To the casual eye, the piney woods of the South look uniform and monotonous, but in terms of deer habitat, they are deceptively dynamic.
If you don’t own property in Dixie, you hunt on heavily pressured public land or join a club that leases industrial timberland. That means monoculture, even-age pine plantations over which hunters have no influence about habitat management. The landowner cuts timber and plants seedlings. Those are the only noticeable alterations.
Between those conspicuous events, however, occur dramatic and subtle changes that profoundly affect deer behavior patterns. After you’ve hunted a piece of land for a few years with air rifle, you’ll notice these patterns unfold as the timber rotation advances through its cycles. You’ll observe consistent patterns from season to season, but you’ll also notice distinctive shifts as timber parcels cycle in and out of whitetail suitability. When you identify their unique activity arcs, you can increase your success exponentially.
You’ll even learn to consistently kill mature bucks in places where they are notoriously evasive.
The Old Belfast Example
Mike Romine of Mabelvale, Ark., has been a member of the Old Belfast Hunting Club since the 1980s. Old Belfast contains about 4,700 acres of industrial timberland that is fairly representative of the Gulf Coastal Plain, which extends across the southeastern United States. It is gently rolling terrain with drainages in the folds. The soil is a nutrient-poor mix of sand and clay.
Like most industrial timberlands, the Old Belfast real estate has changed ownership several times. Its peak years of deer habitat, deer numbers and deer quality occurred under International Paper Co.’s ownership. International Paper had a progressive wildlife management program that encouraged clubs to adopt certain quality deer management practices. The company, in turn, conserved hardwoods and encouraged clubs to cultivate food plots to augment natural forage for whitetails.
In recent years, subsequent landowners have de-emphasized the wildlife component of their properties, but the basic blueprint never changes. Deer relate to certain features of the landscape at certain times for certain reasons based on the season, cover, food supply, breeding cycles and hunting pressure.
Casual hunters at many clubs like Old Belfast often quit after opening week of the modern gun season. One reason is because they don’t see as many deer after opening weekend. In places that have antler-point restrictions or beam width and length restrictions, legal bucks are especially scarce.
Romine, on the other hand, generally kills his annual bag limit of two bucks, and they are usually mature. Like most members of Old Belfast, Romine has three stands at various spots on the property. Through the years, he’s learned which stands are hot at certain times. He hits them at their peaks and follows their clockwork progression.
The 2013 season was noteworthy, however, because it produced two of Romine’s biggest bucks. Other members enjoyed similar success.
“A lot of it was because of all the clearcutting they’ve done the last couple of years,” Romine said. “There’s been so much extra browse that deer have had a lot more to eat and better quality to stuff to eat. In the past, it’s been pretty slim pickings after the acorns are gone. About all they’ve had is the corn we feed them, but the last couple of years they’ve had quite a buffet.”
The clearcutting also eliminated thousands of acres of sanctuary habitat where bucks spent entire seasons in relative safety. Clearcutting the pine gardens increased their exposure and made them more vulnerable to hunting, from varmint hunting to big game hunting.
Personal Pine Perspectives
My three stands are case studies on pine progression. I erected my newest stand in 2009 amid the last big parcel — about 160 acres — of mature hardwoods on the property. It is bounded on the north by two adjacent pine gardens that were planted six to 10 years ago, respectively, and on another side by a pine garden that was planted about 14 years ago. Separating the thickets are three streamside management zones where the hardwoods were left intact. They reduce degradation and erosion of the drainages. The SMZs contain the only hardwoods left on the property.
The youngest pine garden is a thicket. For humans, it’s an impenetrable tangle of blackberry brambles and green- brier, but it’s a major sanctuary area for deer. The 10-year-old pine garden is more open. A man can walk through it upright, but the canopy is closed, and greenery does not grow on the forest floor. It also is a major sanctuary, and it contains brush islands.
The 14-year-old pine garden is open, with long sight lines. A surprising amount of greenery grows under this canopy. As in the 10-year-old garden, it also contains brush islands. These are important for reasons to be discussed later.
The 160-acre hardwood tract was clearcut in 2011. It was as barren as a moonscape. In Summer 2012,1 placed a box stand at the edge of the clearcut near the boundary of the 10- and 14-year-old pine gardens. One SMZ separates the new clearcut from the 10-year-old pine garden, about 300 yards from the stand. I saw no deer in the clearcut during the 2011 season and scant deer sign along the boundaries.
During the 2012 season, the land- owner burned the clearcut to reduce the fuel load and undesirable vegetation, and then planted the entire parcel with pine seedlings.
In Spring 2013, the parcel was awash with grasses, forbs and legumes. It was a prime feeding area, but because of the high grass, it was very difficult to see deer from that stand. To improve my chances, I built a ground blind in the SMZ from logging litter, and I saw a lot more deer as they traveled from the 6- and 10-year-old gardens to the clearcut.
The clearcut will remain a productive feeding area until the canopy closes and prevents sunlight from reaching the soil. The SMZ, with its acorns and open corridor, will become increasingly important and productive, and I will eventually have to position the box stand to take better advantage of crossings between the thickets.
My oldest stand is a box stand in a different SMZ a mile or so to the northeast. It has always been a great place to hunt during the October muzzleloader season, but deer abandon the area by November because of a lack of forage.
Romine said it used to be one of the most productive stands on the property. That was, of course, when the surrounding areas were clearcut and the SMZ provided the only travel cover. During my time, the thickets have grown up, food has become scarce, and it has become unattractive to deer after they’ve consumed all of the acorns.
However, the stand sits at the edge of a vast stand of pines that was planted about 14 years ago. This thicket, or pine garden, is open, with excellent sightlines, and the timber has matured to the point where it needs to he thinned. This spring, the landowner will remove two of every three rows of pines. This will open the canopy further, encourage more and better browse to grow and improve travel lanes for deer. I expect this stand to become much more productive.
My third stand is also in an SMZ near the clubs eastern boundary. A mature pine garden is to the west, and two large, younger pine gardens are to the north and south. They arc major bedding and travel areas for deer.
Unlike the other SMZs, this one is very wide, nearly 200 yards in places, with other SMZs intersecting it like fingers. It has the largest concentration of hardwoods on the property and also the largest supply of acorns in early autumn. Not surprisingly, Romines most productive stand is on an interior road at the eastern end of the SMZ.
My box stand is on a hill overlooking a creek at a hardwood bottleneck between pine thickets. The location is limiting because deer use various parts of the SMZ for different purposes. The most heavily used areas are deeper within the interior.
To make this stand huntable, I must clear brush and undergrowth every winter. I also have a corn feeder programmed to throw feed in the morning and evening. Baiting deer is legal in Arkansas, but baiting does not guarantee you’ll see deer. They visit bait sites when they please, often at night. Mature bucks rarely visit them during the day except during the rut, and usually only to investigate scent. However, baiting guarantees that deer will incorporate the bait site into their daily routine.
Beyond the feeder is a burlap bag of minerals hanging from a tree branch. When it rains, minerals leach from the bag onto the ground. Deer eat the dirt, which also helps orient deer to this site.
In a couple of years, two of the pine gardens will be thinned in rotation. That will alter deer patterns in that area and rejuvenate deer activity in that spot.
The cycle continues, and whitetail hunters adapt. That’s what makes deer hunting the pine plantations so interesting.
— Bryan Hendricks, a deer hunting enthusiast, is the outdoor editor of the LifeUnderSky.com