A story of a big deer on a small property.
I am relatively new to deer hunting, what some in the “industry” may call an Adult Onset Hunter. In fact, I didn't begin deer hunting until my freshman year of college when a friend, pestered incessantly by me, agreed to finally introduce me to the sport. All hunters can remember their first deer. Mine was a doe, taken on a farm in South Carolina where the landowner and my friend, Houston, were kind enough to allow me an evening hunt. Houston walked me to the stand, handed me a rifle, and left me alone to wait on a deer. Lacking any formal hunting skills or lessons, I was content to sit in nature and watch a sunset over rural SC. That evening, I shot that first doe, dropped it in the middle of a soybean field. I was immediately hooked. The excitement I received from Houston and the old farmer was infectious. They were so excited for me. At the processor, complete strangers were offering congratulations and slaps on the back, my cheeks streaked with the traditional first blood. I was grinning ear to ear, and I knew I was hooked for life.
This is where my dream of owning my own little piece of dirt originated. I fantasized of hunting and managing how I saw fit. I wanted to introduce others to the lifestyle just as I was. A few years later, I had the opportunity to actualize on that dream.
This is the story of that property and a special deer from it.
I started my hunting journey on this property less than 24 hours after signing the closing paperwork. The hunting potential on this land factored immensely in my desire to purchase the house and property, so I wasted no time setting up a hunting blind (in the dark) to get out and see what might come my way. Throughout that hunt, I started to become absolutely eaten up with the same draw many hunters become afflicted with: the desire to develop, improve, and hunt my own piece of land.
This little property rests 50 miles north of Atlanta, near the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. My wife and I bought this property 3 years ago from a great man that no longer wanted the upkeep of a 6-acre pasture lot. In the county that the property is located, a 6-acre tract is considered to be a larger lot for a single-family home without livestock, so I was excited to be able to devote the acreage to specifically cultivating a habitat for game species, rather than the cattle the former owner kept. The property is a narrow tract, roughly 200 yards wide. The bulk of the property is what we refer to as the “Pond Pasture” due to the ¼ acre pond in the middle of roughly 5 acres in the rear of the property. The pond is the lowest lying feature with 2 sides terraced uphill away from the pond. The terraced features are roughly 10-15 yards wide and 50 yards long, with 4-5 terraces on one side and 2 on another. At the time of my first hunt, the terraces were visible, but not obvious due to the tall grass and weeds that had taken over the entire pasture.
The land itself is fantastic, it naturally slopes downward front to back offering a perfect field of fire from where I have my blind placed. The pond itself offers a natural funnel for wildlife to a spot with great shot opportunities. As many know, on small properties, shot placement is of the utmost importance. That isn't to say shot placement is not essential every time you hunt, but with such a small property, I want a quick, clean kill. The last thing I want to do is continually bother my neighbors asking to track wounded deer.
I knew the property had some huge potential but would need a ton of work to get to where I wanted it to be. My first order of business was to find out what type of habitat surrounded my property. Acknowledging that any big changes would be detrimental during the first deer season, I prioritized the first season to fact finding and planning so that once the season was over, I could take off running.
We moved onto the property in November, a magical time all whitetail hunters dream of year round. During my first few hunts, I saw a multitude of deer and knew I truly had a chance of killing a nice buck here. I just needed a plan to make it happen. I decided not to make any considerable modifications to the property until postseason, content to watch and inventory the deer and other wildlife I saw, holding off for the “right” deer. That short season came and went. Now came the time to put "The Plan" into action.
First off, I knew I needed to better understand the surrounding properties so I took to analyzing satellite images via onX. I also made an attempt to start introducing myself to the neighbors. With no background in any sort of land management, I found that the latter was much more productive on several fronts. First, the neighbors were extremely welcoming (luck of the draw) and willing to talk land and property. And second, many of my neighbors were also avid hunters and looking to produce a conducive habitat for deer, but also retain their property’s livestock and agriculture use. The information I gathered shaped my approach to improving the pasture and also garnered a competitive and friendly relationship with the neighbors. We began sharing impressive trail cam pictures, big buck sighting reports, land management tips, courtesy notifications about recreational shooting, and permissions to track deer across property lines.
After the first season came to a close, I immediately began to layout the plan to improve the pasture. I knew I needed to draw deer onto my property from the larger, adjacent tracks, especially during shooting light. I approached all of my decisions with the criteria question of: “Does the change provide better access to food, water, or cover?” If what I was planning did not fulfill one of those requirements, I put it on the back burner for another time. I used this criteria to prioritize my tasks in order to ensure that I was making the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time while also not getting side tracked on one of the many “beautification” projects we tend to fall into.
Meeting that criteria, my first was to provide travel corridors for all game species on to the property. The pasture was originally enclosed for cattle, so I cut 3 sections of fencing, one on each side, to provide a path of least resistance for game to travel and to funnel deer movement into my pasture.
I walked each fence line and found the most established game paths leading up to the fence and cut a section. I am fully aware that deer would have no issue jumping the previous fence, this however provided an easier route on an already established trail as most game will often follow the path of least resistance. After cutting the fence, I placed a trail camera at each opening, allowing me to inventory many of the game species coming on to the property and indicate direction of travel. This information helped to determine bedding areas and the which adjacent properties provided benefit for each species. After checking cameras, I realized the buck potential here was incredible.
My second task was to knock back some of the weeds and overgrowth that had been flourishing after the absence of the cattle. Now, I do not claim to have any in-depth knowledge at land management, but I viewed this land as my opportunity to experiment with what works best.
I attached the bush hog and mowed the entire Pond Pasture down, leaving only the tufts of trees surrounding the pond and the few spaced oak trees scattered throughout. Although this visually looked appealing, it took away a significant amount of cover that game need to feel comfortable. For year two and three, I let the natural vegetation grow up, cutting only the areas that would be used for food plots and travel corridors from the original access points to a convergence at my ideal kill spot. Allowing the natural vegetation to grow up along the sides of the travel corridors and food plots provided the cover that many of the deer and other species look for. This lesson learned from Year One dramatically increased the number of deer that I saw during shooting hours.
After providing access points and finding the right balance of natural growth, I started what proved to be the most productive step: food plots. With the help of a friend, we took soil samples to send off for composition results. This analysis provided insight in to what plants would grow in the current soil and what supplements we would need to add to improve the pH and composition. Luckily, the soil came back with a great pH level and not completely depleted of nutrients. With the pond being the down hill from all of the food plots, I was apprehensive to spread any fertilizer or nutrients if the soil didn’t absolutely require it. We have several fish species that I am working on growing in the pond and the last thing I wanted was for the fertilizer runoff from my food plots to produce a booming algae population in the pond and deplete the oxygen supply. So we went ahead and planted the first year of food plots sans supplemental nutrients. Once again, this was a total experiment, and I wanted as much plot diversity as possible.
We tried to vary the food plot mixes to see what produced the best results and used clover as a filler for the plots that we didn’t have anything specific picked out for. The clover puts nitrogen back in the soil, while also providing a great annual food plot. For the rest of the plots, we planted specific mixes of chicory, turnips, radishes, winter rape, winter rye, winter peas, oats, and kale. Our end goal was to provide a condensed location around the pond water source that would provide a year-round food source for deer. As the food plots took off, the food source not only support deer, but also doves, ducks, turkeys, squirrels, and rabbits with an occasional roaming bear.
With my last step, I looked at stand/blind location. I did not want to overload the property with stand locations for obvious reasons, so I decided that I would keep my initial blind and also put in one bow season stand. The wind on the property consistently blows in the same direction, so I looked for spots that wouldn’t require me to walk through the travel corridors to access the stand and would remain down wind from the kill zone. In my case, I have a blind set up on a high spot that overlooks all the plots and access points into my property. This spot is perfect with the prevailing wind we have and is easy to enter and exit without spooking deer or crossing any of their trails.
With all the changes that I made to the pasture complete, the final piece was the most challenging; patience. I wanted to get the “right” deer on my own property. I invested so much time and effort into the process, and I knew it wouldn’t come overnight. At times patience proved difficult, as most hunters know. My neighbor even killed my “target buck” two years in a row. I took meticulous notes in a field notebook on every deer I saw to begin patterning them. I paired these field notes to my trail camera pictures and actually had several missed opportunities on great bucks when I was not in the blind. All of the notes and the spread sheet I made did not give me a real cutting edge advantage, but I have enjoyed the practice and continue it today.
Before we get to the final story of “The Deer,” I'd like to clarify who I am talking about in the previous parts of this story when I say “We”. The “We” in this journey have been of the
utmost importance. This project could not have been done alone. With the help and support of my wife, Robin, who puts up with my hunting obsession and my incredible friends; Trevor, Tim, Spencer amongst others, this project became a reality. I would not recommend undertaking land management as a solo project. It can be frustrating, expensive, and full of mistakes, all of which are better when shared with cold beer and friends.
It is possible to hunt great deer on just 5 acres. The old adage, “If you build it, they will come” has been proven true. Several serious bucks regularly visit the property since we implemented our management plan. We have named some of these regulars as whitetail hunters are prone to do in an attempt to keep them all straight. Too Tall, Wide Henry, King James, Half-Rack, Unlucky 7, are some of the beasts I have been seeing on camera consistently over the years, just never with a bow or rifle in hand.
An incredible by-product of our land management practices is the significant increase in other wildlife on the property. We now have a hunt-able population of a variety of species that frequent the property. We hunt ducks on the pond, squirrels, doves, turkeys and even stocked the pond to hold a population of bass and bluegill. I have seen coyotes, foxes, raccoons, possums, herons, and even two black bears. The increase in overall wildlife is the most rewarding outcome, seeing our hard work support the entire ecosystem. We now have year round hunting and fishing on only five acres.
The story of the first deer came to a close in November 2020. It was a chilly morning with a slight frost on the ground, the kind of weather that gets deer hunters excited during November. In the earliest possible rays of daylight, I saw a large shadow enter my property on the left, just below my blind. I knew instantly it was a deer but it was too dark to make out any detail. It was still 20 minutes until legal shooting light. The deer entered from a cut in my property fence, less than 30 yards away and meandering to my right through the clover plot and towards the pond. Time crawled as I stared through my binoculars at the deer, willing him to be a shooter. Finally there was enough light to see antlers and my heart raced. The large population of bucks that frequent my property always get me excited, but I did not realize how big this buck was until I saw the silhouette of antlers against the pond. “Wide!,” I thought to myself, and checked my watch again, begging for shooting light before this buck finished feeding and slipped into the woods towards the neighbors. I quickly decided this was the "right" buck and watched him feed towards my ideal kill spot, right at the pinnacle of the pond. The buck turned facing away from me, feeding on the clover and chicory, for at least 10 minutes. This position only allowed for the ol' Texas-Heart shot (shot through the rear-end towards the head), which was clearly out of the question. I could see his wide antlers as he fed, and I anxiously begged, prayed, and willed him to turn broadside. After what seemed like an eternity, he presented the perfect broadside shot. One last time check, 6:37AM-Legal and time to shoot. It was a 100 yard shot from a position I practiced dozens of times in the off season. My shot was dead-on and the deer dropped just feet away. It was a perfect scenario, one all hunter's hope for when they pull the trigger.
Looking back on my notes, as I marked my big buck in the log, I had a tally of 104 shooting opportunities that I passed up waiting for the “right” Buck. I emphasize “right” because everyone has their own definition of their target game animal, and this buck fit mine. This buck is not a giant by most standards, and maybe even small to more experienced hunters, but for me it was the perfect buck. After seeing him for the first time on one of my access point trail cameras, I knew I wanted to kill this deer. I passed up several smaller basket rack six and eight pointers with the intention of growing a solid population of quality bucks, and this was just the buck I was looking for. Most importantly though, this buck was the first one I killed on the my land after three years of hard work. Today, it serves as a reminder to trudge through the uncertainty, develop a plan, work my ass off, and get my mind right to end up right where I need to be.