Poor-Quality Habitat, High Quality Bucks
By: Dave Edwards
It is well known among deer hunters and managers that nutrition is the key to producing high quality white-tailed deer. This is especially true in areas such as the Coastal Plain of Florida where poor soils and high rainfall produce abundant, but low-quality vegetation. However, many clubs practicing QDM in this region are realizing that balancing the sex ratio and protecting young bucks can dramatically improve the quality of their deer herds. Although most bucks harvested on these properties fall well short of making the Boone & Crockett record book, they are exceptional bucks for Florida.
Many clubs also are realizing the importance of increasing the nutrition available to their herds by providing supplemental feeds and establishing year-round food plot programs. Despite poor soils and the realization that an entry in the record books is remote, many Florida hunters are embracing the QDM philosophy.
The Shadowlawn Experience
One hunting club that helped pave the way for QDM in Florida is the Shadowlawn Hunt Club in northeast Florida. Shadowlawn consists of approximately 16,000 acres, located approximately 45 minutes southwest of Jacksonville. The most dominant landscapes include slash pine plantations, longleaf pine/turkey oak sandhills, live oak hammocks, and hardwood drainages associated with several creeks that traverse the property. The majority of the property consists of deep, well-drained, sandy soils. The club has been in existence for over 20 years and has been enrolled in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission¹s antlerless deer tag program since 1986.
Over the past 16 years, deer management practices at Shadowlawn have changed dramatically. In its early years, Shadowlawn members harvested any legal buck and few antlerless deer. As the QDM philosophy spread throughout the country, some club members began wondering if this approach would work on Shadowlawn. Like many clubs entering into a QDM program, buck harvest restrictions were implemented in steps. In 1992, a 4-point or better rule was implemented; in 1993 a 5-point rule; and, in 1994, a 6-point rule.
In 1998, the club determined that too many young bucks were still being harvested. Using antler measurements from prior years, the club decided to implement an 8-point or better rule. Although a spread restriction was considered, it was not implemented until the 2000 season when the club
realized that, as a result of better deer management practices, too many young 8-pointers were still being taken.
In addition to protecting young bucks, the club also dramatically increased their antlerless harvest in 1992 and has maintained an adequate harvest ever since. Shadowlawn currently has a well-balanced deer herd and harvests nearly as many mature bucks as they did yearling bucks in the past.
However, these deer management changes did not come easy to club members. It was common for conversations around the camp to become heated over whether or not the club was doing the right thing. During this time, several members dropped out of the club, while others held on with hopes that QDM was merely a passing fad that would go away. Without the strong leadership of club president Pat Keller, Shadowlawn's QDM programs would have failed.
Today Shadowlawn is one of the best examples of how well QDM can work on poor-quality habitat. Shadowlawn has effectively balanced the adult sex ratio and buck age structure, improved fawn production, and is maintaining the deer herd at a desirable level. Through their experience, we have learned many valuable lessons about managing quality deer on poor-quality habitat. It is our hope that the following lessons will help you better manage your deer herd and avoid making mistakes that may be fatal to your QDM program.
Setting realistic goals
Setting realistic deer management goals is critical to the success of a QDM program in poor-quality habitat. If the land is not capable of producing record-book bucks, this should not be a goal of your program. Your goal should be to maximize your deer herd¹s potential. In many areas of Florida's Coastal Plain, a 3 1/2- or 4 1/2-year-old buck may only weigh 120 pounds and have a rack that scores 105 B&C points. If you set your goals on producing 130-class B&C bucks, you are setting yourself up for disappointment and failure.
Based on Shadowlawn¹s past harvest data, an 8-point or better antler restriction was implemented to protect bucks less than 3 1/2 years old. After two years of this restriction, Shadowlawn¹s members became frustrated because their buck expectations were not being achieved. This resulted in the implementation of a 14-inch spread restriction to protect bucks less than 4 1/2 years old. Members were satisfied with the results of this
In such poor-quality habitat, it was simply taking bucks longer to produce quality antlers. Had we known this from the start, we could have reduced the "waiting period" by protecting these bucks from the beginning. Because Shadowlawn took such a slow approach, it took 8 years to get the buck age structure to the desired level. Fawn production will also be lower on poor quality habitats. At Shadowlawn, where the deer density and sex ratio is balanced, the fetal production has peaked out at 1.5 fetuses per doe. At first, we hoped to increase production to closer to 2 fetuses per doe, but later realized we had maximized the herd¹s reproductive potential given the habitat.
Again, club members began to get frustrated because they had worked hard to reduce the deer density and improve the sex ratio, but were still not getting the reproduction they expected. This is where collecting accurate harvest, reproductive, and observation data really paid off. The data showed that the club had indeed significantly improved the sex ratio and fawn production, but still needed an extra "kick" to reach its goals. Nutrition was the next piece of the "quality equation" where we concentrated our efforts.
The largest constraint on a QDM program in a poor-quality habitat is nutrition. Nutrition controls herd condition, fawn production, and antler quality. Understanding the relationship between habitat quality and its effects on your deer herd will dictate the potential of your program. An analogy I often use to help hunters understand this relationship is putting 50, 200-pound men in the back of a lettuce truck and leaving themthere for a month. Record their average weight. Then, remove 49 men and leave the remaining one for another month. Do you think he is going to gain weight? No. If you put those same men in the back of a steak truck what kind of results would you expect?
The same holds true for deer. You cannot expect a deer herd on poor-quality habitat, even under ideal conditions, to be as productive as deer herds in excellent habitat. If your biologist feels you are getting the most out of your herd based on your habitat quality and deer density, you may consider implementing a food plot or supplemental feeding program for additional gains.
Although Shadowlawn feeds corn through the year, we didn¹t feel this was making a significant difference in herd quality. To take their program to the next level, the club is planning to beef-up their food plot program and implement a supplemental feeding program. Keep in mind that this club is currently producing 120 to 130-class bucks by simply managing buck age structure. This is exceptional for this area and proof that their QDM program is working. It is worth mentioning that habitat quality can vary from property to property even in a relatively small area. I know of several properties that produce better quality bucks and have a higher fawn production than their neighbors, even under similar management practices. Consulting your local wildlife biologist is one of the best ways to get some insight as to what you should expect on your property.
The Slow Approach
All too often hunters elect to take the slow approach to QDM. If your goal is to produce bucks with eight or more antler points and spreads of 14 inches or more, you need to protect all bucks that do not meet these criteria from the beginning. This is particularly true in poor-quality habitats where getting bucks to this quality requires more time. On Shadowlawn, bucks do not reach this quality until at least 4 1/2 years old. Starting off slow often delays expectations of club members and leads to "QDM isn¹t working" attitudes. Even with rigid harvest restrictions, it takes time for young bucks to progress into older age classes and for hunters to begin noticing a significant improvement in the number of mature bucks present.
Starting off slow also means that it will take that much longer to achieve your management goals. This theory also applies to antlerless harvest. If one of your objectives is to balance the sex ratio and reduce deer density, then do so from the start. Many clubs do not harvest enough does to effectively change the sex ratio. If you are taking does, but not seeing a difference, you are not taking enough. This often leads to frustration and sometimes failure of your deer management program. Camera surveys and hunter observation cards are excellent ways to monitor both the herd's sex ratio and hunt quality.
Although total buck harvest often suffers during the first year or two of aggressive antler restrictions and increased doe harvest, it more than pays for itself once the sex ratio, buck quality, and deer density are balanced. Shadowlawn took the "slow road" to QDM, but was lucky enough to have good leadership during the progression.
Regardless of where you hunt, mature bucks are tougher to harvest than yearling bucks. This was a difficult point to convey to Shadowlawn members once we started getting bucks into the mature age classes. In Florida, hunting over bait is legal. Shadowlawn members were used to sitting over a feeder and, for years, killed the majority of their deer this way. After the first few years of rigid antler restrictions, buck harvest was low and hunter frustration was high. Shadowlawn¹s QDM program was at a crossroads. From a biologist¹s standpoint, the QDM program was working. The woods were full of rutting activity and mature buck sign, the sex ratio was much improved, fawn production was up, and antler restrictions were protecting young bucks from harvest. With 16,000 acres to work with, we knew that the majority of the bucks were still alive.
My first thought was that we had implemented antler restrictions that were protecting nearly every buck on the property, even mature bucks. Club members were not happy. As a last resort, club president Pat Keller set up a few infrared cameras. Not only were the bucks there, they were big! QDM was indeed working. There were many bucks that exceeded the 8-point and 14-inch spread restrictions. This quieted members' complaints, but why were they unable to kill any of these bucks? The answer was that members were still hunting over feeders. They were seeing plenty of deer, but no shooters. Every now and then someone would luck up and harvest a mature buck checking a feeder for does during the rut. Members soon learned that mature bucks were much harder to kill than the yearling bucks they were used to shooting over bait.
Once members began hunting near swamps, clear-cuts, and other thick cover such as pine plantations and briar patches, they started harvesting mature bucks.
Here's one of the keys to harvesting mature bucks that I bet none of you knew -hunt during the rut! Shadowlawn harvests nearly 90 percent of their mature bucks during the rut. Mature bucks are most vulnerable during this time. Shadowlawn's QDM program could have easily failed if the members had not changed their hunting strategies. If you have been practicing QDM and are not sure it is working, throw a few cameras in the woods. Chances are that the bucks are there, you just have not figured out a way to out-smart them yet.
Without question, QDM works even on poor-quality habitats. However, putting a program in place can be very challenging, even for experienced deer managers. Having a successful QDM program on poor-quality habitat requires keeping accurate harvest, reproductive, and observation data and lots of patience. Deer on poor quality habitat rarely respond in "text book" fashion. Consequently, you must rely on your data to dictate management strategies.
Keep in mind that there is no "cookie cutter" recipe for managing for quality deer herds on poor-quality habitat. Every property is different and every property has its own set of unique challenges. You must fine-tune your management practices to meet the needs of your deer herd. Setting realistic goals and understanding the role habitat quality plays in your deer herd are also vital to the success of your QDM program. While it is always good to set high goals, keep them realistic. Remember, every state doesn¹t produce deer like Illinois or Wisconsin. With proper management and confident leadership, you can produce a high-quality deer herd with a balanced sex ratio, increased fawn production, and many mature bucks, even under challenging habitat conditions.