Shadow of hunter holder antlers

Deer Management | Short– and Long-term Strategies to Maximize a Buck’s Potential

As deer hunters, it can be difficult at times to think beyond what this falls hunt has in store. But deer hunters who are serious about deer management realize it takes both short- and long-term strategies to maximize the antler and body size of the bucks they’re chasing. This becomes increasingly more difficult if you don’t see immediate results, but remember that there is no “silver bullet” in deer management. Managing for mature whitetails takes both persistence and patience. Here are several things to consider when trying to increase antler size for this fall’s hunt as well as things to think about to consisntely produce larger bucks in the future. Here are 7 things you can do to maximize your buck’s potential, split of course between short- and long-term deer management strategies.

Short-term Strategies

Food Plots

One of the most common methods people use to increase deer antler size in any given year is planting food plots. Food plots are great for several reasons. They can help you inventory your hit list bucks during late summer by providing a high-quality food source for your herd. They also can help pregnant does produce high quality milk after dropping their fawns. One of the most obvious advantages of food plots is they give you a place to target for hunting in the fall.

So which supplemental food plots should you plant to help increase antler size in any given year? You generally want to focus on plants that have a high crude protein content and will be available to bucks during the spring and summer months when they are growing their antlers. There are several perennial plants (plants that regrow every year) that are good choices for your food plots. Ladino white clover, red clover, alfalfa, and chicory are all good choices but it’s important to remember that planting dates for these species differ depending on where you live. Usually you will want to plant in the spring if you find yourself in a northern state while you’ll want to plant in the fall if you’re in the south. These species also may take a year or so to really become established. An annual (only grows once) plant species that is high quality is soybeans. Soybeans are great because their leaves have a high crude protein content in the summer time and their pods are high in energy content during the winter. It’s important to plant a forage variety of soybeans if you are going to plant a small food plot (less than 5-10 acres) in an area that has a high deer density because deer are known to browse soybeans to the point that they die.

Habitat Management

Habitat management such as thinning trees can increase the quality of food available to your deer herd. Although we think about deer eating in agricultural fields during the summer, they still also browse in the woods. Woody browse generally comprises a majority of a deer’s diet depending on what part of the country you find yourself in. By thinning the forest, you allow sunlight to hit the forest floor, which allows several high-quality plant species to grow. If you harvest timber in the wintertime, you will start to see new vegetation growing that following spring and summer. Similar to food plots, it may take a year or so for this to really take effect. You should consult with a forester if you’re considering doing a large-scale timber harvest because they will help you reach your management goals for your timber.

Supplemental Mineral

Providing supplemental mineral seems to be a logical management tool to increase a buck’s antler size. However, the jury is still out on the overall effectiveness of these supplemental mineral sites. Research has shown that the two minerals most used by a buck during the antler-growing season are phosphorous and calcium though researchers and managers don’t fully understand the potential benefits that supplemental minerals may provide pregnant does. Regardless, there’s one consistent regarding supplemental mineral sites; all deer use them. Be sure to check your state regulations on using supplemental mineral, as it may be illegal within your state or area.

If using mineral is illegal where you hunt, then consider providing natural mineral sites by cutting down smaller diameter (about 10”) trees. When a tree is cut down the size of its root system is disproportionately larger than the tree itself. This results in a greater amount of minerals being produced in the new sprouts that are emerging from the stumps. This situation creates highly nutritious deer browse even for tree species that would otherwise only be considered moderate quality deer browse.

Long-term Strategies

Although it is much easier to decide what management strategies you might use within a given year to try to increase the overall antler size of bucks on your property, the rubber really meets the road when thinking about long-term, large-scale strategies. Thinking about things for the long haul is really the key to consistently producing big mature bucks on your property.

Deer Density

Planting supplemental food plots and improving habitat through management techniques such as timber harvest will increase the amount of food available for your deer herd, but generally speaking, you don’t want to have just “enough” food. You’re much better off if you have abundant food so there is no potential for food to be a limiting factor for your deer herd. To accomplish this, you will likely need to reduce the overall population size by harvesting more does. But how many does should you harvest? This is where you should consult with your state agency’s area wildlife biologist. Several states will conduct a trail camera survey to estimate the population size and will then make recommendations about how many deer you should harvest to reach your management goals. Most habitat types can support one deer per ten acres so that’s a good goal to shoot for. If your state agency cannot conduct a trail camera survey for you, you can do it yourself but be sure to consider your state’s baiting laws because trail camera surveys require establishing bait sites. You can find more information here on how to conduct your own trail camera survey.

Establish Goals and Record Data

We all can relate to the excitement of pulling trail cameras at the end of the summer to see what hit list bucks we might have around for the fall. If we are lucky we might see a picture of a 160-inch buck and for most of us, that’s more than big enough. But the reality is that most hunters will not have consistent opportunities to harvest bucks of that caliber. Instead, we need to be much more realistic with our management goals. This often times means managing our expectations on the size of deer we expect to harvest. Maybe harvesting 120- to 130-inch deer is more realistic for your property. If so, there’s nothing wrong with that but having realistic expectations will often times relieve future frustrations.

Once you have established and written down your goals, you will need to collect harvest data to evaluate whether you are reaching your goals. Collecting harvest data is really where deer management begins. Collecting simple pieces of information such as a deer’s age, antler size, and body weight can help you reach your management goals. There is a lot of information out there to help you age a deer based off the tooth replacement and wear technique. Otherwise, you can remove one of the deer’s incisors and send it into a lab where they will age the tooth based off its cementum annuli (think of this like a tree’s growth rings).  

Lay Off the Trigger

So what do you do with all of the harvest data you’ve collected? The answer is pretty simple, you can now put it to use to help manage your deer herd. For example, after looking at your harvest data you may realize that the average antler size of your harvested bucks is about 110 inches and those bucks are only 2.5-years-old on average. This information can dramatically help you reach your management goals because most 2.5-year-old bucks have only reached about 62% of their maximum antler size. This means that those 110-inch 2.5-year-olds you are harvesting now would be about 150 inches at maturity. That’s an antler score that would meet just about any hunter’s goals.

Helping bucks reach maturity is really pretty simple and it starts with you being able to lay off the trigger. Many hunters like to say that a buck will get shot by their neighbors so why not shoot him yourself? This may or may not be true, but the only thing you can control as a hunter is whether you pull the trigger or not. You can guarantee that a buck will not survive to the following year if you are the one pulling the trigger. That’s not to say that there is anything wrong with harvesting young deer depending on what your goals are for a specific property and as a hunter in general. But producing consistently big bucks becomes much more difficult if you do not have the restraint to give them a pass when they’re young. Simply put, the easiest thing you can do to increase antler size is to increase the age structure of your deer herd and the only way to do this is to pass on young bucks.

 Property Size

Most hunters don’t have the luxury of owning massive tracts of land to deer hunt on but that’s O.K. There are several examples of people harvesting big mature whitetails on properties that are less than 40-acres. But if you don’t have the opportunity to manage about 1000 acres of property and want to increase the number of mature whitetails you have available during the hunting season then it’s time to start talking to your neighbors.

First, why do you need 1000 acres to consistently produce mature whitetails? This is based on the average home range (or area a buck lives in) being about 1000 acres. This means if you are managing less than 1000 acres, several buck’s home ranges probably include other properties. Although 1000 acres tends to be a general rule of thumb, there are some states such as Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin that seem to continuously produce big bucks regardless of the amount of property that is being managed.

Regardless of where you’re hunting, talking to your neighbors and creating cooperatives where you share the same goals regarding size and age of deer you hope to harvest will always benefit you as a hunter not only in helping you reach your goals, but also in improving neighbor relations.

Hopefully, you will be able to use some of the deer management strategies discussed here to help increase antler size not only for this upcoming fall, but also for many years to come.