Part 1: Age.
I received a very good question on my Facebook page. Dan Dealy asked “Dr. Woods, what are your TOP TEN recommendations for managing land (and wildlife) to yield mature, huntable deer?”
One of the keys to Dan’s question was the second to last word –“huntable.” Most managers and hunters consider food, cover, and water, but they don’t consider how to make a property “huntable” or hunter friendly for mature bucks.
For a property to be huntable for mature bucks – for a hunter to have better than average odds of harvesting a mature buck – there are several factors that must be considered. To discuss all of these in detail would require a book (like Deer Management 101). I will share some thoughts about my top ten recommendations to produce a huntable population of mature bucks. I apply these strategies and techniques to my property and have applied them to those of my clients for 20+ years. They are not deep secrets or magic recipes. They are proven and practical.
Having realistic expectations is the first step to satisfaction. It is important to understand that having huntable mature bucks doesn’t mean there will be Boone and Crocket class bucks behind every tree. A buck is mature to me when they are 4 years old or older. This is when bucks grow the largest antlers because most of their skeletal development is complete and they can use most of their excess resources to produce the biggest antlers of their genetic potential. Few free-ranging bucks express their genetic potential. In my opinion, many hunters, writers, etc., waste way too much time talking about whitetail genetics.
First, it’s very difficult to alter the gene pool of a free-ranging herd of whitetails. Second, there is probably nothing wrong with the genetics, but ample room for improvement of the habitat and herd structure.
With that said, my number one factor to improve the yield of huntable mature bucks is to have more mature bucks. To get more mature bucks, immature bucks must be passed and allowed to grow. Rule #1 the in Woods’ Book of Deer Management is that “Dead Deer Don’t Grow.” It sounds simple, but some hunters still don’t understand. They harvest a good looking two year old buck and then complain that they never harvest a “monster buck.” They’ve probably harvested several monster bucks – they just shot them before they matured and were allowed to express their genetic potential to produce large antlers! Bucks typically produce larger antlers as they age. University research shows that two and three year old bucks produce on average about 50 and 75% of their antler growth potential. It’s not until bucks mature to four years old that they express, on average, about 94% of their antler growth potential. To have an opportunity to harvest mature bucks, you must hunt where bucks are allowed to mature. That’s #1 in my top 10 recommendations for managing land to produce huntable mature bucks. The more bucks that are allowed to live to 4+ years of age, the easier it will be to harvest a mature buck. I’d much rather hunt a property that has three mature bucks per square mile than one or no mature bucks per square mile.
The least expensive form of deer management is trigger finger management. It simply costs less to pass immature bucks than any other form of management for establishing a hunter friendly population of mature bucks.
During 2012 – if you want to tag a mature buck, be prepared to pass immature bucks. Yes, others in your area may kill immature bucks. However, the trend must start somewhere and it is most likely to start with you. Share the education with other hunters in your area. You don’t have to convince all of them, but you won’t convince any of them when gathered around an immature buck you just harvested.