One glance at the March 2016 issue of Louisiana Sportsman easily points out that it is time to fish in the Bayou State.
Never mind that March ushers in the 2016 turkey season, “Fish On” is the cry most often heard.
Never mind that we landowners can now hunt the old, pesky feral hog at night — which can get downright exciting — there are 10-pound bass in the shallow water waiting to be caught.
Now don’t get me wrong: I am a fanatic when it comes to fishing for bass with the Ribbet Frog, but I know if we are going to have any success next fall with the deer the time to start getting things ready is now.
What the 2015 data says
This is the time to look at the harvest data and see if your deer program is producing results. You spend a lot of money on your deer program, but is it working?
Age structure of bucks and does, average live weight for all age classes, antler growth and development, lactation rates for adult does and fawn production are the criteria used to evaluate the physical condition of your deer herd.
If you are not collecting data, then you have no idea what your deer herd is doing.
LDWF biologists can help with data examination and give you an idea of how it compares with other deer populations around the state.
Growth and development varies according to habitat type, and LDWF breaks down the Louisiana harvest data by habitat type. This information is available on their website, and I encourage you to spend time comparing your data with the state data.
It is important that Louisiana deer are compared with Louisiana deer. There are antler growth charts developed from deer herds in the Midwest showing exceptional growth for all age classes, including 1½-year-old bucks. But I suspect most of our 1½-year-old bucks are spikes, whereas in Midwest racks with 6 to 8 points are common for that age class.
It has always been my opinion that body weight is more important that antler growth in the young age classes of bucks. Fawns that weigh 60 to 70 pounds should double their weight during the year, which means these yearling bucks should now weigh 120-140 pounds.
If your 1½-year-old bucks are weighing 100 pounds or less, you have problems.
These problems show up in the older age classes. Three- and 4-year-old bucks weighing 150 pounds or less will not produce much antler mass.
If your program is not producing the results you want, you need to do something different.
If the data dictate you need to harvest more deer, harvest more deer.
Unfortunately most clubs and landowners get cold feet rather easily, and fall way short of harvest goals. This is especially true when deer sightings fall off during the season because of hunting pressure, abundant mast crops (like 2015) and when deer movement is poor due to poor weather conditions.
Because of poor hunting weather and an abundant mast crop, the 2015 harvest was low, and deer will be carried over. While more deer always sounds good, the question is whether or not your habitat support the herd.
We have Area 2 genetics on our small property in East Feliciana Parish, and we saw zero deer after Nov. 20. Some might say we have no deer, but on Feb. 25, the camera that photographed two deer back on Nov. 20 captured six deer feeding in the turkey plot.
So are we out of deer?
2016 deer success begins with the habitat
If your deer growth and development was poor in 2015, don’t expect much change in 2016 unless you have undertaken habitat management initiatives to keep the habitat productive and producing quality forage.
Habitat in Louisiana begins with forest management. A managed forest should produce quality deer forage.
It appears that one of the problems in Louisiana with declining deer herds is declining habitat in our pine forests. Pine-dominated forests treated with herbicides to reduce the hardwood competition is becoming a problem for many deer herds.
I harvested a 1½-year-old deer on pine-forest habitat in East Feliciana Parish this past season that weighed 64 pounds — an extremely poor weight for this age class.
The doe had bred in December during the first breeding cycle, and I can’t imagine that a deer with such low weight is going to produce a fawn with any size, if she could even carry it to term.
This might explain what we are seeing in some parts of the state, where deer numbers are low. Our pine-dominated forests simply cannot maintain the deer numbers hunters expect to see.
A good timber program with regular select cuts, clear-cutting and prescribed burning should produce adequate browse conditions for deer. Bottomland hardwood timber that is managed and has adjacent agriculture lands will be provide deer with a high plane of nutrition.
And good browse conditions are going to be a must for deer herds this year due to the carry-over of surplus deer from the 2015 season. In other words, if your browse availability is low, deer growth and development will be poor for 2016.
Those who planted food plots last fall with clover, chicory and other high-protein forages are ahead in the game. If all you have planted is rye grass, you have done nothing for your deer this spring.
Additional plantings of beans and peas or forages such as joint vetch are certainly worth planting this year and could give your deer the boost they need.
Evaluate your harvest strategies
Box stands, corn feeders and food plots can help with the harvest but in years like 2015 you need to change your strategy.
Deer become educated about box stands, and clubs that are five years old have pretty much educated the adult deer.
Ever wonder why the fawns are always the first ones to come out?
But after they see a few deer hit the ground they, too, become educated and learn how the game is played.
So get out of the box stands and change it up this fall.
Locate the hardwood trees on the land you hunt and keep an eye on them during the spring and summer. If it appears they will have acorns, think about stand placement and travel routes to the stand.
Invest in a couple of ground blinds and be looking at sites around food plots to put them so that when the box stand goes dry you will still be in business.
Throughout the course of the year, I will discuss more of these ideas and strategies for the 2016 season.
My hope is that might make for more success next year.