This is Part 2 of the Ground to Gun series with Craig and Neil Dougherty, as they provides excerpts and insights from their newest book “Whitetails: From Ground To Gun – A Guide To Hunting and Growing Mature Whitetails”

You can’t understand deer hunting without understanding land. Deer are inextricably linked to the land they inhabit. Land determines how a deer will spend his time, how he will stay alive, and whether or not he will realize his genetic potential. Land also determines how deer move, where they bed, and what they will eat. Connect the dots between understanding the land mature whitetails use, and the ways to hunt them and you’ve begun to realize the “Ground to Gun” philosophy.

By Craig an Neil Dougherty:

In its most elemental form a hunting property boils down to just a few basic elements: soil, sun, air (wind) and water. These elements are the stuff from which deer properties are made; the stuff that determines whether a deer property will be terrific or just so-so.

The elements of a property are highly interdependent and dynamic. The interaction between the soil and sun and water and air leads to the establishment of plants and animals; and dictates how they will interact with each other. It is all very natural and plays out according to a set of rules that have been evolving for millions of years.


“It’s been said that antlers are grown of soil. While that may not be literally true in the technical sense of the word, it makes a point and the point is best taken to heart. Soil is the key to growing good deer. Ever wonder why so many record book bucks come from the Midwest? It’s not the corn, or the soybeans, or other high-quality food stuffs, it’s soils that support these growing things. Soil is the reason a Pennsylvania 3-year-old buck will score 115 inches and weigh 150 pounds while a 3-year-old buck from Illinois will score 150 and tip the scales at 250 pounds. Deer in the Midwest eat more than corn. They eat forbs and shoots, snack on fruits and nuts, and devour leaves. They eat coming and going from those corn fields and they eat anything they can find after the corn has been put in the silo. When it comes to deer nutrition, it is all about the soil.

Plants take up the vitamins and minerals from soils and transfer them to deer. Poor soils don’t have the minerals found in good soils. It’s about that simple. A deer eating clover grown in poor soils will not get the same quality nutrition as deer eating clover grown in good soils. The same goes for browse species and any other plants deer feed on. One needs to only overlay a soils map on a Boone & Crockett record book map to see the connection between soil and antlers. Great soils grow great deer. It’s about that simple.

But this book is about deer not antlers. Not everyone can hunt in Iowa, Illinois, and Buffalo County Wisconsin. Yet everyone reading this book hunts somewhere and the same rules apply no matter where you hang your deer hunting hat. Soils matter, no matter where you are hunting or working with land.

Too often we limit our thinking to food plots or planted fields when it comes to deer nutrition. It is important to remember that deer consume plenty of foods not grown on food plots. Most food plots generally are able to produce cultivars at the most for only 6-9 months before they become dormant. Planted agricultural fields like corn and beans are available to deer for only a few months per year. So what do they eat when the planted stuff is unavailable? Native vegetation. Studies show that even in areas of high agricultural production, roughly 60% of what a deer eats is comprised of native vegetation.

Watch a deer sometime. Anytime he is on his feet he is pretty much eating. He eats on his way to dinner (let’s say a nice rich food plot) and on his way back to his secure bedding areas. He eats when he is hanging out in social areas and when he gets up to take a stretch. He chews his cud when he beds and occasionally sleeps but by and large, when a whitetail is on his feet, he is chowing down on something. That’s why native vegetation (and the soils that drive it) is so important! You don’t have to live in the Midwest to have good soils. They can be found in most parts of the country. “Bands” of high-quality soils are frequently found among areas dominated by lesser soils. We are familiar with a number of them in New York and they routinely produce bucks 15-20% larger than surrounding areas of lesser quality. We look for these bands when buying property as they can make life a whole lot easier and hunting landowners a whole lot happier.

It is not uncommon to find hundreds of square miles of sweet soil with an ideal pH for growing right next to ten thousand square miles of acidic soil. Rich deep loam can be found among rock outcroppings and ledges. You can also have variations within a given soil category.

Our 500-acre property could be best depicted as “high and dry” at 2,500 ft. Most of it sits 1,500 ft. or so above the river that runs through the valley we overlook. Being high and dry, we are not blessed with much in the way of top soil, in fact some areas have less than 6 inches, but we are blessed with more than our share of rocks left over from glaciers that receded through the area at the end of the ice age. It can take a half hour to dig a post hole 2 feet deep and once the clay and rock go bone dry in summer they resemble concrete. Drop a thousand feet or so to the river flats below and it is a different story; three-foot-deep soils with plenty of rock-free topsoil. The farmer below us is now the proud possessor of dirt that belonged to our property a scant few million years earlier. Good dirt flows downhill and it will be his until the river floods and washes it away for another to enjoy.

While we are predominantly high and dry, it is not without some good spots to locate a plot or 3-acre field. There are any number of flats and draws tucked in among our steep slopes and ridges. These areas have accumulated 6 inches or so of organic rich topsoil over the years and do nicely when planted. Like most flats surrounded by slopes, they get plenty of run-off from the high spots and have seeps aplenty but the water can usually be ditched away and a relatively decent plot developed.

A good deal of Neil’s consulting work is “finding dirt” on hunting properties to work with. Some properties are all rock or “bones” as we say. You can work soil with rocks up to a foot or so in diameter provided there are not so many as to make working soil impossible. But you can’t plant on a rock ledge or in a field of boulders. Trees and maybe some brush will grow there but that’s about it. Don’t get us wrong, rocky soil is not always a bad thing. Ultimately what grows high-quality vegetation and quality deer is soil with good tilth plus nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and a variety of other minerals. Rocky soil with high mineral content still can produce great plots and great deer. In general, there is almost always some growing dirt to be had on a property. It might take some clearing with a dozer or track hoe but eventually you will come up with something to work with.

Be careful when searching out good growing sites on typical hunting properties. It is not uncommon to come upon clear spots supporting little vegetation. These spots look to be ideal places to site a food plot as little work will be needed to finish clearing the area but be cautious – they are generally clear of vegetation for a reason. They may be located on a rock ledge or sand dune or an old log deck with compacted sawdust chips and bark for a base. Nothing is growing there because nothing can grow there. Generally speaking, areas with rich vegetation will support new plantings better than areas of sparse vegetation.

On the other hand, clearings or old brushed-over fields may be the remnants of old farm fields that were cleared and worked years ago. With a little TLC, they could become excellent places to plant deer forages. Look for old evidence of farming in these spots. Stone walls typically signify that livestock was pastured in an area while rock piles are sure signs that someone thought enough of the ground 100 years ago to make a run at growing on it. We have found that areas with stone piles typically have less stone buried below the surface and can make for an easier job when it comes to farming. Wire fences and hedgerows are another indicator.

High and dry, low and wet, steep and shallow, flat and deep, high in nutrients, nutrient poor; soils come in all shapes, colors, and textures. They are the backbone of any property and the key to determining what will live and prosper or struggle and die. You can work with them but you can’t work against them. To do so is an exercise in futility.

Author’s Note:

The elements of a property are highly interdependent and dynamic. The interaction between the soil and sun and water and air leads to the establishment of plants and animals; and dictates how they will interact with each other. These elements combined determine how deer will interact with their surroundings and understanding how whitetails will use a given property. To learn more about how these elements combine to impact deer hunting go to or pick up a copy our new book “Whitetails: From Ground To Gun

Quality Deer Management Association CEO Brian Murphy describes this book by saying it “provides detailed insight into what makes a great hunting property and how to consistently harvest mature bucks. It is a clear roadmap to QDM success.”

Pick up a copy today (click here to buy “Whitetails: From Ground to Gun”)