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CAN QDM WORK DOWN ON THE FARM?
Text and Photos by Charles J. Alsheimer

Fall 1989 was a pivotal time in my career as an outdoor writer. I traveled north to Quebec's Anticosti Island and south to Texas' famous brush country to hunt whitetails. Although the Anticosti hunt was excellent, it was the Texas trip that truly had a lasting impact on me.

Anticosti offered a beautiful setting and an abundant deer herd. Unfortunately, my expectations about the bucks' antlers exceeded reality. Few hunters who travel to this fabled island are selective about antler size. In addition, the island has an extended season and a liberal two-deer either sex limit, which means the typical hunter harvests two bucks. Consequently, Anticosti is not a haven for trophy whitetails. Though the hunting can be excellent no reputable outfitter will promise that you'll get the chance to hunt a mature racked buck.

Texas, on the other hand, was unlike anything I had seen before. The geography was much different from the heavily forested, picturesque Anticosti, but it was just as beautiful in its own way.

What especially struck me about Texas was the emphasis placed on deer management. I was fortunate to photograph and hunt on two of the state's better ranches, and the size of the whitetails was incredible. The philosophy on both ranches was to produce the highest quality deer herd possible, both in numbers and antler quality.

The Dean of Whitetails
While in Texas, I had the pleasure of spending time with Al Brothers, who many consider the father of quality deer management. During our time together, Brothers explained the benefits of quality habitat, a quality deer herd, and quality antlers. Needless to say, I received quite an education. On the plane trip home, my mind raced with all I had seen and heard.

After returning to New York, Brothers called me to ask what I thought of everything I had seen in Texas. It wasn't the last time I heard from him.

Home and Reality
After spending most of my life in western New York State, the Texas approach to deer management was quite an eye-opener. Although I had dreamed for years of a time when quality-racked bucks would be common in my home region, such thoughts seemed a bit far-fetched. The predominant hunting philosophy in the Northeast has always been to shoot any legal buck. Consequently, eighty to ninety percent of the bucks harvested during New York's annual deer season are just one and a half years old.

As my career in the outdoor field gained momentum, I found myself killing small deer at home and traveling to other parts of North America to hunt mature bucks. In the weeks following my trip to Texas, I realized it might be time to re-think the way I hunted deer on my own land.

During the winter of 1989-90, I decided to see if Brothers' ideas could make a difference on our farm. I knew our area had some of the best deer habitat in North America, but we lacked good age structure in the buck population.

The big issue was determining where to begin. I knew we didn't have the magic 1,000 acres many believe are necessary to manage for mature bucks. Our farm only covers 215 acres, but Brothers said I would see a difference in antler quality if I made a few changes. First, he convinced me that it was essential to protect the yearlings. This was easy on our property, but knowing the wandering tendencies of year and a half old bucks, I doubted many would survive the tremendous pressure of New York's gun season. In the fall of 1990, we put yearlings off limits on our farm, much to the displeasure of those hunting with us.

However, I did not tell any neighbors what I was doing. I wanted to make sure they did not think I was forcing my ideas on them. Northeasterners have a lot of pride, and they don't always take kindly to someone suggesting they do things differently. Traditions die hard, but I figured adjacent landowners would eventually realize what we were doing, either through word of mouth or by an improvement in the bucks they saw.

A Safe Haven
Next, Brothers urged me to come up with a plan to make the resident doe population feel secure. He explained that if I could hold does on the property, I could also keep some bucks from being killed. In a way, I had already started to do this. Our timber was under a forest-management plan that called for selective cutting every ten years. During the winter of 1989, we did a major selective cut, so everything was in place for a surge of second growth. In addition, I began planting attractive food plots to supplement natural food in the farm's woodlots and edges.

In order to reduce the stress on the deer population, I had eliminated drive hunting on the property in the mid-1980s. I took this low-pressure approach one step further in 1990 when I decided to make stand hunting the farm's only hunting method. In addition, a large chunk of prime bedding area was deemed off limits to gun hunting. I believed it was essential for the deer to have a sanctuary, and this set-up would give them a safe place to retreat to when gun-hunting pressure was at its peak.

While I understood the importance of keeping the number of antlerless deer in line, I also knew eliminating the excess doe population would be difficult. For years, New York had tried to reduce the deer population with Deer Management Permits, which allowed hunters to shoot an extra buck or doe. Despite the permit system's worthy goal of removing antlerless deer, not enough were being killed. Rather than shoot a doe and help the program, most hunters harvested an extra buck.

In 1993, the law changed, allowing only antlerless deer to be taken with management permits. This greatly helped the cause of quality deer management. After the first year under this plan, it was obvious the doe population was dropping to desired levels and an increased number of young bucks were surviving.

Even before the revised permit system, the idea of big local racks was revived when my neighbor killed a buck that grossed in the 170s. His farm borders ours, so we rushed over the see his trophy. The sight of that buck encouraged other locals to consider what might be possible if our bucks were allowed to reach maturity.

Although I did not know it at the time, two nearby landowners decided to try QDM on their farms and placed small bucks off limits. Their participation meant three landowners in a three square mile area were practicing some style of quality deer management. I say “style” because each of us did things a bit differently, but our shared goal was to raise the quality of the deer herd by improving the age structure of the buck population and shooting does.

Initially, it appeared about thirty percent more yearling bucks were surviving on our property. That might seem like a paltry improvement, but it was significantly better than a decade earlier when virtually no bucks survived gun season.

My estimate of the impact on the buck population came from monitoring buck activity before gun season, seeing what hunters on neighboring properties killed, and observing what was around after the season ended. Considering the nocturnal tendencies of whitetail bucks, the thirty percent figure might have been low.

The Excitement Grows
As my involvement in QDM increased, I became more encouraged about the potential that existed in our area. The quality deer management philosophy added a new dimension to my hunts. Many locals started talking about what they saw while driving the back roads. Besides seeing spikes, fork-horns and basket eight pointers, people began watching some trophy-class bucks.

By the time the summer of 1992 came to an end, I was excited about the prospects for the upcoming deer season. Throughout the summer, three beautiful bucks – a ten and two eight pointers – had been frequenting my food plots. All three appeared to be in the 120 Boone and Crockett class. I watched these bucks until the end of September and then, characteristic of rutting behavior, the bachelor group broke up. I did not see them again for several weeks.

On Thanksgiving morning, I grunted in one of the eight-pointers and shot him. The biggest of the three was killed the opening week of gun season by another QDM landowner. I never saw the third buck until after the season was over. Knowing that one of them survived the season gave me reason to look forward to the following year. My sense of anticipation was heightened when several bucks I had never seen before turned up on our property after the season. So, before any of them shed their antlers, I was already excited about 1993's prospects.

I watched the five bucks off and on the next summer. Four of them looked to be two and a half years old. The biggest buck, an eight-pointer, was definitely older and would easily score more than 140 B&C. I figured he was the big eight from the previous year.

As I reflected that summer on the progress that was evident, it all seemed too good to be true. Despite the fact that only three landowners, with six hundred acres between them were practicing QDM, the results were very encouraging. I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if more landowners participated.

During the 1993 season, I hunted hard for the big eight-pointer but never saw him in daylight. Still, I shot a nice eight point that ended up being the biggest buck I had taken on our property up to that time. Also, for the first time in memory, hunters killed twice as many does as bucks in our immediate area, further enhancing the adult doe-to-antlered buck ratio.

The QDM concept really took off after 1993. My expectations for '94 ran high as I planted food plots and prepared for the season. Because of lush food sources and thick second-growth timber, it appeared several big bucks lived on our farm. One buck was a real dandy, a legitimate 150-class ten-pointer. I knew he was traveling extensively because several people had seen him roaming the surrounding farms.

The weather during the 1994 gun season was some of the worst on record, resulting in a sharp decrease in our deer kill. Mother Nature seemed to be contributing her two cents to the QDM movement by protecting a lot of bucks. On the last day of gun season, I killed a beautiful ten-pointer. Though he was not the slammer I had seen during the year, he was proof QDM was working on the farm.

Because of 1994's carry-over of bucks, 1995 shaped up as one of the best seasons ever. Unfortunately, I ended up the disabled list when I broke my arm on October first. As a result, I couldn't bow hunt until the first week in November. Even so, I saw some beautiful bucks. On the evening of November third I was at full draw on a perfect ten-pointer I thought would score about 140. After working a scrape, the buck walked straight toward my stand. At twelve paces, he stopped and turned his head to the right, exposing only his neck. “If you'll just take one step to the right, you're mine,” I thought. It never happened. The wind shifted and he scented me. Like lightning, he wheeled on his hind legs and ran straight away from me. On the second day of shotgun season, a QDM neighbor killed the buck as it trailed a doe through the woods. Its rack scored 139 B&C.

I passed up several bucks during the last week of bow season and did the same on seven different bucks during gun season. For the first time since we bought our farm in 1973, I didn't kill a buck on the property. I settled for a mature doe.

When the curtain closed on the '95 season, three 130-plus ten-pointers had been killed by adjacent landowners, two of which were practicing QDM. In terms of big-buck sightings, it was our farm's most memorable season to date. Little did I know that the best was yet to come.

From 1996 through 2001 I reaped a QDM windfall. During this time I had more opportunities to harvest mature bucks than during the previous twenty-five years combined. I did not kill a buck in 2000, though I passed up more than 25 different ones. But in 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2001, I harvested bucks that would be trophies anywhere in North America. Ironically the archery buck that I killed on November 10, 2001 was one of the bucks I passed up in 2000, when I drew a blank. Twice in bow season and three times during the firearms season of 2000 I had the 2-_ year old 8-pointer in easy killing range, but opted to pass him up each time.

Then as fate would have it his sheds were found and he was allowed to grow another year before he gave me the opportunity I was looking for this past archery season. When the magic moment came on November 10th I was all through passing him up. Between the fall of 2000 and 2001 the buck had grown from a 100-115-class animal as a 2-1/2 years old, to a 3-1/2 year old 140 Pope &Young trophy, making him a “shooter” in nearly any program on the continent. By practicing the QDMA's motto of “let'em go, let'em grow” my dream of harvesting a Pope and Young buck became a reality.

The Checkerboard Concept
It is exciting to see what can be accomplished when landowners work together on a worthwhile endeavor.

Shortly before Christmas 1993, several neighboring landowners already practicing quality deer management asked me about getting more people involved. One of their goals was to form a local QDM organization. We realized there were several obstacles to overcome but believed it was time to move forward. In March 1994, we presented our ideas to a packed auditorium of hunters and landowners. That generated more interest and, in the summer of 1994, the group elected officers and formed The Steuben County Quality Whitetail Group.

The end result of this is what I call QDM's checkerboard concept. Certainly, it would be ideal to have a huge block of land managed solely for quality whitetails. However, this is little more than wishful thinking in the East, where relatively small pieces of property are far more common than large ones. The reality is that not every landowner is interested in quality deer, so assembling a sizable tract of land for QDM is next to impossible.

This means there will always be gaps in the QDM landscape. So, when looking at our area on a map, it resembles a checkerboard. Some properties subscribe to the QDM concept while many do not. For example, there are twelve different landowners that border our farm and only three have any type of quality deer management program in place. Despite this, antler quality and age structure have improved - just as Al Brothers told me they would.

Encouraging Progress
It's encouraging to see how well QDM is working here on the farm. My only regret is that I didn't start it sooner. When I think of all the beautiful yearling bucks I've killed over the years, I can't help but wonder what might have been if I had let them live to maturity. Others involved with the Steuben County Quality Whitetail Group share this same feeling.

Currently, more than 1,500 acres in my immediate area are being managed for quality deer, and Steuben County as a whole has roughly 25,000 acres in the program. With each passing year more and more interest is generated. One of the yearly highlights for The Steuben County Quality Whitetail Group is its annual Antler Round Up, which is held in February each year. In addition to putting on an informative program that highlights the virtues of QDM, official New York State Big Buck Club measurers are brought in to score racks harvested during the previous season. The event is a festive affair that's enjoyed by all who attend.

Minimum Sizes
What I find interesting about our QDM group is that nearly all the participants have slightly different approaches to achieving the agreed-upon goals. For example, a “legal” buck on our farm must have at least eight points and an inside spread of at least 16 inches. In about eighty percent of the cases (due to the region's genetics), a buck will not reach this size until it is three and a half years old.

When I first began my QDM program, I placed just yearling bucks off limits. Then I put a minimum eight-point restriction in place, only to find that it did not work. It failed to work because the best yearlings and two and a half year old bucks carry eight or more points. In effect, this restriction did not keep me from killing my best young deer. So, I raised the bar by going to an eight-point, sixteen-inch inside spread minimum. This has worked well, and for the most part, has allowed me to keep the yearling and two and a half year old bucks from being harvested.

It should be noted that I make one exception to the rules established for our farm. I feel strongly that young hunters should not be strapped with minimums. Hunting a whitetail is tough enough without putting all kinds of antler size restrictions on hunters new to the sport. For this reason, my son was allowed to kill any size legal buck when he began hunting as a teenager. It painlessly allowed him to learn what deer hunting is all about. Now that he has a few bucks under his belt, he's passing up the younger bucks. I feel fairly certain that without allowing him to know what it was like to harvest a whitetail buck, his enthusiasm for deer hunting would not be the same.

Some QDM participants don't make exceptions for young hunters and others have more lenient standards for spread and antler size than I do. We try not to force everyone into the same set of rules. So far, things have worked. In spite of our differences, we are seeing improvements in antler and overall herd quality.

The process has been interesting, yet sometimes slower than many in the group would like. However, the crown jewel in all this is that the program is working. And if quality deer management can work in Steuben County, New York, it can work anyplace in North America.

Quality Deer Management: The Basics and Beyond, Charlie Alsheimer's newest book, is loaded with valuable information on QDM. More details about this title and Charlie's other books are available in our online store.

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