’s basic needs.
I couldn’t see the buck when my daughter’s .243 roared, but I saw it run off the field, and it didn’t look hurt.
Turning to me with a horrified look, Megan said, “Dad, I think I missed it! All this time waiting for a chance at a buck, and I just blew it.”
“Where were the crosshairs when you pulled the trigger?” I asked.
“Right where you told me,” she said.
With more confidence than I was feeling, I replied “Then you got him.”
We waited a half-hour before getting down to look for the deer. While we didn’t find any indications of a hit in the food plot, we did find her buck just 20 yards into the brush. She had made a perfect shot and thus accomplished a goal she had set seven years earlier after she shot her first doe.
Megan was giddy and all smiles over her first buck, but I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. It had been a long and educational journey to get to that moment, but I knew I was finally getting a handle on hunting Southern pine plantations. What I learned while trying to help Megan get that buck can help you tag more deer no matter where you hunt them.
As a Keystone Stater transplanted to the South, it seemed like very little of what I knew about hunting whitetails applied here.
The vast pine plantations seemed like an ocean of monoculture. What about one area of pines would attract and hold deer any more than the next thousand acres?
I hunted on big leases my first six or so years, and that proved unsuccessful. Those clubs had their habits, stands and food plots well established. I wasn’t learning anything, and Megan wasn’t seeing many deer from the over-hunted food plot setups. It was time for something different.
In 2012, I leased a small, 230-acre tract with one other person, Scott Maloch, Buckmasters’ advertising director. Scott is a Georgia native, where pine plantation leases are also common. I had watched Scott and his father build a successful lease on a 500-acre tract adjoining our 230. It struck me like a thunderbolt that he attacked his leases in the same methodical, step-by-step manner I used on hunting properties in Pennsylvania.
“If you think of planted pines as agriculture, like standing corn, you’ll have an easier time getting your mind around it,” he said. “The deer use the pines and hang out in them, and sometimes they’ll even stay in them for long periods, but you hunt the saddles and places where bottoms or ridges come together just like you would near an Illinois cornfield.”
START AT THE BEGINNING
The first step is to find out what caliber of deer exist on the property.
The timber companies that own the pine plantations almost always leave food plot openings for hunting lease holders. Our little 230 acres has three, so we threw out a bag of corn on each overgrown plot and set up trail cameras. The corn isn’t meant to begin a feeding program or attract deer long term; it’s simply an enticement to get them to stop in front of a trail camera long enough for a good picture.
It wasn’t long before we were getting images of several bucks that were showing up on all three cameras. Although it was early July and they were just starting to grow antlers, those bucks were worthy of wearing Megan’s tag should the opportunity present itself. Now we just had to figure out how to make that opportunity happen.
MANAGE WHAT’S MANAGEABLE
Our new lease didn’t become available until mid-June, so it was July before we got started. Not only did that mean limited time to learn the property before hunting season, it also meant Alabama was well into summer. With temperatures near 100 every day, the time you can work safely in the outdoors is limited.
When facing a daunting task, it helps to break the project down into manageable pieces. Scott explained we should concentrate on getting the roads in shape and preparing the food plots for hunting.
Trimming the roads helps you learn the property, and it’s a good way to find some good deer trails. If you see something worth checking out later, mark the area with a ribbon. If you don’t, you’ll forget about it after a long day working in the heat.
While July is too early to start work on the planting aspect of the fall food plots, it’s not too early to get them ready to hunt.
You’ll need a compass, and it helps to have a printed map of the property on a clipboard.
Every food plot is different, and varying land features and other factors dictate the best place to put up a stand.
I’ve read a thousand times that you should set up a stand to hunt an area’s prevailing wind. That’s true to a point, but Scott and I agree it’s more important to set up a stand that hunts the plot the best.
For our biggest and most important plot, that meant putting a double-ladder stand on the southern end of the plot with plans to hunt it on north or northwest winds only.
One thing Scott stresses is setting up as far off a food plot as possible. From what I’ve seen and experienced in the South and through hunting with numerous outfitters in the Midwest, I agree.
The ladder stand allowed us to get a good 50 yards off the plot, and although it took almost a full day of trimming to be able to see, it was still well hidden. The first time we hunted it later that fall, Megan said, “Dad, I like this stand. I feel like I can get away with moving a little, and if a deer comes out we’re not right on top of it.”
Another of our plots set up best for a south wind, and the last for wind from the west. We were fortunate to have stand choices for three different winds via the various plots, but we still needed a few more options.
THE LONG AND NARROW
One of Scott’s more interesting techniques is creating hunting setups in mature pines or right on roadways.
The timber companies thin older pines as part of the growing process, and the openings created after thinning can provide large windows to see and shoot deer.
A larger than normal opening isn’t, by itself, cause for a stand, but when combined with another land feature or two, a heavy deer traffic area is often nearby. Ridges around steep bottoms or creeks are prime examples.
For travel corridors, Scott places a ladder stand or shooting box at one end of an opening between the tree rows and plants the open space between the pines just like a food plot.
Whitetails generally won’t stand and feed for long periods in such areas, but they pause long enough for a few mouthfuls — just long enough for a hunter to get a good look and take a shot.
The same holds true for roadways. It’s common for several trails to converge at certain spots along roadways, creating a great opportunity for a stand. Planting the road like a food plot gets the deer to pause for a minute or two.
One of the best stands on the 500 acres Scott shares with his dad is a roadway planting, from which they’ve taken several bucks.
“We killed four bucks off that stand in the past two years,” Scott said. “There aren’t very many places you can see very far on a pine plantation, so when you have an area like that roadway and combine it with some really good trails, you have to take advantage of it.”
A CREEK RUNS THROUGH IT
Creek bottoms, no matter how small the water flow, are key to hunting any pine plantation.
In addition to being a water source, such bottoms are usually the only place to find hardwoods. If you can find a white oak or two, you should have a stand nearby.
The oaks likely will attract deer for a limited time in October, but there isn’t a better place to be when acorns are dropping.
Deer also use the bottoms to travel from one area to another, and as a place to avoid the heat during warm Southern autumns.
Putting a trail camera along the creek on our 230 acres, we quickly picked up the bachelor group of bucks we’d seen eating corn on the food plots.
Creek bottoms also provide means of access to out-of-the-way stands, whether in the bottom itself, on a food plot or a remote area of the pines.
MAP IT OUT
Getting the food plot and a few creek bottom stands ready took Scott and me right up to planting time in October. While there was still a large amount of the property we didn’t really know, our map was shaping up and starting to tell a story.
Using a simple printout from Google Earth, we had marked the food plots, roads and creek bottoms. The more information you can mark, the more you’ll be able to guess what the deer are doing. Another key feature to mark on the map is any deer trail you see being used to access the food plots.
Plot Watchers and other time-lapse cameras give you an image whether a deer is close enough to trigger it or not. Knowing where a buck enters and exits a field tells you if you need to adjust your stand location. It also indicates where deer are coming from and going to.
Catching a mature buck on an open food plot in daylight is as rare as an episode of Jerry Springer without a fist fight. But knowing where and when a buck travels can help you create a setup that catches him back in the cover.
It’s important to realize your first year on a new lease is more about learning than hunting. You hope to take a buck or two, but the real goal is to gather information and record it for future use.
END OF ACT 1
We ended up shooting three bucks on the property, including Megan’s 7-pointer. While our goal is to shoot only 3-year-olds or better, Megan got an exception for her first buck. Scott’s wife, Beth, shot a 3-year-old with a wonky rack, and Scott’s buddy shot another 2-year-old that would have fooled both of us had we seen it from any distance. We had trail camera pictures of all three bucks.
By now you might be thinking, “Is taking 2-year-olds really a success on a paid lease?”
I think so. First, we had limited time to learn the property and get it ready. Second, as Scott predicted, the older bucks didn’t begin to show up on camera until mid-January (the Alabama rifle season runs until Jan. 31), and almost never in daylight.
We got pictures of some real dandies during the last two weeks of the season, but didn’t quite know enough about them and the property to hunt them on such short notice. Scott had seen a 10-pointer the year before near our border on his 500 acres. He had expected to see that buck on our 230 at some point, but we didn’t get any pictures of it until the last few days of January, and I didn’t pull the cards and see the pictures until the season had closed.
Now I can make a good guess about where he’ll be the same time next year.
A LOOK AHEAD
The results on our 230 acres were similar to those Scott and his dad experienced in 2011 during the first year on their 500 acres. They shot some average bucks and gathered lots of information for the following year.
In year two on their 500, Scott took two great bucks for Alabama, and his dad shot two in a one-week span.
The key to that jump in quality in year two, they both said, comes down to hard work.
Unlike Northern climates where pushing a deer following hunting season can hurt its chances of getting through winter, the best time to scout in the South is immediately after the season. The mild winters here don’t stress the deer, and it’s the best time to be in the woods.
Buck sign is fresh (the rut takes place in late January), the trails are more visible, it’s easier to get around in the woods, and the temperatures are comfortable for scouting and working.
As I write this in February, I’m mapping out the best deer trails through the pines to get an even better feel for what’s taking place. I’ll also note worthy stand sites for next year. Using a GPS as I walk the trails, I’ll log the best trails onto my Google Earth map. I’ll also be looking for bedding areas.
If you live where winters are hard on whitetails, wait until the weather breaks, but scout before full green-up.
Finally, I’m starting a protein feeding program immediately. Pine plantations greatly limit understory and forbs, and the does and their fawns will be much better off come birthing season with the additional food.
WHAT ABOUT YOU?
So what do you take away from this if you don’t live or hunt in the South?
The most important lesson is the one I learned: To hunt a property well and get good results, you must learn it and figure out the deer’s habits. A property might look different, but basic whitetail needs remain constant. Their lives revolve around food, shelter and the desire to pass along their genes. Figure out how and where they’re meeting those needs, and you’ll figure out where to hunt them.
Don’t be intimidated because everything is unfamiliar, and don’t be shy about asking for advice from someone who knows the land.
Also, don’t assume food plots are the be-all, end-all solution to success. We like having food plots, and will continue to plant them and hunt them, but the better bucks are usually taken elsewhere.
Hunt food plots while you regularly check in-the-cover trail cameras for a bigger buck. When you see one, move in to hunt him.
Also, your management goals might be different from ours. You might want to take only 4-year-old deer, or perhaps bucks with spreads of a certain minimum. Just keep in mind that buck potential throughout different regions of the country is very different. It’s not realistic to expect 140-inch bucks to be common on a pine plantation in Alabama, while you might pass up such bucks in Illinois or Iowa.
Hopefully, I’ll have pictures of 3-year-old Alabama bucks to show you in an issue of next year’s Buckmasters!
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This article was published in the August 2013 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.