WHITETAIL DEER MANAGEMENT
WHITETAIL DEER MANAGEMENT
FOR THE SOUTHERN HUNTER
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So you want to grow big bucks on your property or lease but you don't know how to go about achieving your goals. Well, if you will take the time to read this article you should learn enough about the subject to begin making some logical choices. Much of what you read here will be contrary to what you have been told and heard ever since you took up the sport of deer hunting. I encourage you to read this with an open mind and you will gain a new perspective on the animals you hunt.
As you probably have heard, it takes three things to produce a quality or trophy animal: genetics, age, and food! Many people get stuck on one of these three, ignore the others and therefore see poor results for their efforts. Now I am not saying that you must go through great effort on each one of these or your efforts are pointless. On the contrary, what I am saying is you need to understand how each of these things affect your deer so that you can make educated decisions.
GENETICS - This is a very important factor that will affect your results. Notice I did not say 'have a huge affect'. Unfortunately even though it affects you, YOU can't affect it. It is unfortunate that this subject ever gets any airplay at all. Many management plans are designed to "improve" the genetic make-up of your deer herd. This is a joke of huge proportions. There are exceptions to every rule. But trust me, if you don't import your deer or have game fences it is impossible to have any meaningful effect on the genetics of your deer herd. I can hear the scoffing already. But wait; let me explain a few facts that can shed some light on this subject.
First, it is the doe, (not the buck) that contributes more of the genetic characteristics to the offspring regarding antlers characteristics. Until we get some way of looking at a doe, and can tell what kind of bucks she produces, genetic management will always be somewhat lame.
Second it is hard for most people to identify good genetics because the size of a deer's rack is affected greatly by the deer's age. If you have ever shot a spike that was chasing a doe in the hopes of keeping it from breeding, then you probably don't understand completely how to manage your deer. I am not saying you shouldn't have shot that deer, just that it was probably shot for the wrong reason.
Let me explain about Southern deer. Where I hunt in Mississippi, the rut occurs very late in the year, usually in early January; therefore, the fawns are born very late. This means that that 8 point 1 1/2-year-old deer up north had 2 or more months extra to grow that set of antlers than the same 1 1/2-year-old deer in the South. So our 1 1/2-year-old deer will never be able to compete with the 1 1/2-year-old deer from up north. Now, genetically that spike deer could have been superior genetically to the eight point in Minnesota. You see, an individual buck's antlers are affected much more by age and nutrition than by genetics.
I don't think there are any 2 1/2-year-old Boone and Crockett bucks registered. If there are then it is at least very rare. As the deer age, the difference in antler size due to this buck being born early get less and less significant. It is not possible to make an educated guess about the genetic makeup of a buck until it is at least 2 1/2-years-old. Ever wonder why older deer have larger antlers than young deer? When a deer is young it is growing. It's body weight is increasing and this requires nutrients. Only the left over nutrients go to the antlers. So the younger and therefore faster growing deer need more of those nutrients for growing bones and hair. It is only after the deer's body growth slows that there are enough nutrients left over for a large rack. I have personally only seen one buck that had spike antlers that was older than 1 1/2-years-old. So obviously almost all of those spikes have the potential to be more than just spikes.
If you are still not convienced that you can't improve the genetics of the deer that are sired each year then maybe this will. Ever since modern deer hunting arose we have been selecting the best for death and the worst for procreation. If two bucks walk out, much more often then not the large racked buck is shot. If a spike walks out at 250 yards, there is a good chance that you will think it's a doe. So for at least 100 years we have been selecting the worst genetics for our deer herd. But in spite of this the genetics have remained pretty much unchanged. So if you think your hunting club can improve what 100+ years has not been able to accomplish (change the genetics) then you are sadly mistaken.
So the point is, be happy with the genetics you have or move to another area. It's that simple. Sorry for the rambling nature of this section, I just don't want to spend too much time talking about a largely pointless endeavor.
AGE - Ok here is the real subject of deer management that will have the largest effect: age. Age, bar none, is the single most important factor in determining how large a deer's rack is going to be. To consistently kill large antlered bucks you must be in an area that has older deer. So to get larger antlered bucks it is quite simple to figure out which deer the hunters in your area should shoot and which not to shoot. If it's not big then don't shoot.
Ok, that's the easy part. Now getting that as an actual practice in your area is the tough part. Let me explain, just in case a hunter from one of our Northern state's is reading. In the south we have very long deer seasons. Bow season is open from the first week of October till the end of January. The gun season is from mid-November to Late January. That gives us southern deer hunters just enough time to kill almost every buck in the state. The last hunting club that I was in was killing 80% of the bucks each year. That's why I got out of that hunting club. I know it was 80% because we kept records of the slaughter. It made me sick because it had the most potential of any place I have ever hunted.
In the south most 1 1/2-year-old deer have about 4 points, so if you are killing most of the bucks each year, guess what you are killing? That's right spikes, forkhorns and small six points. So to kill larger buck we must stop killing the 1 1/2-year-old deer. It's that simple.
Now for the depressing part. Unless you control a large tract of land then there is a good chance that you will not be able to have much of an impact on the deer herds age structure. There is a rule of thumb that you need at least 2000 acres before you can manage for big bucks. There is a lot of truth to this statement but there is also alot wrong with this generalization also. For the record lets just say that the more land you control the easier it is for your management plan to have positive measurable results.
Since most leases do not comprise many thousands of acres this article will try to address management from the more common or typical person's perspective.
Obviously, if you let all 1 1/2-year-old deer live you will get the best results down the road. But that is not practical for most places. With the rising cost of land and leases that approach is simply more restrictive than most people are willing to put up with. So, many clubs have some rules that will restrict the harvest of younger deer. Here is a list of some common approaches.
1. No spikes are to be killed.
2. Nothing smaller than a 6 point.
3. 8 point or better.
4. Deer must have a certain size spread.
5. You are not allowed to shoot a deer smaller than one you have already taken.
6. Two bucks per person.
Each of these above methods has its advantages and disadvantages. I am not going to endorse any one particular method as the best. There just is not one best method. It all depends on what you are trying to accomplish.
You must tailor your rules to your needs. For instance, the last club I left would not have really been helped much by going to a no spikes rule. Only a few spikes were killed each year. Most of our 1 1/2-year-old deer had more than spikes. So the benefit would have been small. The point I am trying to make is that every place is different so you must tailor your rules to your area.
Let me elaborate a little on some things that might help you decide what you want to do. Since deer don't distribute themselves randomly and evenly across the land, you might be helped by knowing a couple of things about how a deer sets up its living area. First remember the big bucks don't set up shop in the best areas for food and cover. Why don't they you ask? Remember, even that 18" 10 point was once a small puny buck. When a buck is born it first lives with its mother. The mother will eventually drive the youngster off. This is when it sets up what will be its home for the rest of its short life. So when it sets up its house, it is at the bottom of the pecking order. Also this is nature's way of dispersing the young bucks away from their mothers to prevent inbreeding. So that spike you passed up early in the hunting season could very well locate off of your land.
But lets say you have put in a management plan and have a number of large bucks that call you land home. Here comes blow #2. That large buck that you saw all summer but has eluded you so far on your lease should be getting love sick soon and hopefully will make a mistake. Unfortunately when large bucks get in the mood they often become nomads of sort. So those meat hunters down the road could very well end up with your wall hanger in their freezer. Bucks tend to have very unique personalities just like people so don't lose all hope.
If you only learn one thing from this let it be that getting your neighbors involved in a quality management plan will yield more results than the most restrictive plan you could possibly implement on your land with no help from your neighbors.
So your neighbors aren't willing to do anything but shoot everything that moves! If that is the case there are a couple of things that you can do to help out the situation. First you must shoot does. Otherwise there will be no vacancies for new bucks to set up in. If your club shoots only big bucks and club 2 next door shoots everything including lots of does, guess what? All the bucks will live on their land. So you must shoot does unless you want to raise does so they can raise offspring for those outlaws next door.
You can also pull a fast one and make sure all does that are killed on your lease/land are killed near the center of your land. This is so that when a young buck sets up shop it will most likely be in the center of your land. This will minimize the time that he spends off of your land where he would be fair game.
FOOD - The third thing needed to produce quality bucks is food. Fortunately most areas have enough quality food to produce decent antler size without any hunter intervention. But supplemental food plots can give deer more minerals and protein then they would get from native plants. Deer are just like atheletes, to reach their potential they must be on a good diet.
Although food plots can increase weights of deer and increase antler size also, its harder to get this affect then you might think. A food plot here and another there just isn't enough to have a huge effect. It has been shown that sprinkling an area of woodland with a few scattered food plots doesn't have any 'measurable' effect on the noted deer weights. To get a noticeable improvement in body weights it takes about 1 acre planted and fertilized for every 40 acres of habitat. This is a ballpark figure so don't argue that it is 1 to 30 or 1 to 50.
An important note is that to have any real effect these food plots must be productive year round. It does little good for a bucks antlers if you feed him well during the fall but the rest of the year he must rely on native browse. Now what you hunters down south must realize is that our deer face different problems than the deer up north. Up north a deer during the winter might face outright starvation. And winter die offs occur quite regularly due to starvation. We do not face that same situation in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama etc. When our lands get overpopulated the deer do not starve. They will have plenty to eat but it will be of low quality. Therefore the body weights and antler sizes suffer severely.
I have seen areas in Louisiana that you could expect to see 50 deer per day when hunting, but most were does and rarely was a decent buck killed. Racks were small and body size was small also. None of these deer were in danger of starving they had just been slightly malnourished. Refusal to kill does leads to this type of situation and no type of restrictive buck kill will help.
My point is that even though food plots can be quite effective at increasing herd quality, it is more productive for most people to focus on food quality by limiting herd size, i.e. doe harvest. You see, there are many different plants that provide food for deer. Of these hundreds, some are more nutritious than others. The most nutritious ones are the hardest hit by the deer. So if the herd is to large then only the low value plants will be available for the deer.
I am not saying don't plant food plots just realize what it takes to increase body size and antler size. There are many reasons to plant food plots other than these reasons. One good reason to plant food plots is to keep the deer on your land more often. This will lessen the likelihood that someone else will kill them as well as increase your chances. Another is why most people plant and that is simply to see/kill more deer. That 8 point in your clover field may not be bigger because of the plot but at least he is in your plot.
And referring to genetics section earlier, I am not saying not to shoot that 200-lb. spike. But cull it to make room for another buck that will have a large rack.
Also, if you do control the timber on your land/lease remember that deer don't climb trees. Mature trees, even oaks, don't provide nearly the pounds of food per year that the same area of cutover provides.
I hope you were able to glean some good information from this article. I have tried to make this article as short as possible since web readers aren't likely to read a 500-page report. If you have any questions or want to comment on this article then send me an e-mail! I love talking hunting.