Against the Odds in Ontario

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On November 10, 2005, a 300-lb., 150-inch whitetail stepped into my life, and it changed me forever. From that point forward I wanted to learn everything I could about how and why that deer was that big.

I killed that deer on an 88-acre farm in Ontario, Canada, that was owned by an elderly gentleman named Gibby Woods. Gibby had allowed me to hunt his land as long as I didn’t let his wife, Pat, see the harvested animals. When needed, I helped around the house, fixing the roof, putting in the outdoor furnace, cutting the grass when he was away, bringing lunch on the odd occasion and a box of chocolates at Christmas time. One day while cutting wood for him in January 2006, I asked if he would mind if I did some timber stand improvement (TSI) to enhance the property for whitetails. He thought I was crazy, but he agreed to allow me to do it because we were already cutting the wood – I just wanted to be more selective with the harvest of the trees.

And so it began…

Cleanup Work

The 88-acre parcel has lots of character. There is a big ridge that runs through the middle of it, and there are small hills throughout the rest of the property. It backs up to hundreds of acres of mixed hardwood forest. To me, it seemed great raw material for building a whitetail haven, but in 2006 it was run down from lack of management by the previous owners. At that time, most of the parcel was in mature hardwoods and pole timber – mostly maple, bitternut hickory and iron wood with a few mature oaks scattered throughout. There were also patches of mixed white cedar, eastern red cedar and spruce. The 20 acres of open fields were being managed for hay and offered no forage for deer.

For the first two years, I spent a lot of my time releasing the mature but overgrown apple trees scattered around the property. I trimmed back competing plants then pruned and fertilized the trees every spring and have had tremendous success with them.

I spent a lot of my evenings and weekends cleaning up fences, cutting firewood for Gibby and myself, pulling old electric fencing out of fields, cleaning up the garbage in the farmyard, planting trees and experimenting with food plots. Gibby would occasionally ask what was on the agenda, and he knew I was having a lot of fun doing it. I had recently quit smoking, and doing things around the farm kept me busy and helped me break a bad habit.

Gibby never did understand why I would purchase trees and plant them on his farm, but I guess I just felt compelled to do things I knew would be good for the wildlife and habitat.

The Next Phase: Ownership

In the fall of 2007, I approached Dave, the hay farmer who was cutting the fields for Gibby. I asked him what it would take to get him to plant those fields in a cereal-grain crop. He said there was no way he would take the time to spray and work the land, because the farm could be sold at any point. That reminded me of an article I had just read in the August 2007 issue of Quality Whitetails – “Asset Protection for QDM’ers.” So, I approached Gibby and asked if he were to ever sell the farm, could I have a crack at it? He said if it were to come up for sale, I would be the first to know.

In the end, I was able to talk Dave into spraying the fields that October to prepare them for a spring planting. When spring arrived, and we were preparing the soil, Dave told me he hadn’t seen those fields worked in the 30 years he had known the property.

My conversation with Gibby also paid off. On May 23, 2008, I signed the papers to the property, and Gibby had the biggest smile on his face knowing that I was going to turn it into something great. I had originally thought I would get a lot done on the farm the first year of my ownership, but not so. I got my plots in as usual, but before I knew it, hunting season had arrived. I passed on a lot of young bucks, as well as does, that whole year.

Rising to the Challenges

At this point, I should probably paint a picture of the local deer population. I live in Ontario’s Wildlife Management Unit 68B. We have one of the lowest deer populations in Ontario, and we have to be conservative with deer harvest because of the hard winters. In this unit, a hunter has a 63 percent chance of drawing an antlerless tag each year. I’m lucky if I have 6 to 10 deer per square kilometer (2 to 4 per square mile). Some years I go without harvesting a single deer, and that’s tough, but usually the years that follow bring success. Now you can understand the importance of providing as much cover and food for deer as possible in this area, especially in winter.

Habitat Work

In the spring of 2009 I asked Dave to put in beans. He laughed at first, but then he said that if I cleared the fence lines of overgrown trees he would plant beans. The trees, he pointed out, would compete against the beans for sunlight and moisture. I made a phone call to my father-in-law Kelvin Hughey. In only two weekends that March we cleared 150 yards of fence lines, and Dave found himself ordering the beans for planting. In addition to the beans, I ordered Norway and white spruce to plant along the main road to discourage poachers and prevent passersby from seeing into the farm’s interior. Several white spruce were also strategically planted as a travel corridor for deer along a pond. We also planted burr, red and white oak trees all over the farm. Some were planted in travel areas, some in the edges of unused openings, and some were planted in the middle of the woods. My TSI projects will ensure plenty of space and sunlight for these young oaks so that they replace the lower-value trees I am removing from these stands.

In addition to improving hardwoods in this way, I also cleared several quarter-acre spots by cutting down ironwood and other species. My goal was to create forage and cover for whitetails at their level. I installed most of these features along the main ridge that runs through the farm, where the deer like to hang out during the rut. I call these browse cuts “Hot Spots,” because that is where the deer want to be. Currently, my plans call for six new Hot Spots to be installed on the farm over the next couple of years.

I also have created bedding cover by thinning hardwood stands a little heavier in some places, as well as through hinge-cuts on hill tops and south-facing hillsides. I have a total of 20 acres of sanctuary on my land in strategic locations so that I can hunt around these features while the deer travel to and from feeding and bedding areas. Practices like these are so easy and inexpensive in the big picture, and the results have been incredible. A chainsaw is truly a deer manager’s best friend.

Before I knew it we were into timber projects again and Kelvin and I were cutting basswood trees off the farm that were ready for harvest. Some of these trees had huge crowns, and their removal opened large areas of open ground to sunlight. This will allow for more understory growth in coming years, and the harvest also helped create funds for more projects! Three tandem-axle loads of basswood were taken to the local sawmill, and with those funds we expanded the orchard we were building on the south end of the old barn.

Our orchard that we have been building over the past two years consists of Jersey Mac, Melba, Lobo, Empire, Cortland, Yellow Transparent, Collet, and Rosybrook apples; we also have added two varieties of pear to the batch. With a wide variety of apples in the orchard, cross-pollination is enhanced, and fruit production is maximized. Currently there are more than 50 apple trees in the orchard, and another 12 to be planted this year will complete the project.

The first year of planting we learned some hard lessons. The deer ate every bud off the young trees, and the mice chewed around the bases where the grass grew. We lost every apple tree that year.

Now, with all new plantings, we spray for weed competition around the base of the trees, lay straw in the spring to hold the moisture in the roots, and wrap a 4-foot-high wire cage around the trees for the first couple of years to deter the deer. In addition, a 4-inch pipe goes around the base to deter the mice, and for extra precaution spray the buds with a soapy solution to deter deer from browsing them. This has really worked, and we haven’t lost a tree since. For the next couple years we’ll be lightly pruning, fertilizing and of course keeping the competing weeds away from the root base to allow the trees to grow as much as possible. We also pull off any apples that start to develop for the first two years. This allows the tree to put all of its energy into root development.

In spring 2010 we planted highbush cranberry and American elderberry along several hedgerows and around large boulders in my food plots. Several of these boulders are barely exposed above the soil, and I was always hitting them with my equipment, so planting the shrubs allowed me to avoid  damaging my equipment while providing a little extra food and cover. We have had so much success with these low-growing shrubs that I have planted 100 more of them all over the farm. I will also be removing prickly ash from a south-facing hillside and replacing it with serviceberry and nannyberry. Not only will the deer enjoy the low cover for winter, but the local turkeys will benefit from the berries they produce as well.

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To date, we have expanded our food plots to include more than 9 acres, including open fields as well as ATV trails, logging roads and small open patches planted in clover blends. We plant our big destination fields in brassicas, and we plant the edges of these fields in corn and soybeans (seen above), which we leave standing. This has helped the deer through the winter and has proven helpful to holding deer on the farm.

The Results

When you are in a region with low deer density, providing cover and food – especially winter cover and browse – is critical. That is obvious in our results. Each year, we see more and more deer using our farm in all seasons. It’s a great feeling to know there is now a large amount of food to help get these deer through the winter in top condition. Our neighbors are even starting to comment on the increase in the amount of wildlife they are seeing over the past couple of years.

In just a few short years we have been able to hold and grow a healthier herd just by managing the land a little. Small, simple tasks add up to one big success story. We have seen a huge increase in deer living on my land as I continue to grow my plots to feed them through the winter. As for bucks in the local population, we have been paying close attention to age since 2007 and are doing our best to make sure immature bucks are protected. Again, we are seeing results from our efforts on that front as well. The numbers of older bucks seen has steadily increased, along with body sizes. We are also starting to see equal numbers of bucks and does.

I harvested a heavy buck in 2009 that I had named “Bull Stallion,” and you can see this buck in the photo at the top of this article. When QDMA’s Matt Ross visited my property for a field day, he looked at the jawbone and estimated the buck to be 6½ years old. I am now following another buck that I have seen for four years. His name is “Daggers,” and if he is harvested it will be another reward from our hard work.

Being a member of QDMA has certainly helped me with my property and has taught me how to set and implement appropriate goals to make a broad plan come together. In turn, I’m working to increase awareness of QDMA Canada so that more of my fellow hunters can have the benefit of the knowledge that has helped me. We hold tours on the farm to show folks how we improved the habitat and how they can improve their own.

I am absolutely hooked on deer management and will continue to spread the word here in Canada, because Quality Deer Management has truly improved my success in the field and enjoyment of wildlife. I encourage you to become a QDMA member like me and support the organization that is is helping deer hunters everywhere enjoy better deer hunting while working to secure the future of our hunting tradition. Thank you, QDMA!

About the Author: Steve Elmy of Ontario, Canada, is a QDMA Life Member, a Level II QDMA Deer Steward, and the president of QDMA’s Eastern Ontario Branch. He has 13 years experience in animal nutrition and is also the president of Rack Stacker brand products.