Whitetails 365 January-Prioritizing Your Resources (A version of this article is published in the January 2016 issue of Iowa Sportsman Magazine)
For the vast majority of hunters, we have limited resources at our disposal. These resources range from our hunting equipment, to the land we have access to; to the time off we are able to get from work. Because we have limited time and limited money, we have to make smart decisions about where we focus our efforts. Every dime we spend; every hour directed toward the hunt, represents our investment into each hunting season. Some investments that we make will pay us back with greater numbers of deer sightings and will increase our chances of harvesting a good buck. Others…might make us feel better about our hunt (play with our emotions) but do very little in the way of getting us closer to our goal of more consistent deer sightings and bigger bucks.
In January of each year, I make a real effort to grade the results I had the past hunting season. What worked and why? What failed and why? What projects on the farm helped me achieve my goals of more consistent deer sightings and more mature bucks? What made my life easier during hunting season? What ideas that seemed great at the time failed? Why did they fail? Of all the things I spent my money on…which ones worked? And, most importantly, I ask myself these questions under the umbrella of did they help me reach my goals.
I love debating stuff. It’s how I force myself to see things from a different perspective outside my comfort zone. Too often we fall into the trap of convincing ourselves that the time and money we put into something worked simply because we don’t want to admit that we got burned…or an idea that we might have been bragging about a few months earlier really fell on its face. The only way we can get better at whitetail hunting is to make honest assessments of what we do…and then repeat what works and abandon or change what doesn’t. Any other option means we simply won’t get better.
When it comes to whitetail deer hunters…especially the ones that think about the hunt all year…we are a very emotional group. We have strong opinions on just about every aspect of our hunt. But, our strong emotions can get us into trouble when making honest assessments of our hunting successes and failures…and can further get us into trouble when allocating our limited resources each season. Using our emotions gets us to do all sorts of things that have very little return on our investments. I’ve been there…and still struggle with it today! Over the years, I’ve come up with a very simple yet effective way at approaching decisions I make each year when deciding where to spend my time and money. For each decision or idea I ask myself one simple question: Will this investment into my hunt make my sightings of deer more consistent and will it increase the odds of putting me in front of more good bucks? If the answer is no…then I will not commit time and/or money to this idea.
In practical terms then, there are very few if any hunting gear related things you can buy that will give you an answer of yes. There’s no bow, arrow, firearm, camouflage, scent eliminating product, broadhead, back pack, tree stand, ground blind, release aid…etc. that will magically make a giant buck appear if he doesn’t exist where you hunt. I know this to be fact. For many years I spent my time and money focusing on gear. I debated which broadhead was the best…what camo to wear…what stand was the most portable. Until I started to honestly self-evaluate why I wasn’t getting in front of good deer on a consistent basis, I kept allocating my resources on newer and better stuff. Once I made a switch from focusing my efforts on stuff to focusing on access to better hunting grounds, the results were incredible. Today, almost all the investment I make into each hunting season is made toward making my hunting grounds the best they can be through habitat improvements. I still spend money on gear but only to the point of necessity.
I really try to pound this point home because now more than ever whitetail hunters are bombarded with marketing schemes to get us to buy more and more stuff…gadgets I often refer to them as. These things get us to take our focus off of real things that can help us reach our hunting goals. In January, when I make my assessment, I’m not focusing on the new gear I might need. Instead, I’m focusing on what things have I done this past year that helped me see more and bigger deer. The things that work always seem to center around better habitat, better food sources, and access to good hunting ground. Access to good hunting ground can mean one of two things…either changing where you hunt to an area that holds big deer or creating exceptional habitat on your current hunting grounds so that you can manage for a more quality deer herd. It might actually mean both!
Gaining Access-For many years I hunted the family farm where I grew up. It was located in an area with extremely high hunting pressure and no focus at all on managing for bigger deer. This isn’t necessarily bad, but for someone seeking the ability to hunt mature bucks, it wasn’t going to work either. My only choice was to try and change the current situation. My first attempt at this was to engage the hunting group I was part of and the surrounding neighbors in an effort to better manage the deer herd. I was young and naïve to think that this would work under the circumstances. Most hunters at the time did not share my goals of a more “quality” deer herd. This doesn’t make them wrong…but it does make for an impossible set of circumstances. After a few years with no results to show for our efforts, I decided to move on. My second attempt really boiled down to finding an area that held the type of deer I was wanting to hunt and then gaining access to hunt those deer. This resulted in a lease agreement that allowed my new hunting group to manage for bigger deer. By simply doing this one thing, my hunting went from yearly frustrations to success each and every year. By gaining access to quality hunting grounds…and then making those grounds better each year through habitat improvements, my hunting was as good as it had ever been. My pile of gadgets I once used slowly went away too!
The resources I had to spend (in this case in the form of money) to gain this access wasn’t all that cheap by many hunter’s standards. The one big difference is that I used to spend this money anyway…only it was on gadgets and gear and new stuff that really had no impact on my goal. For me it was the single most important lesson I have ever learned as a hunter trying to chase mature whitetails…Access was the most significant “gadget” I needed.
My long term dream was always to own my own farm in an area that I could manage for exceptional deer hunting. Today, I’ve reached that goal by owning a great farm in southern Iowa. Buying my farm was and will forever be the largest investment I have ever made into my hunting experience. You don’t have to own land to have great hunting…but you absolutely need access to good ground…or the ability to make the ground you hunt exceptional through your own habitat improvements.
High Return Investments-Whether you have access in a good hunting area through ownership, leasing, or are just lucky enough to have permission to hunt, making your grounds better and even exceptional requires additional investments. This is of course if your goal is bigger deer and more consistent sightings of those deer. Even if you have no interest in seeing a big mature buck but would like to see more deer more consistently, this still applies.
Creating exceptional “natural” habitat is the easiest and most cost effective way to improve your hunting grounds. By natural I mean taking what is already there and improving it. This means converting CRP ground that is just fallow to CRP ground that is planted in warm season grasses. Taking open timber and converting it to thick cover. Planting different species of native plants to create edges or more security cover. These processes have high returns because they are relatively cheap to do and their affects last for years. Each method requires additional research on your part…there is simply too much information to cover in this one article. But I bring them up because having a few tools (allocating resources) will help you greatly in creating great habitat. For me, the first big purchase items I bought after buying my farm were a used tractor, 3 point disc harrow, 3 point brush mower, and a chain saw. All of these items are essential for the do-it-yourself hunter that wants to improve habitat on their hunting grounds.
Producing other more man-made habitat improvements are the next highest pay back or return on your investment. This includes food plots and interior plots. Once the carrying capacity on your farm is increased through natural habitat improvements, the next big way to keep and draw deer is to provide preferred food sources throughout the season. This is most easily and effectively accomplished through food plots…and, what is the best and easiest way to accomplish this? By purchasing a tractor and implements (disc harrow and mower) you are well on your way to good food plotting.
Essential Gear-When I say essential gear, this is the gear that I feel is required of me to have a good hunt. The priority I give this stuff is not even on the same page as what I’m willing to spend in time and money on creating better habitat. But, to have an enjoyable and successful hunt there are still some things I won’t skimp on.
First and foremost are some good stands. For a single hunter, I recommend at least 6-8 different sets you are able to hunt during the season. This breaks down to 3-4 each for morning and evening hunting so that I have each wind direction covered. I like to hunt cover areas and travel corridors in mornings and food sources on evening hunts. Usually this means at least 3 stands for each time frame assuming some of those sets work with multiple wind directions. Add a hunting partner…and now you could be looking at a dozen or more stands if you plan on hunting at the same time. At an average cost of maybe $100 this could cost you over a thousand dollars? In my mind, it’s an essential gear item. Today, I have over 40 stands in my arsenal including hang-ons, ladder stands, ground blinds, permanent box blinds, etc. It took me almost three decades to get to this level. Having an adequate number of stands which allows you to move around and hunt the wind is about as critical as it gets.
When hanging and preparing my stand sites there are some other essential gear items I won’t do without. First, is a lineman’s type climbing harness that allows me to safely put up hang-on type tree stands. A quality pole saw goes a long way in cutting shooting lanes for each set; and a hand saw and pruning shear the same. Whenever I hang a new set, or go to check and do maintenance on an existing one, I always carry my climbing harness, pole and hand saw, and shears with me to the job. And remember that chain saw…bring that too!
The Other Stuff-I realize you need other things to go hunting. I really do. You need a weapon, and ammunition or arrows. Some hunting clothes and warm boots usually help. I like my release aid (although it is 15+ years old). A grunt call and rattling antlers can help some times. I feel lost in the woods without my binoculars. My backpack goes with me on every hunt. I have one of those tree umbrellas with me when it’s raining out. I get it…there’s other stuff we need. But when you set out with a goal of having more consistent sightings of deer; and more mature bucks to hunt, the other stuff does not get you to those goals. You could spend hundreds of dollars each and every year just trying to keep deer from smelling you (a proposition I find impossible) or you can hunt with the wind for free! The latest and greatest camouflage I doubt will get you any closer to a giant buck but it sure looks cool. The new bow you’ve got your eyes on might be 20 feet per second faster than your old bow…but do you really think it gets you to your goal? Every year I talk with hunters who are frustrated that once again they’ve gone another year without harvesting a good deer…or even having a good hunt. By focusing on what can actually help that, they can begin to get themselves out of that rut they are in. Having a new pick-up, the hottest new camo pattern, or the best bow on the market won’t get you into good hunting. Having access to good quality hunting grounds or making your own will get you well on your way to success…if big deer and consistent action are your goals.
This year in 2016, I am planning to make some purchases myself. You don’t have to start out big by taking out a loan and buying everything you need this year. I’ve been accumulating good quality equipment for years a little at a time. Remember to start with those things that will help you improve the habitat on your hunting grounds. Add in a stand each year or two and in no time you’ll have what it takes to produce an exceptional farm to hunt. These are the things that will give you your highest return on your investment.
In next month’s article, I will start to lay out my favorite sets to hunt and why I plan for these sets in the winter. I’ll also get into how I read an aerial map and what things I look for before ever stepping onto a new piece of ground.