At ScentBlocker, we’re not just hunters, we’re conservationists as well. We love wildlife and God’s creation and want to do our part to maintain and even improve it. We also realize the rigors of the whitetail rut, combined with brutally cold winter conditions can sometimes equal disaster for our deer herds. Thankfully there’s more that we hunters can to than simply sitting by hoping for a mild winter. Here are some ideas that we recommend you try on your property to help your herd make it through winter in good condition.
Habitat improvement projects can be done any time of year, but the winter months are a wonderful time to dust off the old chainsaw, get outside and continue to get some fresh air instead of just hibernating on the couch. Each year at my farm we “hinge cut” many trees. Hinge cutting is a very effective way to increase cover, make the deer and rabbits feel more secure, and offer browse at their height. Look online to learn more about hinge cutting because there are several videos and articles about the subject. Basically hinge cutting is when someone uses a chainsaw to cut a sharp angle into a living tree approximately 3/4 of the way through. The object is to try to lay the tree on the ground, or lower it at least whereas the bark is still connected to the roots. If outer bark is still connected someplace, the chances are very good that the tree will live and sprout a bunch of new growth at eye level for the deer instead of 40’ high. As this tree awakens again in the spring coming out of dormancy, it will start to shoot up new growth off the now vertical trunk making it even more appealing for cover and a new food source.
So as I’m writing this article I am thawing out from hinge cutting outside tonight after work. I accomplished two things tonight by doing this. Not only am I improving my bedding habitat for next year, the deer and turkeys and other animals will be in eating all the fresh brush that I drop down for them. In my neck of the woods our local deer herd hears the winter chainsaw and equate it to me ringing the dinner bell. All of our deer are guaranteed to be in the thick of it, eating anything that I cut down for them tonight within a few days. They love sumac tops so that’s one of the first things I look for. I also like to hinge cut any low-growing bushes or less desirable trees. I hinge cut a lot of Autumn Olive, which is an invasive bush that the deer will bed in and nibble on occasionally. Be sure to do research for your area and see what local trees, bushes and shrubs the experts recommend hinge cutting. I also like to hinge cut or completely eliminate any competing trees each year that are undesirable. Anything that is competing with my nut and fruit trees for sun, water and nutrients will also get hinge cut or removed completely. I spoke to a Michigan DNR Habitat Manager recently and he told me to remove anything growing under my mature oak trees to help produce acorn production.
After hinge cutting everything that I think is undesirable, I will go into my mature pine stands and do what is called edge feathering. Edge feathering is simply dropping trees straight down into a field edge to create a softer transition area vs. all grass stopping abruptly into all pines, etc… By edge feathering pines, I am creating massive wind breaks for the deer to hole up in during the winter. By edge feathering I am also allowing the sunlight to penetrate the pine forest floor encouraging new growth at these areas. The nice thing about edge feathering is it can also act as a funnel. We trim specific trails through the feathered edges that we want the deer to access the fields from.
Many people also feed their wildlife throughout the winter months. Be sure to check local regulations. In my home state of Michigan baiting deer is illegal during the offseason, but there are some laws about supplemental food programs. I do not know how other states operate but I’m sure they are all different. Supplemental feeding in a nutshell is simply just giving the deer extra feed. Most people simply dump shelled corn on the ground or use it through a corn feeder. I also know others who are willing to purchase apples, carrots, sugar beets, and other deer friendly foods to give them during the winter months. Other people also leave round bales of hay laying out for the animals to eat in the winter. I do know that everyone that I’ve ever talked to that has practice supplemental winter feeding is usually rewarded with the healthier deer herd in the spring. Also, a couple of shed antlers found near their food sites as a thank you from the deer for all the extra food is a neat trophy from time to time.
Some people also experiment with trying to keep water holes open for the deer to have unfrozen drinking water in the winter. This could be done from a bubbler in a pond, or solar powered heat tape, or a variety of things. The basic premise is just to keep a water source open and prevent it from freezing. One of my neighbors has a constant flow “pump and dump” geothermal heating system and he is always dumping water outback behind his house. I know the local deer come drink from it even on the coldest days in the winter.
I also spend a lot of time in the winter prepping trails for the next summer. Deer and other wildlife appear to be lazy. In reality, their survival depends on calorie conservation. Either way, they will use the trails that are created for them. I like to drive the truck back when I can, or get my hands on a snowmobile or tractor when the going gets tough. I make small trails between the bedding cover and food sources and am always amazed how quickly the animals start to use them. If I have access to the tractor large enough, I’ll scrape away snow in the fields exposing the leftover hay, corn, or beans underneath. They’ll also take advantage of the easy pickin’s and have a feast in the scraped patch of field.
Reference my past articles on coyote hunting and trapping. Here’s a Cliff’s Notes version- kill predators. Not only is winter predator hunting and trapping fun, it is important for the well being of the local deer and turkeys. Plus, after I started harassing the local coyotes I noticed a bounce-back in our rabbit population. My kids love hunting rabbits, so that’s a bonus.
Keep it Fun!
As with anything be sure to check the local game laws before embarking on any sort of supplemental winter food or watering program. Hunting and habitat improvement are supposed to be fun, so getting into trouble with the authorities would ruin the experience. I also recommended talking with a local forestry expert about which trees to cut when hinge cutting or edge feathering. My rule is that if it produces nuts or fruit it is allowed to grow as tall as possible. Be safe with your chainsaw, get off the couch and get some fresh air this winter. Your deer and turkeys will thank you for it!
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