Kenneth Blakeney stared intently through his scope waiting for the massive buck to take one more step, allowing the tension to build as he kept the crosshairs on the trophy.
The buck moved.
Blakeney squeezed the trigger.
The rifle roared.
Immediately, the buck-of-a-lifetime collapsed; it was a dream come true for Blakeney.
The dream was one that didn’t come easy, in more ways that one.
Blakeney had to work hard to get back into hunting shape after sustaining partial paralysis from a stroke. His success was a team effort and one that began months before the season.
As he worked to rebuild his physical strength, many miles away in the Mississippi Delta, preparations were well underway on an intensive whitetail habitat management program that produced the buck.
Eddie Hatcher is the property manager for the Magna Vista Plantation, where Blakeney’s hunt occurred. He spends a lot of time in the woods of the prime Delta farm and knows what it takes to prepare for a successful hunting season.
While you can never start preseason preparations too early, Hatcher says it’s imperative that hunters start making plans for the fall hunting season in July, and keep on working it right up until hunting season begins.
Hatcher’s job is a labor of love, and he has a year-round passion for the outdoors that carries him through the spring and summer while he’s making sure everything is in order and ready for the fall and winter deer season.
Without essential pre-season preparations hunter success during the season just wouldn’t be as productive.
Develop a plan
To make sure your deer season is a success, you must maximize your time in the offseason making preparations.
“You must have a plan in mind when you start your pre-
season preparations,” Hatcher said. “You can take a calendar and plan your days out in advance and that’s usually the weekends with everybody’s busy work schedule. I’ll make a list and start with the first weekend and list preseason scouting.
“Next weekend we’ll cut trails, and scout water holes. The next weekend we’ll take the stands down and start going through them. Just list your priorities first, and then take care of the lesser things later so that you won’t be trying to complete essential tasks the week before the season starts.”
Hatcher’s first step usually involves stands.
“The first thing we do each summer is to check our stands,” said Hatcher. “We bring all of our stands out of the woods and inspect each and every one for safety reasons. We believe in safety first and if a stand fails you could be hurt seriously or even lose your life.
“We go through the stands and inspect them and order new straps, cables, cushions, and anything that needs replacing,” Hatcher said. “If you wait until it’s time to put the stands up you’re going to be in trouble because you have to order a lot of the replacement parts, and most places don’t have them in stock. If you don’t order them early then it may be too late to use that stand during the upcoming season.”
Hatcher takes safety to the limit.
“Most of our lock-on and ladder stands have chain binders for safety,” Hatcher said. “If you use straps to hold the stand onto the tree or canvas seats, then they’re subject to damage from animals like squirrels and coons. Straps and binders also deteriorate and dry rot over time, and that can be an accident waiting to happen. If you don’t replace those worn straps, they’re going to fail eventually and the results probably won’t be pretty.”
Pre-season scouting is a must for Hatcher and he never stops scouting, even when he’s working his daily chores around the farm or just riding through the land. He’s always looking for deer sign and choice locations.
“If you’re not familiar with your hunting territory then you need to explore every inch of the area and find out where the food sources are as well as the lay of the land,” Hatcher said. “It’s imperative that you know the deer’s bedding areas, thickets, travel corridors, creeks, sloughs, and any other significant changes in the topography like ravines, bluffs and natural land barriers that may affect the deer’s travel routes or behavior.”
If you’ve hunted the area for years and are familiar with the lay of the land along with the traditional food sources and bedding areas, you still need to get out and put boots on the ground to make sure no habitat changes have occurred since last year. The most significant change is timber cutting.
If you show up a week or two before the season and your hunting area has been logged or clear cut, then you’re behind the eight ball and may not be able to make preparations to prepare for the habitat changes.
“I’m going to do most of my preseason scouting in July and August and then continue to monitor any changes through early fall right up until opening day,” Hatcher said. “I’m familiar with the land that I manage from years of experience, but there are a lot of things that can change from year to year, like floods, tornadoes, timber harvests, and drought, so I want to keep abreast of what’s happening right now and that includes knowing the available food sources on a current basis.”
While flooding and droughts may have a significant impact on the food sources for deer, other weather conditions and normal yearly cycles may impact the fruit bearing trees as well.
“Even though I know where most of the fruit trees and food sources are on our property, I’m going to go to those trees and see which ones are producing this year,” Hatcher said. “I want to see which persimmon trees and bean trees have fruit and which ones are producing right now, at any time during the late summer and fall.
“We have thousands of honey locust trees on our property and for some reason they’ll eat at one tree over and over while ignoring the others in the area. The trees may all look the same and be in the same area but they’ll pick out one tree and focus on it until the beans or persimmons are all gone. Sometimes they’ll walk past 10 trees to get to this one and there’s no rhyme or reason why. You just have to know which ones are producing right then and where the deer are feeding at that time and plan your hunts accordingly.”
The same goes for hard mast, too.
“Acorn trees are just like the bean and persimmon trees,” Hatcher said. “For some reason they’ll concentrate on certain mast trees even when they’re all producing acorns. Knowing if there’s fruit on the trees in the summer puts you ahead of the game come fall as you’ll already know which trees have the mast or fruit. Then it’s simply a matter of timing and that comes with experience and knowledge of which trees have acorns, persimmons or beans falling at that time.”
Mineral, protein supplements
While the benefits of minerals are positive for the deer, it is important to know how to properly apply them.
“I use dicalcium phosphate and salt when I’m putting out minerals and establishing sites,” Hatcher said. “I’ll mix two bags of the dicalcium phosphate with one bag of salt and I like to find an old stump or log that’s rotten. If I can’t find one already decaying I’ll find a swell or low spot in the ground and put some old rotten stumps or logs in there and pour the mineral mix on the stump.
“When the rain washes it into the stump it will soak in and just go deeper into the stump and soil around it and the deer love it. They’ll come back to it year after year if you keep freshening it up.”
Hatcher prefers putting minerals in an area that has a clay bottom rather than a sand, as clay tends to hold it while the minerals sinks through the sandy soil.
When it comes to protein supplements to help promote or sustain antler growth, land managers should start their applications in February but it’s never too late to start working on the future.
“I went to all of the schools Mississippi State University put on about deer and habitat management and I learned that putting out protein takes time to have an effect, and you’re not going to see instant results,” Hatcher said. “The diet the deer are ingesting this year is going to take effect next year and that’s the same with the variance of food or droughts.
“So if you want to put out minerals, then by all means do it, but just realize that protein supplements take a while to have an effect on the bucks.”
Choosing stand sites
Hatcher prefers waiting until August to hang his stands to help cut down on damage from animals if they have straps or canvas seats, but it is important to get those stands back out well before the hunting season starts. The advantages are not spooking deer in an area close to the season, and giving deer enough time to get accustomed to the stands.
Always consider the dominant wind patterns when choosing stand sites.
“I position most of my stands for a southwest wind for bow season and a few for a southeast wind,” said Hatcher. “And, just in case of cold fronts I’ll put up a few stands that are good for the north wind too.”
Hatcher puts his stands in a variety of locations depending on the area he’s hunting.
“I’ll put them on food sources, food plots, beans, persimmons and acorn flats, wherever they’re going to feed early in the fall,” Hatcher said. “I’ll also put a few on the trails coming from the bedding areas to catch them on the way to the food sources. I like to hunt the food sources first, so we’ll hunt right on the food source and then as the hunting pressure increases later in the season we’ll hunt closer to the bedding areas.
“And in the morning I’ll get on the trails near the bedding areas to catch them coming back to bed down.”
Hiding stands means varying heights.
“I don’t have a set height that I like to put all my stands at but it really depends where the best cover is and where that is,” said Hatcher. “I’ll find a likely looking tree and back off and look back up at the backdrop behind the tree stand site and see if you’re silhouetted against the sky.
“If you are, then deer will spot you easy and you lose your concealment advantage. It’s all about how you blend in and not how high you get these days.”
Mark McPhail is another veteran hunter who has harvested his fair share of bucks, and he stresses the importance of getting into the stand undetected.
“I’ll take a garden rake and rake out a path to my stand where I won’t be seen or heard coming in,” McPhail said. “After it gets dark I’ll depart the stand and leave undetected with no noise or commotion.”
McPhail has harvested many bucks by entering his stands without disturbing the deer and that can make the difference between killing a buck or going home empty handed. With a little work you can prepare a trail to your own stands so that you can access them quietly as well.
Food plot prep
Hatcher usually waits until July to cut his patches and fields.
“I’ll break up my fields and food plots in August,” Hatcher said. “I want the vegetation to die so that we can disk it up really good, and the only way you can get that soil broken up is to kill the vegetation and let it dry out. Sometimes we spray roundup on the weeds or something similar to kill the vegetation.
“After it dies and dries out you can come back and burn it off or just disk it up. By waiting to August to break it up we don’t have to worry about any regrowth before we plant.”
Hatcher likes to plant turnips and rape during September to get it going early.
“I’ll plant the turnips and rape early because it takes them longer to get going and get that sugar content up so that the deer will eat it,” he said. “Wheat and oats don’t take as long to get going so we can plant it a little later.”
Every property is different but there are a few things that Hatcher does wherever he’s planting.
“I plant clover in all my plots, including Ladino, Arrowleaf, and Crimson clover,” he said. “That also gives me a summer crop for the deer as well. And we want to have some diversity that will give the deer something to feed on year round.”
While wheat and clover have traditionally performed well on Hatcher’s property, he said that different crops do better on some land with different soil types, and not so good on others.
“Wheat and clover seem to do best and be the preferred foods of our deer on my property,” Hatcher said. “But you need to do what’s best on your property; you need to find out which is best for your soil type.”
It takes work to harvest trophy bucks, or the biggest and oldest in your hunting territory. Following these preseason tips from Hatcher is a good place to start, and don’t wait too long.
“The bigger, older deer aren’t going to stand much hunting pressure,” Hatcher said. “If you bump those big deer two or three times they’ll be gone in a flash and they’re going to find an area that’s secluded from human activity and hold tight during hunting season.
“It is very important to do most of your scouting and preparation well in advance of hunting season, so you don’t push them out of their preferred comfort zone.”