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Managing Deer Habitat with Prescribed Fire

Prescribed fire is a cost-effective way to improve your hunting property. Your whitetails will love the result.

Managing Deer Habitat with Prescribed Fire

Old fields burned during the dormant season recover quickly with native browse and cover. (Bill Konway | Realtree Media)

There is a universal truth in whitetail habitat management: Yellowjacket wasps do not lead solitary lives. They love to sting when you’re on an open-cab tractor with a spinning implement behind you and no hope of a rapid escape. The first hit usually lands between your shoulders and is only the beginning of a hellish fury to follow.

This is a late-summer tradition for many deer hunters. In order to be ready for the season, you’ve got to get the “bush hogging” done first, and when you’re mowing a field one pass after another, you’re probably going to find a wasp nest or two. Even if you don’t, the process is still miserable. In fact, the Third Level of Hell stays a constant 92 degrees and is lined with six-foot-tall thistles that grow back immediately as soon as a rotary cutter passes over them.

Or so I suspect.

There’s a far better way to deal with fallow fields than mowing them. In the early spring, you can turn them into all-natural food plots that rival a soybean field in forage quality simply by setting the fields on fire. I started using prescribed fire on our place six years ago, and it’s become the most useful, cost-effective habitat management tool I have.

Prescribed burns are nothing new, but in the past decade, the practice has seen a surge in popularity among recreational land owners and wildlife habitat managers. Organizations like the National Deer Alliance and National Wild Turkey Federation have done a great job of promoting the benefits of prescribed fire while easing the concerns of landowners who are reluctant to try it.

Use backpack sprayers to extinguish hotspots on the upwind side of the fire. (Bill Konway | Realtree Media)

To be perfectly clear, fire has obvious dangers that I don’t need to spell out. It’s not legal everywhere, and it’s on you to know the law. And some places are too risky to burn. Still, with proper preparation, I’d argue that in most places in the Midwest and Southeast, burning is safer than bush hogging. It’s also faster and easier and a more effective way to manage the plant communities on your hunting property. And it’s way more fun.

Here’s what you need to know.

Fields Aflame

Fire can be used at various times of the year, but here I want to focus on dormant-season burns on fallow fields, a practice that’s particularly useful for deer hunters because it maintains open areas (where you can see and shoot deer) and puts a spurt of new plant growth on the ground at precisely the time of year when whitetails need it most.

In my neck of the woods (southwestern Kentucky), upland fields burned in late February to early March result in a particular abundance of young blackberry plants by late spring. These plants have large, tender leaves and are more scattered than the woody, thorny thickets where you’d actually pick blackberries later in summer. Deer gorge on them.

As the fields get taller in the summer, they provide perfect escape cover for little fawns (and turkey poults). Just before deer season opens in September, there’s usually a bloom of goldenrod, which whitetails also like. Really, at about any point in the growing season you can walk the field edge and find something soft and flowering.

After the first frost, those fields stop growing and go dormant once again. Even after an eight-month growing season, it’s no trouble to see a buck sneaking through them in November, especially from an elevated perch. Most fields, I burn every two years.

A drip torch is a great way to start fire lines, but having a spot sprayer in the back of the UTV for putting out hot spots is essential. (Bill Konway | Realtree Media)

Old fields burn hot and fast, and so in addition to the usual advice and requirements for your state (like acquiring proper permits, equipment, firing techniques, and experienced guidance), I offer the following advice.


Focus on Firebreaks: If you can’t break dirt with a tractor and plow, disk, or tiller around the entire perimeter of the field you plan to burn, rent some heavier equipment or hire it done. If you can’t do that, burning isn’t for you. I like a minimum of 10 feet of bare dirt around a field, plus an additional five-foot mowed ring around the interior of that. I prefer to make my firebreaks in the fall and sow them with an annual blend, like turnips and wheat, and then dress them up with a disk again in the spring just prior to burning. After a spring burn, I often plant the breaks with red clover, which lasts a convenient two years.

Run the Route: Easy access is an added bonus of good firebreaks. I like to circle a burn constantly, extinguishing hotspots in the mowed strip as I go. When I’m burning—and with the help of buddies—it’s rare that any fire actually reaches the dirt firebreak. We do a lot of that work on foot with a backpack sprayer, but a UTV makes it much easier. I keep an electric spot sprayer in the bed of the Ranger hooked into power, plus an extra backpack sprayer and a rake. Also, I like to have a backup water supply—usually a 50-gallon tank with a spigot—in the bed of my truck.

Follow the Plan: A written burn plan that outlines the objectives, procedures, ideal weather conditions, and phone numbers for emergency contacts is all handy to have, and in some states, it’s a legal requirement. Don’t take a chance on a risky wind or burning on a day that’s too dry. Know where the smoke is going. Understand that neighbors are likely to call the fire department, so give them a heads-up beforehand or answer your phone when it rings.

In early spring around here, ideal conditions include a steady breeze—say, 10 to 15 mph—to make both a predictable backfire and to keep head fires moving steadily and not jumping to spots with dryer fuel. I also prefer a relative humidity of around 50 percent, which is fairly dry for this area. Most of the time, you get those conditions on a high-pressure day following a cold front. Ask for help the first few times you burn from someone with experience. Private land biologists with your state fish and wildlife agency will often assist you for free.

Phone a Friend: Done right, burning takes longer than you’d think. But misread the wind or get cocky, and you could need help quickly. I have a few trusted buddies that I call prior to every burn, all of whom are capable of running surprisingly fast with a backpack sprayer. But mostly, they provide good conversation in the warm glow of a big fire. I pay them with beer and barbecue.

The last healthy nest of yellowjackets I got into occurred while tilling up a new food plot one hot August afternoon. When the first one stung me, I knew what was in store, and his companions did not disappoint. As I said, some truths in whitetail management are universal. But shortly after sunset I filled that ground nest—easy to see in the broken dirt—with foaming wasp spray and then took comfort in the fact that I didn’t have to mow thistles the next day.

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