Photo by Michelle Brantley.
Last spring I sacrificed most of my turkey season for another kind of hunt. A house hunt. My wife and I are ready to buy our first home. Her list of “musts” includes a second story and a big kitchen on a quiet road. My list is barely a list at all: 100 or so acres on which to manage and hunt whitetails.
A week into shopping around online, I found a killer deal on 142 acres in a decent deer county in upstate New York. It was a short sale, bank-owned, with financing available. We’d been debating buying land and building, versus fixing up an old farmhouse, and this property, from what we could tell online, seemed to tip the scales. A day later I walked the land, took lots of photos, and then called my friend Neil Dougherty of North Country Whitetails.
Neil has been buying and selling hunting properties for more than 15 years, and in that time he’s drafted management plans for close to 400,000 acres. He advised me, as he does all his friends and clients interested in buying deer ground, to consider these three criteria:
“Taxable acres don’t mean anything to wildlife,” Neil told me. “In the most extreme example, you could have a 150-acre piece that’s 75 acres of woods and 75 of cow pasture with road frontage. You’re paying taxes on that 150, but only really have 75 acres to hunt.”
Any habitat clearly visible from a road, or a neighbor’s property, Neil files in the unusable column, as you generally won’t know if hunters in the area respect property boundaries until well after the purchase. Most unusable ground can be converted to quality deer habitat, whether by planting trees for privacy, food plots, or through sound forestry practices, he said, but that can cost upwards of $300 per acre and take up to 10 years.
This is another make-or-break factor. “I want that ground either facing into the prevailing winds, or relatively flat, or at the top of hill where winds are steady and true,” Neil said. Even if a property is full of deer, you won’t shoot many if you can’t access your stands and blind undetected. Here in the Northeast, east-facing slopes are a good bet for our prevailing winds.
Then there’s access—the ability to move around the property with minimal impact. Ideally, you’d be able to cut a path or ATV trail around the perimeter; barriers like neighboring rights of way, topography, creeks, or wetlands can complicate that.
With Neil’s help, I crunched some numbers on the property. After putting up a house, and considering the nearby state highway and neighbors, only about three quarters of the place could be called “huntable.” Considering wind, and playing it right to get into a treestand, that number was further cut in half. So for that 142-acre price tag, I was looking at about 50 acres to really hunt.
That killer deal, it turned out, wasn’t so great after all, but analyzing it with Neil provided a valuable education. Determining huntable acreage, wind mapping, and planning access on any given property can easily be estimated in Google Earth. Even still, before my wife and I sign up for the biggest single purchase of our lives, Neil will be looped in again.
“If you’re buying a house and the kitchen isn’t right, you’re going to want an estimate on what it’ll take to fix it, whether you plan to do the work yourself or not,” Neil said. “Assessing a whitetail property is no different. It’s smart to bring in a professional.”