Featured photo: David Hart
You built some food plots. You even spent a Saturday hinge-cutting trees along the edges of your fields. Heck, you even passed up some young bucks last season. Let ’em go for now.
But that’s not management. Conducting a few random acts of habitat work can help. So can practicing trigger restraint. However, in order to achieve desired results, you need an actual management plan.
The big picture
First, ask yourself a question: What exactly are you hoping to accomplish? That’s a simple question with a simple answer for many of us: the goal is to shoot more big deer. However, there’s a better question, one that management consultant Kent Kammermeyer asks when someone contacts him about his services:
Do you want to kill deer or actually manage deer?
“If you just want to know where to put food plots and tree stands and trail cameras so you can shoot more deer, then you don’t really want to manage your deer and the habitat. That’s not a management plan. That’s a hunting plan,” he says.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to kill more deer. That’s why we hunt. Still, in order to boost your herd by numbers, size or age, more is required.
For Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) certification programs manager Matt Ross, the path to any goal must include four ingredients:
- habitat management
- herd management
- hunter management
- herd monitoring
“You have to have all four legs of the stool in order for any management plan to be successful,” says Ross. “Each one is just as important as the other, but how much effort you put into each of those depends on your goals. If you aren’t too worried about improving the antler size of bucks, then you may not need to spend as much time on the herd monitoring part of it, but they all tie in together.”
Ross also said that a management plan serves as an incentive. “When you write one, make sure to include target dates or seasons for each step so you have a reminder of what needs to be done and when it needs to be done,” he says. “If you don’t, you might put things off and never get around to doing them.”
One step at a time
The first step is to actually set some goals and put them down on paper. It’s OK to jot down a bunch of random, vague ideas. You can fill in the blanks, flesh out the details and organize your plan later.
“The first thing I do after an initial discussion is walk or ride the land with the landowner to get an idea of what we have to work with. I’ll stop at various points to examine the habitat to see what’s there and what isn’t,” says Kammermeyer, who spent 25 years as the chief of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources deer program.
Questions might include:
- Are there any food plots and are they in the right location?
- What kinds of trees are present?
- How old are they?
- What’s the percentage of open land to forested land?
Of course, what you can do is determined by the tools you have. It’s all but impossible to plant a few acres of food plots if you don’t have a tractor capable of pulling the necessary implements like a disk, mower, sprayer and spreader.
Land management resources
A professional consultant with experience in whitetail and habitat management can be a help, too, especially if you have no experience.
If you have the financial means but little knowledge, hire one. A consultant can work up a basic plan and turn you loose to implement it or they can serve as a project
manager of sorts, hiring subcontractors to undertake the various management steps or even doing much of the work themselves.
Related: How to plant fruit trees for deer
If you have little or no experience with land management and even less money, you’ll have to go it alone. The good news is that the internet is overflowing with valuable information. Use it. A number of books, including two by Kammermeyer, are brimming with good information, as well, and books written by deer and habitat experts Dr. Craig Harper and Dr. Karl Miller can help you properly identify plants. Both are available through the QDMA web site.
“One of the first things you should do is learn as much as you can about the plants on your land. If you don’t know the difference between a white oak and white ash, then you won’t be able to manage your land effectively,” notes Kammermeyer.
Ross agrees and says it’s a good idea to carry a couple of field guides whenever you are on your land. Take time to identify three or four trees, plants or shrubs each time you are out and then check to see how important they are as a deer food source. Harper and Miller’s books include that information. You can fine-tune your management efforts once you figure out the good plants and those that provide little benefit to your wildlife.
Land management is a journey
Developing a plan and actually implementing it are two entirely different things. The first part is easy. Actually seeing it through? Unless you have unlimited free time and deep pockets, following through on an in-depth management plan can take years.
“It’s important to understand that,” says Kammermeyer. “I think a lot of people don’t see the results they hoped for after the first year or two, or they actually realize how much work can be required to accomplish the necessary steps, so they give up.”
A good first step is to build some food plots. Kammermeyer says they aren’t just a relatively easy and measureable accomplishment, they can be a good foundation for a habitat management plan. Food plots can also help you manage your deer herd by concentrating the animals in one location so you can practice selective harvest. Be careful, though. A food plot by itself isn’t enough.
“It’s also important to understand the value of native plants. Food plots are just a small fraction of the entire landscape, so the more you can do to improve the rest of the land, the closer you can get to achieving your primary goals,” says Ross.
No matter how quickly you achieve the steps in your plan, the desired results can be years away. Increasing the average age of the bucks on your land can be as simple as not shooting younger ones. In a few years, you’ll probably see some changes. However, improving antler size and overall improvements in the habitat can take much longer. Creating a refuge or bedding area involves cutting mature timber and allowing new trees, vines and shrubs to regenerate. It can take five years before deer start bedding in it, even longer in some regions.
Related: How to burn your land the right way
In other words, be prepared for a long journey that involves a few bumps along the way. Getting to your destination isn’t always easy, but with a good plan it will certainly be easier.
“Craig Harper once said that managing your deer and the habitat is a lifestyle. It’s not something you do one summer or one year and then forget about,” says Ross. “The people that are successful are constantly out there working on some part of their management plan. They love it as much as they love actually hunting deer. Some people might even like all the management work even more than the hunt.”
QDMA’s deer steward courses
Managing your deer and your land can be a daunting task, but the Quality Deer Management Association’s deer steward courses can turn you into a expert at not just writing a management plan, but implementing it, too. The courses are held on location, and include classroom as well as field studies. QDMA offers two levels. They are four days each and are only held a few times each year. If you can’t make the on-site class, the organization also offers an on-line stewardship class. Learn more at www.qdma.com.