It’s Now or Never

Managing deer isn’t simply an August through January proposition. Now is the time to start putting plans into place that will improve the quality of your lease’s hunting during the fall.

A spectral shape darted across the shadowy bottom, disappearing behind a fallen treetop.

Where it had come from, I couldn’t say. It just appeared in the early morning gloom.

Minutes later, the shape flitted across the top, heading in my direction.

Three more shadows ran to the top, following the path of the first ghost.

With the light improving by the minute, shadows turned to solid shapes.

The first deer, a big doe, was feeding beneath the pecan trees in the bottom. But she was working her way toward the tripod in which I was sitting.

Thoughts immediately turned to the tag in my pocket, but I quickly put off that decision when I caught sight of deer No. 2.

Its body size made my head swim with adrenaline, and I forgot the nanny.

My scope snapped to my eye, and I knew I had seen that shape.

Mental images rushed through my head, comparing the live deer walking only 150 yards away to pictures on the deer-aging chart I examined the night before.

The thick, muscular body, slightly swayed back and bulging neck that exploded behind the ears and was the same circumference as the deer’s chest made it clear this buck had been around awhile.

It was at least 4 1/2 years old. I’d bet my wife and two kids on it.

The words of our host, Scott Smith, echoed in my head.

“What we’re trying to do is get people to age deer,” Smith said. “We want to kill mature bucks.”

This bad boy was definitely mature, but I had yet to get a clear look at its head gear.

That was important, since this property was managed with restrictions that would make most hunters scared to death to pull the trigger.

You see, the landoswner mandates that any buck taken with a rifle greenscore 145 Boone & Crockett points.

That’s not a typo. We’re talking bonafide trophies.

Mistakes, of course, can happen, but they are very expensive on this property. Every inch short of the 145 B&C mark tallies up a bill of $50.

It doesn’t take much for an undersized deer to get really, really expensive.

So my safety was firmly set, and my finger was nowhere near the trigger as I scoped the deer.

It finally reared its head, and my adrenaline high dissipated like so much cigar smoke in a stiff breeze.

The right antler was thick and long, but only included four points.

The left side was, at first glance, composed of a single, 10- or 12-inch spike. A few minutes later, I realized that the right main beam was simply malformed, hugging the side of the buck’s face and holding a couple of small points.

Even if the left side had matched the fully formed right antler, however, I don’t think it would have made the cut.

Rats.

Undeterred, I turned my attention to the next deer in line. I had caught a glimpse of antler as it crossed the treetop, but had ignored it in favor of Big Boy.

The deer was easy to find because it was following the same path as the doe and old buck.

Above its head floated one of the prettiest racks I had seen in a long time. It was tall, and its main beams encircled about 17 inches of air.

Unfortunately, it was only an 8-point, and the antlers weren’t particularly massive.

A quick tally came up with a guesstimation of 120 B&C points.

Down the trail my scope went, but the last deer in line was a spike.

After a moment’s regret, I simply switched gears and turned back to the doe.

While I carefully scoped out its head a final time, my heart began pumping loudly again. What can I say? Even shooting a doe still gives me a charge.

The doe, by this time, was only about 50 yards from the stand, and I gently squeezed the trigger as it stepped past a tree.

The doe fell, and then bolted about 30 yards before hitting the ground.

Amazingly, the bucks didn’t run. At least, they didn’t run away.

Instead, they all converged on the fallen doe.

An enthralling show unfolded before me during the next 45 minutes, as old Big Boy circled the now-dead doe and ran away his younger competitors.

The hunt ended when the two young bucks wandered away and, finally, the older buck caught sight of something across the bottom and trotted away to check it out.

That evening, landowner Paul Meng popped a 160-class buck, proving that the land holds some monsters that live up to the intimidating harvest rules.

But it hasn’t always been that way.

The fertile Concordia Parish land until three years ago was divided into two hunting camps, which were leased from International Paper.

Meng purchased the tract, cancelled the leases and went about turning the property into a deer hunter’s dream.

But attaining such incredible hunting required intensive, year-round management.

Smith, who invited me to visit the hunting Shangri-la, is owner of Delta Guides & Outfitters and provides management advice to Meng and other landowners.

He said the first order of business when Meng took ownership of the property was to decide what goals to pursue.

“Paul sat down with us, and we said, ‘What do you want the place to be like?’” Smith said.

His answer — he wanted to grow trophy bucks while maintaining the fun of hunting — determined what the management regimen would be.

This is a decision that each new landowner has to face, but reviewing where a deer herd is heading is something even clubs should do on a periodic basis, Smith said.

Once Meng explained that he wanted to showcase just how good the deer hunting could be, Smith, Mossy Oak BioLogic’s Dr. Grant Woods and the property’s caretaker, Todd Broussard, drew up a plan.

The first inclination of many landowners and clubs is to simply begin putting in food plots, but Smith said its important, before any changes are made, to take inventory of the property.

“The first thing that I like to do is comb the place,” he explained. “I search it out, learn it.

“I want to figure out what’s there.”

This is critical because there’s no one-size-fits-all plan that can be used on all properties.

“There may be a general rule of thumb, but I don’t think there’s a particular rule of thumb,” Smith said. “You’ve got to go in and look at it.”

This means a lot of time in the woods.

“I’m looking at the topography of it. I want to figure out what the water levels are,” Smith said.

When he’s finished, he knows pretty much everything, including what areas are likely to flood and when.

All of this information was added to the plan Smith and Broussard were working on.

But Smith said he’s looking for more than just a lay of the land: He’s also learning the property for two other reasons.

First, he gets a feeling for the availability of natural browse.

That’s because knowing how much natural food is being produced by habitat is vital to the decision on how much supplemental planting is necessary.

The spring, when vegetation awakens from its winter napping, is a great time to catalog the browse situation.

Smith said he doesn’t buy into traditional wisdom dictating that at least 30 percent of the property be planted to have an impact on the deer herd.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily the case,” he explained. “It depends on the food source. It depends on the browse.”

So if a piece of property is overloaded with browse, the amount of supplemental plantings can be lower than 30 percent. Conversely, however, if there is a dearth of natural foods available, the owner might need to pour more money into green patches.

Surveying the property also allows for informed decisions when it comes time to lay out food plots.

For instance, on properties that tend to flood, Smith looks for the highest land possible.

“You’ve got to be able to figure out how many days, on average, are we not going to have that food plot for deer,” Smith said. “You’ve got to strategically place food plots.”

That’s pretty much common sense, but Smith said the inclination to simply pick a spot that would support a food plot for most of the year, open it up and plant a greenpatch should be resisted.

“Don’t go tearing up a big briar thicket to put in a food plot,” he said.

That thicket, he said, provides food during most of the year.

Instead, Smith said he looks for areas that are relatively lacking in natural foods.

“If I found a place were we’ve got no browse, we move in a plot,” he explained.

But there’s also another reason not to plow under thickets.

“You need to know where the deer are bedding,” Smith said. “You don’t want to go overboard.”

While some hunters have favored shapes for food plots, Smith said he doesn’t think that aspect really makes any difference.

“I let the topography tell me how a food plot should be laid out,” he said. “If you’re in a rather damp area, you need to plant on the ridges, which might not be square or regularly shaped.”

He also said that game trails can dictate pinching food plots so that deer feel comfortable when they cross.

“If you know deer are heavily traveling a trail, leave a bottleneck,” Smith said.

The real key is to ensure that the plots are large enough to truly supplement the area’s natural browse.

Smith recognized that many lessees are pretty restricted in their food plot management, since many owners frown upon a club chopping down large swaths of trees to make openings, but he said where possible, green patches should be large enough to provide ample food for the area’s deer.

“If it’s less than an acre, usually it’s not much more than acting as an attractant,” he explained. “You’re not going to hold many deer with food plots less than an acre.”

His food plot of choice would measure as much as 15 acres, but he said he wouldn’t make all of the fields too large.

“I’m not a big fan of having huge food plots,” Smith said.

However, there should be some large openings that provide deer with visibility when they are feeding or socializing.

“I like to see a big field,” he said. “Deer like to go to a field, especially at night. They like to get out in the open and congregate.

“It’s a good staging area.”

Just as important as the size of food plots is the timing of plantings.

While a majority of clubs simply plant fall plots to provide hunting opportunities, Smith said he thinks these hunters are missing the mark.

“Spring planting is most important,” he said. “You’ve got to grow them. You’ve got to give them food.”

And he believes in high-protein vegetation.

Meng’s property is a veritable soybean factory during the summer, with everything that sprouts going to the deer.

“He doesn’t farm any of it; he plants it strictly for the deer,” Smith said.

This isn’t a cheap practice, but Smith said it’s yielded incredible results in a very short amount of time.

Smith recognized that soybeans might not be feasible for many landowners and clubs, but he said the same results can be achieved by planting such protein-rich vegetation as Mossy Oak BioLogic and Imperial Whitetail Clover.

These clover varieties do very well in spring and summer plantings, providing deer with plenty of nutrition throughout the growing season.

One of the problems, however, is that deer will quickly mow down favored agricultural crops once they develop a taste for the succulent vegetation, even if the plantings aren’t soybeans.

“People plant food plots and call all the time, saying, ‘My food plot isn’t growing,’” Smith said. “That’s because the deer are eating it.

“We had to replant several times last year.”

Smith illustrated just how much deer can eat by pointing to small, fenced enclosures in various food plots on Meng’s property.

While the surrounding greenery was about as tall as your average golf-course fairway, the growth inside the exclusion fences was lush.

“That’s what the food plot would look like without deer,” Smith said.

Just as important as maintaining food, however, is properly developing a property’s forest.

This means incorporating timbering practices to maximize cover and browse availability.

The mistake many landowners make is thinking that large, mature stands of oaks and other mast-producing trees translate into large, healthy deer herds that will produce heavy-racked bucks.

“Mast-producing trees are only good for a little while,” Smith pointed out. “If you’ve got woods and no forage, no browse, you’re not going to hold deer.”

Thinning trees is an excellent way to promote browse growth while still maintaining enough mast-producing trees to provide an important food source during the fall and winter, he explained.

“You want to thin the trees just to create cover and let the (remaining) trees mature,” he said.

There are a couple of ways to go about accomplishing a timber management plan.

First, the trees can actually be harvested and sold. This would provide money to pour back into the chosen management plan.

Smith, however, prefers to simply kill trees and allow them to lay where they fall.

“The trees will fall down, and you’ve got tree tops that briars will grow in,” he said.

Poisoning trees is a good way to accomplish this, but Smith said he actually prefers to cut trees down while they’re still alive.

“The tops will bud out, and the deer will actually eat the buds,” he said.

Again, it’s all about maximizing food.

But no matter which way a landowner decides to go — harvest or simply knocking down trees — Smith said it’s best to employ a forestry specialist.

Once food and timber practices are developed to optimize deer production, Smith said it’s time to implement the actual harvest plan.

Again, this is something best done well before hunting season.

Smith said he and Broussard recommended a stepped approach to reaching Meng’s desired trophy plan.

“He wanted to keep it fun. That’s what it’s supposed to be about,” Smith said.

Meng accepted their recommendation, and that first season hunters were limited to shooting “big bucks” with antlers measuring 16-inch inside spread.

That allowed bucks to be harvested, while Smith and Broussard became more familiar with the buck quality on the property.

The next year, the program was stepped up.

“We shot deer with 18-inch inside spread and eight points or less,” Smith said.

That’s right — they didn’t shoot any deer that carried more than eight points or had an inside spread of greater than 18 inches.

“That protects your better genes,” Smith said.

It also allowed the property to be rid of some inferior bucks, such as massive, mature 6-pointers.

However, they also discovered that an 18-inch inside spread rule wasn’t the way to go.

“We found we had a lot of mature deer that would probably never be 18 inches,” Smith explained.

So the plan to maintain a minimum inside spread along with a point system was discarded.

“We reassessed what we were going to shoot and what our mature deer were doing,” he said.

The plan had always been to require the shooting of only mature bucks, but that second season’s experience shortened the transition.

“Ultimately, you want to go to an age-class and scoring program for your deer,” Smith said.

However, he said he never recommends landowners make abrupt moves from shooting young bucks to taking only mature deer.

“Again, hunting is supposed to be fun,” Smith said.

And it’s not going to be fun when buck harvest drops to nothing for a couple of years while bucks age.

A stepped approach, such as the one used on Meng’s property, provides a transition that allows hunters to still kill bucks while providing important information about the deer on the property in question.

“Knowing what you can produce and what you have on the property is the best way to know what to do,” Smith said.

It’s also important that all hunters on a piece of property understand how to age deer.

“Not many people know how to age deer on the hoof,” Smith said. “Most people look at the horns, and it’s the last thing they see.”

Looking at Department of Wildlife & Fisheries data bear this out.

The average age of bucks killed on the state’s wildlife management areas is 1 1/2 years old.

Cooperators in the Deer Management Assistance Program, who generally claim to be pursuing wallhangers, don’t do much better.

The average DMAP buck is only 2.2 years old when it gets whacked.

Sure, some bucks carry beautiful racks at that age, but it’s only when they crest 3 1/2 years old that they begin to truly reflect their potential.

And at age 4 1/2, bucks have pretty much attained all the antler growth they’re capable of.

That’s the deer Meng wants to harvest.

“The goal is to kill 40 150-inch deer,” Smith said.

He said it simply takes time for hunters to learn how to make the correct assessments when watching bucks in the woods.

“It’s a learning curve,” he explained. “Sitting around the camp talking is a great time to educate people.”

Meng incorporated picture charts and booklets that allow hunters to see what they should be looking for.

That’s why I was so sure the buck I watched that December morning was such an old buck.

Such visual aids are available through retailers like Moultrie Feeders, which produces a booklet titled the “Whitetail Aging Book.”

And although Meng wanted to keep hunting fun, he and his advisors also recognized that there had to be a system to encourage hunters to take the time to properly age deer and examine antler size before pulling the trigger.

That’s where the fines come in.

“I think if you’re going to see real management at all, then you’ve got to have fines,” Smith said. “It tells everybody you’re serious.”

Such an understanding is vital to reaching the desired goals of any management plan.

“Every time you screw up, you’re taking away from what everybody else is doing,” he said. “It’s a group effort.

“It teaches you to be more careful.”

Increasing the doe harvest is a great way to provide hunters with outlets for their blood lust.

It also reduces the sex ratio to allow for antler growth and buck movement to be maximized.

Meng’s plan calls for the taking of 190 does from the 6,000-acre tract.

Smith said the results of such a slaughter of does can be amazing.

“Most places, hunters like to see deer. They want to be able to see deer, and if they see 10 does and one buck, they’re happy,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with seeing six does and four bucks in my book.”

But he cautioned that not every deer herd can withstand the kind of doe haul that has been undertaken on Meng’s place.

“You need to bring in an expert, and work with a biologist,” Smith said.

The management on Meng’s property goes so far as maintaining an activity book in addition to the standard kill log.

Hunters mark how many deer and what sex of deer were seen during each of their hunts.

This is all critical information.

“The reason we do that is to see what kind of deer are feeding together. What did they see on south winds? What did they see on a north wind?” Smith said. “And it gives the biologists a better idea of the sex ratio, so he can see a little more of the herd than he sees in the kill book.”

Although many taut the goal of achieving a 1:1 ratio, Smith recognizes that that may not be possible or desirable.

“Most biologists teach you can have 1:1 ratio, or more bucks to does,” he said. “I don’t.

“On some pieces of property, you can carry a 1:1 ratio. On other pieces of property, I would say you can carry a little higher ratio, maybe 2 1/2:1 or 3:1.”

But even with the higher ratio, Smith knows that when a hunter finally gets to kill a buck, he’ll have to make a call to his taxidermist.

“He’s one that somebody’s going to put on their wall, and it’ll last forever,” he said. “It’s not one that’s going to sit in the garage out back.”

Many hunters believe it takes years to reap the benefits from a trophy management program, but Smith said that’s not true.

“It takes one year to make a difference,” he said. “To see a difference in a 1 1/2-year-old deer that’s a forked horn, I’m saying (the next year) you’re seeing an 8-point 1 1/2-year-old deer.”

The results in only three seasons have been astounding on Meng’s property.

“I’ve noticed a 2-inch difference in spread width, and 20 to 30 pounds in weight,” Smith said.

And similar results can be achieved on any property, even if it’s rather small.

“I’ve been places that were 500 acres that were inaccessible, and you could grow some big deer,” Smith said. “If you manage it and give them a good bedroom, big bucks won’t leave.”

However, it’s critical to understand that what works on one piece of property might not be effective on another tract, no matter how large it is.

“Most people say, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ but most people don’t understand that each individual piece of property is different,” Smith said. “It’s easy enough to say it’s like growing cows, but it’s not growing cows.”

The most important thing to keep in mind is that any successful plan will consider all aspects of the deer herd.

“There’s a lot that contributes to producing big bucks,” Smith said. “It’s supplemental feeding. It’s age structure. It’s sex ratio and health.”

Whatever it is, it’s working.

About Andy Crawford 863 Articles
Andy Crawford has spent nearly his entire career writing about and photographing Louisiana’s hunting and fishing community. While he has written for national publications, even spending four years as a senior writer for B.A.S.S., Crawford never strayed far from the pages of Louisiana Sportsman. Learn more about his work at www.AndyCrawford.Photography.