April 09, 2022
By Don Higgins
“If I don’t shoot it, the neighbors will!”
How many times have you heard this from someone who just shot a buck smaller than their real goal? It is the universal excuse for an itchy trigger finger. I often tell those attending my seminars, “Don’t be that neighbor!”
In all seriousness, losing young bucks to other hunters on neighboring properties is a real issue for most whitetail managers who are trying to grow bigger bucks. Growing bigger bucks means growing older bucks. We have to get some age on them to allow them to reach their genetic potential.
This a struggle that I can easily relate to, as I have dealt with it as much as anyone. I lose some nice up-and-comer bucks on my small 120-acre farm just like any other deer manager. For example, last season I had a 2 1/2-year-old 15-point buck that had potential 200-incher written all over him. Unfortunately for me, he was killed during gun season about a mile away.
Keep Whitetail Close
Losing some young bucks is just a part of the game, and I have learned to accept it. If a hunter is hunting legally and ethically, then I offer them a sincere congratulations on their success. With that said, I also do everything possible to keep bucks on my property for as many daylight hours as possible. This helps me maximize the number of younger bucks that make it to maturity.
Managing my property for bigger bucks for more than 30 years has taught me many valuable lessons. In fact, my recent success has been better than I ever dreamed possible, having shot two bucks scoring more than 200 inches in the past four seasons on my 120 acres. Very few properties of any size in all of North America can match this track record, and I don’t know of any property this size or smaller that can match this claim (not saying that they don’t exist).
Before we move on, let me throw another interesting fact at you. When I first started developing my 120-acre property into a whitetail paradise 30 years ago, the cover was sparse, and the deer were few. For a number of years, the biggest buck on the farm each season would be around 150 inches. Year after year, there would be at least one buck that would nudge the 150-inch mark; and every three or four years a buck would be closer to 170.
Today my 120-acre property will have at least one buck over 170 every year, and every three or four years there will be one noticeably bigger. The 206-inch buck I shot in 2017 and the 220-inch buck from 2020 are examples of these. In all honesty, most years I now have multiple bucks over 170 on my property.
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Let Whitetail Grow
I have bigger bucks to hunt on my farm for two reasons. First, I have more bucks on my farm. With more bucks, the odds are greater that some of them have bigger antler genetics. Secondly, I have more older bucks on my farm than I did 30 years ago. Generally, older bucks have bigger antlers than when they were younger. If I have four to six bucks that are 4 1/2 years old and older, instead of one or two, the odds are much better that one of them will have a bigger rack.
Having more older bucks on a property is certainly a recipe for consistently killing giants, but how do we do this if the neighbors aren’t practicing the same management plan? What if I told you that building an invisible fence around your property would help? I’m not talking science-fiction here either. Allow me to explain.
When I started managing my property 30-plus years ago, it was no different or better than any property in the neighborhood. At that point, I had only hunted on public land or small properties where I had obtained permission. I was young and ambitious, and I hunted nearly every day of the season. Each season I would be hunting some new properties as deer activity on my old ones would lessen. A property might start out red hot, but halfway through the season deer sightings occurred less often.
Finally, I figured out that I was the problem! I was putting way too much pressure on all parts of the properties I hunted, and they would soon burn out. I figured this out at the same time I acquired my farm, so I started managing it to create better habitat. I knew that minimizing human intrusion was key to maximize my property’s potential.
I limited human intrusion to the point that most deer hunters would think I was being way too conservative. In other words, I put almost no pressure on my property and avoided some great stand locations because they required too much human intrusion to access. I recognized that in order to kill the bucks I was after, I needed to hunt them on the properties where they bedded. So, to get them to bed on my property, I needed to stay the heck out of the cover!
Play the Long Game
I am sure that the obvious question is, where do I hunt? All of my hunting is done on the very edge of the cover. I literally give the deer the heart of the cover and hunt only select stand locations on the edges. I feel that as long as I can keep a buck bedding on my property and moving comfortably, I will eventually get a chance to kill him.
On the other hand, if I push too far into the cover and bump the buck I am after, he may leave and start bedding elsewhere. If that happens, my odds of killing him tank.
When I started working on my property 30 years ago, deer didn’t feel any safer on my farm than they did on others. If I would jump a deer on my place it would run as if being chased by demons, and it wouldn’t stop until it was out of sight. When I jump a deer on my place now, it often runs a short distance without leaving the property.
Over decades and generations of deer, the local whitetails have learned that my property is hands-down the safest place in the neighborhood. Sure, I still lose some bucks, but if I can get a buck to survive past 3 1/2 years old, the odds of getting him to 6 1/2 years old increase.
This tendency just continues to be more common with the local deer each year. It is as if each new generation of deer becomes more connected to my farm, recognizing it as the safest place in the area. In turn, they are not only becoming more accepting of me and my presence, but they also seem to be more willing to move in daylight, including the mature bucks!
I bet that a few of you are smirking and thinking to yourselves, “yeah, right.” Before you totally dismiss my observations, I want to share some very interesting and well-documented information.
Some time ago, I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal which documented a situation with red deer in Germany. This article quickly had me thinking about the deer on my Illinois farm, and I wondered just how little we really know about whitetails.
The Berlin Wall once separated East Germany from Czechoslovakia. In 1989 the wall came down. In fact, in many places the “Iron Curtain” was not an actual wall, but instead a high electric fence with barbed wire and machine gun carrying guards.
This barrier separated not only people, but wildlife, including the red deer which lived on both sides. In December 1989, representatives from East Germany and West Germany met to declare an area once divided by the fence as a nature preserve. It still exists, and it is called the “Green Belt.”
Several years later, scientists from both sides suspected that the red deer were not crossing the border even though all physical barriers had been removed. In 2002 (13 years after the removal of the barrier), scientists on one side began fitting red deer with radio collars to track their movements. In 2005, the same thing happened to the red deer on the other side. Their findings were remarkable.
The red deer from both sides refused to cross the imaginary line that once marked the Iron Curtain. This was despite every animal alive being at least three generations removed from those that actually lived when the wall stood! That wall meant death and danger to not only the people in that region, but to the red deer as well.
It has been more than 30 years since the fall of the barrier, and yet many red deer still refuse to cross. However, it does happen more than it used to.
If a German red deer knows about a danger that hasn’t existed in generations, is it too far of a stretch to think that a whitetail doe can teach her fawns where they are safe and where they are not? When thinking about my own property, I believe that I have in a sense “trained” the local deer to recognize it as the safest place in the neighborhood.
Personally, I am not sure any of us give mature whitetails enough credit. One thing is for sure, there is a lot that we still don’t know about them. I personally will continue to give them the utmost respect and credit. Short-changing the whitetail’s ability to adapt to all that we throw at them is a recipe for failure when dealing with mature bucks.
After 30 years of managing my property for bigger bucks, I have learned a lot; and I continue to learn more each season. The deer recognize my farm as the place to be when the sun is up, and they feel more comfortable moving in daylight. Sure, I still lose some young bucks, but I also save some. Then, once a buck reaches 4 1/2 years old in my neighborhood, I have as good a chance to kill him as anyone.