July 19, 2012
Watching the 8-pointer tending the scrape, I had no doubt he would eventually offer me an easy shot. At 6 1/2 years old, he was definitely mature. Still, it was the intelligence I'd gathered on him that removed any doubt that I had to arrow this tank-bodied bully, despite a rather modest rack for his age.
Seconds later I was at full draw. Settling my pin on his heart, I released the arrow and watched as the Rage broadhead blew through his vitals, shattering his off-side leg. Within an astonishingly short time, the buck was piled up a mere 10 yards from where the shot occurred.
That's when the excitement hit me. My equipment had just produced as clean a kill as one could ever hope for, and I'd also managed to take out the biggest bully on the 1,550-acre farm.
Being tasked with turning around such a large property is a thrill. Going in, I fully realized that the 4-year absence of serious hunting meant that population management would be critical. Sure, that meant arrowing a ton of does to tighten sex ratios and drop the population to a more sustainable level. However, it would be every bit as important to remove the "problem deer," an aspect far too many serious deer managers ignore.
One of the great sins of population management is that we simply don't talk about the importance of removing inferior-racked, dominant, bully bucks. For as much as we emphasize letting the young ones grow and managing for genetics, getting rid of the bullies can often produce better results than anything else. On small properties, this is often even more important.
So, what is a dominant, bully buck? To answer that question, let's take a closer look at the buck that began this article. At 6 1/2 years old, the buck I named "G2s" was mature by anyone's standard. As pictures from the previous year revealed, he also had essentially maxed out his antler growth.
To census the population, I used 30 scouting cameras to cover the 1,550-acre farm. Cameras were set on food plots, water sources, trails and scrapes. After a couple weeks, most were shifted to new locations, allowing me to effectively cover the entire farm over the course of several months.
I'd captured this buck's picture on every camera set in an approximately 500-acre area of the farm. With more than 200 pictures of him in less than two months, it was safe to say he dominated that portion of the farm. Also, G2s' enormous body, heavy rack and overall bad disposition made it pretty clear than no one was going to take it from him. Combining all of that information led me to realize I had a dominant bully on my hands.
Next, at 134 4/8 inches, his rack was poor by the area's standards. Sure, I was thrilled to arrow a public-land Wisconsin buck a few weeks later that measured about the same. However, this was prime farm ground in Illinois' famous golden triangle. For a dominant buck in this area, his rack was inferior, and it wasn't getting any bigger.
There were good reasons this buck had to go. Simply put, dominant bullies drive away many of the young bucks with tons of potential and bust up others.
G2s was no exception. Through early October, three 3 1/2-year-old studs shared corners of G2s' range. By mid-October, once tensions began to mount within the buck hierarchy, two of them vanished, only to be shot shortly after by neighbors.
Luckily, the best of the three younger bucks stuck around. Sporting around 160 inches of antler, the long-tined 3 1/2-year-old would be a shoe-in for Booner status with another year's growth.
Unfortunately, staying put also came at a high cost. The young stud was busted up good in a fight with G2s. Every picture after the brawl reveals that he now walks with his head titled to the side, indicating a serious neck injury. Best case is that his antler growth will suffer this season because of it. Worse case is that another fight could kill him.
Being able to point to numerous examples removes any doubt that mature, dominant bucks can and do drive other bucks off of a property. I don't believe they drive many from their home ranges, but they often cause other bucks to shift their core area within their home range.
Though that's an important consideration for any land manager, it's particularly important for smaller properties. Say one has a bruiser of a 5 1/2-year-old 8-pointer that's both physically superior and has a nasty disposition. Let's say his core area falls squarely on a 100-acre farm.
At the same time, there's also a beautiful 3 1/2-year-old mainframe 12-pointer on the farm. Life was good for his first two years, as he wasn't overly aggressive. Now, at 3 1/2 years of age, he wants some turf of his own.
Unfortunately, the old, nasty 8-pointer is standing in his way. Getting beat up a couple times inspires the 12-pointer to shift his core area off the farm. Just like that, a great buck we've been raising is gone.
On both smaller hunting lands and along the borders of sprawling properties, taking out the dominant bully can open the doors for higher scoring bucks to shift in and take his place. To ideally manage a property, these bucks should be a top priority for removal. The sooner they're removed, the better the odds are that another buck will shift in or up-and-coming studs will stay put on the property.
DEALING WITH DISEASE
Another crippling means of wiping out a buck population is through disease. Though the most common diseases vary by region and their severity, every area I'm aware of has the potential to be hit hard by one disease or another. Chronic Wasting Disease, Bovine Tuberculosis and Hemorrhagic Disease, commonly referred to as Blue Tongue, are common examples.
Generally speaking, the best thing hunters and deer managers can do to reduce the effects of disease is keep deer populations at reasonable levels and swiftly remove any diseased animal from the herd. Even in the case of Hemorrhagic Disease, where removing the animal does little to prevent further spreading, no animal deserves the slow and painful death that disease can bring.
In the area of removing diseased — and even wounded — animals, a simple phone call can often allow the hunter to accomplish some good, without it costing them a tag. Before each season, give your local warden a call. Explain to them that when hunting, you intend to shoot any diseased or seriously injured deer you may come across. Be sure to explain that you will not in any way attempt to game the system, but that you would appreciate it if they would be willing to tag any of these deer you may remove.
The vast majority of wardens I have spoken with over the years have been both reasonable and willing to help those that are sincerely attempting to do the right thing. Some readers may be surprised at how willing so many are to help those who are truly trying to be responsible stewards of the lands they hunt.
Matriarch does can also be harmful. Most every reader has numerous stories of how blowing does ruined their hunt. At first glance, removing these ornery does may not appear to fit the theme of improving the herd. It seems to be more of an effort to help our hunting efficiency, and it sure does. All those who have been victimized by matriarchs fully realize the benefit to taking them out.
Still, there are sound benefits to the herd, as well.
For one, the matriarchs are almost always prime-aged does in peak condition. Because of that, they often produce the highest fawn rearing success on a property. This is largely due to being in their physical prime, as well as being very experienced and laying claim to the best food sources and fawn-rearing areas.
When trying to reduce a population, one gets the best return on doe harvests by removing the matriarchs. After all, they're the ones most likely to successfully rear twins and triplets.
Going a step beyond, specifically targeting those with one or more buck fawns improves the odds of keeping the best young bucks on the property. Studies show that, in the absence of the mother, yearling bucks have a higher tendency to remain on their birth range.
Studies have also shown that prime-aged, peak-condition does tend to come into estrus early. Because odds are lower that the dominant buck is already occupied with a doe earlier in the rut, chances are better that she was bred by him. When one has managed specifically for large antlered dominants, their offspring are the buck fawns one wants to keep the worst.
Finally, despite this piece focusing on improving herd quality, one must admit that we are doing that to improve our quality of hunting. Removing the matriarch accomplishes that in several ways.
As mentioned, getting pinned in a tree by a blowing doe is neither fun nor helpful in arrowing Mr. Big. The matriarch also tends to be much more cautious than other less experienced does. When educated to hunting pressure, she is often the first doe to go more nocturnal. That does the buck hunter few favors, especially when she is leading Mr. Big around by the nose. Finally, taking her out can help break up the tightly knit doe group associated with her. When that occurs, bucks must be more active to check those does than when they are grouped up.
Managing for the best bucks is more than putting out food plots, shooting random does and allowing bucks to grow old. Targeting inferior-racked dominant bucks, aggressively removing diseased deer and specifically targeting matriarch does are all important tasks.
Also, keep in mind that these practices are important to both large and small properties. One can make the case they're even more important to the hunter on 40 acres than one hunting 4,000. Frankly, there's less wiggle room on the 40-acre piece.