By Don Higgins
“If I don’t shoot him, the neighbors will!” How many times have you heard this from someone who just shot a buck smaller than their real goal? It is the universal excuse for an itchy trigger finger. I often tell those attending my seminars to “don’t be that neighbor!”
In all seriousness, losing young bucks to other hunters on neighboring properties is a real issue for most whitetail managers who are trying to grow bigger bucks. Growing bigger bucks means growing older bucks. We have to get some age on them to allow them to reach their genetic potential.
This is a struggle that I can easily relate to as I have dealt with it as much as anyone. I lose some nice up-and-comer bucks on my small 120-acre farm just like most other deer managers. Just last season, for example, I had a 2 ½-year-old 15-point buck that had 200” written all over him 3-4 years down the road. Unfortunately for me, he was killed during the gun season about a mile away. There have been some other very memorable bucks that I had high hopes for as well that were also killed by other hunters on other properties.
Losing some young bucks is just a part of the game that I have learned to accept and no longer lose any sleep over. If a hunter is hunting legally and ethically then I offer them a sincere congratulations on their success. With that said, I also do everything possible to keep bucks on my property for as many daylight hours as possible and in turn, I also have plenty of younger bucks that do survive to older age classes.
Managing my property for bigger bucks for the past 30+ years has taught me many valuable lessons. In fact, my recent success has been better than I ever dreamed possible, having shot two bucks scoring more than 200” in the past 4 seasons on my 120 acres. Very few properties of any size in all of North America can match this track record and I don’t know of any property this size or smaller that can match this claim. (not saying that they don’t exist)
Before we move on, let me throw another interesting fact at you. When I first started developing my 120-acre property into a whitetail paradise 30 years ago, the cover was sparse and the deer were few. For a number of years, in the beginning, the biggest buck on the farm each season would be around 150”. Year after year there would be at least one buck that would nudge the 150” mark, and about every 3-4 years there would be one a little bigger, closer to 170”.
Today my 120-acre property will have at least one buck over 170” every year and every 3-4 years there will be one noticeably bigger. The 206” buck I shot in 2017 and the 220” buck from 2020 are examples of these. In all honesty, most years I now have multiple bucks over 170” on my property.
Over the past 30 years, I have raised the score of the top bucks on my farm by over 20”. I did not do this by design but more by accident as 30 years ago I possessed only a fraction of the whitetail management knowledge that I have today. I still have a lot to learn and never refer to myself as an expert but I am extremely confident that I can replicate this success on other properties and in fact have done so numerous times for my consulting clients.
Today I have bigger bucks to hunt on my farm for two primary reasons. First, today I have more bucks on my farm. With more bucks, the odds are greater that one or two of them will carry bigger antler genetics. Secondly, I have more older bucks on my farm than I did 20-30 years ago. Older bucks obviously have bigger antlers than they did when they were younger in most cases. If I have 4-6 bucks that are 4 ½ years old and older rather than 1-2 bucks in these age classes, the odds are much better that one or two of them will have bigger racks.
Having more bucks in older age classes on a property is certainly a winning recipe for consistently killing giants, but how do we do this if the neighbors aren’t on board with the same management plan? What if I told you that you can build an invisible fence around your property in a sense? I’m not talking science-fiction here either; let me explain.
When I started managing my property 30+ years ago, it was no different/better than any other property in the neighborhood. Up to this point, all of my hunting had been done on either public land or small properties where I had permission to hunt. I was young and ambitious and hunted nearly every day of the season, even taking the entire month of November off from my job each fall just to hunt.
Each season I would be hunting some new properties as deer activity on my old ones would peter out. A property might start out red hot but halfway through the season deer sightings became rarer and rarer. Finally, I figured out that the problem was ME! I was putting way too much pressure on all parts of the properties I hunted and would soon burn them out.
I figured this out about the same time I acquired my farm so as I started managing it and developing better habitat, I knew that human intrusion, or rather lack thereof, was a huge key to making my property the best that it could be.
Right out of the gate I limited human intrusion to the point that most deer hunters would think I was being way too conservative and thus counter-productive to success. In other words, I put almost no pressure on my property and avoided some great stand locations because they simply required too much human intrusion to access. I recognized even all those years ago that in order to kill the bucks I was after, I needed to hunt them on the properties where they bedded. In order to get them to bed on my property, I needed to stay the heck out of the cover!
I am sure that the obvious question is, where do I hunt? All of my hunting is done on the very edge of the cover. I literally give the deer the heart of the cover and hunt only select stand locations on the edges. I feel that as long as I can keep a buck bedding on my property and moving comfortably, I will eventually get a chance to kill him. On the other hand, if I push too far into the cover and bump the buck I am after, he may very well leave and start bedding elsewhere. If that happens, my odds of killing that buck tanks.
When I started working on my property 30 years ago the local deer didn’t feel any safer on my farm than they did on any other. If I would jump a deer on my place it would run from my property as if being chased by demons and wouldn’t stop until it was out of sight. Today when I jump a deer on my place it often just runs a short distance without leaving the property. Over decades of time and generations of deer, the local whitetails have learned that my property is hands-down the safest place in the neighborhood. Sure, I still lose some bucks as referenced earlier in this article, however, if I can get a buck to survive past gun season when he is a 3 ½-year-old, the odds are very good that I can get him to 6 ½ years old.
The older bucks in my neighborhood spend a disproportionate amount of daylight hours on my property compared to surrounding properties. What’s more, this tendency just continues to be more pronounced with the local deer with each passing year. It is as if each new generation of deer becomes more connected to my farm recognizing it as the safest place in the area. In turn, they are not only becoming more accepting of me and my presence, but they also seem to be more willing to move in daylight, including the mature bucks!
Now I can only imagine that a few of you are now smirking and thinking to yourselves, “Yeah, right!”. Well before you totally dismiss my observations as folly, I want to share some very interesting and well-documented information.
Some time ago I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal which documented a situation with red deer in Germany. This article quickly had me thinking about the deer on my Illinois farm and wondering just how little we really know about whitetails.
The Berlin Wall once separated East Germany from Czechoslovakia. In 1989 the wall came down. In fact, in many places, the “Iron Curtain” was not an actual wall but instead was a high electric fence with barbed wire and machine gun-carrying guards. This barrier separated not only people but for wildlife including the red deer which lived on both sides. In December 1989 after the barrier was removed, representatives from East Germany and West Germany met to declare an area once divided by the fence as a nature preserve. That area is still a nature preserve today, called the “Green Belt”.
Several years later scientists from both sides somehow suspected that the red deer were not crossing the border even though all physical barriers had been removed. In 2002 (13 years after the removal of the fence barrier) scientists on one side began fitting red deer with radio collars to track their movements. In 2005 the same thing happened with the red deer on the other side. Their findings were remarkable.
The red deer from both sides refused to cross the imaginary line that once marked the Iron Curtain. This was despite the fact that every animal alive was at least 3 or 4 generations removed from the animals that were actually alive when the wall stood! That wall meant death and danger to not only the people in that region but to the red deer as well. The danger represented by the wall became so ingrained in the red deer that it was somehow passed on to future generations. Today it has been more than 30 years since the fall of the barrier and yet many red deer still refuse to cross although it is happening more and more. This is primarily young males searching for new territory.
I encourage you to do an internet search for “red deer berlin wall” and read countless articles about this phenomenon. I think you will find it extremely interesting and very easy to relate it to whitetails.
Now you tell me if a German red deer can know about a danger that never existed in its lifetime or even its parent’s lifetime, is it really a far stretch to think that a whitetail doe can teach her fawns where they are safe and where they are not? What about a young buck who is traveling and hanging with an older buck? In regards to my own property, I believe that I have in a sense “trained” the local deer to recognize it as the safest place in the neighborhood.
Personally, I am not sure any of us give mature whitetails enough credit. One thing is for sure, there is a lot we DON’T know about them. I personally will continue to give them the utmost respect and credit. Short-changing the whitetail’s ability to adapt and cope with all that we throw at them is a recipe for failure when dealing with mature bucks.
After 30 years of managing my property for bigger bucks, I have learned a lot and I continue to learn more with each passing season. I have also changed the habits of the deer in my neighborhood and on my property. They recognize my farm as the place to be when the sun is up and they feel more comfortable moving in daylight. Sure, I still lose some young bucks but I also save some. Then, once a buck reaches 4 ½ years old in my neighborhood, I have as good a chance to kill him as anyone.