Quality deer management has caught on like wildfire with hunters all over the country. In my home state of Wisconsin, the number of hunters practicing quality deer management has skyrocketed. It is very encouraging to see hunters taking the responsibility of managing for the overall health of the deer herd. Ultimately, this responsibility will always lie with hunters like us.
However, many of the hunters with whom I talk are disappointed with the results they're getting from their management programs. These hunters are not tagging the big bucks they were hoping for. In many cases, they're getting frustrated with letting small bucks walk, only to go home empty-handed. Our hunting party went through the same process until we finally took the next step in deer management and found the success we were looking for.
So before you throw in the towel and abandon your management program, I challenge you to rethink the way you manage your herd. Seeing results will require time and possibly a change of attitude. It also requires patience and an open mind.
BEYOND ANTLER RESTRICTIONS
The first step is to look at what your management strategy program considers to be a "shooter buck."
The most common criterion I see hunters use is antler size. Wider than the ears, 8 points or more, and a gross score of 120 inches or more are all common minimum antler size standards used by hunters. The antler restriction method of managing the buck harvest on your property will definitely result in a higher number of bucks, but this method has some shortcomings that could ultimately harm your overall management program.
For one thing, this method often results in younger bucks being shot and it also has an adverse effect on antler genetics. In many places, 8-point yearlings are not at all uncommon, and under an 8-point-and-above program they're fair game. Using antler size alone as a gauge creates the likelihood that the most impressive young bucks could be harvested well before their time, while many older bucks with poorer antler quality are passed up and left to reproduce. Not only does this system remove the bucks with the best chance at becoming trophies, it also affects the genetics being passed onto the herd. Most deer management programs are designed to improve antler genetics within the deer herd, yet the "antler size" system often does the opposite.
I also see many hunting groups culling out the smallest bucks on their property in order to "improve" the antler genetics of the herd. I believe this strategy can be very detrimental to their management efforts. On large tracts of intensively managed property there may be a place for culling some mature bucks that have not displayed the antler characteristics managers are looking for. However, this practice does not work for the average landowner.
Some managers remove spike bucks from the herd because they think these bucks are "genetically inferior." But "inferior" genetics may not be the cause of some bucks having only spikes their first year. For example, fawns born later in the year tend to have lower body weights going into their first winter and are commonly only spikes their first year. These bucks will soon catch up and show their potential in following years. They just need time. Believe me when I say that most of these spikes will become wallhangers if they are given time to reach maturity.
I also strongly believe that most bucks don't show their genetic potential until they are 4 1/2 years old. Two years ago my brother Andy passed up a very poor 2 1/2-year-old buck we named "Pencil Tines" because his antlers were so thin. Andy passed up the buck again when he was 3 1/2. By that time Pencil Tines had grown substantially, but his rack was still below average.
A year later when Pencil Tines was 4 1/2, my brother shot him on the second day of season. Pencil Tines now sported 11 points and had bases that measured over 6 1/2 inches in circumference. So you can see why I believe that culling bucks may result in reducing the number of "shooter" bucks on your property in the future.
In summary, culling is a poor choice for the average property owner because normally there aren't many 4 1/2-year-old or older bucks to cull in the first place and the younger bucks have not yet shown their potential. Don't waste your time trying to cull the younger bucks. Instead, let them go and see what happens.
So what is the next step to take in your deer management efforts? I believe that harvesting bucks solely on their age is the best way hunters can begin to see positive results from their deer management program. The age-selection method gives all young bucks the chance to reach maturity and grow into the large-bodied, large-antlered bucks most hunters are looking for.
The age limit you set for your harvest plan depends on the goals you have as a hunter. I suggest beginning with a realistic age limit suited to the current deer herd and raising that limit as you progress in your management program and begin to see results. Setting the age limit too high initially may cause some hunters to become frustrated with the lack of success. This frustration is one reason why hunters give up on their deer management plans.
Setting age limits doesn't target bucks in any way based on genetics. Another reason I believe this is the best management tool for the herd is that it allows nature to have more control over which genes are passed on from generation to generation. This allows natural selection to have more of an impact on the herd by promoting "survival of the fittest," nature's method of driving a species to continually improve on its survival abilities by allowing the most physically fit members to reproduce.
However, aging a buck on the hoof in a split second before you shoot is easier said than done. It takes practice. Furthermore, in herds that are dominated by 1 1/2- and 2 1/2-year-old bucks, it may be a tough thing to do. As my brothers and I switched over to this system, we spent many hours observing bucks. One huge benefit from this was that we became familiar with individual deer and we were able to recognize them. This allowed us to follow these deer from year to year and see how they changed in appearance with age. Then, by knowing the ages of these bucks, we were able to decide which bucks we wanted to target and
which ones we wanted to pass up before the season began.
As time went on, we became proficient at aging bucks on the hoof, and now we're able to age bucks quickly. Now, when making those split-second decisions while hunting, we're rarely disappointed. Antler size can help give you a quick guess on a buck's age, but the body characteristics are the determining factor. Yearling bucks tend to be thin and look like they have long legs compared to older deer. As a buck ages, he'll fill out considerably. Older bucks develop a swayed back and a drooping belly.
Watching hunting videos and looking at pictures in books and magazines are two of the best ways I know of to get a feel for aging older bucks, especially if you rarely get a chance to see them in the wild. When using this system, you should be proficient at aging deer up to the age limit you've chosen as a minimum as mentioned. For instance, if you plan to shoot only 3 1/2-year-old bucks and older, you should be able to separate bucks into 1 1/2, 2 1/2 and 3 1.2-plus categories. Learning how to accurately age deer using tooth wear or having someone do it for you is a way to help check how well you are aging the bucks you harvest.
WHAT ABOUT DOES?
So far I've only keyed in on management pertaining to bucks. Management of does is equally as important in your program and very important in the health of the deer herd. While most hunters now realize that the harvest of does is an essential part of management in order to keep herds healthy, many still don't follow through with the practice. Overpopulated herds decimate regeneration in forests and eliminate much of the whitetail's favorite foods in their areas. In the North especially, wintering yards can be over-browsed, and this leads to high winterkills during harsh winters. Once the preferred browse species disappear, a deer's health declines drastically since it can't get the nutrition it needs. Overpopulated herds are also much more vulnerable to disease outbreaks. Keeping doe numbers down should be a priority in most deer management programs.
Following the reduction of deer numbers, the increase in quality browse will lead to heavier body weights, higher survival rates and larger antler sizes. If you check the record book, you'll find that most of the largest bucks taken every year aren't taken in areas with high deer numbers. They're taken in states and provinces where lower population levels help bucks reach enormous sizes because the land these deer live on provides more quality forage and less stress on both bucks and does.
YOU'LL SEE MORE BUCKS
Contrary to what many hunters think, reducing doe numbers also leads to more buck sightings during the rut. The fewer does there are in an area, the more the local bucks must travel to find them during the breeding season. This is especially true for mature bucks that have taken on nocturnal tendencies. These bucks rarely move much during daylight if they don't have to.
When I began hunting 11 years ago, our hunting party saw at least three times as many does as bucks while hunting (and very few mature bucks). Soon after, we implemented a plan in which we harvested at least 10 does per year in an effort to reduce deer damage on my father's agricultural fields. Little did we know how much this would increase buck movement.
Our doe numbers were reduced to a level where bucks were forced to search out does more during daylight hours. While we probably had no more bucks than when we began the program, we doubled our sightings of bucks during the season. Now 11 years later, after passing up all bucks under the age of 3 1/2 years old, we now see twice as many bucks as does during the rut.
Last bow season, my brother Matt saw 10 bucks before he saw a single doe, and on opening day of gun season we saw 22 bucks and 11 does on our property. I don't see anything wrong with those numbers. This is really an incredible feat for us since we hunt in an area that has very high hunting pressure and a small number of landowners who practice any kind of deer management.
HOW MANY DOES TO SHOOT?
So how many does should you be harvesting? I don't have an exact answer because every deer herd is different, and different habitats obviously support varying numbers of deer. As a start, I'd recommend making sure that you are harvesting at least as many does as you are bucks. Two does to every buck is a better mark, especially in farm country. This method will help balance the buck-to-doe ratio, but it still doesn't get at the best level of doe harvest.
The best method for most hunters is to keep a journal of deer sightings. Keeping records of the deer you observe will give you a good idea of how many deer you have in the area and if the population is changing. It will also help estimate your buck-to-doe ratio. Journals can be kept while scouting, hunting and shining deer during the off-season (if legal). Observing deer year 'round will give you the best results since deer movement varies from season to season. Trail cameras can also help determine population levels in your hunting area.
Another, more intensive method is to keep track of browse levels on your property. If the preferred and secondary browse species are lacking on the property, that's definitely a sign that the land is carrying more deer than it can support. Simply put, preferred food sources are a deer's favorite browse while secondary browse choices are foods that deer concentrate on if the preferred species are lacking. These plant species vary from area to area.
In our corner of northeast Wisconsin, white cedar, hemlock and oak regeneration is almost non-existent due to the overpopulation of deer. This is an obvious sign that the carrying capacity of the land has been exceeded. In our area, red pine normally isn't browsed a great deal unless sufficient quantities of quality browse are lacking. In the past we had failed red pine plantings due to an incredibly overpopulated herd. Now, however, after several years of management, this secondary browse species is able to survive on our land without being heavily browsed. Indications like this can help you gauge how many does you should be removing in order to prevent over-browsing.
WHICH DOES TO SHOOT?
I recommend setting a goal to shoot adult does. Otherwise, too many buck fawns are harvested by mistake. It's hard to grow big bucks when many of the youngsters are being shot before they even grow their first set of antlers. Buck fawns are normally the boldest deer in the herd, making them the most vulnerable to someone wanting to fill an antlerless tag. It's important to teach the hunters in your group how to identify and pass up buck fawns. I also recommend shooting does whenever the opportunity presents itself -- not just at the end of the season.
Patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to deer hunting and deer management. The improvements in the deer herd are often hard to see, but if you stick to your plan those improvements will occur and you'll see the changes. What's more, knowing that some older bucks are on the property will make it much easier for you to pass up the younger ones.
As mentioned earlier, the process of "taking the next step" will also require a change in attitude. Deer management is a future-oriented process. In order to have more bucks and bigger bucks in the future, you might have to endure several seasons without filling your buck tag. That's because "taking the next step" encompasses a management system that addresses the needs of the deer and not necessarily those of the hunter. But by doing what's best for the deer now, you'll be setting yourself up for rewards in the seasons to come!