Winter Habitat Projects

As winter wears on, there’s no shortage of habitat-related projects for hunting fans to enjoy. With a little effort, you can tackle a variety of jobs to make your hunting areas more attractive to wildlife, and more productive next fall.

It seems like one of the fastest-trending practices right now is hinge-cutting hardwood trees to boost ground-level cover and forage for whitetail deer. Also known as half-cutting, it involves sawing into the trunk just enough to tip the tree over, without cutting all the way through it. This keeps the tree alive and producing additional cover and forage (twigs and leaves), often for several years (see photo below). Hinge-cuts should be made at a height of 24-36 inches to maximize bedding cover and food for deer. Note: Obviously, you don’t want to cut white oaks and other tree species that produce topnotch mast for whitetails. The Quality Deer Management Association and other expert sources can help you determine the best species to cut. And wear the appropriate safety gear when handling a chainsaw and be careful!

When hinge-cutting is conducted as part of your overall habitat plan, I think it’s a great practice. On most of my central-Minnesota property, however, the last thing I need is more fallen trees. Due to a severe storm several years ago, the forest is full of blow-downs. In some areas, the damage was so extensive it created a virtually impenetrable wall of timber. Deer abandoned traditional trails, and in some areas actually began detouring around the property. As a result, I’ve had to cut trails through a few different areas to encourage them not to bypass my land altogether.

Thanks to minimal snow depths in my central-Minnesota stomping grounds, it’s easy to get around the woods right now and open a few more trails to make it easier for deer to access our property throughout the year. As a plus, I get some much-needed firewood in the bargain.

Thanks to our trail system, I can access most areas with an ATV or utility tractor. As much as I love riding an ATV, tractors are my favorite option. They offer unbeatable pulling power when you need to reposition a log or other obstacle, and tractors handle plows, discs and other tilling attachments with ease. Last fall, I opted for a 75-horsepower, utility-class John Deere 5075E diesel tractor, fitted with a hydraulic loader, and I couldn’t be happier with the gutsy yet nimble machine (photo below).

Speaking of tillage, now is also a great time to plan locations for this spring’s food plots. The ground might be frozen, but you can still clear trees and brush as needed. I like trimming shooting lanes and reassessing stand locations while I’m at it.

Winter recon helps you see the land from a different perspective than is possible during other times of year. It’s amazing the feel for topography you can get in mid to late winter, when most of the leaves have fallen. For example, just this morning while scanning a small wooded swamp from a hilltop, I noticed that a subtle ridge carves its way in from higher ground on the opposite side of the swamp.

In more than 10 years of passing by the swamp, I’d never noticed this potential whitetail funnel until now. Finding such hotspots is yet another reward of spending time improving and enjoying the winter woods.

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