Through outstanding efforts by the Quality Deer Management Association and through word of mouth from successful land managers, planting food plots is one of the hottest topics and fastest growing segments in both the hunting and agricultural industries. Many people have tried to plant food plots or start a management program with limited success. No matter how well you do the job of planting food plots, if you want to see a difference in your hunting you need to practice sound herd management and habitat management in addition to your food plot program.
For there to be a trophy buck, a young buck must be allowed to grow old enough to sport trophy-caliber "head gear." Out of the big three, age, genetics and nutrition, "age" is by far the most important element in the wild. Dead deer don’t grow!
You can take a buck with just average genetics and give him just average nutrition, and, if you let him live past the age of four, he’s going to be what most of us would consider to be a "trophy." You really need good genetics and great nutrition to produce those world-class "monsters," but I’ll "drop the string" on those 130 to 160-inch bucks any time I get the chance, as long as they have reached four or five years old. Heck, if you’ve got a two or three-year-old that is 130 to 160 inches, those are the bucks you most definitely need to let walk because they are going to be your Boone and Crocket entries in a couple years. Restraint is an important part of herd management.
On the properties we manage, we like to stick to harvesting four-year-old bucks or older. In fact, we like them to be five, but sometimes I get an "itchy release finger." Not all the bucks we harvest are going to make Pope & Young (the better majority do), but they are still a challenge to hunt and we consider an adult buck, over the age of four, to be a trophy. Maybe you want to set your sights higher. The point is - you need to set goals/standards and stick to them.
If your property is typical of many throughout the country, you may have an imbalance in your herd by having too many does. If you want to see more, bigger bucks and larger body weights, you may have to thin your doe population out a bit, possibly a lot.
A given piece of land will hold and sustain X amount of deer. Because of the territorial tendencies of whitetail, a large matriarchal society may develop over time. Let’s say a doe has one buck-fawn and one doe-fawn. After the fawns’ entire first year which is spent with the doe, Mother Nature instills an urge in the buck to go seek out a territory a fair distance away from his mother. The doe also helps this by having her own instinct to drive her male offspring away. Studies show they may only move a couple miles, but often they’ll move much further away, sometimes as far as 40 to 50 miles.
They may wander around for some time before selecting a permanent home territory where they will spend the rest of their adult life. Many believe this to be Mother Nature’s way of preventing inbreeding in the herd. The "button bucks" you pass on your property are not the bucks you are shooting four years later. You should hope your neighbors several miles away in every direction are also practicing quality deer management.
On the other hand, the female offspring will usually take up a territory right next to and, most often, intertwined with the doe’s home range. If a number of these does aren’t harvested, over time you get a big doe matriarchal society that just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and those are the animals filling all of those Xs. When a year-old buck disperses from the area where he was born and goes off searching for where he will take root and spend the rest of his life, he could come across your property and may not be able to stay because all of those Xs are filled by that large doe group. To see more and bigger bucks, balancing the ratio is very important.
Make sure things don’t go too far. Since most state wildlife agencies take a knee-jerk reaction to things and because in some areas where they (the government) thought they needed to exterminate wild deer because they found CWD in a captive animal, the problem of "too many does" has turned into "where have all the deer gone?" Hunters who were used to seeing 10 or more animals per hunt are now seeing very few. Through most of the whitetail’s range this is not a problem. However, since some state agencies have taken a hasty reaction to certain management issues like CWD and, as unfortunate as it may be, most state wildlife agency’s policies are determined by politics or emotions rather than the best interests of the animals, there are areas in the country where things have gone too far. I get e-mails and calls from pockets of the country wondering where all of their deer have gone. Do not rely upon state agencies to manage your herd for you, take it upon yourself! If you believe your total deer numbers are too low, then you don’t want an aggressive doe harvest. By the way, in my opinion, Missouri has the best state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in the country. It is set up in their State Constitution that wildlife decisions will not be made by politicians. Also, let me add that I believe most DNR agents do a terrific job with the limited resources they are given. Despite that, it is not their job to micro-manage your property. That job is up to you.
One should strive for a happy-medium. An equalized buck-to-doe ratio and a balanced age structure is what we try to achieve. Through studies of archeological sites and Native American burial spots, it is known a natural balance would be close to 50:50. It is unbelievable how great hunting can be when you come close to this balance. The rut is much more pronounced! Things you’ve only heard about or seen on the Outdoor Channel start to happen. Hunting tactics like calling, rattling, using scent and decoying really start to work like they should.
Knowing your sex ratio and age structure is important so you know how to implement a plan. Maybe you have a low deer density and you want to increase numbers. Maybe you have the typical imbalance in the sex ratio. Finding this out through the use of scouting-camera surveys or extensive observation is very important.
If you feel all you ever see are does in your hunting area, I suggest targeting a few of the older, more dominant does in that herd. You can recognize these deer in several ways. Their bodies are filled out more than younger does, they’ll usually have longer noses and just look older, and you can see they act dominant around the other deer. Also, they will almost always, in areas with at least normal nutrition available, have two or more fawns. Depending on how severe your imbalance is, you may need to go after them with a vengeance and it may take several years to correct.
Besides the "trigger finger management," you also need to back that up with sound habitat management. If you offer more food but don’t have the "housing" and natural browse, your impact will probably not be what you expect. Through planting various plants, trees and shrubs, and through woods work (getting busy with the chainsaw), you can create excellent bedding habitat.
One of the simplest ways to create the edge cover and diversity whitetail will love, is with a chainsaw. You’ve probably heard the old saying, "a chainsaw is a whitetail’s best friend." It is true. Wherever you can allow the sunlight to hit the forest floor you permit increased stem density which equals both more food and cover.
My point to this piece is: even though food plots will be a significant benefit to your hunting area and can dramatically increase your property’s carrying capacity, if you want to see a noticeable difference, you need to back it up with sound herd management and habitat management practices. If you want to be informed about managing your herd, the best book I’ve read on the subject is Deer Management 101 "Manage Your Way To Better Hunting" by Dr. Grant Woods, Bryan Kinkel and Robert Bennett. It gives you well-researched, proven tactics for managing your whitetail herd.
Todd Amenrud is the Director of Public Relations, Territory Manager & Habitat Consultant for BioLogic.