Don't Quit on Quality Deer Management, It WILL Increase Antler Size

Quality deer management will increase antler size, but too often hunters don't buy into the recommendations because the results aren't there. Why?
Don't Quit on Quality Deer Management, It WILL Increase Antler Size

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard hunters tell me they want older, age-classed bucks on their hunting properties, but neglect to use quality deer management (QDM) rules because they haven’t seen an increase in antler size of bucks harvested. Invariably, after thorough discussion, I discovered that several significant management practices were not followed.

Don't Fail to Enforce Antler Restrictions

One prime example in their failure to see an increase in numbers of older bucks is a lack of enforcement of antler restrictions. Regardless of whether their antler rule was points on a side, or antler spread, the rule was not always enforced. Here’s one recent example:

increase antler size

Photo: John Hafner

A hunting club had a four-points-on-one-side rule to lower the yearling buck kill. The club was small, but they had a large acreage to hunt. Yet, of five bucks harvested in the past season, only two met their minimum antler standards. Previous years had similar results. If your goal is to improve the quality of deer in your hunting area, ignoring basic Quality Deer Management rules won’t get it done. One year, maybe. But year after year, if you don’t enforce your antler restrictions, and keep shooting yearlings, you kill (literally) your chances of increasing the age structure of bucks.

Don't Ignore Doe Harvests

Another common mistake made by hunters is ignoring doe harvests. In most hunting clubs there will be some hunters who feel there aren’t enough does, so they refuse to harvest any. Sure, there may be areas that don’t have enough does, but on most hunting properties, there are too many does.

Other Factors That Influence Quality Deer Management and Antler Size

Many factors will influence QDM on your land. Size of the area, quality of the habitat and hunter density and harvest are just a few. However, in general, if you follow certain well-established rules, positive results are often attainable. There are many case studies that back this up.

Case Study #1

At the February 2018 meeting of the Southeast Deer Study Group in Nashville Tennessee, James GeFellers presented a paper on 15 years of QDM on the Ames Plantation Hunting Club in Grand Junction, Tennessee. This 18,500-acre area is managed for crops and timber, but is also leased to hunters.

If you’re trying to determine whether QDM improves antlers and the health of a deer herd, you need before and after implementation data. In this case, the hunting club collected two years of pre-QDM data and found that 90 percent of all bucks harvested were either yearlings or 2.5-year-old bucks. The club then implemented antler restrictions in a conservative, but often helpful, way. They probably had members who were against restricting the bucks they could harvest (normal on many properties and leases), so they eased into it. The first two years hunters could only shoot bucks that scored 110-inches or more, or was at least five years old. Then for four years harvested bucks had to score at least 120-inches or be four years old. As hunters experienced success, they were then ready for the final phase where they had to harvest bucks that scored 125-inches or more or be at least four years old.

They also set yearly doe harvest quotas to keep the herd at a healthy density. Additionally, they placed restrictions on ATV use in the area. Before looking at the results let me just say, what occurred at Ames Plantation shows what can happen when you follow QDM rules.

During the first two years, the yearling and 2.5-year-old buck harvest dropped from 90 percent to 55 percent. During the next four years, it dropped to 28 percent and in the last seven years with a 125-inch minimum or a four-year age minimum, it decreased to 23 percent.

Remember, when they started, the yearling and 2.5-year-old harvest was 90 percent of the total buck harvest. Only 10 percent of bucks killed were 3.5 years or older. By the end of the evaluation period, 77 percent of the bucks harvested were 3.5 years of age or older. That’s incredible, and of course, the hunters were happy campers.

Not only were they taking lots of older bucks, but the hours hunted per mature buck harvest (3.5+) decreased by 45 percent. Many more older bucks running around so it took the hunter less time to harvest one. Hunters were also seeing lots more bucks of all ages as buck observations per hour increased 84 percent. Again, all this makes for happy hunters.

Case Study #2

How about another example? In 1998, the game agency in Tennessee imposed a four-points-to-a-side on the 79,000-acre Catoosa Wildlife Management Area. At that time, the yearling harvest averaged around 72 percent, the 2.5-year-old buck harvest was 23 percent, and the 3.5+ buck harvest was 5 percent. In 2002, five years after implementation of the four-point rule, the percent of yearling bucks in the harvest was 20 percent. The 2.5 year buck harvest was 57 percent and the 3.5+ harvest was 23 percent. Not only did the harvest of older bucks increase by 52 percent, the total buck harvest increased over those years as well. The outcome: more and bigger bucks were harvested. All accomplished on public land.

There are many examples of QDM success. These successes have been proven, at the state level, and on small-acreage properties. Still, when trying to implement QDM, some questions arise.

Why Your Herd's Sex Ratio Is Important

One aspect of your effort to get a more balanced buck age structure (i.e., more older bucks) in your herd is sex ratio. What is the best adult buck to adult doe sex ratio that will give you optimum habitat with minimum over browsing, and still maintain the deer population you desire? There are several factors to consider. First, most hunters over estimate the number of adult does they have and underestimate the number of bucks on their hunting lands. You hear hunters saying there are eight or 10 adult does for every buck on their property. Probably not true. Research shows that it is unusual to have a ratio of more than 6 to 1.

Another factor is the concern that too many does will be harvested. This can happen, but remember, you only need enough adult does to replace the adult bucks you harvest. In most cases, this means you probably have too many does on your land. For the amount of food available, you could probably replace those does with bucks. Okay, but what sex ratio is best? One-to-one is great, but two-to-one or three-to-one is a good target to aim for. Harvest a doe, and pass on that yearling buck, and you’ll be on your way to getting a biologically-sound buck to doe ratio.

Quality Deer Management Is Not Trophy Management

Remember, QDM is not trophy management. When you harvest more does, you are keeping your habitat in better shape. Better habitat means healthier deer. It also improves the quality of the hunter. You aren’t out there blazing away at any deer that walks by. Rather, you’re assessing your herd, assessing your habitat, and selectively harvesting the appropriate deer. You are becoming the “biologist” on your land.

On the other hand, trophy hunting usually doesn’t involve much thought about herd management, sex ratios or habitat quality. Sure, you are seeing and shooting bigger bucks, but to call that QDM is a huge disservice to anyone following the rules.

Can QDM work on public land?

You bet, and the above Tennessee illustration proves that. In fact, antler restrictions are being used successfully within entire states. If the majority of hunters obey the antler restriction rules, you will see more mature bucks. Look at Pennsylvania as an example of what antler restrictions can do to buck age structure. Hunters there are shooting bucks that they thought were impossible to grow. To be sure, relative to deer management in Pennsylvania, times (and rules) have changed.

How do I get a QDM program started when I only have 50 acres?

The best answer is to work with neighbors and convince them to join in. Even if you just get one neighbor to buy into the idea, after a few years you both will be killing bigger bucks. Hopefully, your other neighbors will take notice and decide to join the program.

Even if all neighbors don’t join, you can have success through habitat management. Plant some food plots and create large sanctuaries near the center of your property. The food brings them in, and the sanctuaries hold them. Then practice low-pressure hunting combined with limiting four-wheeler use (and noise) excessively foot-travel through the property. Finally, limit hunting to treestands and ground blinds only.

Lastly, Keep Records

One last factor. Keep records. Weigh and age every deer shot. Save those jawbones and age the deer. One good way is to pull a tooth and send it to an aging laboratory. You can find Internet sites that will age your deer from a provided tooth.

The truth is that QDM does work and the results are a healthier deer herd, a herd with balanced sex ratios and balanced age structures. All true, but only if you play by the rules.


Featured photo: John Hafner


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