How to attract and hold more and bigger bucks on your property.
When I noticed the 6 1/2-year-old 8-pointer I had nicknamed G2s approaching, I got ready to take a shot. As he spent what seemed like forever working a scrape, I knew being between him and the does would work to my favor. Finally, he headed my way.
I drew my bow, settled the pin and sent the Rage-tipped Easton on its way. Moments later, I watched the 118-inch buck topple over. I’d just taken the very buck I set out to kill on the 1,550-acre property I manage in Illinois, and I couldn’t have been happier.
So why, you might ask, would I target such a small-antlered buck on private property in Illinois?
The answer is G2s was a dominant buck that desperately needed to be culled.
It was my job to manage the property, and after getting pictures of 11 different bucks that would score more than 135 on the Buckmasters system, that 118-inch tank of a buck needed to be killed.
I believe one of the most overlooked aspects of deer management is removing dominant but inferior bucks. I’ve seen biologists and writers claim there’s no such thing as a dominant buck. I beg to differ.
THE DOMINO EFFECT
Let’s look closer at why shooting G2s was so important.
First, he was fully mature. I concluded he was also dominant based on observing his pre-rut encounters with other mature bucks.
Despite the property holding 13 bucks 4 1/2 years old or older, the five highest scoring bucks were all 3 1/2-year-olds. My primary concern was the area’s two best 3 1/2-year-olds’ home ranges overlapped with G2s’.
I have seen dominant bucks sporting less than breathtaking antlers drive promising up-and-comers from an area. I didn’t want that to happen here.
Trips, a buck named for the three main beams on his right side, and Unlimited Potential, whose name speaks for itself, showed amazing promise. They possessed the attitude and physical potential to be dominant bucks, but were still a year away from having the muscle to back it up.
Through August and early September, there was little friction between the three. That changed in October. Unlimited Potential abruptly shifted his activities to the portion of his home range that wasn’t shared by G2s, abandoning both the corn and soybean fields they had peacefully frequented together earlier.
Trips, after being pressured by G2s, moved to the neighboring property, where he was shot about a week later.
What happened after I killed G2s is noteworthy. Three days after I shot him, Unlimited Potential reappeared on the beanfield, even taking over a scrape G2s had worked just four days before.
Trail camera pictures and sightings revealed he’d claimed the 8 acres of standing beans as his own. Although not ready for the big leagues, he successfully filled the niche left by G2s ... until the farmer harvested the next bean field over and G3s came on the scene.
G3s was another of the five dominant bucks that had claimed a home range on the property. Until the beans were picked, G3s was content with ruling the nearby field and the large wooded ridge that runs behind it.
With his beans gone, however, he shifted to the standing field. When he did, Unlimited Potential vanished until mid-December.
I’ve seen variations of these examples play out too many times to believe it’s coincidence.
HAVES AND HAVE NOTS
I believe subordinate bucks fall into one of two groups: those that accept their subordinate lot, and those that refuse to settle for less than dominance. The latter most often die fighting or shift their home range in search of somewhere they can rule.
I also believe a property can hold only so many dominant bucks. A truly aggressive buck won’t tolerate bucks that don’t submit. When two bucks refuse to back down, an epic battle occurs. The result is one buck relocates, submits or dies.
And that’s where I differ from many researchers who claim there’s no benefit to removing dominant bucks that have inferior antlers. I agree it’s all but impossible to shape the genetic composition of free-range whitetails, but there are huge benefits to removing anything that drives away one or more bucks that have real potential.
If I’m going to lose up-and-comers, I want it done by larger-racked bucks. That way I at least have them to hunt.
This kind of management mandates a shift in traditional hunting goals. Instead of targeting the most impressive racked bucks, the goal is to take lesser bucks while preserving those with potential.
Put simply, target anything with 9 or fewer points that’s at least 3 1/2 years old.
That means many of the largest racked bucks become off limits until they reach at least 4 1/2 years of age. Although a white-tailed buck’s antler development doesn’t usually peak until age 6 1/2, holding out that long is unrealistic in free-range settings.
Holding out for 4 1/2-year-olds is hard enough. Even hunters who say they want to manage for big bucks have trouble staying off the trigger when a big 3 1/2-year-old steps out.
It helps to have the right group of hunters, along with harsh penalties for breaking the rules.
The good news is today’s affordable trail cameras make it possible for a given club to inventory, identify, target and preserve individual bucks.
But what if you only have a few hundred acres? Can you still benefit from this type of management?
The answer is yes, with a big qualification: Your success will be greatly helped or hindered by your neighbors.
While you can’t control their actions, you can create openings on your property for big bucks. If your land is more appealing and has less hunting pressure, you have a chance of holding big bucks.
Whether you opt for this type of strict management is a personal decision. There is no right or wrong, and it ultimately comes down to what makes you happy.
I noted earlier that a property can hold only so many dominant bucks. So how, you might ask, can I attract and hold more, especially on a small tract?
In prime habitat, a buck’s home range usually falls between 300 and 600 acres. That means most hunting properties can hold only one truly dominant buck, right?
Not so fast, my friend.
While a buck’s home range is large, its core area is often smaller than 100 acres and is sometimes as small as 20.
While a buck leaves it from time to time, it spends the majority its time within its core area. And it’s easier to get a buck to spend a disproportionate amount of daylight hours on smaller properties than you might think.
A good example was a 200-acre lease I hunted in a heavily pressured area in my home state of Wisconsin. Although the area wasn’t known for producing mature bucks, I saw potential in the property. It consisted of thick cover, and neighboring farms offered food.
Even so, I knew it would take time before it would hold bucks I’d want to hunt. I didn’t hunt the lease the first year I had it.
Instead, I created four 1-acre food plots, each paired with a small water hole. This created staging areas for bucks to use before entering the crop fields.
I created the plots 100 yards back from the farm fields to catch natural movement to and from the crops. In addition, I limited the width of all plots to less than 60 yards. The deer always knew they were one jump away from the thick, protective cover that surround the plots, and there was nowhere I couldn’t shoot all the way across.
Along with encouraging bucks to burn their first and last hours of daylight on my plots, I spaced the plots to spread out the bucks. Because the plots served as gateways to three different crop fields, I was able to hold three dominant bucks.
The plan worked on all fronts.
The neighbors, despite setting stands on the property lines, shot two young bucks that year. The three mature bucks they picked up on trail cameras all moved through after dark.
I saw all three and had two within easy bow range. The third, a 4 1/2-year-old 10-pointer, earned my tag.
On larger properties, I try to create 200-acre grids, providing bucks all they want in food, water, cover and sanctuary. The goal is to encourage a dominant buck to occupy each grid.
As with any deer management strategy, the more factors you can control, the more successful you’ll be. I also know not everyone has full control of a property the way I often do.
This type of intense management isn’t for everybody, and there will be those who disagree with my thoughts on dominant bucks.
I ask those people to consider this: All else being equal, which 600-acre property would likely hold more and bigger bucks? One with one large food plot, one water source and one sanctuary where racked bucks are targeted regardless of age? Or one that’s divided into three 200-acre sections, each offering a food plot, a water source, protective cover and a sanctuary — and where dominant but smaller-racked bucks are targeted?
When you think about it from a buck’s perspective, it becomes pretty easy to see where he would want to be.
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This article was published in the November 2012 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.