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As deer season winds down in January, many hunters are disgruntled by their lack of success in the previous months. We often start gearing up for turkey season and fishing trips. Although it may be necessary to step back and recharge our deer hunting batteries, hunting properties can make huge improvements in the 9 months between January and October. When it comes to quality deer and habitat management, every month counts and they are all critical in really changing the overall health of a deer herd and hunting property. Often times we as deer hunters attempt a crash course of habitat management a month or two prior to the opening of deer season when in reality these battles were lost in the months prior. There are many factors that affect your deer herd, and these factors can vary from year to year. Factors such as spring/ summer rainfall amounts, predation, timber harvest and actions of neighboring hunting clubs can all have a direct effect on the deer herd on your property. This is why applying a general blanket of deer management with the same harvest and habitat objectives year after year does not work. We must always evaluate our land and deer herd and make sure our management objectives are geared toward making the best management decisions possible. Evaluating your property and deer herd on a yearly basis is a must.

I like to break the 9 month off season period up in to 1/3’s. These thirds are January – March, April- June, and July – September, they are all equally important and hold critical times for optimal habitat manipulations and herd monitoring. No matter what the objective is for mine or a client’s property that particular off-season, I like to focus on the plan a third at a time. A general idea and direction is always good to have when starting, but looking ahead can cause crucial steps to be missed and could ultimately contribute to the overall downfall of your off season plan.

  • January- March: Once deer season ends, I like to look back and evaluate the things I did well along with making notes on things I can improve on. For example, did I get busted by a mature buck? If so why? Are my stands in the best locations possible that will allow me to be successful?
  • Every deer season is different and there are answers to every good and bad thing that happened, you just have to find them. January is also the best time to run a post season camera survey which will allow you to determine exactly the deer herd you will be managing for the next 9 months. In this period I also like to pull soil samples and apply lime to food plots, the sooner the better, giving lime enough time to alter soil pH. Removing undesirable hardwoods and other habitat types deer do not prefer should be done in this 3 month period. Doing this will open up areas for a spring green up full of nutritious deer browse, legumes, and cover. February and March are also acceptable months for prescribed fire which is one of the most valuable management tools a deer hunter can use.
  • April-June: How successful was the first 1/3. Do you have a good idea of the deer herd you are managing for? Did you open up areas to create more preferred deer habitat? Are your food plots in adequate shape for planting? All of these are questions to ask yourself once April arrives. The only action I really like to take in this period is my spring plantings, which can be an absolute game changer for your deer herd moving forward. I do however think this is the most important time for evaluating and planning ahead. Having a few nice, large strategically placed food plots of soybeans, clover, or iron-clay peas can provide nutrients and protein for a healthy fawn crop and big gains in buck antler development. If weather was not ideal for prescribed fire in the first 1/3, you can still burn into April but I would not recommend going much further than that especially in areas that are not frequently burned. By this time you should have a good idea of the green-up on your property and can possibly increase spring and fall plantings if green-up is not at a desirable level. But remember, just because it is green does not mean it is a desirable plant species for deer and provides them with the nutrients they need. Familiarize yourself with deer preferred browse and legume species and look for them on your property. It is possible to have an excellent green-up that is good for nothing but escape cover. If escape and fawning cover are not at high levels, coyote trapping should start toward the end of this third and run periodically throughout fawning season. Even if adequate cover is available, trapping is still a solid option. Always evaluate and be willing to adapt.
  • July-September: This is the last third and by now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel and deer season is fast approaching. We should have a good grasp on how our property and food plots are responding to the previous management activities and hopefully we have the right amount of habitats to support our herd at the present time. Spring plots should be producing at a high level and the majority of our fawn crop should have already dropped. Running trail cameras at this time is a good idea so we can begin monitoring our deer herd to look for any abnormal trends in the population. For example, if we estimated our population to be at 25 deer per square mile post season, and suddenly we are only getting a few deer pictures a week, we may want to take a deeper look and see what is happening. We want to make sure we monitor summer weather patterns for drought or other weather activities that may severely decrease our native browse and food plot production. If this is the case we may implement a supplemental feed program to insure adequate nutrition. Our clovers, radishes, and cereal grains should be planted toward the end of this period. If cereal grains are going after our spring plantings, it is acceptable to stretch that planting out until mid-October depending on spring production. We should also be ready to implement our fertilizer regime, not all plots and species are fertilized the same. Legume species produce nitrogen therefore a fertilizer mix for them will be different than that of cereal grains. At the end of September I like to look back and evaluate my entire 9 month plan, how did I do? Give the plan an honest grade. No matter how good our intentions, sometimes Mother Nature wins and there is nothing we can do about that. However successful or unsuccessful the off season plan was, make your harvest objectives for the approaching season accordingly. If deer food appears minimal and recruitment low, drop your antlerless harvest to reflect these trends.

This 9 month off-season plan is simply a guide to steer the management process in the right direction. There is no exact science to deer management, but it does take commitment and patience. I encourage you to take a look at your property and develop your own 9 month plan; every property and deer herd is different and must be managed as such. Always have a plan with a purpose. Know the deer herd structure you are aiming to have on your property and the habitat requirements it takes to support and sustain that population. Make sure you set realistic goals for yourself and your property, maximizing the potential of a hunting property does not happen in one year. It often takes many years of evaluating and site specific management to reach your goals. An increase in herd health, population, and mature bucks usually only occurs when we see an increase of deer preferred habitats across a property’s landscape.   Deer are very adaptive animals, just because we observe them using certain habitats does not mean that habitat is beneficial and improving your deer herd. A deer season can only be as good as your off season management plan.