Don’t believe everything you hear about improving your whitetail herd.
Deer hunters have become an educated group. Thanks largely to an insatiable appetite for knowledge about our favorite game animal, we know more about whitetail biology, behavior and management than any other generation.
While many of the myths and misconceptions have been laid to rest through sound science and poignant observation, plenty still live on. Still others have surfaced as a result of our desire to grow bigger, better deer. Here’s a look at eight common myths we could do without.
YOU CAN’T SHOOT TOO MANY DOES
Deer hunters have come full circle in the last 20 years. What was once considered a reprehensible act by selfish hunters is now seen as a necessary and vital way to manage for a healthy deer herd. Hunters willingly fill their doe tags and even buy extras when they are available. Shooting does is an important part of any deer management plan, but can you go overboard? Absolutely, says Quality Deer Management Association executive director Brian Murphy.
“I was called in on a property where the deer population was knocked way down by the club that previously leased it. The deer herd was basically decimated,” recalled Murphy.
Only after three years of buck-only harvest and habitat manipulation did the deer population start to creep upward. The hard part, of course, is knowing when to shoot does and when not to. Murphy says it’s a good idea to bring in a state wildlife biologist or a professional consultant to help decide exactly how many does to remove from your herd.
SHOOTING SPIKES IS GOOD
Should you take a spike out of the gene pool? Will a spike remain an inferior buck throughout its adult life?
Several recent studies followed free-ranging bucks from birth through adulthood and found that generally, those bucks that start as spikes don’t produce antlers as big as those that started as forkhorns or 6-pointers. Other studies of captive deer found a significant difference in antler size.
But what defines “inferior?” One Texas study determined there was just a small difference in total antler measurement between free-ranging yearlings that started as spikes and those that had multiple points.
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries deer project coordinator Matt Knox says spikes can grow into tremendous bucks if they are allowed to reach their full potential.
“There’s no question that in a controlled environment, yearlings with multiple points will produce bigger antlers, but there are far too many variables in free-ranging deer to manipulate antler size through selective harvest of spikes,” says Knox. “You’re better off letting them live to see what they can turn into.”
SHOOTING SPIKES IS BAD
So then shooting a spike is bad, right? Not necessarily. A number of studies have examined yearling buck behavior and found that up to 80 percent of them leave their maternal home range in the early fall. Their mothers kick them out and force them to leave their birth area and establish their own home range. So the spike you pass up today will quite possibly be miles away tomorrow.
A Pennsylvania study found that yearling bucks can travel up to 20 miles before settling down, although most moved just a few miles. So why not shoot a spike or small 4-pointer? If you don’t, there’s a good chance someone else will. Of course, later in the fall, that spike on your land has already migrated and will likely be there next season if you don’t shoot him.
Murphy notes that the desire to protect every buck until it reaches a “desirable” age or size can have another detrimental effect: It can create friction among club members or even turn kids off hunting.
QDM IS ALL ABOUT BIG ANTLERS
When the QDM craze swept through the deer hunting community a decade ago, many hunters became fixated on bigger bucks. Big bucks are a byproduct of QDM, not the primary purpose, says Murphy.
“If you follow the basic principles of quality deer management, you stand a very good chance of increasing the overall quality of your bucks, but that’s because you are also improving the habitat, the overall herd and you are managing the hunters who harvest those deer,” he says. “You can’t produce big bucks without following all the necessary steps for quality deer management.”
Genetics do matter, of course. They play a role in body and antler size in regions throughout the country. That’s why Florida and many other southern states fail to produce more than a handful of record-book bucks while Iowa, Illinois and Ohio are big buck factories. Look at the freaks bred and raised in captive deer farms. They are nothing more than the product of careful genetic selection and breeding.
However, any hunter who thinks he can manipulate his deer herd and produce bigger, better bucks through selective harvest is mistaken, says Randy DeYoung, a deer biologist with Texas A&M’s Caesar Kleburg Research Center.
DeYoung says up to 30 percent of yearling and 2 1/2-year-old bucks will breed with does, and a small percentage of trophy-class bucks won’t breed at all.
Studies have shown that even on extremely large properties, it’s all but impossible manipulate genetics because yearling bucks will disperse and usually end up on a neighbor’s property, and bucks on neighboring properties will end up on your land. There are simply too many variables involved to try to manage the genetics of your deer herd.
“The most important thing any hunter can do to increase the average size of the antlers in his deer herd is to practice what we call trigger management,” says Murphy. “Instead of shooting what you might think are inferior bucks, take only those that meet your criteria for a harvestable buck, whether it has to do with antler size, age or some other standard that is part of your overall management plan.”
YOU NEED 1,000 ACRES
It can take a lot of land to meet a management objective, particularly if that objective includes producing high numbers of quality bucks. However, you don’t have to be a land baron to improve your deer herd. Murphy says the best way to meet your management objective if you only have a small parcel is to convince your neighbors to form a cooperative. By working together, you can improve the habitat and the herd.
If your neighbors don’t want to join you, that doesn’t mean you should give up and kill every buck that walks by your stand. You can still increase the number of quality bucks by using selective harvest.
Instead of shooting a small buck because “someone else probably will,” pass him up. He just might make it through the season. You might only see one or two additional trophy-class bucks as a result of selective harvest and habitat improvements, but it’s better than where you were.
A BALANCED HERD IS BEST
Who doesn’t want to see as many bucks as does, or even more bucks, when they sit in a treestand? From a hunter’s perspective, a 1:1 ratio of bucks and does is a well-balanced herd, but from a biological perspective, it really doesn’t matter, says Virginia’s Matt Knox.
“The buck-doe ratio doesn’t make a bit of difference to the habitat. They all eat,” he says. “And contrary to popular belief, all the does will get bred, even if there is a very high doe-to-buck ratio, so the definition of a balanced herd is open to a variety of arguments.”
Reaching that ideal buck/doe ratio is a difficult task, says Knox. That’s not to say it can’t be done, even on free-ranging deer herds.
Some Texas ranches actually have more bucks than does, but that’s only because they use intensive management practices. They also have vast amounts of acreage, so many bucks never leave the property boundaries. Knox hunts a farm in Virginia with more bucks than does, and he and fellow hunters follow a strict policy of taking lots of antlerless deer and very few bucks.
“We kill about 30 does per year and we’ve taken a total of three antlered deer in three years,” he says.
IT’S TOO COMPLICATED
With so many dos and don’ts, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with what’s right and wrong when it comes to managing for a quality deer herd. It’s enough to make some hunters throw their hands up in frustration and go back to randomly harvesting deer.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Some hunters simply enjoy sitting in the woods and occasionally pulling the trigger. For others, the thrill of the hunt includes a number of management activities that don’t include harvesting a deer.
Managing deer can be hard work, but it’s really not that difficult, at least not if you enjoy that sort of thing. Just don’t believe everything you hear. If you do become overwhelmed by the myths, facts and opinions, just remember, it’s only deer hunting.
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This article was published in the August 2010 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.