Searching for a prime deer-hunting spot? Don't overlook the rich farmlands scattered throughout whitetail country. Many sportsmen confine their hunting to wooded areas year after year, drawn back to the forests by a strong sense of tradition. But the farmland alternative also is worthy of consideration, for many good reasons.
First, agricultural foods are very important in the deer's diet, especially during the hard months of winter. A study conducted along the Mississippi River, for example, found that five of the 10 preferred deer foods were crops raised by farmers. These were winter wheat, corn, alfalfa, grass and lespedeza.
Farm crops also have a high protein content and tend to produce deer that are bigger, healthier and fatter than woodland deer. A whitetail thriving on corn, soybeans, alfalfa and other farm crops can stay in good physical condition year-round. Woodland deer, on the other hand, may run into hard times, especially during years when the mast crop is poor.
Studies have found that deer concentrations can be up to 10 times higher in the immediate vicinity of agricultural crops than in more remote wooded areas. These same studies reveal that the deer disperse when the food is gone. But in many areas, winter wheat, waste grain and other farm foods are available to deer throughout the season. In farming areas, deer may remain concentrated on agricultural lands well past the time when hunting season ends.
Finally, because most farmlands are privately owned, access is limited. This gives resident bucks time to gain that part of the big buck-equation most often missing: age. An older buck is a bigger buck, almost without exception.
Finding a Farm to Hunt
Herds of deer often live near farms and visit the farmer's fields. Quite often they join right in with the cows and feed alongside them to their heart's content. The sweeter the grass, the more they eat and the healthier they get.
This probably won't bother the farmer too much because usually there's plenty of grass to go around. But the deer don't stop there. Almost all other farm products appeal to deer. Soybeans and corn are big winners. Green vegetables are delights. Hay fields attract deer, as do patches of lespedeza and alfalfa.
The piece-de-resistance is fruit. Peach, grape and apple orchards may attract heavy concentrations of deer.
Because damage caused by deer is often extensive and expensive, most farmers welcome hunters who exhibit responsible behavior.
|Huge bucks often come from farmlands, like this Boone and Crockett trophy (208 5/8 points) killed by George Hobson on an east Arkansas farm.|
When looking for farmland to hunt, check with your local game warden. These professionals often know landowners who are experiencing serious crop damage caused by overabundant whitetails.
On a farm I once hunted, the landowner once showed me 40 acres of freshly sprouted soybeans that had been nipped close to the ground by feeding deer. Damage by deer was so great, the farmer received a deer depredation permit from the local wildlife officer that allowed him to shoot several deer to help minimize crop destruction. The owner, eager to reduce his financial losses, was more than happy to allow me to hunt deer on his land several days each season.
Orchard owners often experience similar problems. Deer can literally wipe out a grove of small fruit trees. Befriending farmers trying to reduce deer damage is one of the best ways to pinpoint farm-country whitetail hotspots.
You may find additional farmland hunting areas on public grounds by inquiring with your state wildlife agency. Many publicly owned properties encompass agricultural lands that are part of the overall management plan. Hunting pressure tends to be much greater on these areas, however, and special permits may be required to hunt. When other options fall through, though, public lands provide opportunities that might otherwise be missed.
Etiquette is Important
Serious whitetail hunters know it's best to start the search for a hunting area well before the season. When seeking private land hunting opportunities, don't drive up to the door on the first day and ask if you can hunt the woods behind a farmer's house. Visit the landowner well in advance of the season. Quite often, if you can prove you're a responsible hunter, you can get permission to hunt, perhaps even on land that is posted.
That visiting hunters should treat a farmer's property with respect goes without saying, but don't overlook other courtesies that will help assure you'll be welcomed back when hunting season rolls around again. Time and time again, I've heard farmers complain that hunters never think of them until deer season. A Christmas gift, birthday card, some flowers for the wife, a present for the kids or an offer to help with farm work all do a great deal for cultivating good hunter-farmer relations.
Share your success with the farmer, too. Most landowners who welcome you on their property also take an interest in the hunt. Even if he doesn't want any of the venison (make sure to offer a share anyway), he's probably watched your deer while working his land. It's part of the farm, and sharing your success with the landowner makes him feel appreciated.
How to Hunt Farmland
Big bucks often rest long hours and feed on food sources convenient to their bedding areas. And as winter comes on, the bucks feel a pressing need to nourish themselves in preparation for the hard times ahead. Gradually, their daily routine shifts. They venture out farther and farther from their core areas in search of quality food. If preferred agricultural crops are in the area, you can be sure that most bucks eventually will end up feeding there.
Emphasis usually should be placed on hunting deer trails between bedding areas and crop fields. To determine the location of bedding areas, look for and follow well-used trails leading away from the perimeter of a crop field. It's best to enter these areas alone and quietly. When you begin to hit really dense cover, you're probably entering the bedding areas, especially if you jump some deer while scouting. It's not a good idea to push the deer because it might spook them from the area. So when you have jumped a deer, back up and leave.
|Be hunting at first light and right up until dark to catch big farmland bucks moving into and out of feeding fields.|
How close you set up to a bedding area should be determined by when you'll be hunting. If you plan to hunt mornings only, stay close to the bedding area. That way you can catch deer when they are coming back from the feeding areas. If you set up too close to the feeding areas in the morning, you will only see deer when it's too dark to shoot.
If you plan to hunt only in the late afternoon, stay a little closer to the feeding areas. Don't hunt right on the edge of the field though because then you'll probably only see deer after shooting hours are over. Set up somewhere between the bedding and feeding areas, and you can catch the deer when they are coming out for their evening meal.
If, like many hunters, you prefer to hunt on the edge of a farm field rather than in the woods, select a spot for your stand that is near a main deer route to or from the field. Your first scouting trip around the edge of a grain or alfalfa field may reveal enough deer tracks to give you the shakes. But don't let this confuse you. Careful scouting will reveal a main route for entering and leaving the field.
It also is best to choose a hunting spot that offers good cover going to and from your stand, so farmland deer won't be as likely to notice your entry and exit.
Still-hunting can be effective as well if conditions are right. Hunt to the last legal minute of the day, and be in position in the morning before first light. Try to find bottlenecks or other physical features that help funnel a buck your way.
When you do find an area to hunt, it's a mistake to think that taking farmland deer is easy. In fact, whitetails haunting agricultural areas are sometimes much harder to collect than their cousins in wilder territory. Nevertheless, hunters who invest heavily in pre-season scouting to learn the day-to-day habits of their quarry can enjoy a bountiful harvest on these often overlooked deer lands.
Woodland hunting will probably always be the mainstay for most whitetail fans, but if you are seeking a new tack to spice up your outings this year, give farmland deer hunting a try. Prime farm country offers some of our nation's best hunting for big, healthy deer.