Aug 4, 2020

Quality Water for Quality Deer

Adding water to diversify a healthy ecosystem on your Wisconsin hunting property

By Zach Haas 

Every year, Wisconsin property owners, conservationists and hunters look at how they can improve their properties for wildlife. One of the most often overlooked options for anyone looking to improve their habitat, or perhaps not even thought about, are water sources.

Why water?

All living things on this planet require water in order to survive. On average, a whitetail deer requires approximately three to six quarts of water per day. This quantity is impacted greatly by season, temperature, humidity, moisture content in forage, and the deer’s current biological processes such as lactation, antler development or weaning, for example.
Deer require around five percent of their body weight of water each day in the summer, and one to two percent per day in the winter. Surface water varieties – such as ponds, streams or creeks – become extremely valuable when forage begins disappearing from hot weather, ephemeral ponds dry, and biological processes ramp up.
If restriction of water becomes evident, research has proven that deer will reduce food intake. Likewise, if food intake goes away, health and growth disappear as well.
A current trend in land management is the use of stock tanks and tubs to provide water for wildlife. However, these tubs and tanks only create what’s called the “aquarium effect.”
To illustrate this concept, envision a 20- or 30-gallon aquarium tank filled with water. When the tank sits at room temperature for an extended period without adding any chemicals or a filtering device, the once-clean tank will quickly turn green, harboring harmful anaerobic bacteria.

Deer and most wildlife are much more keen to issues with water quality than us humans. They can sense it, and typically will not drink from these sources. This discernment for high quality water is also why they prefer warmer water sources like tubs or ponds, as colder water sources such as springs, rivers or creeks shock their bodily systems. For all these reasons, a properly thought out and designed wildlife pond could be just the ticket to exploit your property. 

Perfect pond for deer


A properly designed water hole or wildlife pond should have banks with slight, gradual sloping banks allowing deer to easily walk in and out. If the banks are too steep the deer won’t use it.

On the flip side, if the pond is too shallow, the potential increases for planktonic algae blooms and killing the ecosystem through excessive heating. To aid in the management of the ponds water quality, a depth of at least three feet should be achieved. making the pond roughly 20 to 30 feet in diameter. To increase the depth, either make a larger diameter pond or increase the slope on just one end of the pond.

You are probably asking, “how will it hold water?”
Some pond owners get lucky when they break ground and either hit a spring or hit ground water. However, for those with a perfect spot for a pond on top of a sandy hill, other options such as a synthetic liner can be your savior.
A 24-millimeter thick pond liner or greater will hold water, meanwhile being strong enough to prevent rips and tears from deer hooves.

The last step in creating quality water is to add a layer of sand, dirt or gravel on top of the liner. This becomes the planting substrate for beneficial aquatic plants and provides bio-media for beneficial bacteria to thrive. Additionally, the sand, dirt or gravel also cushions the liner and creates a substance on which wildlife can walk freely. Before doing this step, make sure to place some landscape fabric down so the sand, dirt or gravel stays in place. 

Pond placement

Locate your pond in an area where it best meets your goals. Deer prefer secluded areas with minimal pressure. For that reason, deer typically stick to edges, corners and vegetated areas of a property. Wildlife ponds are best placed in areas where deer walk out into a food source and near bedding areas.

Deer tend to visit areas more frequently where all three management needs – forage, cover and water – are fulfilled. Since doe require increased water during lactation and bucks require increased water during antler growth, water sources near summer bedding will be used by these deer more frequently.
Once fall rolls around, most forage sources of water disappear. For that reason, water sources in food plots and near fall and winter bedding will be sought after, especially after the rut.

As a hunter, you might consider placing your water source within bow or gun range from current or future stands as well. Placing debris on the backside of the pond or digging deeper slopes in inconvenient sight lines can help force deer to spots with better shot angles. So get creative in placing your ponds to increase your success at those hot spots on your properties. 

Aquatic food plots

Today’s hunters are becoming increasingly invested when it comes to providing food for their herds. Because of this reason, many overlook other management strategies. But what if I told you wildlife ponds can not only be turned into more food for your deer, but help maintain the water sources themselves?
The best plant for getting the best of both worlds is commonly known as arrowhead, or duck potato.

Arrowhead uses nutrients in the water very efficiently, which in turn creates a nutrient rich forage for your deer herd. Deer love these plants for their tender shoots, tubers and seed heads. Not only is arrowhead working as a forage, but it’s also continually filtering out your wildlife pond.
This natural filter is no different than the filter you put into your pool to keep out the junk, but in this case the “junk” is excess nutrients.
Arrowhead can either be planted as a plug or by seeding the area, and should be planted right at the interface where the soil and water meet. In addition to arrowhead, other beneficial aquatics plants can be installed to further improve your pond’s draw and health. 

Maintaining your water

The process of maintaining quality water begins with ensuring a balanced ecosystem. This balance is created with the correct amount and combination of beneficial aquatic plants and bacteria. One of the most important building blocks of a healthy aquatic ecosystem is beneficial bacteria.

Beneficial bacteria actively work on nitrification, denitrification, ammonification, oxidation, reduction and nutrient remediation – or more simply put, microscopic recycling to keep your ecosystem balanced.
Maintaining a healthy bacteria community will help ensure the water quality is maintained. Other management tools include pond colorants, native aquatic plants, enzymes, aeration and proactive algaecides. 

Putting it all together

Putting a water source on a property is not a single concept, but rather a collection of different strategies. Treating your water source more like a living, breathing organism rather than just a hole in the ground will help you gain more control of your management plan and the ecosystem as a whole; and you may be surprised at just what an ecosystem it becomes.
If you take the time this season to manage your current water holes or possibly design a new watering hole according the information provided here, you can help increase your effectiveness as a land manager and increase your success this hunting season.