Too many deer
My first step in managing an overpopulated piece of ground is focusing on does. As I’ve stated earlier, I want a lot of does on my properties. Because of the buck management end, I want a 1:2-2.5 ratio of bucks to does, and don’t even have a problem with 1:3, which is almost never exceeded in wild populations, anyway. So long as you have the food, more does generally mean healthier bucks, less broken racks and fewer bucks getting killed on neighbors.
At the same time, high doe numbers fighting over somewhat limited resources can create an advantageous situation. The different family groups compete over the most desirable food sources (desirability has as much to do with location as quality of food. For example, that isolated clover plot may not be as desired for food as the soybean field, but they want to hit that clover first, as they feel safe there). When the competition occurs, what tends to happen is that the most subordinate does not included in a group and the most subordinate family groups hit the food plots the earliest. That way they get a crack at the food.
Then, the next subordinate group hits, kicking the other group off. Then a more dominant group and the most dominant group shows up at a more normal time, each either kicking the other group off or pushing them off to a side somewhere.
Now, it sure doesn’t always follow that sequence of order exactly. There may be more or less family groups using a food source and a more dominant group could show up before a subordinate doe or group, but it tends to follow that pattern fairly well.
The end result are deer hitting food earlier, as long as they feel safe. So much so that I’ve had properties that if you weren’t in stand by 1 PM in early October you were running late and would be kicking deer off.
At the same time, the does are training the bucks that it’s fine to enter early, as well. In fact, if you want to truly dominate this plot and keep tabs on all the does, you better be here early and often. I can show you pic after pic after pic of mature rutting bucks checking food plots multiple times a day, many during daylight hours in situations like this. Obviously, they have to feel safe there for that to happen, but my point is that there are very significant advantages to having high doe numbers and skewed ratios.
The “so long as you have the food” portion of the original qualifying statement is absolutely key, though. You can’t allow your doe numbers to get to the point where they are destroying your habitat and are nutritionally stress.
By saying my first step is focusing on does, I really mean that I need to gauge if I have enough food and quality cover for the numbers I currently have. On overpopulated properties, that’s almost always no.
Job one then becomes adding more food. I want to offer multiple food sources to segregate both the bucks and the family groups. On grounds close to or over populated, there’ll still be plenty of competition to achieve the positive results, only I can now hold more deer at a healthier level than before, while reducing the social stress they’re under.
At the same time, I’m creating more bedding cover for the does. I’m moving them closer to the food sources, yet far enough away so that I can work on the plots without spooking the does (I am NOT a fan of does bedding closer to food sources than that. I see it as not only placing undue human pressure on does, but also see having them bed right next to food as taking away hunting options and I HATE limiting myself). By striking that balance between close, but not too close, I help ensure that they will continue hitting the food early, but helps me keep pressure to a bare minimum (HUGE key) and keeps every hunting option on the table.
At the same time, I’m most often trying to balance all that with providing lower impact hunting options for during the rut. Within reason, I want to be able to have low impact, downwind bedding area stands for potential sits during the scrape and breeding phases and/or natural routes the bucks will take between doe bedding areas that allow for me to cut them off, again in a low impact manner.
Now, combine wanting to segregate the deer more, wanting the does to bed closer to the food, but not too close, wanting downwind stand setups and creating a flow for cruising bucks between the doe bedding areas that lends itself to low impact, high odds stand sites. That’s what I’m striving for. You can’t always get it all, but I’m going to do my best to strike the ideal balance between those factors.
So, now we have more food and more bedding, as well as a flow, but we still have too many does. I’m going to begin by hammering the snot out of those that bed on one side of the fence and feed on the other, from the lowest impact stands I can do that from. They are freeloaders in one way or another and offer the highest risk of leading bucks astray (you won’t stop bucks from leaving, but you can reduce their incentive and the number of times they do, as well as do your best to make more of these excursions after dark).
If that still isn’t enough, I’ll then target the food plots that just can’t keep up with the feeding pressure. On these, I do my best to kill does with nubbin bucks, as I want those nubbins to stay on their birth range, instead of relocating from yearling buck dispersal (when mom kicks them out before breeding season so they don’t breed sis or her, an aunt or so on). Even if I tried on a free range setting, I couldn’t do this to the point where genetics are adversely impacted.
Shifting to bucks, my very top priority is removing the mature, weak antlered bucks, assuming I have a surplus of mature bucks (that happens a lot in portions of SE MN, IA and IL). I need to create holes for the up and comers and am not worried about the stud mature bucks. It’s the weak antlered mature ones that I’m doing everything I reasonably can to get rid of, which means bringing in hunters to help me. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t kill Mr. Big. I’m saying doing that won’t help shape your standing crop of bucks, but getting rid of Mr. Big’s brother with the 110 rack will.
On the properties that don’t have a good age structure to the bucks, I’m taking the same approach as I explained when deer numbers are low. I’m going to focus on building up the bucks’ age class, while nipping at the 3.5+s that don’t have great potential, but I’m no where near as concerned about that aspect until I can see that we’re starting to get close to pushing the number of mature bucks the property can hold. Getting to that point is the important part, not so much which bucks you skim from the place while getting there, if that makes any sense.
Selecting on antler potential is only important once you are going to be losing bucks by the dominants driving them out. Every property has a cap on how many mature, dominant bucks they can hold. A 40 will be doing good if it holds 2 (meaning 2 have core areas on the property). You may be able to get 3 on a 120. On a 1500 acre property I managed up to a couple years ago, I could consistently keep 7-8 truly mature, dominant bucks, with others willing to assume a subordinate role (17 mature, 4.5+ year old bucks were the most I kept over one season there). The 1550 I’m currently managing, I believe I can do 1 better than that, and would have tested that this year, if EHD/BT hadn’t wiped me out. A 1700 acre piece did/does, and I like the layout of the 1550 better.
My point is that every property has a cap. Segregating, adding food, cover, limiting hunting pressure they feel and so on all impacts that cap number, but you’ll never maintain higher mature, dominant buck numbers than a property’s top end potential cap ceiling.