Jared Van Hees is a passionate habitat manager and Michigan landowner with a strong drive to educate others with his ongoing column Habitat 101. He is the founder of Habitat Podcast and a habitat consultant to private landowners across the Midwest. He has a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship from Central Michigan University and is an avid sportsman who spends time introducing his young family to the outdoors.
This is not what you think.
This is not a political statement devised to start a debate on immigration, though it sure sounds like it. We are not discussing a 2,000-mile structure down south of Michigan. If you have followed along with the Habitat 101 column at any length, you know this involves me being a deer habitat nerd. This wall I speak of is one of the most important parts of my habitat manipulation and deer hunting techniques.
Unfortunately, it is often overlooked. Therefore, I am here to inform you how using a “screen” technique in your food plots or for hunter access is paramount.
First off, let me define what a screen or what screening is. Screening is a technique used when we manipulate certain plants or tree species in a way to form a wall. This is not a wall we can climb up or hunt on top of, but more of a suggested barrier.
Deer, and humans, can still get through this wall if push comes to shove.
At the same time, deer and humans can generally be lazy, or if not lazy, take the path of least resistance when offered. Why not, right?
Why work harder than needed? There are a couple of different types of screens that we will cover here, but the general idea is to create a long wall. A wall that deer cannot see through and will most likely react to as a barrier or edge, semi-forcing or coercing them to travel in a specific direction. This exact coercing of deer direction provided a 25-yard bow shot on a beautiful Michigan 9-point buck for me during the fall of 2021.
Before I tell you the story of this 3.5-year-old buck I harvested, I want to describe the different ways a screen can be used for a landowner and hunter’s benefit. The whole idea here is to hide something with this wall. The first thing I want to hide is hunter access, and it is possibly the most important thing.
Hunter access is the specific path or trail that a hunter uses to get to and from his treestand or deer blind. Our deer mustn’t see us enter or exit our stand. It is crucial that we do not bust deer to and from our trucks. Sometimes, deer can spot us from such a long way away, and there is nothing for us to hide behind. This is where the screening technique comes in. What if we could put up a wall for us to hide behind while we enter and exit our hunting locations. Guess what? We can, and I do. There is no special term for this, as we call it “screening your access.”
The second way and almost as equally important is screening the inside of a food plot.
This is when we plant a particular species or seed mix in the food plot itself. The location of this screen is usually around the perimeter edge of the food plot. Think of it as a fence around your yard. This works to hide our hunter access like previously mentioned, but it is not my main focus here.
We also plant screens in the center of food plots to break a single plot into two plots. What do perimeter and center food plot screens do for us? Not as much as it does for the deer.
Deer need to feel comfortable moving in daylight and using your property. To do this, they need security cover and to feel protected. Our food plot screen does just that. When deer eat inside of a screened-in or walled-off food plot, they feel secure. When deer are in a 40-acre farm field that is wide open and you can see across it, they do not feel secure. Have you noticed deer out in these large fields at night when driving around? Of course.
They are under the security of darkness.
The only problem is, that we cannot hunt in the dark. It behooves us to have deer moving in daylight and during hunting hours.
Especially when we are in a screened-in hunting blind nearby. This is the exact reason I plant annual or perennial screens around my Whitetail food plots.
Now that we know two primary reasons why you should plant a screen, let’s discuss what to plant and when to plant it. There are a couple of seed varieties to plant for an annual screen. One disadvantage to an annual screen is just that — it needs to be planted annually. The advantage is these types of plants grow quickly and do well in hot summer climates.
I have had great success with annual screens. Egyptian wheat, sorghum, or some mix of both are great annual options. They can be planted in mid-May, June, and into the first part of July and be tall enough to screen deer and human movement by hunting season. I tend to plant them 10-20 feet wide, at least. Late May is my favorite time to plant. Soil temperature should average 55-60 degrees when planting, and a couple of shots of 46-0-0 nitrogen throughout the growing season can boost growth. Be sure to fertilize before a good rain to avoid burning your screen. I have had my best success discing or tilling the ground when planting this type of seed mix. I also suggest planting an annual screen for a year or two and play around with the locations. When we move to a perennial or more permanent version, we can be sure of our habitat plan this way.
Once you have your habitat plan established and you’ve tested the annual screens, you can make more long-lasting decisions. For example, I have found that my previously mentioned annual screen works but I want to put something perennial in. The pro to using perennial screens is that once planted and then established, they only need to be maintained each year. No more planting every May and hoping we get rain. The con to these types of perennial plants is that they are not always as aggressive and need a little TLC to get going. Some of the plant varieties I use on my 15-acre bowhunting buck trap are switchgrass, Miscanthus and hybrid willow, among others. These are also planted early in the year, and you should research when is best in your climate depending on your species.
Drilling and frost seeding works great for switchgrass. Many of our Habitat Podcast Land Plan property consulting clients hear me ramble on about how vital this permanent screen can be. The TLC I mentioned above is required. Frequently switchgrass needs all the help it can get to compete with other vegetation during years one and two. Mowing, herbicide or both at the correct time are also required.
With all that maintenance and babysitting of our perennial screen comes the payoff. Year three onward, we commonly have a beautiful 5-10 foot of screening vegetation, which requires much less work over the next decade. Let alone the fact we don’t have to plant each year.
I mentioned a beauty of a buck earlier, and now I will tell you how my annual and perennial screen technique played a massive role in his demise. It was November 4, and I had left my Ohio hunting lease that morning and drove straight home to hunt my Michigan 15 acres. Yes, I know what I did seems the opposite of most, leaving a big buck state like Ohio to hunt Michigan, but I had a feeling I was missing my best chance at home in the Mitten. There is something about hunting your own ground that is intangible. All that hard work was eating at me, and I just couldn’t ignore it.
After four hours of driving, a Taco Bell lunch and a hunting scent bath from scent-free baby wipes while driving, I covertly pulled into my hunting property. The wind was right, and it was a sunny, high-pressure day. I had also recorded a Habitat Podcast episode regarding the red moon during the drive back, so my anticipation was revving. It was 6:30 p.m., and with ample daylight left, I spotted a heavy, tall 9-point buck working into my well-screened food plot. He was at 60 yards. I picked up my bow and knew that he had a decision to make. He could break through my thick 12-foot tall screen and walk north or he could take the path of least resistance that would lead him right to me on a string. This screen happened to steer directly to my treestand and offer a 25-yard opportunity if he did what I had planned and prayed for. I waited patiently for him to decide, and sure enough, he chose the hallway I created for this moment. What seemed like an hour but was only a minute or two gave him the chance to scan the area and take the path of least resistance with cover on his side.
He closed the gap from 60, to 50, 40, 30 and I released my arrow at 25. The plan came together, and I could have fallen out of that tree. I was so excited.
He is an awesome buck and the second from my 15 acres. I am proud of him.
There are countless details and a great deal of strategy to set up your property correctly. The details are worth it to meet your own hunting and habitat goals. Screening is a perfect example. We go into much more over on the Habitat Podcast, but the message is clear.
Screening or “building the wall” is something we surely cannot overlook and just might be the ticket to putting a big buck in your lap this fall. It is not too late to get one planted for your upcoming season.