Big Bucks on Small Tracts

Follow the advice of the state’s former deer study leader, and you’ll make your small property the one place every buck wants to come to.

Having been involved with deer management work for 30+ years, it is my opinion that hunting white-tailed deer in the South is more challenging than in any other region of the United States.On a national scale, Louisiana is classified as having Coastal Plain deer habitat. The climate is influenced by the Gulf of Mexico, and it is usually warm and humid with winters being somewhat mild.

The growing season for native vegetation is long, ranging from 185 to 300 days in this region compared to other regions such as the northern states that have a growing season of 80 to 135 days. Thus the mild climate in Louisiana produces an abundance of year-round vegetation that deer use for browse and cover. The warm winter keeps the need to feed suppressed and with a winter coat on, deer activity can be slow to non-existent.

Needless to say, it is difficult to pattern deer in an environment such as this.

It is even more difficult to pattern deer and have success on small properties of less than 100 acres. The reason for this is simple: The normal home range of a deer is about one square mile, or 640 acres. A study in Texas found that the home range of adult bucks was 512-683 acres, but the bucks spent 50 percent of their time in a core area of 72-84 acres.

A Minnesota study found the average home range of an adult buck on the study area was 788 acres, and it increased to 1,850 acres during the rut. The home range of yearling bucks was 269 acres, and it increased to 556 acres during the rut.

Preliminary results of the LDWF/LSU study that is being conducted in West Baton Rouge Parish are somewhat different. Home ranges averaged about 400 acres with core areas being about 40 acres for adult bucks. The study area has good year-round food, cover and water, so deer do not have to move far to find the basics for life.

On small properties, the deer population is made up of animals that are constantly coming and going. Consequently, the key for having success on small properties is to make the habitat so attractive, the property becomes part of the core area of several deer. The more deer use the area, the better the success will be during the hunting season. If the habitat on the small property is basically the same as that on adjacent lands, hunting success will be limited.

There are two areas the small landowner can focus on to improve success. These are habitat strategies and hunting strategies.

Habitat strategies

The landowner must have a good understanding of what his land is providing for deer and other wildlife species such as turkey and quail during the entire year. Too often deer hunters and landowners concern themselves only with management work during the hunting season.

Remember, the Texas study found adult bucks had a core area of 72-84 acres. The bucks’ core area was probably used primarily during the spring and summer months.

If a hunter or landowner wants to have success, habitat management must be done throughout the year. If adult bucks utilize the property during the spring and summer, chances are good that during the fall and winter, the bucks will visit the property in search of food, especially between the two peak breeding periods.

Habitat diversity is the key for managing small properties. Maintain hard mast producing trees, provide good availability of preferred browse plants, develop openings for year-round production of native browse and forage plants, include grain-producing crops to attract the other wildlife species and utilize tree and shrub plantings to further increase habitat diversity.

These are work activities that small landowners can become involved with to increase the attractiveness of the land. Micromanage the habitat to maintain its attractiveness for deer and game birds throughout the year.

I manage and hunt primarily on two small properties in East Feliciana Parish. One tract is 60 acres, and management work began on this tract in 1993. The other tract is 25 acres, and was purchased last fall. Habitat work has just begun.

During the 2007/08 deer season, I killed three adult bucks on the 60 acres, and another hunter killed a yearling buck. Generally, the deer harvest averages about five deer. The property is enrolled in the LADT program, and generally two to three does are harvested each year.

The smaller tract was hunted, but no deer were harvested.

The first turkey was killed on the 60-acre tract during the 2008 season, and this achievement is directly related to the habitat work applied to the property to attract turkeys.

Habitat strategies that are being applied to these properties are as follows:

1) Timber Management. Both tracts are primarily a mixed pine/hardwood forest type. The 60-acre tract has a good white oak component that provides a good food source for deer during the fall and winter. White oaks flower and produce acorns in the same growing season.

Other oak trees on this property that provide acorns include water oak, cherry bark oak, southern red oak and post oak. Hickory and beech also occur on the larger tract. Diversity of hardwood species generally ensures some mast production every year.

The pine timber, about 30 acres on the larger tract, needs to be thinned to increase available browse. This property does not have good browse availability.

Logging has occurred on adjacent properties, and deer use on these areas is probably higher, which decreases our chances of seeing deer.

The plantations do provide some thermal cover during winter and summer. On the smaller tract, the pine timber will be thinned and/or clear-cut and replaced with hardwood species or developed into openings. There is a good water oak component that will be enhanced to increase mast availability on this tract.

2) Tree Plantings. In order to improve both hard- and soft-mast production, tree plantings were initiated in 1994 on the 60-acre tract. Sawtooth oaks were planted orchard style in several openings, and these have begun to produce acorns. Sawtooth acorns begin to fall in September, and this aids in drawing deer in prior to the deer season. Deer that are passing through will discover that other food items are available, and hopefully will return.

Soft mast-producing trees were also planted in these openings. Pear trees, crabapples, mayhaws, black cherry and red mulberry trees were planted in groups or in rows. A row of nuttalls oak trees were planted in the low end of one patch that is about ½ acre in size.

Now, nuttalls oak is a bottomland hardwood oak species, and its acorns fall later in the year than that of other oaks. These trees are growing quite well despite being on an upland site, and if they will produce acorns, it will do much to enhance the attractiveness of the property since most of the other acorns from the white oak and water oak trees are usually gone by early January.

The red mulberrys, black cherry trees and the mayhaw trees provide fruit during the spring season, and deer readily eat this soft mast. Deer also like to eat the red mulberry leaves when they drop off the trees in the fall. These leaves are high in calcium. All of these trees had to be caged to keep the deer from over-browsing them. Without the cages, these trees would not have survived the browsing pressure.

3) Shrub Plantings. Hedgerows consisting primarily of native shrubs have been developed in the openings. Common privet, an invasive species that most foresters hate, grows in these hedgerows, and is heavily browsed. A little bit of chainsaw work keeps the shrub from growing out-of-reach, and maintains its availability for deer.

American beauty berry occurs in the hedgerows and produces both browse and fruit. Deer readily eat the purple fruit of this shrub in the fall.

Russian olive has been planted in the hedgerows. This shrub is readily eaten by deer, and also must be maintained with the chainsaw. Vines such as yellow jessamine, honeysuckle and greenbriar grow in the hedgerows along with blackberry. These hedgerows are periodically fertilized whenever planting work is being done, and this enhances the quality of the plants.

A new shrub, Japanese plum, has been added to several of the openings. I soon discovered that deer will absolutely eat these shrubs down to the ground, so these had to be caged also. These small trees produce a plum-like fruit in the spring that I hope deer will eat also. This shrub appears to have good value as a year round browse-shrub if deer use can be managed.

4) Mineral Sites. Three mineral sites are maintained on the 60-acre tract, and a couple will be established this spring on the 25-acre tract. The three mineral stations receive good use, especially by does and fawns.

While mineral supplementation is generally not necessary, it is relative inexpensive to do and will attract deer.

5) Forage Plantings. Rather than planting an entire opening in a forage crop, a strip-planting technique has been incorporated into the management plan to provide maximum attractiveness. In the fall, strips are planted between the summer forage and grain strips and the tree rows.

A mixture of wheat, osceola ladino clover, crimson clover and mustard and turnip greens is the standard seed mix. I have used arrow-leaf clover and winter peas on occasion. The mustard and turnips are mainly for human consumption, but deer will readily eat them; they seem to prefer the turnip leaves. The mustard and turnip green crop in 2007 was excellent, and fed quite a few families in my neighborhood.

Spring and summer planting strips consist of sorghum, peas, millet and, this year, Egyptian wheat was planted. In the past some corn and beans were planted in strips.

Alyce clover strips were also planted this spring. Don Reed with the LSU Extension Service has demonstrated that this forage is readily browsed by deer, and will tolerate heavy browsing.

Some strips are left in native vegetation, and are periodically mowed. Remember that many native plants have good protein levels, and utilization of the native vegetation reduces planting costs. I practice dirty farming, which means I am not concerned if some native plants crop up in the planted strips. The blackberry and French mulberry plants that spring up in the strips are eaten just as well as the planted crop.

The grain crops are left standing during the fall, and will be bush-hogged in January with the idea of attracting turkeys. These strips will then be plowed in February, providing the birds with a scratching area. These plowed strips, along with the winter grass and clover strips, work almost as well as the strips of yellow gold, but they certainly are more legal.

Deer will eat the grain heads in the fall, and appear to like the cover that these strips provide. This micro-management of the forage plantings has really worked to keep deer coming to the property based upon the forage growth inside the wire cages compared to the outside forage that is being eaten up. Deer used these strips heavily from October through March.

The deer will continue to eat the white clover during the summer, and the seed heads from the winter grasses will provide grain for birds. Some strips will be maintained simply through bush-hogging and fallow disking, which helps reduce seed and fertilizer costs.

6) Feeding and Baiting. Most hunters and landowners feed to attract deer, and will generally hunt over the feed during the season (this is legal in Louisiana). Most do it probably because their neighbors are doing it, and so believe they have to do it.

Charles Ruth, the deer biologist in South Carolina, has been looking at the feeding and baiting issue in his state for several years. In South Carolina, it is legal to feed and hunt over the bait in half the state but not in the other half. Ruth has found that the deer kill in the part of the state where baiting is not legal is higher than where it is legal to hunt over bait. The deer in the part of the state where baiting is legal are fatter and in better condition than where baiting is not legal.

Lots of corn piles keep deer fat, but they seem to reduce deer movement and activity, thus reducing hunting success. It makes sense, with so many corn piles everywhere deer can simply feed when they want to and avoid the hunters.

Feeding deer is expensive, but there are several things a landowner can do to cut the cost. When acorns are readily available, forget feeding and hunt the oak trees. Once the mast crop plays out, then feeding may work to attract deer.

Utilize the forage and grain plantings for hunting. Rice bran seems to attract deer in the early season, and does not get eaten up by the non-target critters.

Keep in mind that feeding deer can spread disease and parasites, so just don’t keep piling it up on the ground in the same spot. If you do discover that the mast crop has been used up, feeding may work to attract deer, especially bucks that have been heavily chasing does during the two breeding peaks.

Hunting strategies

1) Harvest Strategy Plan. The landowner should develop a harvest strategy plan based upon the growth and development potential of the deer herd. This can be achieved only by keeping accurate harvest records with age information of the harvested deer.

In the Clinton area, adult bucks generally will score between 110-130 B&C. On occasion, an exceptional buck will score above 130, but this doesn’t happen too often. Pine trees and hay pastures don’t grow the quality deer like those in the Midwest agricultural landscape that we see in all the hunting videos. Keep in mind that a 4-year-old buck that scores 115 B&C is just as smart as a 4-year-old that scores 180 B&C. One should take pride in having harvested a mature buck, no matter what the rack measures.

Knowledge of the hunting activities on adjacent lands is essential for plan development. If young bucks are being passed up on these lands, a strategy that primarily targets adult bucks can be initiated on the property. If the buck hunting pressure is high on these lands, your program is pretty much at the mercy of these other hunters, and success may be limited.

On the 60-acre tract, we basically shoot does, adult bucks that are 3 years or older and yearling bucks with poor body weights and poor antler development (less than 100 pounds and with small spikes, 3 inches or less).

I am a firm believer that on small properties, when you see a deer that meets the harvest criteria, and you want to kill a deer, you better shoot it because the chances are not good you will see it again. You made a decision to hunt on a day when the deer decided to visit the property and, unfortunately, that deer may not cooperate with you and show up on your next hunt.

Last season, I watched an adult buck that weighed at least 175 pounds but had broken antler beams feed for 30 minutes in our turnip patch. One would think that an animal that casually fed around in the patch like it owned it would come back, but the deer was never seen again.

Likewise, the 16-inch inside-spread buck that I popped a cap on one morning was never seen again either.

The two does that I passed up on opening day of the Area 1 muzzleloader season never bothered to show up again, unless they were the two that I saw the last week of the Area 1 muzzleloader season and were too far to shoot.

Maintain accurate records of all harvested deer. It is also useful to maintain a record of deer sightings. These records can aid in determining program success.

2) Hunt Times of Peak Movement. I often hear hunters say they go hunting whenever they can. In my early years, I used to do that. However, because our weather has such a dramatic impact on deer activity, when the weather conditions are wrong, I am probably wasting time, money and gas.

On small properties, the key to success is to have deer active and moving around. Last year, I basically hunted the cold fronts (being retired allows one to be flexible), and I averaged seeing about two deer per hunt, most of which were bucks.

Charles Alsheimer, a field editor for Deer and Deer Hunting magazine, says that weather, deer physiology, deer personality, habitat conditions and human pressure influence deer movement. Concerning weather conditions, he lists temperature and wind as important factors hunters must consider. He writes that the deer research has shown that movement is best when the barometric pressure is between 29.80 and 30.29.

The first buck that I killed during the 2007 season was on Nov. 27. It was a 10-point that weighed 190 pounds. It came out of the woods, and was moving across the turnip patch at 8:45 a.m.

According to the weather conditions posted on the WAFB website, the mercury would be rising on this day. At midnight on the 27th, it was 30.25 and rising. At 6 a.m., the time I got in the deer stand, it was 30.29 and rising. At 8 a.m., it was 30.31 and rising, and at 9 a.m., it was 30.34 and rising.

On another hunt on Dec. 6, I observed four different yearling bucks that morning. These deer were making scrapes and doing a little bit of sparring. The barometric pressure on the 5th was 29.8 and rising.

On Dec. 16, I killed my second buck, a 3-year-old 8-point that was working the scrape line along the edge of the turnip patch at daylight. I was a little late getting to the patch that morning, and when I eased in from the south, the buck had its rack in a yaupon bush. I dropped down, put a cap on the nipple, aimed and fired. The round ball from the .54 caliber Great Plains Rifle found the mark.

The barometric pressure on the 16th went from 30.05 at 4 a.m. to 30.14 at 7 a.m. Also, this was the first peak of scrape activity for our area, thus the reason for the buck working the scrape, so I had several hunting factors in my favor as far as hunting on a day when movement should be good.

I had seen fresh rubs and freshly worked scrapes on Dec. 11 and 13, and knew the first breeding peak was around the corner. I should also mention that these first two bucks were full of white oak and water oak acorns, and both had high kidney fat levels. Bucks will generally feed quite heavily in the early fall, prior to the rut, and will build up their fat levels, which will meet their energy demands when the rut begins. Hunting the mast trees in the early fall would have been a good hunting strategy last year.

While hunting a cold front does not guarantee success, it does improve the odds. Being retired allows freedom to hunt when conditions are right. Living on a retired salary means my gas budget is limited; therefore, I am going to hunt when the odds are most in my favor.

3) Hunt During the Peak of the Rut. There is really no excuse for a hunter not knowing when the peak breeding activity occurs in his area. This information has been gathered by LDWF biologists for many years, and is readily available. Generally, there is a first peak of breeding activity that is preceded by a brief period of intense scrape activity. The first breeding peak is about two weeks in duration followed by a second peak about 28 days later.

Once the first breeding peak has passed, the bucks go back to the scrapes and work them again prior to this second breeding peak.

On New Years morning, I heard a deer chase moving in my direction, and began to prepare for the encounter, but they turned to the north and I watched a racked buck chasing a doe out-of-sight on the adjacent land.

Once the breeding starts, the best tactic is simply to get in the stand and stay put.

My third tag was used on another 3-year-old buck that came out in the turnip patch on Jan. 11 to feed and refuel for the second breeding peak. Heavy rains had crossed the state on the Jan. 9 and 10, and the skies began to clear that Thursday night, so I figured deer would be on the move.

A nice 16-inch buck came into the patch at 7:30, and when my .54 Rolling Block didn’t fire, I was pretty bummed out. However, when a 9-point walked in at 8:40, I had to make a decision regarding the use of my third buck tag.

While this buck wasn’t as nice as the first deer, I adhered to my harvest strategy, and the fact that the Lord was giving me a second blessing, and the Rolling Block fired this time.

This buck had been active in the first breeding peak based upon its body condition. The buck had one white oak acorn and one water oak acorn in its stomach. That would probably be the time when supplemental feeding would pay off since the mast crop was depleted.

The best buck I saw during the season was 10 days later on Jan. 21, the last muzzleloader season in Area 1. This buck was chasing a doe along with two other racked bucks, and was probably the start of the second breeding peak. Because most of the does should be bred during the first peak of breeding, the competition for does among bucks can often make for great deer activity and movement.

While I tagged out on bucks, I was unable to put a tag on a doe. Because of our harvest strategies, does were the prime target when this 60-acre tract was purchased. Small-racked bucks were protected. Over time, does have become wary, and during the season go on the alert mode.

This is happening all across the state under Quality Deer Management programs. Hunters often think the deer population on their land has been reduced and maybe the doe harvest should stop. These hunters are managing by what they don’t see, and this is a mistake.

On this 60-acre tract, if I were to plant a red mulberry or a blackgum tree and not put a cage around it, the deer would eat it to the ground. Despite the lack of doe sightings this past season, there is still plenty of evidence of good deer numbers (something is making all these bucks) so there is no reason to hold off on the doe harvest.

Even on small properties it is important to keep the deer numbers in balance with the available habitat; otherwise, habitat quality will be impacted and will decline.

Dave Moreland
About Dave Moreland 222 Articles
David Moreland is a former wildlife biologist with LDWF, having served as the State Deer Biologist for 13 years and as Chief of the Wildlife Division for three years. He and his wife Prudy live in Baton Rouge and own property in East Feliciana Parish.