Category Archives: Deer Management

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Antler Restrictions: Fact and Fiction- Part 2

 This is a continuation of the APR blog series.  Read Part 1 of this blog series on the APR discussion where we discuss arguments against APR.

Pro-APR Argument #1: Herd sex ratios are dangerously out-of-balance

So far, if you’ve taken the time to read Part 1, you may think that this blog series is an attempt to disassemble the arguments against APR. But, there are plenty of fallacies those of us who would cast a “yes” vote for APR too often lean upon when presenting a pro-APR argument. Let’s start where we left off in Part 1. I’ve heard people talk about out-of-whack buck to doe ratios as evidence of the necessity of APRs. So often they cite observed ratios of twenty or more does to one buck. A lot of times, when you dive into the conversation, you find these ratios are based on individual observation while afield, and that they are counting every bald deer they see, not just the sexually mature adult does. There are a lot of button bucks getting counted as does in these ratio discussions, and no room is left for the reclusive nature of bucks, especially mature ones. In nature, it is incredibly difficult for herds to get much outside of a 1:5 buck to doe ratio. If a herd was truly at the point of having one buck to five or more does, it would likely be evidence of other problems. Likely some factors in the area are leading to poor fawn recruitment. It could be a result of high fawn predation, which itself could be a result of over population and over browsing of fawning cover. Over population could also adversely affect winter food sources and cause does to enter the spring and summer fawning season in sub-par health. A biologist would likely have other ideas on possible diagnosis, but a healthy herd which is recruiting nearly one fawn to every adult doe, will rarely experience herd ratios much worse than 1:3.

Pro-APR Argument #2: Unbalanced sex ratios, and high buck exploitation, create a biological problem for the deer herd

Think about it this way: a local herd consisting of 2 adult bucks and 6 adult does, which is recruiting fawns at a rate of one fawn per adult doe, will statistically have 3 doe fawns and 3 button bucks in the herd. If both adult bucks are killed in hunting season and no antlerless deer are taken, the following year the three button bucks will be yearlings ready to breed, as will the doe fawns. There are now 3 adult bucks and 9 adult does. The herd size has increased, but the sex ratio has remained the same. Obviously this is a simplified illustration, but it shows how nature is able to keep herself in check and how whitetail Deer can survive and populations grow and thrive even with high buck exploitation rates. It is easy to see how low fawn recruitment is a very concerning factor if you are at all conscious of buck to doe ratios and at all worried about buck harvest opportunities! Shutting down doe season, as my family member suggested, would quickly risk over population in many areas and lead to habitat loss. As mentioned, the relationship of habitat loss to falling fawn recruitment rates leads to adverse buck to doe ratios and actually provides credence to the pro- APR argument. Additionally, shutting down antlerless seasons, in the vast majority of areas in PA, is not sound management and it’s likely that it will never happen, so it’s not even a principle or argument that is conducive to productive conversation. Metro areas with no hunting eventually have to utilize sharpshooters and [ineffective] sterilization ( the latter because of anti-hunting pressure) due to excessive populations reaching density estimates of hundreds of deer per square mile. The over population becomes a public safety/nuisance concern and a herd health problem. Vehicular collisions, residential property damage and deer disease control all become critical issues in these areas. Look at what is currently happening within the city limits of Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a case study. Some northern cities sometimes experience high winter kill, because of the lack of food sources in these areas. When this occurred on Long Island, some residents illegally supplemented the local herd and unintentionally caused mortality due to contaminated corn and/or digestive issues within deer who were unaccustomed to eating grain.

Still, it’s important to acknowledge the highly successful and efficient management tool of hunter harvest and its ability to, in some cases, reduce the herd beyond a healthy number. Game commissions and DNRs have the responsibility, especially to the public land hunter, to keep a finger on the pulse of the State’s herd density. I recently listened to a podcast where the founder of QDMA, Joe Hamilton, acknowledged that in some areas doe harvest went too far and a re-evaluation of harvest goals was needed. The private land owner has a little more control over the local herd residing on their own land, but generally speaking it is important for hunters to understand that the responsibility of firing a bullet or loosing an arrow lies with each of us individually. That isn’t to propose limitless bags or overly liberal doe tag allocation, but, at the same time, it is curious that many of the most vocal hunters who would like the game commission to severely limit or reduce doe season, (and thus eliminate that harvest opportunity for other hunters), are in turn upset that the Game Commission has [perceivably] limited their buck harvest potential.

The above being said, it is important to cede that the further away from a 1:1 ratio the herd finds itself, stress can and will increase. A longer, but less intense rut will often result, leading to bucks servicing more does than they might otherwise if the herd dynamics were more balanced. This can affect the condition in which Bucks enter winter, and can be detrimental to the younger individuals in the population. Bucks entering Winter in a poorer condition will often enter Spring nutritionally deficient and the following year’s antler growth can therefore become affected. Body weights are also affected by unbalanced sex ratios and overpopulated herds, so the meat hunter should care about herd balance as well.

Pro-APR Argument #3: Hunter satisfaction and enjoyment is diminished by out-of-balance sex ratios

Sex ratios that reach a point that is biologically out-of-balance do adversely effect hunter experience given the aforementioned less-intense rut. A herd with poor age structure will also not display as much of the stereotypical buck activity and sign that hunters can use to increase their opportunities in the woods. Again, (anecdotally), the New York property we hunt has very few rubs and scrapes in or around bedding areas, field edges or travel corridors. The age structure is generally very young on this property, despite our efforts to practice what QDM we can manage. The Pennsylvania property we hunt, within the same Twin Tiers region, regularly displays significantly more (and larger) rubs and is riddled with scrapes by October’s end. The age structure there, while not equivalent to some Midwestern destinations, is significantly better than neighboring New York, and the increased hunting opportunities because of it are noticeable.  At the same time, the kind of rutting activity and daylight movement that may be visible in parts of the Midwest, are still not experienced to the same degree in Pennsylvania.  APRs haven’t totally changed that reality.

High population densities coupled with unbalanced sex ratios can also make properties more difficult to hunt, as bucks move away from the social pressure of doe groups within preferred bedding.  Access to stands within the property becomes difficult. Getting to and from a stand without bumping non-target antlerless deer can become nearly impossible and keeping the pressure minimal on an over populated parcel is extraordinarily difficult. Higher densities of deer is not equivalently valuable to higher densities of target animals, and as such, conflating the two ideas is again, misguided. One must only evaluate the herd populations of Kansas and Pennsylvania to understand that high overall deer numbers is not absolutely correlative to buck harvest opportunity, especially mature buck harvest at that. A credible argument can be made that the above factors lead to diminished hunter opportunity and experience.  However, what it doesn’t equate to is APRs being biologically necessary for the sustainability of huntable populations of Whitetail deer. In the interest of constructive and objective conversation, the two concepts should not be conflated.

The presence of APRs also doesn’t automatically lead to increased success on mature Deer. More target animals creates a better environment to connect on a nice deer, but I can assure you, killing a three and half year old, or older, deer in Pennsylvania is still incredibly challenging. In most areas, A 2.5 year buck is in the top 25% or better of the local buck population. Because some yearlings are guaranteed to survive every year, due to being protected by APR, and some other yearlings that meet the antler criteria will get through by mere chance, there is certainly an increased number of 2.5 year olds to hunt in Pennsylvania. These deer are a year older and a year wiser and perhaps have increased their survival acumen, providing them with better chances to reach 3.5. However, in most areas, PA’s gun 2 week gun season and 900,000 license holders serve to eliminate many bucks in their second year of antler growth. The age structure in PA after APR is unarguably better, but it is no where close to that of lower hunter density states like Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma or Arkansas. I remember thinking that APR was going to all but ensure wall-mounter bucks would be running all over our hunting areas in PA and thinking that hunting was about to get significantly easier in the Keystone State. Reality was something entirely different.

Pro-APR Argument #4: I can’t practice QDM without APR because my neighbor shoots small bucks

My ‘favorite’ argument for APR is the suggestion that APR is necessary because a landowner can’t successfully practice QDM on their property because of their neighbors’ buck harvest. I’ve been guilty of this train of thought more times than I would like to admit. I’ll defend myself in the sense that these thoughts occurred mostly when my hunting experience was unfortunately based in more competitive spirit. I thought that my neighbors’ practice of shooting small bucks was the whole reason I couldn’t connect on the type of deer I sought to shoot. I didn’t know enough to accurately evaluate my own hunting approach. I failed to see my shortcomings within my process and how I was hunting the deer in my area incorrectly. I look back now and feel fortunate to have killed the deer I did during that time. When I was frustrated about not seeing deer or target bucks, I didn’t realize I wasn’t hunting their bedding areas or correctly evaluating mid season shifts in food sources or even at the most basic level managing the amount of hunting pressure I was putting on certain areas. Ironically, I suspect that most of those lamenting the introduction of APR because they can’t find a buck to shoot, are guilty of some of the same mistakes and are simply unwilling to put in the work it takes to identify buck bedding areas and low impact exit and entrance routes to stand sites.

The truth is, my neighbors do have some impact on my hunting opportunity, and as I mentioned, the buck exploitation around the New York property we hunt certainly has affected the age structure in comparison to the neighboring PA ground. But, we are still able to have a few animals on the property that meet our criteria each year, and since managing the hunting pressure we put on the property and allowing the property to act as a sink during gun season, we have been able to protect a handful of bucks each season and allow them to live to another year of maturity. This year we pursued the first known 4.5 year old deer we have had on the property and came just fifteen yards short of a shot opportunity in archery season. If hunting that age class is possible in a high hunter density area of western New York, it is possible anywhere. Furthermore, public land hunters have perhaps the most to gain from APRs, as they have no control over hunting pressure, but ironically it seems to be the private land owners who are the most vocal in support of APR. As I progress in my life and my hunting experience, I have found myself feeling happy for a fellow hunter’s filled tag, regardless of whether or not I would shoot the deer they chose to take. If it is a legal and ethical harvest, far be it for me to say when the trigger should be pulled. If they have put down a giant, either by luck or hard work, I am also happy for them. Everyone should hunt and harvest to their prerogative, within the laws and regulations provided.

That being said, I was listening to a podcast where the speaker described a situation where a hunter on a shared piece of private ground had killed an immature buck. The person on the podcast expressed their displeasure with the hunter’s choice to kill that type of buck. The conversation went something along lines of “Why did you shoot that?”. On this property there was one deer that was of older age class frequenting the parcel and I’ll make the assumption that the hunter who was offering the criticisms felt there would be more target animals if those sharing the property would just stop shooting small bucks. I find this to be a misconception on multiple fronts. First, it accounts little for the social pressure of increased populations and how mature bucks often disperse to more remote bedding and core areas away from other deer. Your private parcel has a limited number of bedding areas on it. Unless you own thousands of acres, the number of mature deer you will realistically hold on a small parcel is limited. That’s not to say you won’t find mature Deer using your parcel randomly or infrequently, but the number of home-body bucks you can enjoy hunting from opening day to season’s close is going to be restricted to some degree. Northeastern hunters need to have realistic expectations when it comes to management and ostracizing another hunter over their harvest decision is, in my opinion, an un-constructive and alienating way to approach a conversation about APR or QDM.

Counter to the statements made on the podcast, when I personally am hunting a private parcel that is shared with hunters who do not hold the same management mentality as I do, I am glad when they shoot a buck that I would not.  In a one buck state such as Pennsylvania, their harvest of an immature deer means two things: 1. They won’t be able to fill their buck tag, either by luck or woodsmanship, on a larger deer that I am hunting, and 2. After their buck tag is filled they will likely not be in the woods adding additional hunting pressure to the parcel. In my opinion, taking a yearling, or two, from a property has little overall impact on the hunting opportunities of subsequent seasons, and I would gladly trade that for the positive impacts on my current season. If there are hunters who are consistently killing good deer on public lands, a yearling harvest on a shared private parcel or neighboring property should be very low on your list of concerns.

Conclusion

So, as we can see, if we objectively evaluate the discussion, there are a lot of false premises, and incorrect information coming at us from both sides of the argument. My personal opinion of Antler Point Restrictions is that they have been proven to be an effective management tool in the areas where they have been implemented. While I am generally in favor of less regulations coming from governing bodies, I think Antler Point Restrictions fall in a unique place. As I see them, they are a practical and easily implemented way to increase the opportunity for a large and diverse set of hunters without diminishing opportunity for others who hold different goals. The meat hunters have essentially experienced no statistical reduction in buck harvest opportunity, and opportunities to shoot antlerless deer remain plentiful enough across the state. The APR regulation provides protection for a certain number of yearling bucks and inevitably some other deer, which may not be quickly identified as legal, happen to get through as well. This protection provides opportunities at an older age class of deer for those who wish to be more selective. Many of the opportunities these more selective hunters in Pennsylvania now enjoy would be much more difficult to obtain without the regulation in place. Public lands, especially, have seen a marked difference in herd age structure. I believe the single largest challenge facing APR and hunting in general is social media. Social platforms have an uncanny ability to shift the hunting narrative to one of trophy hunting only, where hunters feel the need make unfortunate posts that include excuses for shooting a small buck, or even excuses for a phenomenal deer that simply doesn’t meet the TV definition of a “shooter”. Because of this, some hunters end up opposing APR because they conflate it with simple trophy hunting, and other hunters will support APR because they believe it will automatically equate to TV caliber animals on their wall. Both of these narratives obfuscate the truth of APR’s value. The reality of APR’s strength lies in its ability to be something in between these two extremes; something with reasonable, realistic and tangible benefits to all hunters within the State that implements it.

By Reuben Dourte


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Antler Restrictions: Fact and Fiction- Part 1

Antler Point Restrictions. The phrase elicits debate immediately. It seems as though emotions on both sides quickly get super charged and it leads to the kind of infighting amongst sportsmen that isn’t conducive to civilized conversation, nor to finding any middle ground. Perhaps there are plenty of ways that goals between the two camps aren’t congruent, but I would contend that there is a reasonable discussion to be had as to whether or not APR is necessary, as well as if it is beneficial, or, counter productive.

Pennsylvania is, in many ways, the poster child for APR. I remember when it was implemented. I also remember the conversations among sportsmen about whether it would actually benefit the herd, or even the general hunting experience in the State.

Arguments About APR

The arguments against it typically went something like the following: Pennsylvania doesn’t have the genetics to grow true trophy class deer; high grading will occur and inferior bucks will be breeding more does as the genetically superior bucks will be harvested, leaving only those remaining inferior deer to propagate; opportunity will be reduced because hunters won’t be able to shoot most of the bucks they see, and kids won’t want to hunt anymore because of it; there is no biological benefit to APR; I hunt for meat, not horns; they are ruining the hunting heritage of the state.

The last argument is purely emotional and subjective, so there is little argument for, or against, it. You either believe this or you don’t. It’s safe to say that most people who were in favor of APR, didn’t see point restrictions as a way to eliminate hunting as we know it, but instead to evolve it in the 21st century. The arguments they offered in favor of APR were usually something along the lines of: buck to doe ratios in the state are severely out of balance, in some areas as high as 1 buck to 20 does; the unbalanced sex ratios create a biological problem for the whitetail deer herd; hunter experience is diminished by a poor age structure and out-of-balance sex ratios; my neighbor shoots all the bucks I pass up and we can’t practice QDM effectively unless APR is implemented; I want to see and shoot more ‘big’ bucks.

The last argument is also emotional and subjective, so there is little argument for or against it. But, what if I told you that both sides of the debate introduced valid points that should be considered, as well as false or emotional ones that should be ignored?

It’s somewhat surprising to me that more than a decade after implementation we can still be discussing this topic, especially when a large majority of Keystone hunters now agree that antler point restrictions are a good thing for the State’s whitetail population. But, it’s true that some people are still very heated about the idea of the State prohibiting the harvest of certain bucks. I know this because just recently I found myself accosted by a family member who was very heated about antler point restrictions and the harvest opportunity they had recently cost him. He was pretty upset and started in on me for being a ‘trophy hunter’. Interestingly, if you saw my basement wall, you would probably agree that most hunters, especially those in the Midwest, wouldn’t call me that. So, I suppose a lot of the conversation comes down to perception and individual hunters’ mentalities or experiences. I tried to explain that I’m not a trophy hunter, and really not a vocal proponent or opponent to APR. (However, in the interest of transparency, I do think APRs have generally worked in PA, and I have a sister state in NY to compare the progress to. Every year I hunt very similar ground in both states and, though anecdotal, I can see the stark contrast between the two management plans.) My family member ended the conversation by proposing the idea that doe season should be totally shut down for a year or two in order to allow for the does to raise more bucks to shoot. He followed that statement up by informing me that he shot two button bucks this year.  All of that being said, let’s try to tease this discussion apart just a bit.

Anit-APR Argument #1: This area can’t grow trophy deer, and I hunt for meat, not horns, anyway

The idea that PA can’t grow a trophy class of deer is quite simply misguided. The idea that the genetics and soil types are inferior to that of the storied Midwestern states, and therefore trying to increase age structure and maximize potential is nothing but a fool’s errand, is disingenuous. Why? Because this argument is a half-truth, and is largely coming from the same hunters who want to be able to shoot a fork horn and are upset that they can’t. While it may be true that the corn fields of Iowa or the rich soils of Buffalo County may be superior habitat for Boone and Crockett deer, nearly every part of the Northeast has the potential to grow Deer that reach the Pope and Young threshold of 125”. This is a trophy anywhere in my book, but in the Northeast, it’s a stud. If anyone tells you differently, they haven’t hunted long enough, in my opinion. It wasn’t too long ago that a 110” buck or higher was considered the buck of a lifetime around these parts and if you shot one, not only would everyone in town know about it, people would tell you that you might as well quit hunting because you’ll never shoot one bigger. The overlying point here is that I very much doubt that the anti-APR hunters, who would like to have the opportunity to shoot the first buck they see, would fail to classify a 125” whitetail in the trophy category. Because of APR there are more of these deer available to hunt and kill in the State of Pennsylvania than ever before. So, it’s safe to say that the assertion that PA can’t produce a ‘trophy’ class of deer, within the ‘average’ hunter’s definition, is false. I also doubt that the majority of meat hunting hunters would pose for a picture with a 120” buck with the tail end of deer toward the camera, in order to adequately show off those substantial hams for which they shot the deer, of course. So again, it’s safe to say that, to varying degrees, antlers do matter to just about everyone.  This doesn’t even address the fact that since APR implementation Pennsylvania has increased its Boone and Crockett entries exponentially and State records have been broken and re-broken. In 2016 the non-typical archery record was broken with a deer measuring 228 6/8”, and this season the typical archery record was set by a State Land buck with a net score of 185 4/8” (grossing in the 190’s). These deer aren’t trophies for Pa, they are trophies anywhere across the Whitetail’s range.

Anti-APR Argument #2: APR will cause High-Grading to occur

This influx of record book entries, along with the anecdotal evidence that is the significantly different look of social media feeds in recent years, seems to fly in the face of any high-grading argument which some anti-APR hunters choose to make. The record books tell us that big deer are falling in PA with more regularity and Facebook photos, forum threads and local big buck contests seem to be evidencing this annually as well. Biologically, and genetically, high-grading within an ungulate species that breeds as whitetails do is a misnomer and a straw man argument. Deer do not have harems as elk do, and the idea of a dominant “breeder buck”  servicing the majority of the does in an area has been debunked. With radio telemetry studies we can determine how deer move during the rut  and we also know that bucks breed one doe at a time. A buck may speed 48 hours breeding one doe repetitively until she is through her breeding cycle and then he will break away and find another. While this buck is bedded in thick cover with a hot doe, other does in the area are also coming into heat. In populations with unbalanced age structures (anything greater than 1:1 really), most bucks will participate in the breeding season. There are enough does that even that ‘inferior’ spike will be getting some action in November when that mature ‘breeder buck’ is hunkered down with his current doe. The high-grading argument has its flaws in genetics as well, mainly due to the fact that the doe contributes half of the genetic material that is within the next generation of buck fawns. Some captive deer breeders will tell you that the most inheritable antler traits are passed through the maternal side of the deer’s pedigree, leading them to believe the buck’s mother has more to do with antler potential than its sire. Since we can’t harvest does on the basis of their antler potential, it becomes nearly impossible to positively or negatively alter the genetics of the deer herd through hunter harvest. Just ask any of the renowned biologists who are part of the QDMA. This is also why the idea of shooting “cull bucks” from a wild Deer herd to improve antler size is foolish and misguided. Lastly, the high-grading argument doesn’t account for later born fawns, poor growing seasons, or a buck which was born to a first time mother. A buck that is younger when it is growing its first set of antlers may be behind in body size when comparing it to other deer in the same fawn crop. He may display smaller antlers for the sole reason that he is still catching up to his peers. Additionally, a harsh Winter which causes deer to enter Spring under nourished, or a poor growing season and dry summer during critical antler development times can also stifle antler growth, even with mature deer. Lastly, every Fall, some doe fawns reach sexual maturity before their first birthday and are bred. These does may not have access to the best food sources as do matriarchal does, and may not produce as much milk because they are still growing themselves after fawning. This can cause a buck fawn born to one of these does to start life behind other deer in the local herd. Those things have nothing to do with the antler genetics or the maximum antler potential within that deer’s DNA.

Anti-APR Argument #3: APR will reduce hunter opportunities

Hunter opportunity, if reduced solely to buck harvest, has not sustained any significant decreases in the state of Pennsylvania. Statistically speaking, hunter buck harvest has remained consistent based on a percentage of licensed hunters across the state, so the argument of diminished opportunity really falls quite flat. Many of the people I know, myself included, who haven’t filled a buck tag this year, could have if they would have chosen to shot any legal buck. But, because of APR, many hunters have seen what another year of age can do, and they choose to self regulate beyond the APR standards. Even with this self regulation and the mentality of higher antler criteria that has been making progress within the hunting ranks, statistical harvest success rates have remained consistent. What we have seen, however, is that for the first time in modern hunting history, PA has begun to harvest more (59% in 2016) 2.5 year old or older bucks than yearling bucks. The majority of the statewide buck harvest comprised of yearlings used to push near 80% annually. On the contrary, some 60% of New York’s harvest is still made up of yearling bucks, the highest ratio in the nation. Youth hunters in Pennsylvania are allowed to shoot a buck with antlers over 3” in length, and since they can shoot deer that are otherwise “protected”, one would have to argue that the youth opportunities have increased in the State. Like every State, PA faces hunter recruitment and attrition issues, but it is hard to correlate that with a lack of youth opportunity. Likely, there are other, more significant roadblocks to entry for the next generation. Sports and electronics present bigger threats to the perpetuation of hunting within the next generation than do APRs.

Anti-APR Argument #4: APRs are not biologically necessary.

The best argument offered by the anti-APR crowd is that Antler Point Restrictions are not biologically necessary. This I (cautiously) agree with. I say cautiously because the discussion is more nuanced, but as a whole, sustaining a huntable population of Whitetail deer does not require APR.  If an area is recruiting fawns back into the herd at a high rate, buck fawns will be present the following year as sexually mature yearling bucks, and can breed the does to produce the next generation. Even if there is near 100% exploitation of the buck population, as long as there is high fawn recruitment, the deer herd will be able to regenerate from year to year. Of course, this doesn’t account for the social effects this may have on the herd, the physiological effects on the bucks, or the effects on hunter experience, but we will get into that in a bit.

Part 2 of this blog series will discuss common arguments often offered by those in favor of APRs.

By Reuben Dourte


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Is Hunter Density as Bad as We Think?

     When discussing hunter density, it’s important to note that statistics don’t tell the whole story.  For example, hunter numbers could be in decline at the same time that private land access is dwindling.  This could disproportionately push more hunters to public lands while overall numbers continue to experience attrition.  Likewise, the diversity of the data collection methodology employed by different state agencies can make comparisons difficult at best.  Sometimes one state agency is collecting and reporting different or more granular data than another, and thus some generalizations or assumptions need to be made in order to convert the data so that it can be compared.  I will do my best to describe my methods and logic and I will provide the links to the data I used for this article.

The QDMA Numbers

     The QDMA has released hunter density numbers by state in the past.  For the sake of a clear and concise article, they utilize the total area of a state divided by license holders within that state.  The QDMA’s numbers do not take into account individual state’s licensing procedures, nor do they factor actual participation rates.  If 1 out of 10 license holders doesn’t enter the woods in the fall, they haven’t technically contributed to any pressure or “felt” hunter density.  Additionally, some states may sell general hunting licenses which come with deer hunting privileges.  They also come with small game hunting privileges, and so small game hunters may end up being counted as participating deer hunters, even if they don’t pick up a rifle or a bow to pursue whitetails.

     The QDMA’s numbers are a simple, high level overview of hunter density numbers across the country.  But they really only tell part of the story.  A well known hunter has gone on record, (on numerous occasion), disputing those density numbers, particularly for the state of Michigan.  Much of the state is underwater, and one argument is that water area should be excluded.  I agree, although marshlands and swamps can still hold deer.  The claim was made that Michigan is the most heavily bow hunted state in the Union, and I decided to try to find out.

Michigan by the Numbers

     The following is very important, so read carefully.  Michigan sold 634,021 deer licenses in 2016, however, based on surveys of licensed hunters, the DNR found that the actual hunter participation number was only 554,143.  In other words, about 80,000 licensed hunters stayed home, or 12.6%.  Michigan sells a “deer license” which can be used with any weapon, the exception to this being early and late anterless season tags.  They do not have a specific archery privilege tag.  Based on the Michigan DNR’s survey, they found that 322,353 license holders bowhunted in 2016.  Michigan’s total land mass is 56,614 square miles.  On average, the deer hunter density, based on participating hunters, is 9.79 hunters per square mile.  322,353 archers in the state put the bowhunter density at 5.69 hunters per square mile.  The state has 4.5 million acres of public lands with a deer population of 1.75 million.  Average deer density in the state comes out to 30.12 deer per square mile.  Obviously there is some variation to these numbers depending on the area, but we will get to some of that in a bit.

Here are the quick stats on Michigan:

Deer License Holders: 634,021

Participating Deer Hunters: 554,143

Participating Archers: 322,353

Land Mass: 56,614 square miles (Lower Peninsula=40,162 square miles, Upper Peninsula=16,452 square miles)

Hunters per square mile: 9.79

Bowhunters Per Square Mile: 5.69

Public: 4.5 million acres

Deer Herd: 1.75 million

Deer Density Average: 30.91

Pennsylvania by the Numbers

     Data for Pennsylvania’s actual hunter participation rates was not readily available, so to control for a potential over calculation of participating hunters, I’ve applied a 12.6% correction (same as Michigan) to the total license holder number to get an estimated participant figure.  So, of Pennsylvania’s 914,244 general license holders, we will estimate that 12.6% elected to not participate in deer season.  This brings the number to of active deer hunters in PA to 799,049.  Archery license sales totaled 341,637 in 2016, so corrected for non-participation, the active bowhunters would be 298,590.  Pennsylvania has 44,817 square miles of land mass.  799,049 deer hunters spread over this area gives you a hunter density of 17.83 deer hunters per square mile!  However, it is important to note that small game hunters in Pennsylvania purchase the same general hunting license as deer hunters, even if they don’t deer hunt.  It is hard to know what proportion of license holders “plan” to deer hunt, but since we don’t have that data, we can instead use the Pennsylvania Game Commisions estimated number of deer hunters that participated in the opening day of firearm season.  That number is 550,000.  550,000 hunters across 44,817 square miles still equates to a density of 12.27 hunters per square mile!  It’s worth noting that a certain portion of the 59,550 bowhunters who harvested a buck during archery season would not be participating in opening day.  Other archers may take still take to the field in order to fill an antlerless permit, depending on their Wildlife Manage Unit. Speaking of bowhunters, an even distribution of participating archers gives you an average of 6.66 bowhunters per square mile in the Keystone State.  Pennsyvlania hunters can take advantage of approximately 4 million acres of public land and the state supports a deer herd of around 1.3-1.5 million, resulting in an average deer density of approximately 31.24 deer per square mile.

Here are PA’s quick stats:

 License Holders: 914,244

*Participating Deer Hunters (adjusted by 12.6% factor): 799,049

Opening Day of Firearm Participation: 550,000 (PGC Stats)

Participating Archers (adjusted by 12.6% factor): 298,590

Land Mass: 44,817 square miles

Participating hunters per square mile: 17.83

Opening Day Firearm Hunters per square mile:12.27

Bowhunters Per Square Mile: 6.662

Public: 4.0 million acres

Deer Herd: 1.3-1.5 million

Deer Density Average: 31.23

New York by the Numbers

     We’ll apply the same logic for hunter participation rates to New York as we did PA.  Using the Michigan participation ratio, we find that of New York’s 569,247 license holders, we can expect 497,522 to participate in deer season.  Out of 175,461 archers in the Empire State, adjusted for non-participation, 153,352 will actually spend time pursuing whitetail deer.  New York has a land mass of 47,126 square miles.  The average density, (adjusted for participation), of deer hunters across the state is 10.56 per square mile.  153,352 archers distributed evenly equates to a density of 3.25 bowhunters per square mile.  New York has a population of approximately 1 million whitetail deer, giving it an average deer density of 21.22 deer per square mile.  Interestingly, the New York DEC also notes that of the state’s half million deer hunters, 90% will hunt on private lands.  Private lands make up 85% of the state.  This means that ten percent of hunters in the state chase deer on the near 4.5 million acres of public lands available.  It also means that the average hunter density on New York public land is lower than the overall average hunter density across the state.  Before you get too exercised, it’s important to note that New York public land is widely diverse and receives unequal amounts of pressure.  The remote portions of the Adirondacks have significantly lower deer and hunter densities, much like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Counties within the southwestern portion of the state readily lead in deer harvest numbers, yearling buck exploitation and hunter density.  All this tells us that both public and private pressure is not evenly distributed across the state, and it is important to acknowledge that fact.

Here are New York’s quick stats:

 Deer License Holders: 569,247

Participating Deer Hunters: 497,522

Participating Archers: 153,352

Land Mass: 47,126 square miles

*Participating Hunters per square mile (adjusted by 12.6% factor): 10.56

Participating Archers Per Square Mile (adjusted by 12.6% factor): 3.25

Public: 4.5 million acres

Deer Herd: 1.0 million

Deer Density Average: 21.22

The Breakdown

     So, is the hunter density as bad as we think it is in this infamous three state “pressure trifecta”?  That is for you to decide.  Which one of these states is the “toughest” to hunt?  That question can’t be answered with statistics, either.  Topographical features and habitat play a roll in the hunting opportunities an area can provide.  Which of these three states is the most heavily bowhunted?  Well, unfortunately that depends on how you slice it as well.  You see, on average, Pennsylvania ranks the highest of the three with 6.662 bowhunters per square mile, besting Michigan’s 5.67.  However, the Michigan DNR has gone out of their way to provide us with more detailed statistics as to how many bowhunters spend time hunting in the Lower Peninsula.  The total they came up with is 315,105.  The lower peninsula of Michigan is 40,162 square miles, which means that the bowhunter density in the LP can be calculated as 315,105 hunters/40,162 square miles=7.85 bowhunters per square mile!  This certainly makes a strong case that Michigan deserves a spot near the top of the high pressure list.  But then, how would Pennsylvania’s or New York’s regional stats change is you started to break out lower hunter density areas?

     The truth is, you can slice up statistics to show you what you want to see.  Parts of every state have a certain amount of high pressure.  Without defining the parameters of your argument, and the methods of your calculations, it becomes really easy to claim one state is more highly pressured than another.  Hunting deer in Michigan is tough, I’ve done it before.  How about hunting in PA or New York?  Yea, I’ve been there too, it’s not easy.  In any of these states you are going to have to put in your time, scout hard, go where others won’t, find overlooked spots and just keep-on-keeping-on.  On any given day any of these states could be the king of high pressure hunting; and if you are putting down deer in any one of them, walk tall, because you’ve undoubtedly earned it.

Data Compilations:

-By Reuben Dourte

Resources:

https://www.michigan.gov/documents/dnr/2016_deer_harvest_survey_report_575841_7.pdf

http://www.pgc.pa.gov/HuntTrap/LicensesandPermits/Pages/HuntingLicenseSalesReport.aspx

http://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2017/11/michigan_deer_hunting_season_2.html

http://www.dec.ny.gov/permits/26368.html

https://www.qdma.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/WR-2017.pdf

https://www.realtree.com/deer-hunting/antler-nation

 

*This article originally written for and appeared on HuntingtheEmpire.com

Feature Image Credit: Tim Bunao


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brassica leaves

Fall Food Plots for Dry Summers

Category : Deer Management , DIY

2016 was going to usher in a new era of food plotting on our western New York property.  Although we don’t hunt any of the food plots on the property, (with the exception of one micro kill plot),  we still view food plots as an important part of our management practices.  They can serve to hold deer on and around our property and provide food sources once the surrounding crops are taken off in early to mid October.  With the purchase of a four row no-till corn planter, we now had the ability to plant corn in areas of the property that were previously off limits to conventional tillage methods.  We could also plant when the soil conditions were right and not have to rely on the local farmer.

Our excitement quickly turned to disappointment when we visited the property shortly after planting the corn field.  The turkeys had walked the rows and pull out a high percentage of the seedlings as soon as they broke through the soil.  Another visit two weeks later revealed severe drought damage.  Even our earlier plantings were showing evidence of deer damage and drought stress.  It was surely not going to be a bumper crop year.

corn drought

The poor population in this corn plot is due in part to the soil condition during planting. It is also being damaged by deer and the summer drought in western New York has taken the biggest toll.

We made the decision during this July trip that we would have to shift from corn to another food plot species that could provide adequate late season forage.  Because we were already well into July, and the ground was as dry as we had ever seen it, we elected to wait until mid August, hoping for rainfall some time between mid-July and our work weekend scheduled for August 6 & 7.

As we neared our trip date, the area received an an inch of rainfall in the first week of August and the forecast promised over a 70% chance for the second week.  We loaded the truck and headed North.  We had a few options when it came to what we could plant at this time of year.  We could try to establish a fall seeding of clover, we could plant brassicas or we could choose a mix of cereal grains.  I’m sure a food plot specialist could rattle off several other viable options, nevertheless, we narrowed the choices to these options for multiple reasons.  We have planted some variation of these species in the past successfully, some of the soil we would be planting is acidic, which the cereal grain mix (especially winter rye) would be more forgiving of, and we wanted something that would provide enough tonage to be a significant supply of late season food during the 3 week gun season and the months following.

We could have chalked up the year as a failed attempt.  There would be no promise that mother nature would cooperate even if we reworked the plots and planted new fall forage.  This might have been the easiest thing to do, but come hunting season I knew I would be cursing myself for failing to provide viable food sources on the property to draw and hold deer.  Our failure could even have substantial impacts on the quantity and quality of bucks we saw in the following year or two.

white agco tractor

Tilling the corn under with the tractor and disk in early August.

What we elected to plant was a buffet of brassica mixes and cereal grains.  We divided the plots that had been in corn and planted sections in different crops.  The cereal grains and winter peas would become attractive immediately, along with the established clover plots adjacent to these areas.  The Winter Rye and Winter Wheat would then serve to provide forage through late season along with the brassica plantings later in October.

 

We mapped out of plot designs and put the tractor and disc to work tilling under the drought stricken corn

plots.  In between disking we fertilized the plots and once the seed bed was prepared we spun on the seed.  After cultipacking the plots we headed for home, knowing the rest of the variables were out of our hands.  I anxiously checked the weather on a regular basis, and the day after planting we were blessed with a day

food plot tilled

Prepared seed bed ready for seeding.

long rain event that yielded over an inch.  This alone would be enough to push the crops out of the soil.  Subsequent rains fell over the next month and upon arriving a month later to stock the wood shed, I was amazed to find the best looking Fall plantings we had ever managed to produce.  The Winter Wheat, Winter Rye, Oats and Peas were coming up beautifully, although the deer were already hammering them.  The brassicas were enormous, with big full leaves and amazing uniformity.  The draw of the cereal grain plots had relieved some pressure from the clover and those areas looked better than they had all summer, helped by additional moisture and less browsing pressure.

 

In one month, our property went from having nearly no prospective food sources for late season to having the largest abundance of it we have ever had.  Had we been complacent and accepted the reality that the corn food plots were not going to provide any significant forage for the deer we would have been left with a property that had very minimal resources for the deer to utilize.

img_3230

Cereal Grains, Clover and Brassicas in the same food plot to provide attraction to this area during all periods of hunting season.

img_3228

Destination brassica plot.

img_3225

Cereal grains and brassicas along a cover strip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we chose to till under the corn plots and replant the brassica and cereal grains, we had no guarantees that those efforts too would not be in vain.  It was one of the driest summers in western New York that I remember, and rainfall was anything but guaranteed  but one of the great benefits of Fall plantings for late season food plots is that you can capitalize on planting dates at a time of year when rainfall is not as scarce.  When it comes to deer hunting, the easiest path is unlikely to be the best or more beneficial one.  Food plotting is no exception to that.  We have left the New York property absolutely exhausted numerous times over the past four months.  Some of that work ended up being in vain because of the summer drought, but persistence pays off in the end and refusing to accept undesirable results is absolutely necessary if you are trying to produce enough food to hold deer on your property from mid September through January.

 

-Reuben Dourte

 

Email me at CommonGroundBowhunter@gmail.com


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Micro Food Plot

Micro Plot Update

Back in the early Spring we started a project that would continue through the hunting season.  The project was the installation of a new food plot in a transition area between bedding and a larger destination food source.  The area needed cleared of brush- thorn trees, brier bushes and other small shrubs and grasses.  I described in a past blog post about how we used all the brushed we cleared to created a wind row that would funnel deer from trails below the clearing up into the plot and past our stand location.  This would help us remain undetected during evening hunts when the thermals would be falling down the hillside away from the food source.

Since the area was previously in early regrowth, golden rod and small trees we needed to lime and fertilize to make sure we would realize adequate yields from our planting.  We applied lime at a rate of approximately 2T/acre and 15-15-15 at a rate of approximately 200 lbs/ acre.  (For plots that were getting brassicas we applied an additonal 100 lbs of Urea (Nitrogen) per acre (46-0-0)). After the ground was worked with a disc several times we had a good quality seed bed and we broadcast a mixture of winter

cereal grain food plot

Another of our cereal grain plots showing browsing pressure similar to that of the micro plot. The cereal grain plots provide an immediate draw which continues through early bow season and into late season.

wheat, winter rye, oats and winter peas.  The reason I went with this mixture for a fall planting was two fold.  The first reason was that these plants are relatively easy to establish in adverse conditions.  Rye, especially, is more tolerant of acidic soils and is more drought resistant than some other food plot species.  I knew that this first year, the pH would not be at optimal levels, even after lime application, and when we planted, western NY was on the back side of a hot and dry summer with below average rainfall.

The second reason for choosing this cereal grain mixture is that, unlike a brassica plot, it would immediately become attractive to the deer.  I could expect deer movement through the plot as soon as the vegetation sprouted and it should continue all season long.  The oats and peas have an immediate draw and in years past when we planted ONLY oats and peas together the deer herd destroyed the plots as fast as they could grow, leaving only a muddy field by hunting season.  The wheat and rye will fill this void and provide additional food in the plot through the latter part of the season once the oats and peas are depleted.

Winter Peas among the Winter Wheat, Winter Rye and Oats in the micro plot.

Winter Peas among the Winter Wheat, Winter Rye and Oats in the micro plot.

After planting, we received a two inch rainfall event over the course of two days.  This was vital to the success of our plot, as was the additional 2 inches that fell over the course of the next month.  When we checked our Fall plantings during the first half of September we were pleased to find lush green cereal grain plots and flourishing brassicas.  The cereal grains had drawn deer away from some of the clover plots, allowing them to recover from their poor drought strained state of mid summer.  Deer had begun to utilized the micro plot, and the trails leading into this location were more heavily used.  There was also evidence of browse pressure on the east end of the plot where the deer enter when coming from their bedding area.

To add to the draw of the plot we had left a small tree stand in the middle of the clearing and in early September I went in and made a mock scrape under one of the low branches of the tree and set a camera on the South side of the plot near the kill tree.  The camera can be accessed without entering the plot in order to monitor the movement and activity through the clearing and by the mock scrape.  Likewise, the tree stand overlooking the food plot is accessible in such a way that no deer trails must be crossed on approach and entrance and exit can be accomplished without pressuring the local deer herd.

I am looking forward to getting into this stand for an opening weekend hunt if the weather conditions cooperate.  So far everything has been falling into place with our little project and admittedly, there is something a rewarding about influencing the deer movement.  Hopefully, we will soon have some venison to show for all our efforts!

-Reuben Dourte

Email me @ CommonGroundBowhunter@gmail.com


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Hunting an Evolved Deer Herd

Whitetail Deer have unarguably proven to be the most adaptive of all big game species.  Across the breadth of their range they have now learned to exist in and around metropolitan areas and skirted predators of the two and four legged variety for centuries.  Deer quickly adjust to hunting pressure and have an uncanny ability to differentiate between threatening human activity and other benign actions.  I remember when I was young, we would go to our friends’ cabin in July and I would enjoy watching deer come into the yard to feed on the corn we threw out to them.  Within an hour of arriving at the property the deer would materialize out of a large clearing and look to see if any corn was out.  For generation after generation, they were conditioned, by vacationers, that summer activity at the cabin meant easy pickings.

I believe hunting pressure can similarly affect deer and leave a lasting impression on a deer herd and how they behave.  It is reasonable to assume that deer in our cabin example would discontinue this feeding practice after a few years if no more corn was offered.  Once all the individuals from the last generation of deer that had been conditioned to the idea of cabin activity=food, died off, there would again exist a learning curve for the future deer herd if the feeding practice was resumed at a later date.  The subsequent generations would not have learned this behavior and so a certain level of adaptation would have to occur all over again.  Not so with hunting.  Hunting is unique because deer who do not appropriately adapt to threats, or do not have certain favorable attributes for survival, are eliminated from a population.  Once eliminated, these deer are not present to pass on their genetics.  Because both physiological and behavioral characteristics are influenced by genetics, I believe it is reasonable to assume that deer with certain behavioral patterns or personalities, that allow them to live for more years, survive longer and therefore produce more offspring with those same traits in a given population.

Perhaps a biologist would tell me I’m full of it, but I believe this can, in part, explain the great diversity in movement patterns between deer of different regions.  It is no secret that 2 year old bucks in PA, NY or Michigan behave with much the same level of caution as four year old deer in lesser pressured states like Illinois, Iowa or Kansas.  The common reaction is to attribute this to the hunting pressure that exists during the current season, i.e. You’re not seeing bucks in daylight in Michigan because you and your 10 neighbors have hunted every morning and evening since the October 1st opener and the Illinois bowhunter has a whole section to himself.  

But what about those areas in high pressure states that receive little to no archery hunting pressure?  Why isn’t more daylight buck, or mature doe, activity detected?  Even young deer are less likely to move outside of the fringes of light in these areas.  Surely in less pressured pockets of high pressured states we should at least see yearling and two year old bucks regularly moving outside of the first and last hour of daylight; at least prior to the opening day of gun season anyway.  Still, that’s not the case in many areas, and we’re often left asking ourselves “why”.

Often the temptation is to get discouraged with your own comprehension of whitetail hunting.  I have a hard time assessing the root cause of the problem to lack of hunting savvy by outdoorsmen in these less renowned big buck states.  In fact, these states are less renowned for big bucks for the very reason that these same hunters are fairly efficient at killing the deer before they reach 4, 5 or 6 years old.  Furthermore, a majority of the hunting articles and literature produced today is based on Midwestern hunting tactics that are employed in big buck states.  The validity of these methods is often displayed by the amount of antler/ground contact said tactic can be attributed with producing.  In other words, hunting strategies that produce big bucks in well known big buck states are what make it into many of the articles we read because, in an industry which measures success in inches of antler, these are the articles that sell.  This isn’t as much cynicism as it is realism.  The point is, these are the very tactics that hunters in Michigan, New York or Pennsylvania are often employing without success.  If the deer behaved in the same ways in these states, one would think these tactics would work and the same behavioral patterns could be capitalized upon.  The Northeast doesn’t have a monopoly on sloppy, un-savvy hunters, so there has to be something more to it.

To illustrate my theory I want to first describe something I witnessed last evening while taking a walk with my dad.  We came up to a cattle pasture where about half of the cattle had figured out that the standing corn field outside of the fence was better eating than the dry grass in the pasture.  They had pushed through the high tensile electric fence and were having a hay-day in the farmers field.  Still, half the herd remained inside the fence where they belonged, happily foraging on the grass that was meant for them.  Now, imagine a scenario where the grass on the inside of the fence was completely depleted and only the cattle who had figured out how to go through the fence could get to feed.  You would expect that the cattle inside the fence would quickly starve and die off, leaving only the fence busters to survive and breed on.  Whatever inherent trait that initially made those cattle break through the fence would be bred on in the herd.  Whether it was a belligerent personality, the fact that they were less docile and had more drive and therefore harder to contain, a stronger will to live and find a food source once the primary one was depleted, or even the physical ability to push through the fence, the genetic trait that predisposed those cattle to going through the fence, or having the ability to, would indeed be passed down through the herd.  Add in the learned behavior from one generation to the next and a reasonable person would expect that in a few generations you would be left with only cattle who had the ability, know how and/or desire to go through the fence.  The cattle who did not possess this have been eliminated as they starved once the grass in the pasture was consumed.  They are no longer here to perpetuate their passive personality, or lack of physical prowess, through breeding.  This is simply a layman’s version of the idea of natural selection, and its not hard to see how the behaviors or traits of even a local population can be shaped relatively quickly.

Now, compare that to the whitetail deer you hunt.  Could it be possible that high hunter density states which experience high harvest numbers and significant buck exploitation have, generation after generation, eliminated deer who are more predisposed to daylight movement, making them easier targets and thus a disproportionate part of the annual harvest?  I would theorize that this is not only possible, but that it is happening each and every year in these areas.  If you are a whitetail deer in Pennsylvania and you are trying to avoid an average of 20.5 hunters per square mile, and you show yourself on a regular basis during daylight hours, your chances of survival are greatly diminished when compared to the survival chances of the buck with a reclusive personality, reserving his movements to the fringes of light.  The daylight walker has a good chance of being harvested prior to any breeding activity while the reclusive buck may well live an additional season or two and sire several times as many fawns.  Likewise, if these fawns are born to wary old does, their survival rates increase while the learned behavior of avoiding hunting pressure is passed on.  Couple that with the genetic predisposition of limited daylight movement, its easy to imagine how efficiently wary deer within a population are able to procreate.

An area with a deer population that consists of 10 bucks per square mile and experiences an 80% buck exploitation rate will have 2 bucks survive each year per square.  There is a good chance that among the surviving buck(s) is not going to be the rut crazed aggressive two year old that everyone had on trail camera, traveling from property to property, looking for any receptive doe.  These gregarious bucks are more receptive to calling, may be less cautious and, in areas where there is a hunter behind just about every other tree, they are much more susceptible to hunter harvest than their less aggressive relatives.  While those bucks can be the most fun to hunt, they usually don’t live long enough to hunt; at least not often, anyway.

So, after decades of hunting pressure, and generations of wary whitetails having more frequent opportunities to breed on, its easy to see how we may have created what some could consider a “nocturnal” deer herd.  Couple the unique movements of the deer in these high pressure areas with the employment of tactics meant for hunting lesser pressured mature whitetails in low hunter density states (deer who have not been eliminated albeit their careless), and you have a perfect storm that can quickly lead to hunter dissatisfaction.  The bucks in PA and NY might not be “nocturnal”, their daylight movement may just be limited to places of thick cover or staging areas adjacent to their bedding, instead of field edges or travel corridors that are several hundred yards from where they spend the majority of their day.  Whitetails in these areas require more precision, attention to detail, stealthy access and a more calculated and aggressive hunting strategy on the whole.

Have we created, in some locations, a deer herd which behaves differently even when left “unpressured” through much of the hunting season?  I believe we have.  Does it make them un-killable? No, but it definitely makes them harder to kill while high hunter denisty leads to harvest numbers which result in fewer target animals within a given age class.  The ones that have survived to that 3 or 4 year old age class did so for a reason.  And that, in and of itself, should redefine what a “trophy” is to each and every one of us.

-Reuben Dourte


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That Hunt Club Next Door

My initial reaction was “No.  No, no, no.”  This couldn’t be happening.  The posted signs read “Hunting Club”.  The neighboring parcel had new orange, plastic signs and the news didn’t seem good.  There was already enough hunting pressure in the valley during gun season, did this mean even more tags were coming into the neighborhood?  In an area where is it not uncommon to experience between 80-90% buck exploitation, its easy to get discouraged with the prospect of more hunting pressure.  The knee jerk reaction is to freak out and start developing a grand plan to hunt harder than ever, invest in twice as many trail cameras for property surveillance and become more secretive than a CIA Black Site about your own hunting tactics, movements and successes.  Still, while a hunting club moving into the neighborhood might change the dynamics of the area, and a few more bucks might fall to the neighboring pressure, the outlook for the future isn’t all bad, and here’s why.

  1. New Opportunities-  When land changes hands, or a more formalized hunting organization is formed, it is a great opportunity to share your management goals with the new occupants.  New lessees or property owners probably have high hopes for the land they are investing time, energy and money into.  Chances are they are looking for a better opportunity than what they came from and may be the most receptive to the idea or the potential for managing the deer herd during that first year.  First impressions are invaluable and a simple conversation might be all that is required to get the new occupants to jump on board with some management initiatives.  Likewise, you may be able to forge acquaintances that allow you to keep track of harvest records and tally which bucks are taken and how many does are killed each year, giving you better insight into the condition of the overall herd in your area.
  2. New hunters don’t know the deer or the area- You have an advantage over the new guy in that you know the deer you are hunting and how they move through the area.  If you are doing your homework in the off season, you should have a pretty good handle on where they bed, feed and travel, or even which bucks survived the previous season.  Likewise, you should be working towards hunting them with a level of stealth that avoids unnecessary pressure, i.e. staying out of sensitive areas until the time is right, or, redefining your access to areas to avoid unwanted deer encounters on the way to stand sites.  Oftentimes, leases are reserved in the Spring, at the same exact time serious hunters should be in the woods scouting the land.  Many new land owners, or lessees wait until right before the season to scout and learn a property, and even then, it usually takes a few years to get a firm grip on how the deer utilize a parcel.  Having your scouting done, and stands hung, well prior to the season is to your benefit as you can leave your property unpressured leading up to the season.
  3.  Noisy neighbors equal even pressure- I’ve often caught myself in a bit of cognitive dissonance in that I see noisy neighbors as both a threat to keeping pressure off the deer herd and also assume that when a mature buck disappears it is because those same noisy neighbors shot him.  Somehow, I find myself assuming that the wary deer I struggle to kill each year are being harvested with ease by the same folks who are spending far less time deciphering their movements and placing significantly less value on stealthy access to their stand locations.  The reality of it is that the neighbors who take to the woods a day or two before season to check or hang stands are usually not the ones killing mature deer on a consistent basis.  They may luck into one here and there but a few bucks falling on the other side of the property line isn’t typically enough to make a significant impact on your hunting goals.  Often, the level of human activity surrounding hunting clubs ramps up immediately before gun season.  In these situations, a deer herd which is sensitive to the slightest changes in human pressure can easily be pushed off of the neighboring parcel and onto your piece.  If you have provided adequate cover, food and water, you may be able to hold bucks on your land during these times when the pressure from the hunting club is unusually high.  These are the times when your carefully planned access routes to and from your stands and using the wind, thermals and terrain to hide your movements and stay undetected, are especially key.  On opening day of gun season, it is imperative that we are in our stand locations 1-2 hours before daylight in our area.  When the neighboring hunters enter the timber 15-20 minutes before sun-up they are pushing the deer right through the travel corridors on our property which adjoin secure areas of adequate cover.                                                                                                                                                                           As much as pressure around opening day of gun season can push deer onto your property, pressure throughout archery season can cause the same effect.  If you are the only hunter in the neighborhood entering the woods for the first 45 days of season, it is likely that there is more human scent in your piece of timber than the neighbor’s.  Regardless of how careful you hunt, you are going to be burning some bridges when you dive into your better spots on those days that the conditions are just right.  While this might be the best move to put you in place to arrow your target buck, you have just laid ground scent on the way to your stand and any deer traveling by your stand location is likely to know a human was present; even for days after your hunt is over.  If your neighbors aren’t archery hunters, you may benefit from a deer herd that has little awareness of being hunted, while also disproportionately impacting your parcel in comparison with the pressure the deer are receiving next door.  The same way pressure pushes deer onto your land prior to gun season, it can push deer off your land if you over hunt and/or don’t plan carefully enough during archery season.  If the neighbors are in the timber during archery season, driving four wheelers, or accessing the same stand locations over and over on the wrong wind directions, the same deer you have found so difficult to kill will easily adapt to the habits of the neighboring hunting club.  This early season pressure can make your best spots heat up more quickly and your parcel can stay hot all season long if you continue to hunt smart and choose your hunting times and plan of attack wisely.
  4. Brown-Its-Down leaves older bucks for you- You’re wondering how the brown-its-down neighbor is a benefit, right?  Well, this one needs a little qualification in that if the hunting club next door is taking 10 yearling bucks off 100 acres, it might not be a benefit.  Indeed, high buck exploitation is a liability to management efforts.  But, consider the neighboring lease that holds three or four hunters on 100 acres and 75% of them fill their tag with the first yearling buck they see.  That 4 year old ten point you had pictures of all Fall is still out there for you to kill and most of the neighbors just burnt their tag on lesser deer.  Sure, the basket 6 pointer getting through the gun season might mean more good 2.5 and older deer in the area, but in much of North America, the harvest of a few young bucks isn’t going to be the end of your Quality Deer Management efforts.  I, for one, don’t mind if the neighbor wants to burn his tag on a tasty yearling and leave the older age classes for the rest of us.

The hunting club next door isn’t all bad news.  There may be a silver lining.  Just as you might catch yourself thinking all the bucks are being killed on the neighboring parcel, its likely that they are thinking the same thing about you.  As hunters we often fall into the false sense of the grass being greener on the other side of the fence, when in reality your grass can be plenty green if you play your cards right and hunt smarter than the other guy.

Had any experience with neighboring hunting clubs or property ownership transitions?  Send your thoughts to commongroundbowhunter@gmail.com

-Reuben Dourte

 

 


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Food Plot Seeds

Do Food Plot Blends Work?

Just about every seed company out there has somehow tried to capitalize on the growing trend of food plotting for whitetails.  Its hard to keep it all straight, and admittedly, I don’t have a very ‘green thumb’ myself.  There are plenty of resources to page through, but even that can become increasingly overwhelming; especially when one source seems to conflict with the other.  Because there is such a variety of hunters, soils, and terrain out there, some of the seed companies have developed blends which attempt to cast such a large net that I begin to question their effectiveness.  A cure-all is rarely, if ever, an effective perscription when food plotting because of all theaforementioned variances. So, a more taylored approach becomes conducive to the success of your plots.  Why spend money on a clover mix that contains clovers varieties that do not do well at Northern latitudes if you are food plotting in Northern Michigan or New York?  What about food plot blends that use Rye Grass instead of Winter Rye.  Rye grass may do well in your acidic soil, but is inferior as a food plot species to Rye Grain.  Just because your plot looks lush and green in November doesn’t mean the deer are drawn to it.  Or, why would you plant a product ‘designed’ for hunters all the way from Georgia to Maine when you are only huning in Ohio?

In my opinion, seed blends that try to provide something actually provide little for anyone.  There are indeed times to plant a seed blend in your food plots, and better yet, plot diversification can yield substantial positive results by tayloring the deer movement on a property.  The key is finding varieties of food plot species that compliment each other.  With that in mind, if you are looking to plant a food plot blend in the near future, here are a few that have worked well for us and are easy enough to establish:

  1. Clover blends- Clover is the first thing that people think about when it comes to food plotting.  Clover begins to provide nutrition relatively early in the spring and in most of the Northern latitudes it continues to provide forage for Whitetails into hunting season.  Many clover blends may include varieties of Chicory, however, we have found in our experience that the Clovers usually take over and the Chicory doesn’t last.  Planting a Clover mixture can benefit you with different attraction windows, varying drought resistances, production yields and even different pH tolerances.  Different Clovers can compliment each other and having a plot with a good mix can be of benefit.  The problem with Clover blends are that their window of attraction may be limited to the summer months and the first half of archery season, depending on where you hunt.  You may be attracting large volumes of deer to your land at the wrong times if you look solely to Clover blends to fill your food plots.
  2. Brassicas- In the food plotting world Brassicas encompass a large variety of plot species.  The most common species found in Brassica food plot blends are Rape, Turnip, Radish, and even Kale.  Deer will forage on the green tops of these plants and the varieties which produce bulbs (Turnip and Radish) provide food later into the winter months when deer will dig for them in your plot.  Beyond the draw Brassica plots have, they are also a good way to increase the organic matter in your soil as bulbs that are not consumed are left to rot in the ground.  Brassicas often come in a blend of some, or all, of the above mentioned species, and mutliple varieties of Turnips or Radish may be included in the same mix as well.  Brassicas present a good compliment to Clover for a few reasons.  The first being that they become attractive later in the season than Clover.  Meaning a brassica plot located next to a clover plot can keep deer utilizing your area after the clover is past its prime or consumed following several hard frosts.  Brassica plots can be a great attractant, coinciding with peak movement patterns of mature bucks late in October when the pre-rut may keep them on their feet longer but they may still utilize some semblence of a bed to food routine.  Later summer to early Fall plantings of Brassicas can provide a more easily established late season food source than Corn or Soybeans which require Spring to Early Summer plantings.  In areas that receive an abundance of spring rain or have wet soils in general, a late season crop that can be planted in mid August is very valuable.  Once the soil has had an opportunity to dry out it is easier to get into remote plots with equipment in order to establish a seed bed.  August plantings of Brassicas have a good chance of receiving the rainfall they require to produce an adequate yield since the driest months of summer are past and Fall rains can provide the necessary moisture for high production.  Brassica plots can also leave the ground in perfect condition for an early spring broadcast seeding of clover.  Through the process of Nitrogen fixing, clovers will put N back into your soil which is removed by the heavy feeding brassicas, thus making clover a convenient rotational follow up to a brassica plot.
  3. Oats, Peas, Wheat and Rye- In the past we have had success with a mixture of Oats and Winter Peas.  This mixture has proven to be highly attractive to deer as soon as the plants poke through the soil.  Like Brassicas, these annual plots can be established relatively easy in the late summer or early fall.  Blending Winter Wheat and Winter Rye into the mix provides a winter food source that will sustain deer into later months.  (Make sure the mix you are buying does not contain Rye grass.  Rye Grain (Winter Rye) and Rye grass are not the same thing and deer do not readily prefer Rye grass as a forage.)  In areas of higher deer densities, a plot of only Oats and Winter Peas can often be consumed well before the coldest fronts of December arrive, leaving you with a muddy plot of bare ground that has no attraction when you need it the most.  The Winter Wheat and Rye will become attractive after the Oats and Peas are consumed and will help to establish your food source as a destination for deer all through hunting season, and after.  Rye is a very forgiving to acidic soils and as such this mixture can be a good choice when establishing first year plots in areas that have gone fallow.  www.Northwoodswhitetails.com sells this mixture as their Fall Forage Blend and they have a very good reputation of developing a variety of highly attractive food plot blends for deer managers.  Establishing a plot of Oats, Peas, Wheat and Rye next to Brassicas can keep deer in your area all season long.

Seed blends can be effective for food plotters when they are utilized correctly.  However, picking up a bag that has a little of everything in it isn’t necessarily your best bet.  Managing what you are putting in your food plots, and even specific sections of your food plots, as well as when you are putting it there, is far more effective than planting a broad mixture across the whole area.  Carefully planned, segregated plantings of different species based on windows of attraction is a better approach when looking to maximize your food plot success.

-Reuben Dourte


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Whitetail Doe

Why We Are Going On Doe Patrol This Fall

2016 is going to be the year of the doe if we have anything to say about it.  After seeing our local population recede around 2009-2010 to the lowest number we had experienced in 20+ years, you may wonder why we would be interested in targeting a significant number of does again in the coming Fall.  The simple answer is space.

During the slump we experienced about 6-7 years ago its safe to say that we still didn’t have a whole lot of problem filling tags.  We shot the occasional buck and usually managed to fill the freezer with a few anterless deer as well.  However, the deer numbers weren’t what we were used to seeing, but that is not to say what we were used to seeing was a good thing either.  During this time I purposefully harvested a number of doe fawns in order to have less impact on the breeding age population of the resident doe family groups on our property.  Within a few short years we were again experiencing populations that could sustain a healthy mature doe harvest.  Careful to avoid a drastic swing pendulum swing, we resumed our doe harvest at a reasonable pace and began to keep up with the neighbors’ harvest numbers to a better extent.  With hunter sightings still below average, we began to notice that we managed to have our best years in buck encounters (age and size) for this property during the years we experienced the fewest doe sightings.  With local deer numbers lower, the understory of the timber began to rejuvenate and regrowth areas began to get thicker than ever.  This provided more and better bedding areas for bucks to take advantage of, and with fewer does frequenting the property there was less competition for the bedding cover that existed.

I believe bucks prefer to find secluded bedding that allows them to avoid human interaction as well as unwanted disturbances from other deer.  When our property was holding a lower number of does it provided more opportunities for bucks to find solitary, secure bedding.  Part of this phenomenon could be due to the crop rotation on the farm during these years.  The specific food source combination during those years, coupled with a noticeably lower deer density, made for some less eventful archery sits, but throughout the season, our success rate in seeing or harvesting antlered deer was actually higher than it has been during more recent years of higher overall hunter sightings.

The food we provide the deer on the property is fairly adequate.  Although we can always do better, the deer have food sources on a year round basis with a mixture of weeds/forbs in CRP fields to agricultural crops such as corn and alfalfa.  We also provide some supplemental nutrition through plantings of Brassicas and clovers (about 3.5 acres) and of course the deer utilize acorns, when available, and woody browse in the timber.  I bring this up to explain that the problem with a high deer density on this property is not nutritional carrying capacity; winter kill is rarely an issue.  The problem is bedding capacity.  There are only a few primary bedding areas on the farm and fewer yet that are easily huntable.  Much of the bedding occurs just over the property line on the neighbor’s land and the deer cross onto our parcel to feed.  While our habitat projects include the establishment of new bedding areas in huntable locations as well as the enhancement of current bedding areas to give them more side cover, and allow for the property to “hunt larger”, current conditions are such that we can afford to eliminate some of the doe population to make room for bucks to use the property as a primary bedding location.

While additional harvest is one way to combat this problem, we will also look to manage our food sources and assess when our property is attractive to the local deer herd.  In years where the farmer has the ag fields in alfalfa, our clover food plots and the large destination food sources are becoming attractive at relatively the same time; late Spring to early Fall.  By late October the frosts begin to take a toll on the alfalfa and our clover plots are often reduced to mud.  There is little attractive food source on our property when the best part of bow season is starting.  We managed to attract deer to our property all summer and sustain a large local doe population, which in turn seems to have pushed bucks onto neighboring properties to bed during daylight hours.  The best we can hope for is for those bucks to return for a cruise in early November when the estrous does begin to draw them to their feet.

A more desirable situation would be to have highly attractive food sources maturing at different times throughout the Fall to attract and hold bucks once they reestablish from their summer ranges.  Having brassica plots next to plots of peas, oats, with winter wheat and rye, and additional plots of standing corn or beans provides the deer a consistent food source that are all utilized and desirable at different times.

Appropriate food plot timing mixed with a year or two of persistent and deliberate doe management can create a property that will lend itself to daylight use by a more mature age class of buck.  Smart hunting and careful stand access can provide opportunities for an entire season, instead of crossing one’s fingers and hoping to catch a rutting buck during the first two weeks of November.

-Reuben Dourte

 


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food plot

Plot Screens

Often a hunting property in laid out in a way that the cabin or residence is located in such that it makes accessing the property in an undetected fashion incredibly difficult.  On our property in New York, the cabin is situated at the center of the property overlooking a large open field.  The public road runs through the center of the property along the edge of the field.  This situation is less than ideal for a number of reasons, but back when the property was purchased we didn’t consider things like road frontage and dwelling location to be a liability to our hunting efforts.

The first and most obvious problem with a large amount of road frontage along an open food source is the risk of poaching.  Certainly we aren’t immune to this, but I don’t think a whole lot of it occurs in our immediate area.  Maybe its naivety on my part, but our ground is visible to a trusted neighbor and it would be bold for someone to be shooting deer from the road at this location, much less retrieving them.  If you have an open field along the road that is completely out of sight of any neighbors and your frequency to the property is limited, or pattern-able by poachers, you may want to consider methods to hide these food sources from public view.

A more often overlooked problem with road frontage, or a less than ideal cabin location, is the access routes you must use to go to and from your treestand.  If a deer is feeding in an adjacent alfalfa field early in the morning as you attempt to leave the cabin en route to your favorite stand, you have a high likelihood of bumping that deer off the food source and pressuring your deer herd before you ever get the chance to hunt them.  Depending where you are going and where you are pushing the deer to, you may very well be spooking the deer you are trying to hunt before it is even shooting light.

Access routes through timber can often be strategically planned in order to avoid deer dense areas.  You may be able to access a stand early in the morning before most deer have returned to their bedding areas within the cover or you may be able to wait until well after dark to leave you stand, when the deer have moved out into the destination food sources.  The problem arises when you are attempting to access an area that is either extremely close to bedding or requires you to traverse an open area before you are able to get to the stand location you want to hunt which may further into the cover.  This is where screening cover can be a game changer.

Food plot and field screens can allow you to skirt open areas while remaining undetected by deer that are in relatively close proximity to your travel route.  Like side cover in a thick bedding area, screens can make a small property hunt bigger by allowing you to access more of the property without applying pressure to the deer herd you are trying to hunt.  When accessing your stands it is important to avoid detection from sight, sound and smell.  If the quiet, downwind approach to your best travel corridor leading to a micro food plot requires you to traverse an open field that is overlooked by a bedding ridge, the deer you want to intercept during your hunt have likely seen you and moved out of the area before you have a chance to set foot in your stand.  However, by planting a ten foot wide screen of Egyptian wheat that may grow to 10 or 12 feet, you can potentially give yourself the hidden access you need to get in and out of more sensitive stand locations.

Egyptian wheat is an annual that grows to full height in just a few months.  Late May to mid June plantings work best for most areas.  Perennial grasses or shrubs, like switchgrass of evergreen trees, take longer to establish but can often be planted in layers with Egyptian wheat so that you have a screen while your perennials mature.  Deer also do not eat Egyptian wheat which is a benefit to establishing an adequate stand.  Having a screen that attracts deer to it is the opposite of productive and if you have a high deer density, you screening cover can be eaten, leaving you with an exposed access route once again.  Because Egyptian wheat is cheap and the seed goes a long way, it is also a good economical alternative for roadside screens to cut down on poaching or even pressure from legal shining. Screens can give the added benefit of providing deer with security to feed in small plots during daylight hours.  Instead of providing a wide open field which requires a deer to commit to exposing themselves for hundreds of yards, small food plots can be secluded through the use of plot screens and you can capitalize on deer movement patterns which are influenced in part by the added sense of security this visual barrier provides.

One of your number one objectives should be defining low pressure stand access routes on your hunting properties.  If you have the ability to make alterations to the property, screens along food plot and food source edges can be a vital tool in accomplishing low impact sits this fall.  The less unwanted encounters with deer on the way to and from the stand the better.  This serves to keep the local herd in an undisturbed food to bed pattern and allows you to potentially enjoy more daylight mature buck movement on your properties.

Have you tried planting plot screens to aid in your stand access?  Email me your thoughts at commongroundbowhunter@gmail.com

-Reuben Dourte

Note: You can find Egyptian Wheat seed at www.northwoodswhitetails.com