Sponsored by: Heartland Wildlife Institute & Spypoint Camera Systems

By: Colby Ward

Have a little faith, adhere to the three golden rules and you too can consistently produce trophy class bucks. In our Management Advantage column, I write about many ways to improve your habitat, manage your wildlife and produce trophy class bucks. We explore various options for planting perennial and annual food plots, land sculpting through mechanical and free hand methods, supplemental feeding, management techniques and many other interesting topics that landowners and hunters both should consider as tools to improve their properties. However, if you boil it all down to the bare basics, the things that matter the most when your goal is consistently growing trophy class bucks, there are three things that matter the most.

The author shot this 6.5 year old buck that weighed 210 pounds, with 11 score-able points resulting in a 155 score

Before I reveal the three golden rules, let’s talk about the faith part of the equation. There are no immediate or quick tricks to growing trophy class bucks. It takes time, patience and a positive attitude to stick with a plan long enough to truly see the results. This is where the faith comes in. You have to have enough faith in your plan to let it work. Sure – you will see some improvements each year, but the true pay-off is revealed over a stretch of many years. You need faith, that by passing up on some really good bucks are the right thing to do. You need faith that your neighbors will not disrupt your plan and this is a big one. I hear all the time that if I don’t shoot that buck my neighbor will or my land is too small to truly manage wildlife. I say “bah hum bug” to all of that. I believe not as many bucks will get shot by neighbors as most people think, especially if you create sanctuaries on your property and aren’t riding 4-wheelers all over your land and forcing your deer onto your neighbors land. Maybe you need to share your plan with your neighbors and get them on board, or create a coop. Maybe they are thinking the exact same thing you are – if I don’t shoot that buck my neighbor will. Have you ever thought of that? Now that we are starting to believe in our plan, let’s talk about the three most basic rules of producing trophy bucks. 1)      Rule number 1: Let your best bucks grow to an age where their natural genetics will show themselves. I believe that most free ranging environments have better genetics that most people realize. The reason they don’t see these genetics is because they are shooting their best bucks at an early age. I have quite a few friends that have high fence ranches and buy high dollar deer to stock their high fence ranches and honestly, after monitoring their high fence operations and our free ranging environments, there is not as big a difference in the quality of bucks as most people might believe. The biggest difference is in a high fence ranch, they have more confidence in letting their best bucks grow to ripe old age where their genetics can be seen. High fence ranches will not shoot their best bucks until they are 6.5 years of age. How many free ranging environments will hold off on a great buck past 4.5 years of age? Not too many. And yet it is a widely known fact that bucks don’t grow their best set of antlers until they are at least 6.5 years of age.  The first 3.5 years of age a buck’s main emphasis is growing a strong body and then anything extra goes to his antlers. Only after he is 4.5 years of age and older are his antlers really starting to express his true potential. So if you are shooting your good bucks at 3.5 years of age and younger, you really have no idea what they could look like when they grow up. When I talk about letting your best class of bucks walk to an older age, I am referring to the top 15 to 25 percent of your bucks. On my ranch, I am referring to bucks that have 9 or more points, with some decent tine length and appear to have the potential to grow into something really special. We hunt in an area that many people felt like the upper end of potential was bucks in the 120 to 130 class range. After five or six years of adhering to our plan, we regularly see bucks in the 150 to 160 class range and a few that will go quite a bit higher than that. I don’t care if you are hunting in the “Golden Triangle” in south Texas, which is known for it’s trophy class bucks or if you are hunting in Canada, it takes a special buck to grow a 160 class rack and larger. Even on the great trophy ranches you are going to see the majority of bucks that are mediocre and will always be 8 pointers or have short tines and will never grow a 160+ class rack. These bucks are great management type bucks and are fun to hunt and can provide great venison for the freezer. However, if you want to consistently produce trophy class bucks, you need to let the best class of bucks on your property grow to an age that let’s their genetics reveal themselves. 2)      Rule number 2: You have to shoot does. The closer you can get your deer herd to a 1:1 ratio of bucks to does the better. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the simple truth is that shooting does will improve your overall health of the herd. I am not going to belabor the point in this article, but whether or not you like to shoot them or not, it is an important part of the plan. Too many does has many negative effects on the herd. Long drawn out ruts wear bucks down to the point of taking long recovery times or even death. You want a short heavy rut where all your does get bred in a matter of a few weeks. This reduces predation on fawns in the spring, and makes for healthier fawns and gives young bucks the best chance of growing into true trophies. Shooting does will put venison in the freezer and improves the overall health of your herd. Make sure it is a part of your annual plan.

Shooting does and keeping animal numbers in line with what the habitat can handle is important

3)      Rule number 3: Improve your habitat. You can improve your habitat by simply keeping your animals numbers in line with what your habitat can manage. The land we hunt on was over grazed by goats and then cattle for many years. There were old fields on our property that I honestly thought would never grow good vegetation. By simply cutting back on the number of livestock grazing the land and keeping the wildlife numbers (deer and hogs) at an appropriate level, we have seen our land go from a pretty baron environment with very few if any preferred deer foods to an environment where the native bunch grasses are growing vigorously, preferred forbs and legumes have regained a foothold and are starting to spread and the fruit bearing plants are once again dropping food for all to eat. The whole place looks and feels completely different and all this was accomplished by getting the animal units on the land back to an appropriate level, so our habitat could express itself. Every year I try to plant some annual food plots and plant some native perennial seeds. I continue to try to keep the invasive plants like mesquites, cedars and junipers cut back and have put in a few stock tanks to provide more water for the animals. However, the most impact to our habitat has been by simply keeping our animal numbers in check with what the land can support. By improving your habitat, you are giving your animals choice food sources that will ultimately be revealed in the overall health of the animals. If you will notice bucks will grow their best antlers when you have good spring rains and wet years. This is because the rain translates into quality feed. If you keep your animals in line with what your habitat can support in lean years, you will create an environment that is like a wet year every year.

Annual food plots can take pressure off of native habitat and offer wildlife valuable nutrition

If you sense a theme here you are correct. I believe both the wildlife and habitat that are native to most areas are much better that people realize. We just have not been letting the natural habitat or the natural ability of our game show itself. By reducing the animal units, both domestic and wildlife to more natural limits, will allow the habitat to come back to a state that is natural to your area. This will allow the preferred foods, which are typically the most nutritious, to come back and thrive. This will have a definite impact on your wildlife, like having a wet spring every year. Understand what the top percentage class of bucks is on your property and let them walk. Let them walk to an age that allows their genetic potential to show. By developing a plan, having faith in the plan and following three simple, but important rules you can have a dramatic impact on the quality of the bucks on your property. Good luck and happy hunting!