A sanctuary is a tract of land where deer can breed and take refuge in safety from hunters and other dangers. A safe haven that is thick with cover and where human invasions are non-existent. Like base in a good game of tag, deer feel calm and relaxed once they’ve entered into this type of area. If you have a sanctuary where you hunt, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you don’t, you are missing out on one of the biggest factors of keeping big bucks on your property.
The funny thing about sanctuaries is that they can exist without your knowledge. For years I hunted an 80 acre parcel. It was a mix of crops, wood lots, pine groves, a creek, and some thick brushy areas. There was a finger thicket coming off an old dried up swamp. The finger was about 60 yards long and only 20 yards across. It tapered on the far end and came to a point. It was full of thick brush, stickers, and small saplings. You could barely see into it. I never hunted it for lack of sizable trees for stands and it was too thick for a blind. So for years it sat untouched by humans. To make a long story short, it turned out to be a buck sanctuary and probably had been for years. I learned about it after I witnessed at least two different bucks going into the finger just before light a few days in a row. I never acted upon it quick enough that year and we lost the rights to the property the following year. The lesson learned is that you may already have a sanctuary on your property that you aren’t aware of. Any thick and gnarly place that you have not really hunted, other than the outskirts may be a buck magnet.
If you aren’t lucky enough to have a deer safe haven where you hunt then you’ll be happy to know you can create one. Note that it may take some time to develop and for deer to get used to it, but within a few years you can certainly turn almost any area into a deer sanctuary provided it has everything they need.
How Big Does a Sanctuary Have to Be?
Deer can find safety in the smallest places, maybe a thick ditch bank, a small untouched wood lot, or an overgrown fence row. But for you to get the most benefit it’s best to remember the bigger the better. A sanctuary less than an acre isn’t going to hold 4 or 5 Pope and Young bucks, especially during the rut. Bucks are too territorial and aggressive. You really need to have as much acreage as you can sacrifice. Some experts say that at least 10% of your property should be a safe zone while others say as much as 80%. There is really no right or wrong, it’s whatever you find feasible depending on the total size of your property, hunting pressure, and so on. Some people frown on not being able to hunt such a large part of their property. The way I see, if my property is holding bucks because of the off limit areas then that’s fine by me. You’ll learn to adapt and how to hunt the travel corridors coming in and out of the sanctuaries. Your chances of harvesting a big buck are obviously a lot higher if they are holding on your property.
You can also designate several areas as sanctuaries. It doesn’t need to be just one continuous area. Maybe a couple of acres here and a few acres there makes more sense. I’m actually more in favor of having a few sanctuaries on your property. This increases your chances of catching a big buck going from one to the other to check for does. You want them laid out so that the natural travel routes between them are ideal for tree stands, prevailing winds, and easy to sneak in and out of undetected. Ideally, you want the sanctuaries towards the center of your property or at least off the neighboring property far enough as to not entice a trigger happy border jumper. Put some thought into your sanctuary locations before making a commitment.
Cover and Keeping Out Are Key
Before deciding upon the location, know that a key element is cover. Deer have to feel safe for it to be successful. Any existing area that may already be thick would be a good place to start. You may have a few places that are already exist. All you have to do at this point is to stay out of them. Take the step now to designate these areas as no go zones for yourself and anyone else that hunts there. You can’t go into a sanctuary or it will no longer be a sanctuary. The main ingredient is no human detection whatsoever. Post signs so all hunters know it’s a deer safe area and not to enter.
Wooded Deer Sanctuaries
Woodlots can make great sanctuaries. Any place a ridge runs through the woods or near a creek or water source are great spots. If the woods are pretty open then you’ve got to thicken it up. This can be done by having it logged out. Contracting it to a professional logging company will enable you to make some extra income as well as allow sunlight to reach the forest ground. The combination of thinning competitive trees and introducing sunlight will thicken up the first few feet of the woods. Cover and new browse will make the perfect deer hangout. Have the loggers leave the tree tops to help thicken the woods up even more. Before getting bids, you’ll need to know what trees to cut and which ones to leave. I highly recommend contacting your State’s forestry department to have an expert come out to discuss your plans. They will help you choose what trees need to be logged. Also, ask around to find a reputable logging company and get several bids.
If logging is not up your alley, then you can always do some hinge cutting. Hinge cutting is the practice of cutting halfway through trees with a chainsaw just enough to allow them to bend over. This keeps the tree alive, for awhile anyway, and let’s sunlight in. Dropping tree tops like this, still attached to the truck, will thicken up a woodlot pretty quickly. You should still only down trees that make sense, those that do not provide mast for wildlife and that are somewhat useless. Proper hinge cutting can also enable you to manipulate the deer’s travel routes. If you don’t want deer entering into the sanctuary in a particular spot and would rather have them enter 60 yards down (closer to your stand location) then hinge cut that area to deter them from entering there. Clearly, safety is a concern when running a chainsaw. Only those with experience should attempt this method and all safety measures should be practiced.
Creating a Deer Sanctuary in Open Ground
This one is a little more difficult but it can be accomplished. You’ll have to have some serious ground working and planting equipment and a big enough tractor to muscle it all. Smaller equipment can be handled with an ATV but if you’re making a sizable sanctuary then you’ll really have your work cut out for you. It’s difficult to get into great detail about soil nutrients, moisture, seed to soil contact, and weed control in a few paragraphs. This stuff will come in some later articles more in detail. But for the sake of just needing an idea of where to start I’ll mention a few plants and trees.
Anything that will create a thicket, screen, or bedding area over time is best. American winterberry, silky dogwood, gray dogwood, black elderberry, sweet elder (arrow wood), redosier dogwood, buttonbush, and ninebark are all worth mentioning. These are all considered shrubs or brush and can create the perfect deer habitat.
A great source of screening cover is Egyptian wheat. It’s a member of the sorghum family and is excellent for quail and pheasants. It creates an amazing screen around food plots or sanctuaries. The stalks will mature in 120 to 140 days and reach 7 to 10 feet in height. It is definitely worth researching as it can conceal the deer helping them to feel more secure and can also conceal you slipping into a tree stand or hunting blind.
Trees that make great deer honey holes definitely deserve to be mentioned. Pines not only create screening cover but also thermal cover which is extremely important for deer. Deer will flock to pines when the weather turns bad, especially if no human sign is around. Also for screens and windbreaks I like trees that grow quickly. I’d have to put hybrid poplars and hybrid willows at the top of the list. Also fast growing pines like loblolly pines or a loblolly/pitch pine for more northern areas.
Using a combination of these plants and trees can make the ideal sanctuary almost anywhere. It’s important to get the soil right and have the proper equipment for planting. Keeping deer from eating your new seedlings until they get established can also be an issue. Fencing off the area or using a deterrent may be worth looking into.
After creating cover or designating thick existing areas, you have to be disciplined in keeping out of them. Any sanctuary can be ruined or suffer a few years of setback if you or anybody else trespasses in a sanctuary too often. The only time you should go into these areas is to retrieve a downed deer and once a year to shed hunt. Retrieve a dead deer only at night and get in and out quickly. I also mention shed hunting because it’s such a valuable way to see what bucks are using the sanctuary and it’s worth doing once a year each spring. Other than these circumstances, your deer safe zones must remain human free for them to be successful.
Follow these tips and rules for creating buck sanctuaries and you’ll definitely keep more deer on your property and increase your chances of harvesting a trophy animal.