Micro-Manage Your Deer Sanctuary

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deer hunting grounds
Keep the area sacred. Make them feel safe on your hunting grounds. Hunter shown wearing Mathews Lost Camo.

And, when no other thick cover is available, switchgrass can be an extremely effective sanctuary. A few years ago an Iowa deer hunter planted 28 acres of switchgrass on his farm. In back-to-back years in the mid-90’s, he took B & C bucks from that single field during the shotgun season. Deer moved into the thick cover when ousted from more traditional deer habitat nearby.

Just because you have thick cover doesn’t mean you have a sanctuary. You still have to adopt a method for protecting the deer. In other words, you have to stay out of these safe havens. This can be the toughest part of the process, but also the most valuable. Choose as large a chunk of your hunting area as possible and designate it as a sanctuary. Don’t allow anyone into the area at any time for any reason. This is the only way you can have a long-term impact on the number of older age class bucks on your land.

Creating a Vacuum

It’s a common misconception that if you have a large number of does you’ll draw the bucks in during the rut. Draw them from where? Unless other landowners nearby are passing small bucks, there won’t be mature bucks of any number to draw in. You need to focus on creating an environment where you can hold a few bucks yourself and help them reach maturity.

Studies have suggested that by harvesting does you increase the likelihood that buck fawns will stay at home. Though there is only a limited amount of data concerning this subject, the numbers are very compelling. In one study conducted in 1992, biologists Holzenbein and Marchinton radio tracked 15 buck fawns that had been orphaned shortly after weaning (the reasonable timing of their first hunting season). They also tracked 19 buck fawns that grew up with their mothers. By age 2 ½ years, 87% of the bucks that grew up with their mothers had dispersed away from the mother’s home range while only 9% of the orphaned bucks had dispersed. In other words, 91% of them had taken up permanent residence in their original home range!

The conclusion that can be drawn from this study is quite obvious. You need to harvest a reasonable number of the does in your area each year. Not only will this keep the population in check, but also you may actually be able to keep some of the bucks from dispersing. Most biologists agree that approximately 1/3 of your does can be harvested each year without a population meltdown. Of course, if you take too many (very difficult to do) you can always back off for a year or two to let the numbers rebound.

It’s a lot of work to take out a meaningful number of does each year. It also creates a certain amount of impact on the rest of the herd. There are many managers who like to take the does as early in the fall as possible (bow season), for two reasons. First, any bucks that get bumped out during the effort will have forgotten about the intrusion by the time gun season opens and will be back. Second, taking does before they’re bred makes sense because natural selection requires that the most dominant bucks do most of the breeding. It’s not worth taking the risk that the best buck in the area might have bred the doe that you just shot.

Food Sources

Food is the next important requirement. Even in areas that don’t have a food shortage you can still improve your hunting area by offering the most desirable food source around. Deer will set up their core areas around preferred food sources. Bucks will seek out high protein clover, peas, beans and alfalfa during the summer and some will remain nearby after the bachelor groups break up in early fall. Of course, a high protein food source will also promote maximum antler development.

One deer hunter we talked to is a micro-management nut. He’s taken his food plots to the extreme. In addition to the standard variety of clovers, he has actually high-fenced a sizable corn food plot to prevent any depredation during the summer. He’ll drop the fence in the fall whereupon he’ll be sure to have the best food source in the area.

With all that’s been written about food plot selection, there's no need to go too deep into this subject. However, there are two bits of advice. First, when micro-managing your property, focus most of the food near the center - away from the boundaries so you have a better chance of protecting the deer. Second, offer foods that will attract and hold deer at all times of the year: high protein foods in the summer (types already mentioned) and high carbohydrate foods in the fall and winter (corn, sorghum).

Water Supply

Finally, in some areas water becomes the limiting factor. You must have an adequate water supply on your property or you won’t hold the deer. A recently interviewed deer manager who lives in South Texas faces water supply problems every year. Without a pumping system designed to keep his cattle watered, he wouldn’t have nearly as many bucks on his ranch. Though you may not face annual droughts, it still pays to assure a constant supply of water. If your property doesn’t have a pond or year-round creek, consider making a small collection pond. Again, keep it near the center of your property.

Large Property Deer Management

deer sanctuary
The larger the property, the easier it is to maintain the deer sanctuary. Hunter shown wearing Mathews Lost Camo.

You don’t have to be nearly as creative when managing large properties. First, you will have better control of the total harvest in the area making it much easier for you to reduce the harvest rate of young bucks. Second, the need for sanctuaries starts to go down. With a large property, it is generally not going to see the same level of hunting pressure as a smaller property and therefore the bucks aren’t as likely to be pushed off. Third, water becomes less of a factor on the whole because large properties generally take in several springs, ponds, creeks, etc.

Just because you don’t have to be as creative, doesn’t mean that you won’t still benefit from micro-managing a large property. To realize the greatest results from your deer management efforts, you should break the property up into smaller blocks and manage each block as if it is the only piece you own. In typical southern, Midwestern and eastern settings the management blocks should be about 160 acres. In more open settings where deer are prone to roam more, such as many parts of the Great Plains, the blocks can be about twice as large. Within each block provide all the essentials: water - food and security – and work to balance the buck to doe ratio.

Conclusion

Any time you attempt to manage deer populations you are dealing with many variables that you neither control nor totally understand. Therefore, it is not wise to attempt to evaluate your progress too early in the program. It’s a long-term commitment. Hopefully, as you start to enjoy more success harvesting older age class bucks in the coming years, your neighbors will also catch on, opening up the possibility for combined efforts and even greater impact.

Your rewards won’t come only in shed antlers. There is also something very satisfying about working with the land and the resource for the betterment of the game you hunt.

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