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DIY Quality Deer Management (QDM)

The string of bucks waltzing past my stand was incredible on this late-season hunt. A snow storm was forecast for overnight and apparently, the local deer had heard the weather report. On this afternoon hunt, it seemed every deer in the area was on their feet and either feeding or moving toward food sources in anticipation of what was to come. My stand was in the perfect funnel right between a prime bedding area and a Real World soybean plot, the hottest food source for miles around. 

Among the numerous deer passing my stand were several bucks. They came alone, in pairs, and in groups of up to five at once. By the time the sun had set on this hunt, I had seen seventeen different antlered bucks and countless does and fawns. While I didn’t draw my bow on this hunt I was sure smiling as I quietly slipped away in the fading light. I knew I was on to something big … in more ways than one.

This hunt took place almost two decades ago but it was one that I will never forget as it opened my eyes to the possibilities and even the clear advantages of managing a small property for quality whitetail hunting without any support from surrounding landowners. In every direction of this property the hunting pressure was substantial and any buck no matter its size was a target to nearly every hunter in the area. In spite of this, I was seeing some real benefits to my solo deer management efforts.

My work as a whitetail consultant brings me in contact with a lot of clients and potential clients every year. Before I ever agree to accept a new client I ask a series of questions and look at an aerial of the property. I do this to make sure that I can truly be of service to those who hire me. It is very common for me to have a potential client tell me excitedly that their property is surrounded by other properties that are well-managed for big deer. It is as if this is an understood huge step towards success. Wellll …. Not so fast.

There are certainly advantages to having every landowner in the neighborhood practice a similar management approach. The more hunters let the young bucks live the older and bigger bucks that will be available to shoot. I won’t deny that. However, I am probably going to raise a few eyebrows when I say with all sincerity that I prefer a property with a good amount of hunting pressure all around it! 

So now I have either got your full attention or you are ready to turn the page thinking “this guy is nuts”. Please bear with me as I am about to share some thoughts and ideas that not only make sense when given careful consideration but ones that I have also proven viable time and time again on multiple properties including some very small ones.

I often tell my clients or the students attending my Whitetail Master Course classes to think of their property as one small square on a giant checkerboard with hundreds of other squares. We need to do everything we can to make our “square” stand out in a deer’s eyes from all of the other squares on the board. Your square needs to address as many of a deer’s needs as possible but especially “security”. 

The more hunting pressure on surrounding properties, the easier it is for a good land manager to make his property stand out. On the other hand, imagine how difficult it is for a landowner to make his property stand out from those surrounding it if they are all well-managed. A mature buck is just as likely to be on any of your neighbor’s land as he is on yours. If you have the only true security cover in your area while all of your neighbors are stomping every inch of their farms without regard to things like wind direction, access routes to and from stands, etc, then it becomes very easy to get the best buck in the neighborhood to stay on your land. I do it all the time on multiple properties and a lot of my clients and students do it also.

So let’s look at two different scenarios. Let’s assume you own two very similar 40-acre tracts of land. Tract-1 is situated within an area where good deer management is practiced on nearly every property. Tract-2 is situated in an area with heavy hunting pressure and a kill’em all mentality among the local hunters. Let’s assume there is a 5 ½ year-old 170-class buck in each area. Which buck is going to be easier to kill?

I am here to tell you without a doubt in my mind, year in and year out, that the buck on the farm surrounded by heavy hunting pressure is going to be easier to kill. Why? … because he is much more likely to spend more of his daylight hours on your 40-acre tract in a heavily hunted area than the buck living in the area where the neighboring farms are managed the same as yours. In the latter situation, a mature buck is just as safe on Tom, Dick, or Harry’s farm as he is on yours. He simply has no particular reason to be on your property over those that surround it. In that situation, it becomes very difficult for you to set your property apart from those surrounding it. On the other hand, if your property is the safest place in the neighborhood, that is where a mature buck is most likely to be.

Another thing that I often tell my clients and students is that to consistently kill mature bucks you have to hunt them on the properties where they spend their daylight hours; where they bed. If you are just one property over from where a buck beds, your odds of killing him are about 10% what they would be if you were on the same property. Think about that! You need to be hunting your target bucks on the properties where they bed. It is a very simple fact that most deer hunters have never considered.

A lot of hunters think that smaller properties mean smaller odds for tagging big mature bucks. Nothing could be further from the truth. I would rather own ten different 40 acre tracts than a single 400 acre tract for multiple reasons. If I can get a mature buck bedding on a 40 acre tract I know that every time I hunt that property the odds are good that I am within a couple hundred yards or so of that buck. On a 400-acre tract that same buck may be a half mile from my stand and yet still be on my property.

Let’s look at the idea of multiple smaller properties versus a single larger property from another angle. If your multiple smaller properties are scattered over a wide area, you should be hunting a different herd of deer at each one. Hunting multiple herds means that your odds are better for finding a buck that meets your goals. This is especially important as ones goals get lofty. If you want to hunt a 170” buck every year, on most properties this won’t be possible. With multiple properties your odds really increase. 

Now I need to throw out a disclaimer that not all small properties lay out well for managing deer. If you have hunters sitting your fence in all directions, you will never have the kind of results you are probably hoping for. The smaller the property the more important it becomes that it is layed out well and hunted properly. The key here is not to make the mistake of thinking it can’t be done.

How a property lays out in relation to surrounding properties is something we can’t do anything about. Some properties will naturally be much better than others and we simply have to accept that since we can’t change it. There are some things we can do to make any property better however.

To start we can enhance any property with improvements to the bedding cover, food sources, water sources and other factors that will increase deer usage. A well-thought out plan can turn a so-so property into a good or even great one. How much impact these enhancements will have depends on numerous factors some of which we can control and some we can’t. For example where we locate our food sources or bedding cover can influence their success although granted on some properties there may only be one option for these things.

The thing we can do with any property to make it better no matter it’s size or where it is located is control human intrusion and traffic on it. When I meet with my clients for the first time some of them think I am going to lay out a design for their property and tell them where to put their stands and they will magically start shooting mature bucks. While these things are very important pieces to the puzzle, how they hunt and manage the property, or their own actions, will also be critical to their success.

The best whitetail property in North America can be quickly ruined by bad hunting practices or poor management. When a property is properly managed, a serious hunter should be able to consistently kill the biggest bucks bedding on it year after year. For example stands should all have great access routes and only be hunted with the proper wind direction. I have walked away from many good stand sites because access was marginal. Hunting those stands would quickly educate the deer and not only ruin the stand but sour the property. Likewise hunting a stand with the wrong wind would do the same. This is just one example of bad management but there are several more.

Small properties can be fantastic, even ones in heavily hunted areas however the margin for error becomes very critical when compared to larger properties. You don’t get the chance to make many mistakes on a smaller tract or your odds of killing a good buck drop drastically. 

When I have shared some of these thoughts with others in the past I often get the argument that with bigger properties that are within areas with other well managed properties there are a lot more big bucks to hunt/kill. That is absolutely true but there are also a lot more places for those bucks to safely hide and a lot more serious hunters after them. What are your odds of being that one hunter whose land a big mature buck decides to reside on? Or the first hunter the buck walks out in front of? I promise you, when I have a mature buck bedding on one of the properties I hunt, nobody on the planet has a better chance to kill him than I do.

A lot of hunters who know me only through my writings mistakenly think that I hunt larger properties that are much better than the properties that they have access to. Nothing could be further from the truth. The property I own is only 120 acres and is the best property I have access to. The majority of the properties I hunt have less than 30 acres of cover and permission to hunt them is gained by knocking on doors. Everything I do is well thought out, calculated and with a purpose, that is the difference. 

The late legendary Roger Rothhaar told me decades ago that when a deer hunter hangs a stand he should instantly be able to rattle off at least a half-dozen reasons why he put his stand in that exact tree. At the time I didn’t fully understand but today I know exactly what Roger was talking about. When I hang a stand I know exactly the time of season, time of day, wind direction, access route and other critical details that will dictate when I hunt that stand. There is a big difference between killing mature bucks and killing mature bucks consistently. Consistent success is by design.

Managing a property for mature bucks in an area where nobody else is on the same page requires a whole lot more than simply letting the little bucks live. You’ve got to fool those young bucks into thinking they are safe on your property so they stay there to grow old. The deer on your property cannot know they are being hunted or your property becomes no better than the one across the fence. It is a process with many steps.

If you hunt in an area where a lot of the properties are being strictly managed for mature deer, that’s great! By all means make the most of it. However if you hunt an area where hunting pressure is intense and the neighbors won’t let a fawn walk let alone a yearling buck, all hope is not lost. You won’t get away with some of the things the guys on the big managed deer ranches do but you can still make regular trips to the taxidermist. I know because I do it and so do many of my clients!