By Alex Comstock

Here’s something I’m sure you’ve heard many times; Making your hunting property and habitat as high quality as possible is important to hunting success. Obviously. But how can you actually put that into action on your own property? That’s the real question.

Lindsay Thomas Jr., the Director of Communications at the Quality Deer Management Association and Editor for Quality Whitetails, is just the kind of person who can help us with that one and I recently got to ask him a few questions revolving around this very topic. If you want to learn more about habitat improvements and what you can do to help make your deer hunting property as functional as possible, read on to see what Lindsay Thomas Jr. recommends you do.

Q: For somebody who recently acquired a new piece of hunting land and wants to try and make a few habitat improvements this summer, what would you first recommend someone look at to figure out what they should do?

Lindsay: Study the area surrounding your new hunting land using aerial photos or by driving roads and studying the landscape. Find out what resources are lacking or in abundance on other properties, and then use that information to set your own goals so that you provide a scarce resource at a time when it’s needed. For example, if mature hardwood forests are common but dense cover is not, aim to produce more bedding and escape cover where you hunt. If soybean fields are common on other lands, you don’t need to bother planting summer forage, but if those fields are bare in winter, you might need to specialize in winter browse production. In short, find out what you need to know about the neighborhood to make your hunting area meet needs that aren’t being met on other properties at any given time of year.

Q: When you think of making habitat improvements, food plots always come to mind. Are food plots the most important part of habitat improvements, or would you maybe say it’s something else?

Lindsay: The most important part of deer habitat is native understory vegetation, the plants that deer feed on and hide in every day of the year. Food plots are the icing on the cake. Even when quality food plots are available, deer still browse on and hide in natural vegetation. The greater the diversity and abundance of understory plants, the more deer are buffered from nutritional stress in every season. Food plots are valuable supplements to the foundation of a diverse understory, but they cannot replace or stand in for this foundation. Start your habitat improvements by encouraging natural vegetation at ground level, then add the icing of food plots.

Q: At a high level, what would be your number one food plot tip for people?

Lindsay: Learn the primary differences between annuals and perennials, and the crops that are in those groups, and let that guide your choice of plantings. Annuals (like the cereal grains and brassicas and a few others) germinate quickly, provide forage and attraction immediately, but must be re-planted each year. Perennials (like most clovers, chicory, alfalfa, and others) establish slowly and won’t provide their most significant forage and attraction for months. If it’s August and you want to plant something to hunt deer over that same season, plant annuals. This is one example of the kind of strategic planning you can do if you know the differences between annuals and perennials. QDMA’s book, Quality Food Plots, can help you here. (Editor’s note: I HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend this book. If you expect to plant food plots at any time in the future, this should be required reading. – M. Kenyon)

Q: Hinge cutting is a popular method for creating bedding areas. How would you recommend someone go about hinge cutting, and can it be used for anything else other than improving bedding?

Lindsay: Hinge-cutting can also create forage if the tree species being cut is a species deer will browse. It’s also good for manipulating deer movements, because the hinge-cut trees can be placed strategically to block trails or openings. But I think of hinge-cutting as a technique you use sparingly. If you think of your hunting area as a map you are creating, hinge-cutting is a pencil for drawing lines, it’s not a paint brush for coloring in large areas. Other habitat management techniques are more efficient than hinge-cutting for producing cover and forage on a large scale, and if you don’t know the tree species you are cutting, you could be doing more harm than good to your forest succession. Treat hinge-cutting as just one of several tools you use for habitat improvement.

Q: Are there any type of habitat improvements you think are overlooked or undervalued?

Lindsay: Identifying and removing non-native invasive plant species is one. Every region has particular plant species that don’t belong there and that are taking up space and resources that could be used by native plants that deer eat. Learn the invasive species in your region, learn to spot them, learn how to kill them, and you instantly create room for more of those natural forage and cover species that attract deer. It’s an easy win.

Q: Once a person purchases a property, if it previously had not been managed for whitetails, how long do you think it realistically will take someone to create a great whitetail property?

Lindsay: With habitat management, you’re trying to create ground-level forage and cover for deer, and the good news is that these early successional plant species are very quick to respond to encouragement. When you put sunlight on the ground, plants begin taking advantage of it immediately. Within a year, a new opening will be filled with grasses, forbs, vines and tree seedlings. The question is how much space can you open? A commercial clear-cut or timber thinning can make rapid improvements across a large area, but if it’s just you and your chainsaw dropping one tree at a time, it’s going to take longer. The other thing to remember is that a forest opening is always aging and becoming less open, so you have to occasionally set that space back again with fire or a chainsaw or a timber harvest to keep it in prime deer forage and cover production. So, you’re never really “finished” creating a great whitetail property. The good news is, the work is fun and rewarding.

Q: What do you think is the number one thing people mess up when they are trying to make all the habitat improvements possible on their property?

Lindsay: They forget to keep hunting strategy and pressure management in the matrix. If you create abundant forage and cover at all times of year, productive food plots, and plenty of attraction sources like fruit and acorn mast, but you can’t access or hunt these sites without bumping deer and blowing your scent into prime areas, then you have failed. Always think about an effective hunting strategy when deciding where and when to implement habitat improvements. Leave yourself an access infrastructure with roads, trails or entry points that give you a stealthy approach to stand sites. Create multiple, alternative stand sites for use in varying winds. Manage your time and pressure to avoid pushing deer out of the great habitat you have created.

If you want to see more from Lindsay Thomas Jr. or learn more about the Quality Deer Management Association, visit their website at www.qdma.com

-Alex Comstock, WhitetailDNA