Doe management has taken an undeserving backseat to the obsession of killing big, giant bucks. Hunting & habitat media oftentimes have tunnel vision when it comes to developing substantial headgear. Surprisingly, many gimmicks have replaced the tried & true method of Quality Deer Management.
Quality Deer Management fundamentals are entrenched in regulating antlerless deer harvests. However, the focus on QDM has slipped through the cracks over the past 20 years. Media has shifted into a fascination over the latest state record bucks and the bogus gimmicks that will promise just that. It’s not shocking as hunting content is mostly produced outside of the Southeast and this region holds some of the largest deer herds in the country with the most dense hunter populations.
Another reason QDM has been abandoned is the wide angled spotlight public land hunting has received over the last 10 years. Public land hunters are not managing herds and some state agencies don’t seem to be either. Therefore, this media content focuses simply on hunting down oversized antler sets. That’s great but it leaves an extensive void in private land whitetail conservation, doesn’t it?
Southeast Whitetail was founded to showcase private land management and conservation. I was very deliberate as I feel there is a massive gap in this sector of hunting and habitat content. A 2023 article published by the National Deer Association stated, on average, 88% of all whitetail harvests occur on private land. It sure seems like we should be focusing more on the mother doe than filling every buck tag we can purchase.
“Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.” – Aldo Leopold.
Since the late 1980’s through leadership, advocacy and dedication by Joe Hamilton we’ve seen a monumental transition of deer hunters: increased antlerless deer harvests and fewer immature bucks are being killed annually. Mr. Joe’s book Firepot Stories details the revolution that he spearheaded. Hunters and conservationists followed suit to rebuild robust populations across the country. But are we seeing a new shift in herd structure across the landscape? Are we seeing populations a little too robust? At my South Carolina farm, we absolutely have. Our county density has exploded over the past 10 years. To the tune of 170 deer per square mile on average.
Regions are obviously all unique in their own way with varying habitat factors. However, there are many tell-tale signs that you have too many does or that you have a fawn recruitment problem. Both are imperative to monitor and address as needed.
Most of the time, a hunter’s hopes and dreams of antler potential are unrealistic to their specific region. Meaning, if the top record bucks in your county are in the 140’s, you won’t grow many 180’s on your farm. I was guilty of this in the early years of managing our place. I passed on many bucks before killing one during the third season. Realistic expectations and herd goals are vital for your sanity & management objectives. A well balanced age structure should be a deer manager’s ultimate goal.
Habitat and land management have been on the forefront for many years now with the help of social media, youtube and other readily accessible platforms. But what happens after you have built a world class whitetail farm? Can you simply hunt the oldest, gnarliest bucks during cold fronts in the rut and maybe kill a couple does to “fill the freezer” post breeding season? Absolutely not. That’s the fast track for unbalanced sex ratios. The more that habitat improves, the more deer you must kill to maintain populations under carrying capacity.
Understanding how many mouths your farm can support is key. Statistics from hunter observation logs, harvest data and density studies will indicate how many deer you should kill each year. I know what you’re thinking – this is certainly much more cost efficient than any gimmick your favorite big buck influencer is trying to sell you.
It all goes back to the mother doe. A bucks antler potential is sealed during gestation and how it is expressed depends on habitat, health & herd conditions. Inherited generational health passed down. Too many deer on the landscape will decrease nutrition, induce year around stress, weaken health, and reduce antler production. Simply put, unbalanced sex ratios will generate smaller antlers and derail the fulfillment of genetic antler potential. Furthermore, you will see a prolonged rut that will produce a wide window of fawn births which place them “one foot in the grave.”
What if I told you the solution for maximum antlers is to kill antlerless deer early and often? Not a specially coated food plot seed or supplemental feed bag printed with a cool “droptine” buck, but just a bullet in the vitals. Of course, this is in addition to maintaining sufficient cover, year around food options and safety.
If you couldn’t already tell, I firmly believe that not enough antlerless deer are being removed each year. There are many reasons:
1. Subpar state regulations, limits and season dates.
2. Americans don’t eat as much venison as we used to.
3. Many hunters are not implementing QDM practices. It’s not promoted enough in the hunting community. When you truly don’t know your herd, you will not maximize antler potential and age structure.
4. A heavy shift to buck only hunting. The obsession and craze is real. Just scroll through Instagram or Facebook.
5. An uptick in bow only hunters. You’re either managing deer or you’re bow hunting. It’s nearly impossible to regulate numbers when you’re north of 50-75 deer per square mile with an arrow.
This season, challenge yourself for the following:
1. Maintain accurate observation records. Stand, wind, does, bucks by age and antlers, fawns by sex.
2. Record stats from the skinning shed. Date, weight, sex, lactation, spread, jawbone.
3. Use a template to run herd statistics post season.
Those 3 items along with knowing your standing crop & including an annual mortality of 10% will indicate how many deer must be harvested seasonally to maintain a balanced herd structure.
If you have concerns about excess venison from increased doe kills, donate the meat. I readily give meat to donation sites, friends and family. It’s easier than you may think.
“The rapid depletion of deer habitat and the rapid deterioration of deer herds has advanced to the point of being critical. It is hoped by the authors of this book, through the views presented herein, that awareness and subsequent action will preserve remaining habitat and deer herds for future generations to enjoy.”
– Producing Quality Whitetails by Al Brothers & Murphy E. Ray, Jr. (1975).