Successful deer hunting includes setting specific goals and objectives


 

Are you getting what you want or are you just spinning your wheels when it comes to setting and meeting goals for your deer herds and harvest?

People are all the time setting goals and objectives for everything they do. Parents instill this in their children at a very young age. It really sinks in when they graduate from high school and it begins to accelerate as they start paying bills with their own money! We all have goals. The Saints want to win the Super Bowl. The LSU baseball team wants to win another national championship. Hunters want to kill the biggest buck in the world and be on the cover of Big Buck Hunter!

Goals have to be realistic if they are to be achieved. 

This is especially true when setting deer management goals and objectives. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries had the goal of keeping CWD out of the state. So much for that. Now the goal is to keep it contained in the infection zone and increase surveillance around it along with continued monitoring of herds across the state.

Biological goals are not the same as hunter goals and generally it is the hunter or user group that determines management goals. In the sixties and seventies most hunters just wanted to kill a deer so seasons and limits were set to accomplish that. In the eighties and nineties hunters wanted to kill bigger bucks so the DMAP program was developed to help hunters accomplish this. 

Today, hunters want to kill trophy class bucks, lots of them and every year. I’m not sure any program can achieve that, unless you have all the money in the world, but that is what hunters want. This is really not a realistic goal for Louisiana where so much of the deer landscape has changed over the years.

Nothing wrong

I have to interject that there is nothing wrong at all with a hunter, hunting club, or landowner simply wanting to just hunt and shoot deer, regardless of size. Hunting is outdoor recreation and recreation is the activity of enjoying yourself with what you are doing. This is a great goal and one that is pretty easy to achieve with the deer population that we have in Louisiana. Rules and regulations established by clubs or landowners are sometimes necessary to achieve established goals, but they can take the fun out of hunting. 

The goal of just shooting deer, any deer, is probably a sound biological goal due to the CWD issue. It is the older age classes of deer that begin to show symptoms of the disease and shooting the younger age classes of deer will prevent possible infected deer from living in the population longer than desired.

As already mentioned, deer management goals must be realistic. Biologists can help a club or landowner establish these goals based on the science of the deer population and habitat in a particular parish. Once the goals are established, then the science can be used to measure the success of the program. Over time, the science (biological data) can be used to establish trends and provide insight as to whether the program is working and producing desirable results. I would suggest to hunters who are simply enjoying the deer hunt and outdoor experience to maintain some sort of record keeping file on harvested deer just to have documentation, in case the herd suddenly goes south!

I want to focus on four aspects of the science or record keeping. These are age structure of herd, body growth or weight, reproduction and antler development. Some of this data can be collected just from observations. But it is always best to document data from harvested deer rather than just estimating ages, weights and antler data.

In Louisiana, harvest data indicates most 1 ½-year-old bucks are spikes, such as these two young bucks in East Feliciana Parish.

Sex ratio and age structure

Observations during the hunting season can document the sex ratio of the herd. A few hours of sitting in the deer stand and seeing a dozen does and a couple of spikes would generally indicate a population dominated with females and would also be an indicator of some pretty heavy bucks only hunting. Deer are generally born at a 50/50 ratio of males/females. 

Hunting can change this over time. DMAP data over the past few years has indicated an increase of adult bucks in the harvest and this indicates hunters are passing up younger bucks and allowing them to grow older. Under the current bag limit regulations hunters are encouraged to harvest both bucks and does. 

There is plenty of literature available these days to show hunters how to age deer. While it can be tricky aging older deer, most hunters should be able to place deer into the three basic age groups: fawns (six month olds), yearlings (1 ½ year olds), and adults (2 ½ and older deer). It is best to harvest deer from several age classes and knowing the ages of harvested deer will point out if this is happening. Age data is also important for establishing trends from other deer measurements such as weight and antler development.

Shooting deer regardless of size is a good management goal providing outdoor recreation, hunter fellowship and meat for the freezer!

Body growth and weight

Information about herd growth of each age class is a must to really determine how much bang you are getting for your buck! Feeding and food plots are big money items and if your deer are not responding you may want to save money and see what the native habitat will produce.

Nutrition is the key. Without quality and sufficient nutrition, deer will not be able to reach their potential and this is a killer for those desiring to grow big bucks. The landscape has changed in Louisiana over the years. Pine dominant timber stands are now the main focus of forestry management and generally this habitat cannot provide the quality nutrition for the growth and development hunters desire. Consequently, documenting live weights of harvested deer will show you if your supplemental nutrition program is working. Trust me, estimated weights are worthless; most hunters over-estimate the weight of a harvested deer, especially bucks.

What is desirable body growth for deer? Fawns should double their weight from six months to 1 ½ years; after this, deer should increase 20-30 percent from ages 2 ½ through 4 ½ years. The body growth of older free-ranging deer generally begins to decline after 4 ½, but on habitats with excellent nutrtion, body growth may continue for a few more years.

The following is what I suggest to be desirable live weights for Louisiana deer:

6 months  1 ½ years  2 ½ years  3 ½+ years

Females 60   110      120 130

Males 70   125      150 175+

If you look at the LDWF website and check out the DMAP reports you will see the average live weights of deer for the various habitat sites around the state and for the various parishes. Then you can compare those weights to your deer herd and determine if you are below average, average or above average. Documenting body weights is a must if you want to try and grow bigger bucks.

Reproduction

Reproduction or productivity of your deer herd is something that can be measured from observations. Documenting the number of fawns a doe produces can be obtained from observing deer in the early archery season. Based on current literature, adult does on habitat with good nutrition should be producing twins. Yearling does should be producing at least one fawn. The average live weights of the does in your herd will provide you with some idea of what to expect. Yearling does that weigh less than 100 pounds may not be breeding at that age as expected due to their poor physical condition. 

Likewise, adult does weighing less than 110 pounds may not be physically able to produce or care for twins and may be producing only a single fawn. Low productivity is an indicator that the habitat is lacking and needs some management work. Timber cuts will provide the herd with the best bang for the buck unless the forest plan is to produce a dominant pine forest and incorporate herbicide treatments to reduce native hardwood browse. In this case the strategy may require increasing forage plantings or supplemental feeding.

A more science-based technique to monitor productivity is to examine female reproductive tracts during the late season and determine reproductive success from that data. It also will provide insight as to when the rut occurred on your property during the season. On our small property in East Feliciana Parish I harvested a 1 ½-year-old doe that had bred on Dec. 8 and was pregnant with twins. This is considered good productivity, but due to stress, disease and predators it does not necessarily mean there would have been two new deer on the property in 2022. On another tract of land in East Feliciana Parish I harvested a 7 ½-year-old doe that was pregnant with triplets and had bred on Dec. 20. This is excellent reproduction and indicates a healthy deer herd. A Wildlife and Fisheries biologist would be able to help you collect this type of science based data.

According to recent LDWF data, Louisiana hunters are killing more 3 ½-year-old and older bucks than ever before.

Antler development

Documenting antler development, beam length, tine length, antler mass with circumference measurements is a must to develop growth trends of the bucks. In Louisiana, most yearling bucks are spikes, but if nutrition is good some should be producing branched antlers. As they grow and become older antlers generally increase in size which is what hunters want. However, nutrition is again the key factor and if nutrition is lacking, antler growth will at best be mediocre and not many bucks will be hung on the wall.

Again the state DMAP data can be used to document the growth trends in your herd and how they compare to the state averages. A recent study in New York measured the Boone and Crockett score for bucks in all age classes. The yearling bucks average score was 50 B&C with over half scoring less than 50. The average score for 2-year-old bucks was 90-100 and 2/3 of them scored less than 100. Three-year-old and older bucks averaged 110-120 B&C, with 2/3 of them scoring 120 or less. 

Using this data to evaluate your deer is a good technique to see how your herd stacks up and if your program is producing results. A buck that scores 120 B&C is a quality buck, but is a far cry from trophy status. This type of information would provide you with good insight as to exactly what size buck your habitat will produce and aid in future management decisions if you are not getting what you want. As we have heard so often during this pandemic, follow the science!

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