Building a deer Utopia

Building a deer Utopia

By Steve Bartylla


It was swiftly shaping up to be two of the best days I had ever enjoyed. The afternoon before was spent perched in a maple that overlooked my 3-acre plot of soybeans. It was one of those sits that fly by so swiftly that you almost feel cheated that it didn’t go on longer. Before climbing down from the tree, I had seen four 1.5 year old bucks, two 2.5 year old bucks and passed on a clear shot at a perfect 140 inch ten point.


Now, I watched as the majestic, 174 2/8ths inch ten point slowly fed his way across the beans. Flanked on both sides by his 1.5 year old buddies, they were coming dangerously close to entering my effective bow range.


Suddenly, the group simultaneously snapped their heads up and froze. Minutes seemed like hours as they meticulously examined the woods in search of the answer to what was making the undetermined sounds. Then, a bowhunter’s version of tragedy struck. One of the young bucks decided to bolt, dragging his buddies along with him. Less than thirty seconds later, the wide raked 3.5 year old 8 point emerged. Before the waning light ended another magical sit, I had seen nine 1.5 year olds, one 3.5 year old and a buck that netted Boone, for a two afternoon total of eighteen bucks sighted.


That is an incredible rut hunt anywhere! What is truly unheard of is that it was actually the first week of Wisconsin’s 2003 archery season, well over a month before the rut is even beginning to trickle into life. I was hunting a farm I had worked on for Bluff Country Outfitters, in Buffalo County. Those buck’s weren’t there to find Tom Indrebo’s resident doe population. They were there for my strategically placed food plots. In total, that one 500-acre farm produced six different wall hangers for Tom’s clients in 2003, including that awesome buck!


Laying The Foundation 

Habitat improvement efforts can truly yield positive results. However, far too many landowners get overly excited, rush out and start slapping in food plots at random. This may indeed help the deer, but it’s possible for you to hurt your own hunting efforts by doing so. Furthermore, it is all but guaranteed that your hunting won’t be improved as much as it potentially could be.


To get the most from our efforts, we must build a solid foundation to work from. That involves first building our knowledge on what our property has to offer and how the deer utilize it. To do that, I begin by visiting  HYPERLINK “” There, I can get my hands on free contour maps for all of Wisconsin and aerial photos of most of the state.


With my base maps, a compass and pencil in hand, I then walk the land. Beginning at one corner, I walk a systematic grid pattern. The distances between passes are based on the thickness of cover. To cover it thoroughly, my passes must be closer in thickets than in the more open regions.


As I go, I am creating a map that shows all the food sources, growth stages of the woods, generalized outlines of the soil types, all deer sign and potential funnels. Each one of these groups is delineated on a copy of the map for the property. The level of effort they require determines the level of detail shown for each. For example, I will not dig my hand down into the dirt every after every step to determine if the soil is made of sand, clay or loam. Once every forty yards is fine. Also, I will outline browse areas, as opposed to mapping individual trees like I may for those 5 or 6 oaks. Now, if we are taking about a ridge that is packed with oaks, I will outline it on the map and label it as a white, red or mixed oak ridge. As with most things in life, let common sense be your guide.


With this accomplished, I transfer the information collected to my master base map. I have found that the contour maps work best for field collection and use an aerial photo for my master. I then place one piece of clear film for each group, such as for deer sign, food sources and so on, over the photo and transfer the appropriate information I captured to each. Now, I have a master that I can study and base my plans from.


Getting The Most From Your Efforts

My goals for improving properties are split equally between helping the resident deer and increasing my hunting opportunities. Because of that, every action I make takes both into account. I want my property to provide everything a deer could desire. Additionally, if my land can provide them with ample year round nutrition, protection from both predators and harsh winter conditions, water and a feeling of safety, better than they can find elsewhere, the resident deer will spend a disproportionate amount of time on my property. Doing so will even draw deer of the neighboring lands.


This is true if we are talking about 4000 or 40-acres. The main difference is you can do a better job of inspiring deer to never step foot off of a 4000-acre chunk than you can with a 40. Either way, the more we meet a deer’s needs we help them by increasing their health and help ourselves with increased chances of harvesting them.


Taking this further, we should want our effort to result in dictating movement patterns to deer in ways that helps our hunting. For example, rather than drawing them to five areas on out 40-acres to feed, setting up two areas will concentrate their feeding more and increase our shot opportunities. Furthermore, if we position our feeding zones so that deer feel safe feeding in daylight and must travel through a funnel to get between bedding and feeding, we just made it so we will have increased shot opportunities. Finally, if that positioning allows us to get to and from our stands undetected, we have just setup a phenomenal killing zone.


The point is, the more we focus our efforts with hunting in mind the better our hunting results can become. We are remodeling the whitetail’s home through our efforts. By collecting all this data on our land and how deer utilize it, we can use that information to fix up the land’s problem areas and accentuate its strengths, all in a way that focuses whitetail movement through areas that benefit our hunting.


Making The Bed

With that in mind, let’s start looking at how we can remodel their homes, and where better to start than in the bedroom? Many of our woods are simply too mature. A quick way to create pockets of thick cover is to select a one-two acre area of mature tress and go to work with a chainsaw, cutting every tree in our selected area. When making the cut, begin it about three feet from the ground and cut down at a forty five degree angle, stopping about three fourths of the way through. Now, the tree can be pushed over or left for the wind to do it.


One of the goals is to allow the branches to maintain a connection to the root system. Using this technique allows certain species, such as maples and oaks, to bend without completely breaking. With the connection intact the tree will to continue to grow, albeit at a much slower pace. To increase chances of survival the cutting should be done in the winter, well before leaf out. Keep in mind that some trees, such as poplar, birch and most pines, will snap every time. Still, their tops will provide good bedding cover.


This practice immediately creates a thick tangle of cover for bedding, as well as a bounty of food. The forest floor receives increased sunlight, which promotes the growth of new greenery and saplings. Along with that, the trees that retain the root connection provide leafy growth for browse and buds for winter months.


Increasing Natural Food Production

Next, lets look at how we can stock our cupboards with more food. We can begin by fertilizing selected oaks. This can be as easy as following the directions on a box of fruit tree fertilizer spikes. However, using granular fertilizer is a less expensive method. When using granular fertilizer, the first step is raking the debris from the base of the oaks on out to the drip line. Once the raking is concluded we can apply a 10-10-10 to 15-15-15, slow release fertilizer. Beginning a couple feet from the base, a medium dosage is spread evenly around the entire tree and out to the drip line. Just like that, we have increased the nutrients available to the trees.


Whichever method is selected, fertilizing should be done in the spring of the year. Doing so provides extra nutrients through the developmental stages of the crop. Also, fertilizing in summer or fall can have detrimental effects. The burst of fertility can prompt trees to spur new growth too late into the fall. The result can be frost damage to this tender growth and provide unnecessary stress.


Thinning the canopy of less desirable trees is another technique that helps. Trees require sunlight to perform photosynthesis. Think about where most of the largest, healthiest trees are located. They are found in open areas that allow them to receive adequate levels of sunlight. This not only increases growth rate, but it helps to ensure that the lower branches receive adequate sunlight for survival. Removing some of the less desirable trees that shade our selected oaks brings the same effect.


Finally, we can aid them in maintaining soil moisture. After we have fertilizing, rake extra leaves back on to the area. If sufficient leaves are not present, straw will also work. This aids in moisture retention by providing a barrier between the ground and the baking sun to lessen evaporation.


We can also increase the yield and desirability of meadows. It starts with a safely conducted spring burn. In order to control the burn, firebreaks should be created along the boundaries of the burn area. This can be accomplished in several ways, but I have found that thoroughly discing a 10-yard swat around the burn area is effective. Also, it’s highly recommended that the burn be timed with a the proper light and steady wind direction, along with being supervised at all times. Burning down the entire area may eventually result in better habitat, but the neighbors may get a touch testy.


Next, apply a lawn fertilizer in the same manner we would to our own front lawn. Like the oaks, this results in healthier plants that are capable of increased production. Unlike with the oaks, this should be conducted both in the spring and early fall. This alone increases the plants nutritional value and yield. To increase both further we can mow them as they begin to reach maturity. Doing so will keep the plant life from ever reaching maturity and the inevitable drop in production and nutrition that brings. The combination of these acts results in a dramatic increase in quality and production. Mowing two or three times a year is sufficient.


Also, keep in mind we don’t want too much of a good thing. Treating an acre of meadow, while allowing the rest to grow naturally provides both diversity and focuses feeding. Those tall, overgrown meadows are excellent fawn rearing and bedding areas.


Lastly, we can increase woody browse. As with everything else we have covered, applying fertilizer will aid in increasing its health. We can also apply the same clearing principle we discussed for the oaks. Removing mature trees that block sunlight will encourage browse production. Finally, we can trim them, much like a hedge. This is a method of extending the time in which the browse they produce is at a level where deer can reach it. Also, it creates more shoots then it normally would. Thus, providing extra browse for the whitetails.

These are only three natural food sources we have explored. However, the methods described can be applied to most any. The key lies in viewing our natural food sources as farm crops. When doing so, we begin to realize that we can have a control over their production. After that, it is merely a matter of exploring the best way to accomplish that.


Food Plot Magnets

In conjunction with those efforts, we can set the table by introducing food plots. Today, it isn’t hard to find good information on how to plant a food plot. So, lets look at a few things that can set our plots above the rest.


We spoke earlier about deer desiring a feeling of safety. This is especially important if we expect a mature buck to use our plots during daylight. To accomplish this, I have found that food plots are best when kept under 5 acres in size, completely surrounded by protective cover. Many times, these locations do not naturally exist. Thankfully, they can be created by clearing openings in the woods, closing off corners of fields by planting staggered rows of trees or even by sealing them by planting corn as a barrier.


The next consideration is what to plant. Almost every planting has a phase of growth where it’s most desired by deer. Because of that, rarely is one planting the best option throughout the entire season, let alone all year. Along with that, I firmly believe that deer crave diversity in their diets. Add all of this together and no one choice is the best.


To produce the greatest drawing power, I have found that having three plantings in one area works best. A combination that works well for me is one acre of Antler King’s Trophy Clover, one acre of their Fall/Winter/Spring and three acres of soybeans or corn. With that combination, I have a location that offers great early, mid and late season appeal. As far as choosing between the corn and beans goes, I let the other crops in the area decide which I select. Whichever is in most abundance, I plant the other.


A great example of how deer gravitate to food sources at various growth stages, particularly when they are in the shortest supply was the bean plot at the beginning of this piece. Deer love eating the leaves of soybeans when they are still green. Because of our growing season, rarely are soybean not already either changing color or completely brown by the start of bow season. To counteract that trend, I planted those beans in July, far later than normal. There was a risk that the needed rain wouldn’t come, but the reward was the only green beans in all of Buffalo County. For the first two weeks of season, you couldn’t keep the bucks from fighting over them.



When done properly, habitat improvement efforts can truly transform your hunting ground into utopia. The key is doing it in a manner that benefits both the deer and us. When planning a food plot location, why not force deer through the easily hunted funnel? Better still, why not treat the oaks around the food plot, plant some apple trees along the edge, increase the browse production on one side and slap a bedding area on the other. The more reasons we give deer to bed in certain areas and travel through another to get to concentrated food sources, the better our chances are of harvesting them.


I did not shoot a buck on that bean plot. However, I did take one on that farm. I took him as he traveled from it to another food source. By tying our improvements together, having one feed off of the other, our chances of intercepting that buck increases dramatically.