Whitetail Management 101 – Part 1
By John Sloan
The first question I ask a prospective landowner or lease manager is what they realistically expect from deer management. About 95% of the time, I then explain why they should not hire me. The reason being, no deer biologist can possibly meet those expectations. Few people understand deer management and the product thereof.
To complicate matters, in most cases, the very worst deer managers are hunters. Ask the average hunter what the buck/doe ratio on their property is and you would not believe the answers. I have had them tell me things like 10 does to one buck! It is hard to make them believe that is almost impossible and more than likely it has never been more than 5:1, does to bucks. If you go by what you see when you are hunting, you are doomed.
The very best results of deer management can only be the best that are possible. Midwest-racked bucks in TN or AL or MS are not possible with the odd exception. It can’t be done regardless of how well they are fed or how old they get. Aint gonna happen. However, you can have the best bucks in your area and that may well be a 120”, ten-point.
For many years I co-managed a vast plantation. After 10-years we had a 1:2.6 buck doe ratio and a terrific age strata well divided among age classes. Never…never did we kill or even see a B&C buck. It simply could not be done. However we were regularly producing the best bucks in that part of the state and to a certain degree, in the entire state. That meant some 150” bucks and now and then 160”.
Our body weights were at the top. Our average weight (field dressed) for a 3.5-yr.old bucks was 145. Our antler measurements were at the top and our total herd population was steady exactly where we wanted it. To accomplish that, we had a reasonable antler restriction of eight points and a 16” inside spread. We had to go with something simple because we had 400-450 hunters every year and most could not age a buck on the hoof to save their lives. A healthy fine was levied on the hunter who made a mistake. We allowed one doe per day and one buck per hunt (5-days). A spike cost the hunter $500 and a button cost $200. A second trophy buck cost $750. Trust me we collected that fee. We killed about 400 does a year and about 200 bucks. Numbers varied depending on weather.
We had supplemental feeding in the form of green fields. We planted over 200 individual fields of varying size and reserved some for the deer only-no shooting. On the rest, we had shooting houses. We also had about 350 stands back in the woods. No house or stand was hunted more than four times a year.
Each deer killed was weighed intact and field dressed. Each deer was aged by examining the teeth. At certain times, we did fetal development studies. We did thermal imaging studies on certain nights. Complete computer records were kept and by a long rifle shot, we had the best, most comprehensive program and records in the state.
But not a single B&C buck was ever killed or seen. Yet, we were delighted with the program because we had the best available.
Almost any size piece of property can be managed for deer as long as the expectations are reasonable. You can manage 100 acres. Will you get larger bucks than your neighbor? Probably not. Will you get a better buck doe ratio than your neighbor? Probably not. What you may get and can expect to get is more deer and better hunting in terms of seeing and killing deer.
By careful habitat manipulation, you can attract deer to your property. By careful hunting, you can keep them there. Unless you have sufficient acreage…contiguous acreage, there is not much you can about antlers or bodies or sex ratios or age strata.
What is sufficient acreage? In my opinion, a minimum of 1,000 acres is required to make a noticeable impact and 2,000 are even better. I prefer tracts of 4,500 and up to really make an impact. Much depends on state regulations, i.e. bag limits and season settings.
Your goals are quite simple. Achieving them is not simple. It is labor intensive and may well be costly. In all cases, the first consideration is ecological. Is what you want to do ecologically sound? Damaging the habitat does not improve the health of the herd. Second consideration, is it biologically sound. A sex ratio of 1:1 is not. Third and should probably be first is, is it economically sound. Can you afford it?
The first chore is to get a census. You need to know how many deer you have in specific areas (don’t worry about this on less than 200 acres.). Don’t ask a hunter. They never come close. Usually that requires quite a bit of work after dark. Cameras are a great help but they can’t do it all and may be misleading. Probably you are going to need some professional help if you are going to do it right.
Next, you need to decide what you want your population to be within healthy parameters. If the entire herd needs to be reduced, your state regs are going to play a big part. If you need to thin the herd and can’t legally kill sufficient does, you can see the problem.
Any idiot can clear and plant a green field or any other type of field. Where to put it and what shape to make it require a little sharper idiot. Round and square fields make me cry. Both idiots need machinery and a rudimentary knowledge of crops. How many acres do you plant ideally? I suggest 15-25% of the total acreage. Got 1,000 acres? Put 150-250 in fields and stagger the crop and the planting time. Your county extension agent can be worth a lot to you. Do I suggest actual feeding as opposed to browsing? Absolutely not! I am 100% opposed to it. I do suggest fertilizing natural browse such as honeysuckle or greenbriar-no trees.
The ideal planting is for a crop to mature about a month before fawning and to stay available through fawning. Then you want a crop to mature for the bucks in velvet as well as the does with fawns. Next you want a crop to mature about the opening of bow season and to stay attractive through the rut. Last but of equal importance is a winter crop. Where viable, I love turnips or forage carrots.
Now you are through with the fields. How about some sanctuary ground-areas that never get hunted and are entered only to recover wounded deer? I like to see three or four such places of about 10-acres each.
In some cases, timbering is recommended. I like a select cut leaving an 18-inch stump and allowing the area to naturally regenerate in hardwood stands. I suggest a clearcut in pine forests and sometimes a controlled burn.
Okay. Enough about foods. That is a book in itself. What do we shoot? What bucks can we kill? That is part two.
All deer were taken in and weighed intact and after field dressing. Carefull records were kept on weights and age and location killed.
One of the many green fields and a good, representative 2.5-year old buck on southern managed ground. The dog was a super blood trailer.
One of the top end bucks for that area. This one aged 5.5 and weighed 185-pounds field dressed, about as good as you could expect. The average weight for a deer that age on that property is 150 pounds.
In a different local with different genetics and soil, this 4.5-year old buck field dressed 265 and had quite a bit of antler.