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Managing for Mass in Ohio

Justin Bair works intensively to manage his Ohio hill-country farm for whitetails. It was the safe haven of the giant he arrowed in 2019.

Managing for Mass in Ohio

Arrowing any deer, let alone a record-book buck, is far from automatic. Even with the right tactics, perfect timing and the best gear in expert hands, humans have a massive capacity for error. Do you have what it takes to connect on a 200-inch buck with a bow? What exactly does it take?

Justin Bair’s moment of truth came on Oct. 5, 2019. Early in his hunt for an Ohio mega-giant, a doe caught a whiff of him and took off. Justin wasn’t hunting a doe that day, but he couldn’t afford to spook deer. One false move and all the hard work and years spent moving chess pieces around the board could be ruined. One mistake and the buck he was chasing might never be seen again.

Due to a fickle, swirling Buckeye hill-country wind, a second doe busted Justin, putting the bowhunter on edge. Had he compromised on his commitment to only hunt perfect wind conditions?

He knew this particular buck’s habits well. Recent evening trail camera pictures indicated the buck used the area. But despite the bowhunter having invested a few sits with a good wind, the deer hadn’t shown up.

Then, as the dull ache of doubt crept in, a tower of chocolate antlers emerged from the fringes of the brush; the big-bodied brute was presenting a broadside opportunity.

Things were unfolding just as Justin had dreamed, but now confusion replaced doubt. Before him stood the deer he knew so well. Yet Justin marveled at the deep-brown appearance of antlers. They had seemed bright white on camera, a difference caused by the infrared flash with the night pictures.

But never mind — it was time. Cue the adrenaline. Drawing his Mathews Halon bow was like opening a curtain, revealing flashbacks of past bad shots. Justin gathered himself and released the arrow.

Once it hit its mark and the fateful moment had passed, Justin texted his 16-year-old son Austin, to tell him he’d just shot “Stickers.” Justin asked Austin to help recover the buck. For most of Austin’s teenage years, father and son had shared many moments discussing Stickers, finding his sheds, scheming and dreaming of how their paths would someday intersect. Austin arrived with the ATV, but forgot the flashlight. “Dad, you’d better not be messing with me,’’ he warned.

Together, they followed the blood. Using only a cell phone flashlight, they picked up the eye shine of a living deer. A blink. The head turned, peering at them through thick cover. Was it a gut shot? Or perhaps it was just some other deer bedded down. It was impossible to tell in the dim phone light.

A moment of panic washed over Justin. He worried they were about to bump the deer and be forced to watch in horror as their dream disappeared into the darkness forever. They needed to back out.

Justin lowered the phone to retreat, illuminating the ground before him. But on the trail out he saw a second deer, this one lying motionless a few steps in front of him. Instantly all worries were abandoned. It was Stickers!

After preliminary scoring, Stickers tallied an impressive gross score of 206 5/8 non-typical. Atop massive, wrist-thick main beams, sharp points violently explode from the G-2 and G-3 tines, looking like spiked battle clubs from the Middle Ages. It’s this vicious appearance that earned the special buck his name, which seems a little tame for a rack that could give children nightmares.


Countless turns in the road can keep a buck from reaching maturity and achieving maximum antler growth. Hunting pressure tops the list, and it’s the predominant factor Justin tries to limit. This bruiser was his reward for achieving that goal. (Photo courtesy of Justin Bair)

Old trail cam photos reveal the Bair family’s history with Stickers dates back to ’16. That’s when the deer was 2 1/2 years old and not on their radar — yet. But by ’17, Justin was completely hooked. At 3 1/2, Stickers’ impressive rack dwarfed his developing body. From photos, Justin guessed the buck could score as high as 180. However, after finding and measuring both sets of Stickers’ sheds, he adjusted that down to 160.

Stickers became a regular topic of conversation at the Bair house from that point forward. Hardly a day passed without someone mentioning him by name.

The buck returned in ’18, sporting a maturing body more proportionate to his massive headgear. Again the family found and measured both sheds, which tallied closer to 185.

At the time, people thought Justin was crazy for having given the deer a pass at 4 1/2. But he’d spared Stickers from the hit list. Regardless of the size of their racks, all resident bucks on this land get a reprieve until they’re 5 1/2 years old. The decision to make Stickers off-limits did give Justin anxiety, though. There was a possibility another local hunter might shoot the deer — or worse, he might fall at the hands of a poacher.

Justin’s like a lot of other hunters, in that his dad got him into hunting, but since then he’s largely been self-taught. Through trial and error, he matured from an eager shooter intent on filling tags and freezers to a more selective, well-rounded sportsman. Getting to that point in the cycle took discipline and experience.

Early on, Justin realized he enjoyed connecting others with outdoor experiences, and he ended up building his life around it. In fact, in addition to managing his Ohio property, Justin splits time as a fishing outfitter. He and his wife, Kimberly, operate Ray’s Camps, an incredibly remote, off-grid fishing camp. It’s the only lodge located on stunning 10,000-acre Ramsey Lake in Ontario, Canada.

What does it take to grow a 200-class deer? Justin modestly acknowledges he’s lucky to manage and hunt sizable acreage of private whitetail splendor. But don’t be fooled; there’s more to the “convenience” of living on his Ohio hunting land. Running his business forces Justin to fit a year’s worth of deer management into the fishing camp’s off-season. He cites patience, determination, and intimate property knowledge as cornerstones of his hunting success. Although he knows every land feature and how deer use it, there still seems to be something else.

“Obsession” is a word that comes to mind. Through an odyssey spanning several years, this buck consumed Justin. But this intense deer interest has always gripped him, even in his school-sports days. While teammates clowned around on bus rides to games, Justin would spot deer out the window for practice.

Signs of hunting surround his life: hunting gear can be found lying on his porch, in his truck, in the corner of the foyer. The Bair home looks like a natural history museum. A strutting gobbler vies for attention amidst several impressive bucks. Shed antlers cover an entire wall. It’s all proof of a year-round fixation.

Justin’s also been improving his hunting property for years. Before the Internet made information so readily accessible, he was an inexperienced kid relying on his instincts to create better hunting. He soaked up everything possible about it.

Long before it was fashionable, Justin experimented with hinge-cutting trees, putting out apple pressings from a local processing facility and providing wildlife with food plot plantings, including sugar beets.

An exclusive (and super lucky) group hunts deer on this property. But Justin controls everything about the hunting, right down to the finest detail — including whether or not a hunter gets to use a flashlight.

Every year, Justin selects a target buck to pursue. But during the rut, he’ll sit mornings to hunt what he calls “dividend” bucks, which are an accrued benefit from his habitat investment. These visiting bucks aren’t part of his land’s resident herd throughout the year, but they do come through in search of does. Justin never hunts mornings for a target buck with a pattern conducive to a stand site that provides better access in the afternoon.

Although Justin wears a scent-containment suit, hunting the wind is his priority. He stresses the importance of understanding how terrain affects wind direction and thermal currents. He tries to hunt only when the wind is perfect. As a result, depending on the weather, he might hunt only 15 days or so per season. However, he’ll hunt his target buck every time conditions are right.

Justin’s calculated approach to management features the science-based fundamentals typical of many other intensive management programs, such as food plots and supplemental feeding. Years of stewardship have produced habitat rich in food and cover. As a result, he now can afford to take his management practices to another level.

Justin’s philosophy centers on providing whitetails with a low-pressure, safe space that promotes longevity and yet optimizes hunt timing. He strives to keep deer alive long enough to reach maturity. He attributes much of that plan’s success to developing good bedding areas on the property, though it also attracts deer bedding on neighboring tracts.

Like many other land managers, Justin uses supplemental feeding, but with a unique spin — or more appropriately, a lack of spin. He uses corn as an attractant to keep deer on his property but favors gravity-fed designs that allow deer to freely feed, instead of traditional spin-cast feeders that limit output.

Justin reasons that bucks need to be able to feed freely in order to develop a strong routine that’s easier to pattern. For this bowhunter, it’s not about shooting deer over bait, and the nutritional impact is merely a side benefit. The main purpose is providing safe asylum to help bucks reach physical maturity.

Details of a buck’s routine allow Justin to make management decisions based on that animal’s habits. Big bucks are difficult to intercept during daylight. While knowing a buck’s pattern can get hunters to the right place at the right time, Justin uses it to get deer to the right place at the right time.

Remember the part about controlling every detail? When Justin saw 3 1/2-year-old Stickers, the hunter was spellbound and made the buck his special project. Neither roamer nor fighter, Stickers was a homebody that kept to himself. In fact, an older and smaller buck called “The Back 80 Eight” suppressed him through intimidation. (The Back 80 Eight, now estimated to be 170-180 at 8 1/2 years old, remains on the hit list.)

Because of Stickers’ potential and personality, Justin sensed an opportunity — if he could keep him alive. Knowing preferred bedding sites, the hunter pinpointed areas Stickers used and provided safe routes to destinations by cutting trails in the thick cover.

To get Stickers to stand locations quicker and earlier, improving the odds of a daytime encounter, Justin made trails wide enough to accommodate the behemoth’s massive antlers and removed obstacles and overhead branches that otherwise might have slowed his approach as he tediously serviced every scrape and licking branch along the way.

In contrast, if a big buck beds on Justin’s property but feeds on the neighbor’s place, why not try to slow him down? Justin then cuts trails with some trash and overhead branches to work through, encouraging the buck to reach the property edge after dark.

It was a Bair family celebration when Stickers hit the dirt at age 5 1/2. The years of hard work managing this Ohio property, plus countless hours of preparations to kill the deer, were reason for all to be excited. (Photos courtesy of Justin Bair)

Deer are sensitive to human pressure; we know that. Justin minimizes negative interactions with the herd. However, instead of staying out of Stickers’ way, he stuck to his management principles, continuing his typical chores and activities. Removing human presence would magnify the perceived intensity of future disturbances, possibly during hunting season.

Years of habitat improvements developed the optimal whitetail landscape that produced Stickers. But that’s far from the whole story. The importance of hunter management in a serious whitetail program is easy to overlook. Before becoming a world-class deer, Stickers was a forgettable 2 1/2-year-old. Justin’s protection, restraint and judicious management decisions allowed nature to do what it does best: amaze us.

Is arrowing a 200-class buck the apex of the hunter’s journey, signaling that there’s little left to accomplish? Not for Justin Bair. Far from it. Excited about what’s next, he plans to continue sharing his knowledge and helping others optimize their own hunting.

As for his own property, having the big one on the wall is just a security blanket. This makes it easier for him to stick to his management principles and pass up other great deer that haven’t yet maxed out.

If Justin’s plans to hold deer on his turf work out, he won’t have to worry much about neighbors shooting the 4 1/2-year-olds living on his place. He can confidently keep those up-and-comers off the hit list to give them an extra year or two to express their full potential. So who knows? Maybe Stickers won’t be his last 200.

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