Winter Hunting Blues? Head to the Woods

News & Tips: Winter Hunting Blues? Head to the Woods...

Experienced land managers are big fans of working in the woods in winter. Frozen ground is easy to get around on (no mud or ruts) and a snow cover protects the forest floor from human impact. Trees are foliage free and it's easy to lay out your work without a bunch of leaves to get in the way. It is also a whole lot easier to get around in the woods without a lot of extra brush to get in the way. Best of all, any trees you cut will instantly deer food the minute they fall. In some areas, hungry deer stay right there when cutting is being done waiting for the tender tips of branches to become available. If you are lucky enough to own the ground you hunt on, there are a number of things you can do this winter to improve the hunting. Here are a few of our favorites.  

Build Access Roads and Trails

A good network of roads will allow you access to all areas of your property without leaving the vehicle.

Deer don't like surprises, especially mature deer. Establishing a network of access roads and trails on your hunting property will help you control hunter movement and avoid surprising deer in their bedrooms. You can't hunt a property without putting boots on the ground but you can keep disruption to a minimum by staying on well-established, human travel trails. Ever see a deer ignore a farmer working on the back 40 or kids playing in a nearby schoolyard? Same idea.

A few half days with a chainsaw and a couple of buddies will get you all the access trails you need to get in and out of your hunting areas if you're traveling on foot. Many of them will be already there in the form of existing animal trails or old logging roads buy you might need to open some trails in and out of your favorite hunting spots. Some hunters go so far as to rake them clean of leaves in the fall. Often, all you will have to do is cut out a thick spot or fallen log here and there. Brush can be opened up with loping shears. A good clean trail can keep your approach quiet and be the difference between killing a deer and driving them out of the area.

Establishing a network of small ATV and UTV access can usually be done with a chainsaw and winter is a good time to get it laid out and done. A good network of roads that allow you to access all areas of the property without ever leaving the seat of your preferred mode of transportation is a major asset to a hunting property. You should be able to drive within a hundred yards or so of most of your stands, get a tractor and lime truck to your food plots and fields, and check your primary trail cams without ever leaving your vehicle.

Creating access roads for hunting can be quite easy. Wherever possible, keep the primary hunting access roads close to the boundaries of the property. We like to create boundary roads about 10 yards from the existing boundary of the property. Keeping the roads solidly within your property will help reduce the temptation for neighbors to "jump" the line and walk your trails. The easiest way to create access roads for ATVs and UTVs is with a chainsaw. A couple of guys can quickly clear a path around the property given flat terrain. Half a mile of road can often be created in a day. If you are going to need a dozer to push in access roads, it still is a fairly quick process. In most situations, 3/4 of a mile of access road can be created in a day. Hilly terrain will slow the process some.

Access roads where ATVs and UTVs will be the primary mode of transportation should also be kept to a relatively gentle slope. We like to keep the road to a 12-degree angle or less to ensure safe travel. Keep in mind hunting season travel will often have ice or snow on the road; careful layout will help keep your camp safe.

Farming and heavy equipment roads are also necessary for "working" a property. Food plots generally need tractor access, and if lime is necessary lime truck access can save tons of time. Pick-up access is always a good thing for food plots and ag fields. These are not necessarily for weekend warriors to take on without a little professional assistance with heavy equipment. Careful consideration should be given to creating access roads. Farming trails need to be 12 feet wide to accommodate most types of farm equipment. If you plan on bringing in a lime truck, better widen the road to 14 feet through every twist and turn of the road. Boggy areas can be firmed up by laying down geotextile filter fabric and a bed of small diameter trees to create corduroy crossings. If you plan on using big equipment, better have good roads; eventually most landowners graduate to using sizeable equipment to get things done. The best time to layout these roads is definitely in winter but the best time to put them in with a dozer is generally in the driest part of the year.

Set Up Sanctuaries

Winter is a great time to set up off limits areas on your property. Readily observable deer sign and high visibility make working in the woods much easier. Sanctuaries are easy to set up. Just figure out where you want them and tie up a few surveyor's ribbons or tack up a few sanctuary signs. The hard part is keeping out of these areas once they are set up.

Much of our hunting property has been put off limits to humans. Some of our sanctuaries have not had a human on them in 20 years. Sanctuaries give mature bucks a safe place to hang out and they know it. Tracks in the snow during gun season have told this tale each and every year for over 25 years. Rule of thumb: The smaller the property, the higher the percentage that should be dedicated to sanctuary (up to 80 percent for properties under 100 acres). Establishing sanctuaries and staying out of them will do wonders for your "low impact-big buck" hunting program.

Most property owners visit their sanctuaries occasionally to shed hunt or "check things out." We don't! A doe raising a fawn needs just as much security (maybe more) than a buck hiding out from hunters. A group of bachelor bucks no more wants to come face to face with a landowner in August than they do two months later. Any time you surprise a deer, you are making it less secure, increasing the chances that the 5-year-old buck you have been watching for the last two years will seek shelter elsewhere. Last time we checked, there were no "open for business" or "visitors welcome" signs on the trees surrounding our sanctuaries. As the sign on the doorknob says, "Do not disturb."

We like to set up multiple sanctuaries on a property; sanctuaries need not be large but they should be thick. We also like to locate the sanctuary toward the middle of the property if possible. Locating sanctuary in this manner will allow hunters to circumnavigate the property on the boundary road and keep as far away as possible from the sanctuary and the deer hanging out there.

A little bit of winter woods work can make all the difference during next fall's hunting season. When the alternative is to sit on the couch, or go to the mall, the choice is pretty simple: Get out there in the winter woods and get something done.