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Use Native Grass to Your Deer Hunting Advantage

Native grasses can offer great bedding cover. Here's how to tweak these habitats for maximum benefit during deer season.

Use Native Grass to Your Deer Hunting Advantage
Some big bucks like to bed away from timber. Adding the right structure to more open areas can transform them into even better hunting locations. Photo by Vic Schendel

The sun bumping against the western horizon signaled that the hunt would soon be over. The wind was extremely light as I looked across the Real World Deadly Dozen food plot bordering a nearly 12-acre patch of switchgrass. In the seas of grass, all was dead calm. But if a deer was to move within the field of bedding grass, it would quickly be noticed by my prying eyes.

Then, as if on cue, the grass started moving; a deer was snaking its way through the thick cover and toward the plot. I grabbed my Vortex binoculars and caught glimpses of antler within the tall grass, verifying that a buck was headed my way.

As he stepped from the deep cover into the shorter grasses I had planted around the field’s edge, I instantly recognized him as the deer I was hoping to attach my tag to. He was a 6 1/2-year-old buck I called “Smokey,” and he was standing just 40 yards away.

Stopping where the two grass types met, he watched the plot before him. Soon he was feeding at the edge of the plot and slowly working his way toward the 360 Hunting Blind in which I hid.

My heart pounded as I waited for the shot that had taken 13 years to present itself. That many years before, I’d shot a giant buck with 214 inches of antler. After that hunt, I’d vowed to someday shoot another 200-incher. But I also told myself I’d get the moment on video.

So as Smokey neared my blind, I could feel the pressure rising to make that long-lived dream a reality. At a range of 25 yards, I pierced the mighty buck’s heart with a well-placed arrow. He ran straight away down a clover firebreak on the edge of the bedding-grass field, then stopped to look back. With blood pouring from his wound, the buck started to wobble . . . then tumbled back into the tall-grass field where he’d bedded so many days of his life. My quest was finally over.

Maximizing Bedding Grasses

I’ve been actively managing my property, as well as several others, for the past 25 years. The lessons learned along the way allow me to consistently kill giant bucks today. It’s no secret that fields of tall warm-season native grasses are fantastic bedding cover for whitetails, and as a land manager I’ve discovered several ways to make them even more attractive for whitetails. In the process, I’ve found how to manipulate them to give a hunter additional advantages.

In my opinion, the ideal size for a field of bedding grass is 20-40 acres. Anything bigger than this can give deer too much area to wander, and it becomes more difficult to direct deer traffic exactly where you want it. On the other end of the spectrum, I don’t recommend planting a field of native grasses smaller than five acres. Deer just don’t seem to utilize smaller grass fields as well as they do larger ones.

I’ve noticed some mature bucks prefer to bed in grass, while others favor woody cover. Smokey was one of those bucks that just seem to like grass more. In fact, he even had a specific preferred bedding location within one of my fields.

When I’m talking with management clients during consultation visits on their properties, I note that some bucks prefer tall-grass fields for bedding. And then, I like to throw in a question that always gets their attention: “If a buck in your neighborhood prefers to bed in a tall-grass field, and your property is the only place around with such a field, where do you think he’s going to be bedded?” Such fields can be a real game-changer on many properties.

There are things we can do beyond simply planting fields of tall grasses to enhance their appeal. For instance, I mentioned Smokey stepped from the tall grass into shorter grass. I often like to “feather,” or soften, the edge of my tall grass fields by planting a 20- to 50-foot strip of shorter grasses along the perimeter. This break in habitat provides a transition zone between the tall grass and the open edge.

Don Higgins with 2017 Illinois whitetail buck
The author’s efforts to establish a large section of switchgrass on his Illinois farm paid off in full when he arrowed this giant in 2017. The buck bedded daily in the dense grass field.

For the bedding area itself, my preferred planting is our Real World Wildlife variety switchgrass. It can grow 7-8 feet tall and has excellent standability. In transition zones on field edges, I like to plant a mixture of two native grasses, sideoats grama and little bluestem, along with a forb mixture of Illinois bundleflower, partridge pea and purple prairie clover. This seed blend will produce a slightly more open cover that’s about half as tall as the switchgrass. In my experience, it provides a great transition area between the tall bedding cover and food plots I’ve created along the edges of the grass fields.

I don’t always plant food plots along these edges, though. That’s because some of my tall-grass fields are right on the edge of my property. On these edges I don’t want a feathered transition strip but instead a “wall” that will provide security while discouraging deer from exiting bedding grass in the wrong direction.

It’s in these areas that I plant strips of Real World Wildlife Giant Miscanthus (a patented variety of M. giganteus). With adequate moisture, this sterile, non-invasive hybrid can easily grow to be over 12 feet tall, with woody stalks similar to bamboo. A planting of 3-5 rows can create an edge that’s not nearly as inviting for deer exiting the bedding grass. These edges also make it easy for a hunter to access stand locations without being detected.

Maintaining Tall-Grass Fields

In my opinion, it’s extremely important that a tall-grass field be burned every 2-3 years, and that the burn occurs in early spring.

Fire does three positive things for these fields. First, it stimulates growth of the grasses. The growing season after a grass field is burned, the plants will be taller and thicker than in other years.

Next, fire burns up the dead thatch and weeds from previous years, helping maintain a healthy grass stand. Finally, fire will kill young trees and other woody plants that get started in a grass field. To achieve a pure stand of grass, fire can be very useful.

Think of fire in these grass fields as you would mowing your yard. If you stopped mowing it, there would soon be weeds, briars and saplings growing within the grass. A transition would happen over several years, and your yard would eventually become an early-stage woods.

The same thing happens with fields of tall native grasses. If you don’t maintain them, they eventually can be overtaken by weeds and trees.

Setting a field of several acres ablaze isn’t for the faint of heart. And often there are legal restrictions to consider. I’ve made it very safe and easy to do on my own property. By planting firebreaks in clover around the critical edges, I’ve prevented fire from possibly escaping into areas I don’t want burned. I make these firebreaks 15-20 feet wide and keep the clover mowed and well maintained. These areas also act as food plots and serve as access paths for tractors, ATVs and other vehicles being used on the property. Of course, burning must only be done under ideal conditions.

Improving Bedding Structure

Thus far we’ve discussed what I like to do around the edges of my bedding-grass fields, so let’s now dive into the heart of them to see what we can do to make them more appealing to whitetails.

Deer like “structure,” much as fish do. A lake might have hundreds or even thousands of acres of surface area, but the fish aren’t evenly distributed within it. They’re concentrated around structure. It’s the same with deer. It’s quite possible to dictate where a buck beds within a field of tall bedding grasses by providing internal structure.

There are two ways I provide structure within these bedding-grass fields. The first is to plant trees. Although I just noted that I like to use fire to maintain pure stands of grass, the right trees can be beneficial.

I’ve found a good approach is to plant three oaks, arranging them about 20-25 feet apart in an equilateral triangle. I prefer to plant bigger burlapped trees that are 10-15 feet tall. The idea is that, as they get bigger, they’ll provide shade in summer as well as mast in fall. The grasses will continue to grow around these trees, making for a great bedding location.

It should be noted that trees and fire don’t mix well! Before I burn bedding-grass fields, I mow around the trees in a fairly wide radius. I learned this lesson the hard way years ago and had to replant all the trees! I thought those I had growing were big enough to survive fire, but I was wrong.

Another way of creating structure within a field of bedding grass is to plant a non-invasive type of miscanthus within the interior. I like to plant it in the shape of a giant X or T. This allows deer to bed on the downwind side of the miscanthus, no matter from which direction the wind blows. Deer relate to these plantings within a field of bedding grass in much the same way fish relate to Christmas trees sunk into farm ponds.

Should You Mow Paths?

There’s one more key point in regard to maximizing the potential of a bedding-grass field, and that’s whether or not to mow paths in it.

Some managers like to do so, in an effort to direct deer toward desired locations. The practice clearly works to a degree. But from my observations, it’s not a good plan for hunting mature bucks. Sure, some will follow these mowed paths, just as the rest of the herd will — but the majority seem to prefer to have cover right up against their sides as they move. A lot of older bucks refuse to utilize mowed paths.

At one time, I mowed paths in my bedding-grass fields. However, Smokey was a buck that refused to use them. In turn, he broke me of that habit.

A better way of directing deer travel into and out of these bedding grass fields is again by using miscanthus. A row planted from the edge of the grass field out into the heart of it will likely become a preferred travel corridor of whitetails bedding within it.

This is a great tactic for putting deer right in front of a stand, and it’s especially valuable when your options for stand locations are very limited. Simply put one end of a miscanthus strip within easy range of your stand, then extend it out to the center of the grass field.

In Conclusion

Here are some key points to remember: Start by designing a plan for your field by taking into consideration all stand sites, as well as hunter entrance and exit routes for each. For the heart of the field, select a tall grass that has good standability in harsh winter weather conditions. I use our Real World Wildlife switchgrass, as it’s the best option I’ve found to date.

Decide exactly where you want the deer to bed within the field, then create some structure there with either trees or taller miscanthus grass. Use a strip of miscanthus to direct deer traffic from these structure areas to your stand location on the edge. Finally, use a strip of shorter grass to soften the edge where you want deer to exit. Likewise, consider building a wall using miscanthus on edges you don’t want deer to exit.

Combining these management practices not only maximizes the attractiveness of native grasses to whitetails as bedding cover but also maximize your success when hunting around them. I certainly can’t guarantee you’ll kill a huge buck by creating a well-planned field of bedding grass. However, I bet you’ll be surprised by the overall impact this dynamite habitat has on your hunting results.

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