CAN YOU STOCKPILE BUCKS?
by Charles J. Alsheimer
In 1989 I traveled to Texas to photograph whitetails on three incredible ranches. While there I had the opportunity to meet and interview Al Brothers, one of whitetail management's true icons. I had known of Brothers since 1975 when I purchased the book Producing Quality Whitetails, which was authored by him and Murphy Ray. The book covers a myriad of ways to manage for better whitetails.
After reading Brothers' and Ray's book I wondered if it was possible to produce quality bucks on our farm here in western New York. Frankly, I had my doubts it could be done because of our area's small property sizes and the intense hunting pressure we receive during our firearms season. But after spending time with Brothers he left me feeling that it might be possible to raise a better deer on our farm.
When several local landowners and I began chasing the quality deer management dream in the early 90s we felt strongly that if we passed up the yearling and 2 1/2 year old bucks we'd be in a great position to have an opportunity to hunt and harvest mature whitetail bucks that were 4 1/2 to 6 1/2 years old.
In spite of some ups and downs our dream continued for the last 17 years. From my perspective the experience has been exciting and very fulfilling. However, the journey has also been a real eye opener because the deer behavior I've observed throughout these years has caused me to question the possibilities of producing and holding multiple numbers mature bucks on relatively small properties. Two things have helped me sort out why this is so difficult.
First, our 200-acre farm has been a special laboratory to study deer behavior. It is part of a friendly, like-minded relationship between several local landowners who are trying to produce better bucks, does and fawns while at the same time experience better deer hunting. There is no question that the hunting we've all experienced is a great improvement from what it used to be. During the seventeen years every landowner has not only received a great education but also had the opportunity to harvest nice mature bucks, which has helped to keep our fire lit.
The second reason the process has been personally fulfilling is that I've operated a 35-acre high fenced whitetail behavioral research facility here on our farm during much of this time (no hunting takes place inside the enclosure). So, having both wild free-ranging whitetails and semi-habituated whitetails to study has provided me a window into the whitetail's world that's very unique.
Along the way the enclosure has allowed me to study nearly every whitetail behavior known while at the same time compare it to what takes place within the wild-free-ranging whitetail population on the balance of our farm and surrounding properties. Needless to say the set up has provided some amazing insights into whitetail behavior. The end result is that I've been able to see why it is so difficult to hold the bucks on a given piece of property. Allow me to offer why I feel this way.
Can You Keep'em?
There's no question that high fenced operations can easily stockpile bucks and the bigger ones are very successful getting their bucks to 4 1/2 years of age and beyond. However, in the free ranging world, where whitetails can wander and live wherever they want, the prospects of growing and holding them on acreages smaller than 600-700 acres is not so easy.
In most parts of North America hunting pressure and land management policies make it very difficult to have many bucks that live to the age of four. In general terms there are four factors that deter the stockpiling of bucks-changing food sources, terrain/natural habitat, deer population and a buck's personality.
For the majority of free ranging whitetails food is the driving force that determines where they will call home. In fact, food trumps sex when it comes to determining where a whitetail lives.
Though bucks cover a lot of ground during November food dictates their zip code the balance of the year. Food drives where a doe lives so it is essential that the doe population has the right types of food choices throughout the year if you want any chance of keeping them from wandering. This is especially so during the rut because if you can keep a doe from leaving a property you have a much better chance of holding the bucks.
It wasn't until I became immersed in the quality deer management concept that I began to fully understand the impact that food had in determining the holding potential of a deer herd. It's not difficult to offer good forage options during the warm months of the year. However, providing bucks and does with the food they need during the non-growing months is much more difficult, especially in snow country.
Addressing the whitetail's winter food needs is something I've always struggled with because of our long winters. During the last five years I've improved our deer feeding program by planting a variety of late season food plots that are attractive to deer. In addition to the warm season forages like clover and chicory that we've been offering we now plant cold season preferred foods like, purple top turnips and brassica. This has not only helped to provide our farm's deer with the nutrients they need to survive a winter but it has also decreased the winter dispersal that used to take place.
Though our QDM program is ever changing we've been able to hold bucks on our property much better than we used to because of the variety of food we offer them. But even with the program we currently have in place we are not able to hold our bucks the way we thought we could when I first stuck my foot in the QDM waters in the early 90s. This is because deer in our area have much more to choose from.
With more and more local landowners doing aggressive food plot management the chance of keeping multiple mature bucks on our 200-acres is not that great. However, it is much better than for those properties that do not have a variety of year round foods. On lands in our area that do not practice food plot management the deer populations are very transient, making it difficult for these landowners to have older class bucks in their herd.
Though food is a critical component when it comes to holding whitetails on a property the lay of the land and its habitat can play an important role in keeping deer from wandering to greener pastures. On average whitetails spend 70% of their time bedded so it's important to have the best possible bedding area for them to spend their down time.
If the natural habitat is open (meaning you are able to easily see farther than 50 yards in the woods) don't expect many whitetails to use such cover for their bedding area. Whitetails prefer jungle-like conditions and the thicker the cover, the greater the holding potential will be.
Also, areas where ravines and irregular terrain exists will be very attractive to deer, especially if above average hunting pressure is the norm. One of the reasons for this is that wind currents constantly shift in these locations, making it easer for deer to detect danger.
Bucks, and to a lesser degree does are constantly venturing away from their core areas and if they find a location that is more attractive than their current home range they will often relocate. Though you can never totally eliminate the possibility of your deer leaving your property you can enhance the possibility of keeping them by developing the natural habitat through habitat improvement programs.
The size and make up of the deer herd also plays a major role in determining whether bucks will disperse to set up a new home range. After nearly 40 years of photographing deer and another 20 raising them I've learned that most mature bucks are quite secretive and like to keep to them selves. They tend to like "elbow room" so if there is an over population of deer bucks will often move to where there are less deer, providing there is adequate cover and food. It's not uncommon on some ranges for bucks to disperse many miles before settling on a home range that appeals to them.
It should also be pointed out that excessive deer numbers can cause does to move in search of area that meets their food, cover and preferred fawn birthing conditions. So, the size of a deer herd can play a role in the way deer move.
A buck's personality is perhaps the great impediment when it comes to being able to stockpile bucks. Their ever changing hormone levels drive how often and how far they move. For the first nine months of the year bucks are relatively calm, cool and collected. Then when October rolls around in the North this all changes and bucks begin to move. During November's rut bucks sleep and feed very little and continually cruise an increasing number of acres in their search for does. During the rutting months they literally have ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). They also have an out-of-control attitude which gets them into fights with other bucks who also want to be the alpha male in the area. Such fights are often ugly and on rare occasions one or both of the bucks may die.
In nearly every case a fight's loser moves on to the next ridge, valley or township in his quest for breeding rights. It's a very unstable time for all whitetail bucks and during the rut's seeking and chasing phase it's not uncommon for some to cover over 2,000 acres. A buck's movement pattern during the rut is so unpredictable that the thought of holding him on a small property is almost wishful thinking, at least until the rut is over.
Lessons from the Past
Technology has allowed hunters to become much more knowledgeable about deer behavior. Through the use of trail cameras and year round scouting I've been able to document many bucks in our farm's area that illustrate why it is so difficult to stockpile bucks. Here are two examples from the recent past.
Buck #1: In 1996 this buck's home range was roughly two air miles from our farm. During the summer and into September a landowner had several encounters with him and was even able to video the buck. Then, once October rolled around the buck disappeared.
As it turned out, the buck made at least one trip to our farm, which is where our paths crossed. On November 17th he and an estrous doe came within gun range of my tree stand and I harvested him. In spite of all my scouting I had never seen this buck until we met in November. Had it not been for the rut I never would have seen this 140" buck much less had a chance to harvest him.
Buck #2: Throughout 2001 this buck lived on a large dairy farm, a little over two air miles from our farm. Several people had seen this buck on that farm throughout summer and early fall. In November he was still there and on November 11th a close friend of mine photographed the buck in one of the farm's fallow fields. After the encounter he called me to share what had happened. I can remember my friend commenting that whoever hunted the farm when gun season opened was going to be in for a treat.
Though I knew of this buck I felt he was living too far from our farm for me to ever get a glimpse of him. I was wrong. On November 20th, the second day of our firearm's season he walked by my tree stand and I was able to harvest him. That night many locals gathered in our barn to take a look at the buck. My friend who had photographed the buck on November 11th brought his photos with him to see if it was the same buck. Needless to say, when the photo match was made a lot of discussion took place concerning the amount of territory it was covering.
I love to discuss whitetail behavior as much as anyone and the subject of whether you can or cannot stockpile bucks is one I love to engage in. I'd like to think it's possible to stockpile bucks. Unfortunately, after nearly 50 years of observing and pursuing this great animal I'm of the opinion that the majority of hunting properties are simply too small to allow a landowner to stockpile bucks older than 2 1/2 years old, at least on properties smaller than 600 acres.
The winds of November and a host of other factors cause bucks to wander so much that stockpiling them is wishful thinking.