Amazing Transformation Of Forty Acres At Badger Valley Whitetails With Sam Bilhorn

WTR 1129 | Habitat Improvement Planning

 

When hunting is mentioned, people usually think of having your boots on the ground looking for game right away. What most don’t realize is that there are tons of hours put into preparation, structuring, planning, and engineering a hunt before you can even think of going out the door. Armed with his vast experience in engineering and construction, along with his deep passion for hunting, Sam Bilhorn talks about one of the most important factors in hunting: planning ahead and being proactive in how you want your hunts to go instead of being reactive. With CWD lurking around, he shares the values he and his family follow to respect the hunt. Learn Sam’s insights on different aspects from getting into hunting and habitat improvement, to having a successful and fulfilling hunt.

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Amazing Transformation Of Forty Acres At Badger Valley Whitetails With Sam Bilhorn

We are heading to my home state of Wisconsin. I’ve spent a lot of time in Wisconsin. I still hunt extensively in Wisconsin. This show is about Sam Bilhorn and Badger Valley Whitetails. Sam, with his brother and crew, bought 40 acres and they own their own land. They bought it from family members so it’s land they had hunted. He’s finding a whole new journey about whitetail hunting. That’s why I wanted Sam as a guest. He could share with you the process he went through and some of the other things that we are going to talk about. Sam, welcome to the show.

It’s good to be with you, Bruce. Thanks for having me.

Let’s talk about the journey of creating Badger Valley Whitetails.

It’s been a new joy that we discovered. We’ve been fortunate that we had family in Sauk County and a lot of acres we can hunt there. I spent many years in deer woods there. I enjoyed a lot of time with the family learning about hunting and about whitetails. We are on a whole new journey. We’re given the opportunity to buy 40 acres of that farm. We are steadily working through a whole new process of habitat improvement. We’re learning so many different things about what that is and setting up that property. My background in planning, construction, and engineering fit right into the strategizing and all of the things that we’ve thought for years. Now that we can work that land, we can do more and we’re having a lot of fun in that process.

You’ve been on the land before, but why did you buy this piece of 40? What was the reason for that?

Partly, it was the piece that was made available. For some time, I’ve been looking at the idea of potentially buying land. This 40 was set up well. There are many positive things going for it as far as hunting is concerned. That was our primary focus with it. It’s mixed-use, had got some existing ag fields, and had a lot of different terrain features. It had about ten open acres and 30 different wooded topographies. It sets up and checks all the boxes for habitat we would have wanted in any parcel. That alone was great. The fact that it was land we had hunted and taken some fine gear off of from the years was a great connection. It was a decision that came pretty easy for us to move forward on it.

Are you still going to hunt at the family farm?

The relationship I have with my Forty gives me joy and peace. Creating great habitat is my passion Click To Tweet

We have access to that. We certainly will be doing that. With so many of the features, we’ve been doing on this and trying to focus on making this 40 optimal. I don’t know if we’ll necessarily need to, but I will certainly take the opportunities. We’re focused on trying to utilize the features of this. We save higher quality hunts. The right opportunities for the places we’ve developed with the habitat that we have, but also capitalizes on the other places on the farm when the situation exists as well.

What type of deer herd do you have on your 40 or the whole farm?

In general, the whole farm is strong. We’ve had good deer numbers. We’re close to the river there. With the flooding, those numbers drifted off somewhat but still strong deer numbers in the area. There’s decent hunting pressure in the area too. We need to balance that with developing good habitat features that are going to keep those deer safe on the land we have. We hunt a lot more strategically than we may have able to in the past with others and with not having the habitat improvement. There are a lot of things we’ve done that will hopefully stack the deck in our favor and make for even better opportunities. They’re more strategic than they may have been in the past.

What’s the impact of CWD in your area?

CWD is present. We’ve had positive tests in the area. It’s one of those things that we’re aware of. As a whole, the state is dealing with it. I’m certainly not fully up to speed with all the details of that and everything but it’s something we are aware of. It’s an unfortunate thing but I put a lot of trust in others. As a state, we’re doing what’s right for the deer herd. Hopefully, that’s something that runs its course and will not deteriorate our hunting any further over time than it already may have.

Have you personally seen any sick deer?

I can’t say that I’ve seen a deer that you can look at and say, “That deer is sick.” We have had one positive test that I’m aware of at the farm. We’ve heard of neighbors’ so we know it’s there. Even in trail camp, I’ve never seen a deer that I looked at and said, “Something is wrong with that deer.”

WTR 1129 | Habitat Improvement Planning

 

They’re sick. You don’t take a second to know that’s a sick deer.

I’ve not had the experience but I am not going to deny that it exists. We know it’s in the area.

Do you take precautions with the meat? When you put a buck or doe down, what do you do because CWD is in the area?

We still butcher it and take care of all of the meat. That’s something that needs to be done right away. We get it tested. If the test is positive, we throw it out. That’s how we’ve decided to proceed with it. It’s a personal choice. It’s always a tough thing to waste. No one wants to see that. That’s not our goal as hunters because there is so much that’s unknown about it, that’s how we do it. For right or wrong, everyone has a different opinion on how to handle that.

Let’s get back to setting up your 40. You’ve been on the land before. What changes did you decide to do? Did you build a hunt plan or habitat plan right after you bought the land?

We did. I’ve been studying quite some time. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to some of the habitat guys out there that put a lot of great information. We invited Jeff Sturgis to the farm and had the opportunity to share a day with him. We had a lot of great ideas from his content leading in. We fine-tuned that with him. We wanted to make a plan. Having partners on this with two brothers, we had a lot of good ideas that we wanted to define and plan. That’s one of the things I would encourage anybody about a property.

You don’t build a house without a plan. You shouldn’t build property without one. Even if you make great individual improvements, they’re not going to be productive as a whole if they don’t relate to each other. We designed the entire 40 bedding areas to understand improvement. Food plots, corridors, waterholes, mock scrapes, camera locations, and stand locations. The entire thing we’ve put on paper and said, “That’s how we’re going to do it.” There will be tweaks over time but we’ve tackled that plan.

It’s important to balance hunting pressure with developing good habitat features. Click To Tweet

This time, we spent roughing it in. This is our framing time. We have all of those corridors built, a lot of bedding areas done, food plots are in. We’ve moved, taken down, and made new stands. We’ve put blinds in. It’s a ton of good work. It’s going to be fun to see what happens. It’s a roundabout of a way to answer your question of what we’ve done. I can’t say enough about studying and understanding habitat improvements, knowing how they work together and making a plan for that. There’s a whole wealth of information out there.

You buy a piece of property and it’s going to cost X money to have whoever you choose to come in and put a set of eyes on it. For anybody who does not know where whitetails live, how to hunt them, how to feed them and all those things. What I’ve learned from talking to enough people in the industry is that with a fresh set of eyes, they’ll say, “Have you thought about entering and exit this stand this way?”

Hunter access.

We can’t use minerals in Sauk County, can we?

No.

No minerals on feeds. That’s why you put out mock scrapes. You start looking at all this and you put it on a plan then you set up your trail cameras to monitor that activity. Over the years, you can develop a trend. You develop a journal so you would know what the deer are doing and how you are managing to the best possible outcomes for your deer herd.

You said you paid a bunch of money for a property. You pay someone who spent decades looking at this stuff and knows the ins and outs. If you have an open mind and you want to get some more input, getting another set of eyes in developing a plan saves you money. You get so much out of that because you don’t make mistakes. You don’t waste time, you don’t waste money, you’re developing improvement that relates to each other. You are going to accomplish your goal. You’re not experimenting for years and decades.

WTR 1129 | Habitat Improvement Planning

 

There are a lot of great people out there right in Wisconsin. I know guys that are traveling throughout the country. People say, “You know what you are doing.” They pay him a couple of dollars to get on their land for a day or two. In the end, they get a habitat plan, a stand plan, the mock scrapes plan, entrance and exit strategies or sites. With onXmaps and all the other technological digital information we have, you can do a lot of work right from your laptop. I know these guys who do the hunt plans and the habitat plans, that’s what they do. Before they even step on your land, they say, “What are we looking at?” You go from there.

You can do a lot from that, but boots on the ground help too. Some things don’t always appear as they are in the field, especially when it comes to fine tweaking those things. Being in person and being on the ground is helpful.

What’s your favorite time for the year to hunt whitetails?

Anytime. I find a lot of joy at different times for different reasons. I grew up a gun hunter as a child. There are a lot of good memories and camaraderie at that time. There is a culture especially in Wisconsin of that gun opener and that gun fuse. There are good times and good family members with that. As I grow in my experiences in bow hunting, I love late November time. The woods are changing and the activity is high. The excitement of that is hard to beat. The same old setting with the snow and the muzzleloader is also great in so many ways.

You think about the deer that you’ve taken off the farm, what’s the best story you’d like to share about that one buck or doe.

There are a lot of good memories. Some of the best come by happenstance. We’ve had great success, but a lot of it comes from luck and chance. A lot of what gun hunting has done for us. My best memory comes from having my first bow kill. I didn’t pick up a bow until my twenties. That was something I taught myself. It was completely foreign to me pulling back a bow for the first time, but I was interested in expanding my season and growing in my interest and hobby for being in the deer woods.

In the first year I picked up that bow, I learned how to shoot well. I shot throughout the winter. There was a point that I was shooting a couple of times a day and dish out all the time. I fell in love with shooting the bow. That fall, I spent probably eighteen or nineteen different days in the stand. I was out there quite a bit probably over hunting some places and didn’t realize that, somehow a bit inexperienced at the time. Seeing deer that close for the first time, put yourself in a position of a gun hunter, a lot of these times the deer runs by or they’re in a great distance or this and that. Being in the deer woods and seeing the detail of a deer at ten yards. Experiencing that in different times of the year, it felt so new and interesting to me.

It is not our goal as hunters to see wasted deer meat. Click To Tweet

Earlier in the season, it was the second time I was on the stand. I had this deer at 40 yards and thought, “That’s a good deer,” but I was a little gun shy at a distance and was unsure. I could have taken the shot, but to have the opportunity in the rut to have that guy come cruising by my stand at ten yards and had a little scent on the pass there. I thought that might help me at the time, not knowing anything about habitat improvements. He parked himself at ten yards and I let him have it. It was surreal, the emotion that we all experience that moment in time. That had been many days in the stand. To have that come together was awesome. He didn’t go fifteen yards and I saw him fall. It was perfect. You need experience, that first season getting into bow hunting and having that happen was more than I could ever dream. I’ve been at it ever since.

Congrats that you we able to do that. A lot of people bow hunt and takes them a long time to give deer dirt. It’s not easy what we do.

I’m not trying to make it sound like somebody can go out there in their first year. It isn’t that simple, but there are a lot of things you can do to plan. The more we do this, the more we learn.

You have a passion for the people, your friends, family and the journey. Let’s spend some time talking about that aspect of hunting. We both know it’s not simply putting a deer down. It’s not harvesting a doe or a buck. It’s the other things that make deer hunting deer hunting, in my opinion and your opinion.

I touched on that a little bit growing up in the history of being with cousins and friends and all that. The camaraderie and culture that was gun hunting. Those are some of the most wonderful memories I have as a kid in those times. Looking forward and I have three small kids now. Look towards the future in how I can share that experience and interest of not just hunting or taking down a deer but to be outside. To be with my kids, with my nieces and nephews and see all these kids running around and doing some of these awesome projects we’ve been doing.

We’ve taken a pile of kids along and they bopped through the woods and had fun and discovered new things. Seeing the excitement they have, it makes it all worthwhile. It is the same time, too, to be able to provide property now. With the improvements we’ve made, hopefully we should raise the bar and give more opportunities for quality and chance of success for people. It’s not to have that ourselves and not even for our kids, but to share that with others whether it be your family, friends or even people we don’t know. We’d like to give that opportunity.

I’m looking forward to those times. I know there is a lot of joy in that coming. I think back to times where you are with people when they take a deer or when they were with me when I did. Those are some amazingly powerful memories. Those are other great choices in all of those things, but there is also joy in the work. All these projects and everything, it’s fun to see that stuff grow. It’s a roundabout answer, but being involved in the relationships is what matters. In the long-term, that’s all we have.

WTR 1129 | Habitat Improvement Planning

 

When somebody who doesn’t hunt comes up to you and says, “I understand you’re a deer hunter.” What do you say to them?

It depends on what their angle is. You’ve got to feel for that. I’ll say, “I love being outside. I love being in the woods. Deer hunting is something that got me there. It’s the driving force that keeps me coming back and having those opportunities. All these things combine the project, planning, and anticipation. It’s being outside and enjoying God’s creation. All those things you look at and it’s some of the best things I can do and I love doing it. Taking a deer is a part of that your goal. It’s the reason you keep going but there’s joy in the journey, not just the destination.”

The reason I asked that is that a lot of people ask me, “What should I talk about when somebody asks me why I hunt?” I used to say, “Because I like to kill stuff.” I don’t say that anymore. I’ve gotten away from that.

The thing we need to continue and promote because you’re always one generation from the extinction of anything. We fear what could happen to hunting, culture, or these things. It’s also having people realize that it’s not all why we do it. We want to be out there with them and that’s the thing we’re doing. There’s more to it than killing an animal.

We are trying to reactivate, recruit and retain hunters. It’s a big issue in the hunting community because we are losing an absurd number of people who aren’t buying tags and licenses. It’s tied together in the commerce and the business of hunting. It’s a huge, multibillion-dollar industry. Last time I was in ATA, it was about a $37 billion industry. You think about those numbers. One hunter with a bunch of guys going into a small town in Wisconsin during a nine-day riffle season. What does that do for a small town? They shoot some deer, but all of the other things they do in the community helps the community. Sometimes people are looking crosswise at us because we are hunters. They don’t connect those dots.

You get any group, you’re going to have some rotten eggs but these are great people trying to do good things in their community. When they are not doing this, look at the things that they are involved with. A lot of them are active members in their communities and working towards improving things in other ways too.

We touched a little bit about relationships. The relationship you’ve developed. One thing you said in your bio was that you hunted out west nine or so times. How does being a whitetail hunter help you become a better big-game hunter in the Rockies?

Plans are essential when hunting. You shouldn’t build a property without one. Click To Tweet

Habitat is habitat, whether it’s deer, elk or antelope. Looking at the lay of the land and studying maps. Looking at topo maps things like that. A lot starts in paper and planning. If you have eyes for those things. The whitetail is crafty. Looking at the details we have in the whitetail woods, you are looking at those things in a western state and the different topography features. You’ll start to see the things you are looking for as far as different changes in habitat and the things that they need.

When you go out there, being perceptive to conditions whether it’s the weather, temperature or precipitation, and cold fronts. Where would animals move to? Why would they move? All those things relate. I know we’ve found success in putting ourselves in the position that may not be optimal or it’s hard work. The more of the bigger things is finding the more distant habitat that others don’t willingly go to. We’ve hunted in public lands and a lot of times we’ll exclude things right off the road, to begin with, and look beyond that. Willing to work and get back in there is a huge part of that as well.

What’s your favorite animal out west, Sam?

I had the most fun chasing elk. A lot of the hunts I went on were on easy to get tagged. Lower quality hunts, public land. We were out there chasing elk. To see that such a large landscape is what’s different. The space there, everything is bigger. Having the ability to go out there and find where these elks are and chase them. You made the comparison of an eastern whitetail hunter to going out west. There are a lot of similarities in how elk live and how they function to whitetails. When you’re thinking and looking in that way, you’re going to find them. You’re going to put yourself in the right spot. Some of it is a circumstance. The rest of it is trying to get yourself in that position and maybe intersect with them and have good opportunities. I had a lot of fun chasing elk and I had good success with antelope.

Antelopes are a social hunt. It’s a fun hunt to go out and laugh and see him and stalk and try that opportunity. The other thing too with elks that’s fun is I get obsessed with work. With elk hunt, you’re hunting so hard. You don’t sleep much. You’re up late. You’re up early and working the chase. You’ll get hungry after a while and it’s fun to have that aggression of trying to get after them. That’s been fun. Good memories doing that.

I talked to a guy about elk hunting. Beau Martonik has the East Meets West Hunt podcast. It’s a great podcast. We were talking about the mental aspect of elk hunting. You’re never going to be in good enough shape physically without living out west and ranching, guiding and outfitting to beat the mountain. The mountain every single step will beat you down.

It’s a mental challenge as well.

Going out there to hunt takes a lot of planning. The more we do this, the more we learn. Click To Tweet

That’s the biggest thing I want to share with people. You’ve got to have fun. You’re going to work hard. You’re not going to sleep much but when you hear that full-out bugling inside of 30 yards, it all doesn’t matter. Whether or not you get a shot, to me it doesn’t matter. Seeing it up close and personal, I get a tremendous amount of joy in doing that. Being there and know I’ve not closed the deal on more elk than I’ve killed. I get that. There is something about being out there when you get away from the people and you get into basins or wherever they are, it’s magical.

Being in that elk country and be miles from nowhere and within bull range of a bugling elk makes the hairs on your neck stand up. It’s awesome.

Let’s talk about the close relationships that you’ve developed with people, not only in your family but who are hunters.

I continue to dive into habitat improvement and learn so much not only by watching but by doing. One of the places I’ve got into, and that’s where we connected, Bruce, on Instagram was Badger Valley Whitetails. The community people are there doing all these things of habitat improvement, like-minded people who like doing these projects. Having successes, having failures in what they’re doing. Being connected with them that’s a whole other thing that has been new for me. I’m not a social media guy. I wandered in there and been having a lot of fun doing it.

I look forward to continuing that. I love making a plan. I love seeing different ideas come together. If this goes on, I can see myself desiring into that whether it be part-time or by hobby, to do habitat improvements or designs to help other people out. I look forward to those relationships that I could have in that process. I know what I’m learning and what I’m doing is my knack for plan together. I’m going to end up there and that would be a lot of fun.

Do you have any last thoughts?

The only thing I would say is to bring back the other reasons you’re doing it. Bring somebody along with you whether it’s a project or a hunt or whatever, do it with others. It’s going to make it that much better. My best hunts had come from the ones I’d done with others. I can’t say that enough. That will keep the ball rolling with people getting interested in being outdoors. Everyone would listen to a podcast like this is going to know that and think that. Encourage and find somebody and bring him along. Thanks a lot for having me, Bruce.

Sam, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for reaching out and I wish you all the best.

You’ve got it. Thanks, Bruce.

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About Sam Bilhorn

WTR 1129 | Habitat Improvement PlanningWisconsin born, life long whitetail hunter. I was taken whitetail hunting by my father at a young age and have seen over 30 years in the deer woods in Sauk County, WI. I had only been a gun hunter until my early 20’s but grew interest in bow hunting to have a longer season. I was mentored by a co-worker and my connection with whitetail hunting has steadily grown from a interest to a hobby to a lifestyle.

I also have hunted in western states on 9 occasions chasing elk, deer and antelope on public land.