Think about the woods in June. The deer there have not seen, heard or smelled a human since turkey season closed. The woods are quiet, and deer have a routine of feeding at dawn and dusk, bedding down in areas and traveling down trails they choose. In the span of a few weeks, these woods are transformed into a hub of activity—four wheelers, human scent scattered about, hammering and banging of all sorts. It’s the equivalent of leaving the library and heading to a terminal at Hartsfield Airport.
Pre-season scouting and the first weeks of deer season turn the woods into a pressure cooker for deer. Nothing sets them on edge more than human contact and the zero-to-60 increase in this contact sends them heading for the hills, sort of. A natural rhythm of crepuscular activity (dawn and dusk) turns to nocturnal activity. Daylight hours are spent holed up in thick, impenetrable cover. Does might venture out each evening, but mature bucks are too smart to make that mistake. When there is a bumper acorn crop and warm weather, like the 2004-2005 season, even does and yearlings don’t move. They just stand up, eat and lay back down.
There is a way to lessen the pressure and greatly improve sightings of does and mature bucks. Small sanctuaries are a place for deer to beat the heat. The size and shape of a sanctuary will depend on topography and cover and its proximity to roads or property lines. The short answer is to make them as large as possible, include thick bedding cover, put them adjacent to a high-quality food source and place them in the middle of a property, away from boundary lines.
The most important rule is to make them totally off limits to human intrusion—hunt the edges, hunt the trails to and from, but never set foot inside except to recover a deer. Why does this work? Studies have shown that a deer’s number one defense against predation is to stick tight to cover, so a little sanctuary goes a long way. They feel perfectly safe on 10 or 15 acres, if it’s the right 10 or 15 acres.
A perfect example is a small, 150-acre tract of land I hunted years ago. It was surrounded on three sides by high-pressure hunting clubs. I only set foot on the place two or three times a year, but nearly always punched a tag. The only other time I visited was to walk the property line looking for trespassers. It was a big sanctuary, with some food sources and thick cover, and that’s why on the few trips I made each year, I always saw deer. I didn’t hunt it that much because my time was concentrated on a bigger lease with food plots and permanent stands—and more hunting pressure. My sightings per hour were probably three times higher on the small property, even though it didn’t have a single food plot.
It will take a little time with an aerial photograph and some years hunting to figure out the best place for your property’s sanctuaries, but it is a great way to improve your hunting.