By Cody Altizer
If you’ve followed my posts on Wired to Hunt over the last several months you’ve probably learned that I’m a huge advocate of Quality Deer Management (QDM). I realize that not all hunters have the time, land, or resources to be a member or fully adopt their practices, but I strongly encourage those who can to give it a try. It’s a great organization that educates, informs and protects our hunting rights.
That being said, when you think of QDM you probably think about running a chainsaw hinge cutting trees in the summer, planting food plots in the spring, taking care of those food plots during the summer and running trail cameras to pattern big bucks. However, once hunting season rolls around, the QDM work is over and it’s time to hunt, right? Well, yes, of course it’s time to hunt, but QDM never stops, and there is critical information you can learn about your deer herd and habitat during the hunting season. Here’s how.
Trail Camera Surveys
When most people think of trail camera surveys, they think of the summer time and placing a trail camera over a bean field or mineral station to gather an inventory of the caliber of bucks using their property, as well as fawn recruitment and overall property population. A lot of information and data can be gathered at that time, but trail camera surveys shouldn’t stop there.
The problem with trail camera surveys during the summer is they only tell you what deer are using your property during the summer, obviously. Once food sources change – crops are harvested, fall food plots green up, acorns fall, etc. – those same deer you photographed during the summer may not be the same deer using your property during the fall.
Trail camera surveys during the hunting season are a great way to learn what deer are using your property when you can actually hunt them. Since both bucks and does will expand their home range during the fall, it can be a little more difficult to find a high traffic area where you can get the most photos. To get photos of the bucks using my property, I like using mock scrapes. If there is a mature buck in your area during the pre-rut and there’s an active, unpressured scrape in an area he feels safe and secure, he’ll check and work that scrape. Once one buck uses a scrape, pure curiosity will drive other bucks to it. I also like putting trail cameras in funnels and pinch points leading back to known buck bedding areas, or any other high traffic area where you’d expect a buck to travel during the rut. Just because you don’t see the buck from stand during the daylight, doesn’t mean he’s not walking right by your ambush site after dark. Remember, fall trail camera surveys are great for identifying bucks, but won’t necessarily help you kill that buck. That’s a different blog post for a different day.
For does, not much changes during the summer. I have 6 trail cameras that I run on my family’s 260 acre property, and two are assigned to monitor my two main food plots from September until early-December when the food plots go dormant. After that, they get moved to Mother Nature’s food plot, clear cuts. Both locations are great for determining how many does you have on your property during the hunting season.
Alas, before you know it, you’ll have a great idea of the caliber of bucks visiting your property during the hunting season. I bet you’ll be surprised at the size of some of those bucks too.
I’m a bit of a deer nerd. Okay, I AM a deer nerd, and a big one at that. Ever since I was 14 years old I’ve kept a working journal of nearly all my deer hunts including what deer I saw, where they came from, where they went, the wind direction, the temperature, the rut phase, and why I think that deer was doing what it did. Additionally, I’ve kept detailed harvest records of every deer shot off our property for the last 7 years as well. This information includes age, field dressed weight, stomach contents, the gross score of the buck and, if a doe, if there was milk present and if she had fawns with her (if she did, how many?). That may sound like a lot of unnecessary work, and to some hunters it may be just that, but I couldn’t imagine not documenting all of that information.
What can be learned from all that data? Quite a bit, actually, especially from the field dressed weight. When I first started keeping harvest records, the average weight of a 2 year old doe was roughly 70 pounds field dressed. We harvest a lot of 2 year olds, more than any other age, another fun fact I learned. We fully committed to practicing QDM in 2007. Since that time, the average weight of the 2 year old does has increased 12%, where the average weight is now 76 pounds. What does that tell me? It’s simple really. QDM works. More specifically, it tells me we are closer to getting our deer herd in balance with what our habitat can support. I still believe we have too many does living on our property, and I won’t be fully satisfied until the average 2 year old doe field dresses 80 pounds. That’s a goal I can strive for and I’ll know I’ve reached it once I do thanks to my harvest records.
Furthermore, by recording the stomach contents, I have greatly increased my late season success rates and efficiency. After a couple years of stumbling my way onto a late season doe and looking back over the harvest records for each deer, I noticed that both deer appeared to have been feeding on browse and cool season forbs and grasses. Since then, I’ve harvested a late season doe with my muzzleloader hunting over or around clear cuts or areas or any previously disturbed area where a lot of browse is available. What once took me a week or two to accomplish, I can now do in 3-4 sits thanks to my harvest records.
In Stand Observations
Finally, the most fun aspect of practicing QDM during the hunting season comes from what we all enjoy the most – hunting! Just because you’re in the treestand hunting doesn’t mean you shut off the QDM side of your brain. While in the stand hunting, make mental (or write them down) notes of what you are seeing in the woods. Take note of what your deer are eating and at what times of the year. If the deer are nipping off the green tops of your brassicas and turnips early in the season, that’s likely an indication of an overpopulated deer herd. Document the rutting activity experience. Was it frenzied, or long and drawn out? These are likely things we as hunters already think about and log down in our memory bank every season, but we only gear them towards hunting success. Think about your overall QDM plan when sitting in a stand observing your deer herd during the season, and you’ll have a better idea of how to implement improvements in your plan in the future.
– Cody Altizer