With a quarter Seminole and Cherokee blood running through his veins, Cassell has a natural affinity for the sport of bowhunting. And having grown up hunting the hills and hollows of his family's 1,000-acre cattle farm, Waterloo Plantation, situated between Bayou Pierre and the Mississippi River, he has the added advantage of living in the center of a trophy whitetail paradise.
But the one factor that is most attributable to Cassell's bowhunting success is the year-long strategy that enables this archer to consistently put himself within bow range of monster whitetails season after season.
"Preparation is the key to successful early-season bowhunting," said Cassell. "Meticulous preparation combined with effective and non-intrusive scouting can mean the difference between success and failure."
Unlike most bowhunters in Mississippi who wait until August or September to do their pre-season scouting, Cassell does his scouting all year long. According to Cassell, locating well-used trails, identifying good food sources and finding well-defined scrape lines from the previous season can all provide extremely valuable information.
However, Cassell warns against spending too much time scouting in your hunting area during the month or two leading up to opening day. Extensive scouting just prior to the season can be detrimental to your chances of harvesting that trophy buck when the season rolls around. If at all possible, scouting should be done from a distance or by utilizing modern technology that minimizes your presence in the deer woods.
Scouting smart means acquiring enough information to effectively set up on a trophy whitetail without letting him know you were ever there. If a mature buck suspects he is being watched or senses excessive pressure from repeated visits to his domain, he will move to a more-secluded
"Trail cameras and a good pair of binoculars are invaluable tools when it comes to stealth scouting just prior to the season," Cassell added. "By utilizing a series of trail cameras, I can identify what trails a buck is using, the time of day or night they are being used, and under what conditions.
"The binoculars allow me to observe the bucks on my property from a distance and become more familiar with their habits without them ever becoming aware of my presence. After all, the more you know about the habits of the whitetails in your hunting area, the better prepared you will be when opening day arrives."
Cassell relies almost exclusively on his trail cameras and visual field observations when it comes to scouting and inventorying his deer herd. Setting up three trail cameras in strategic locations beginning in early July, Cassell leaves them in place until March or April when the bucks have finished shedding their antlers. And since his home is located in the heart of the property, Cassell is able to glass the large fields and kudzu-lined ravines found at Waterloo Plantation on almost a daily basis. These observations, combined with the trail-camera photographs, allow him to monitor the majority of the deer on his property and keep track of them throughout the year.
"We know the deer on the property so well that we have most of them named," Cassell said. "It is very seldom that we're surprised by one of our hunters killing a buck that we haven't seen previously.
"And since the property has been archery-only for the last 16 years, keeping a close tab of the whitetails are on Waterloo helps us with our management program. Since our hunters know most every buck, we are able to fine-tune our harvest goals and target the ones we want to remove from the herd, whether it's a cull or a mature buck that has reached its maximum antler potential."
Only five hunters, which include Cassell and his brother Bill, are allowed on Waterloo Plantation. This limited access allows Cassell to have greater control of the deer harvested on his property. On average, Cassell and his hunters harvest seven bucks (three trophy bucks and four management bucks) and 25 does each year. His neighbor helps out by taking another 50 does out of the population on the adjacent property.
Cassell classifies a trophy buck as one scoring 140 inches or better. Management bucks are those that are 3½ years old or older and have less than 8 scoreable points. These high harvest numbers are necessary to keep the deer population well below carrying capacity, since the property is adjacent to the flood-prone land along Bayou Pierre and the Mississippi River. Even with the large numbers of deer that were pushed up into the hills of Waterloo Plantation by the deep floodwaters of the Great Flood of 2011, plenty of browse was available thanks to Cassell's efforts in keeping his native deer herd numbers in check.
Cassell's intense summer scouting technique is a tremendous help when it comes to managing the female segment of the population. For example, each season's doe harvest is dictated by evaluating trail-camera photographs and visual field observations. If the doe numbers increase to unacceptable levels, he will know it well before the season opens, and can make adjustments in his harvest goals. Ultimately, Cassell's intense scouting technique that aids him in consistently harvesting trophy bucks has also become both a harvest aid and a management tool.
Providing adequate nutrition on a year-round basis is of utmost importance in Cassell's management plan. Knowing that the dry summer months can be just as tough on whitetails as the late winter, Cassell plants adequate summer food plots in addition to his winter plots. Both types are planted in specific sizes and strategic locations throughout the property so as to maximize his chances of a close encounter with a monster whitetail once the season opens.
In addition, Cassell takes full advantage of the available native browse, and manages his timberland with that purpose in mind. With more than 50 acres of kudzu and an abundance of natural browse available to provide high-quality deer forage, you would think that summer food plots might not be necessary on Waterloo Plantation.
However, Cassell plants three sizeable food plots in American jointvetch as added insurance. Not only do these small three-acre plots provide an extra source of protein, calcium and phosphorous for antler growth and fawn production, but they also make great places to hang a stand for an early season hunt.
But that's not the end of Cassell's summer-supplementation efforts. By sharing scouting and harvest data with his neighbor, Cassell has been able to develop a deer-management cooperative that benefits both properties. Cassell's neighbor provides high-protein deer pellets in specially designed feeders that allow deer continuous access to the feed throughout the summer months. The sole purpose of these feeders is to supplement the native browse and food plots in the event that either of these food sources comes up short due to flooding, drought or poor growing conditions.
When it comes to scoring on an early season trophy, Cassell implements what he calls his Ace-In-The-Hole food plot. Although the food plots he plants in American jointvetch each summer work well at attracting deer, Cassell has another food source that deer love even more. With the first good rain in late August or early September, Cassell plants a four-acre plot in iron clay cowpeas.
He utilizes this food plot solely as a harvest aid. However, in order for him to kill one of the massive bucks that are certain to feed there, Cassell must keep the deer from grazing the succulent peas into the ground. Otherwise, there will be nothing for the bucks to eat when opening day rolls around.
"Rather than putting up a deer-proof fence, I have found a way to keep most of the deer out of my pea patch until it gets closer to the season," said Cassell. "I place a number of scarecrows around the field and dress them in my sweaty work clothes from the previous day.
"Although I have to change the dirty clothes out every few days, it keeps most of the deer out of the field."
A few weeks before opening day, Cassell removes the scarecrows, and the deer start coming to the cowpeas like they are magnets. Within three or four weeks, the deer will have completely cleaned up the field. But that's fine by Cassell, because he only needs the peas to be there to attract the bucks during the first couple of weeks of the season anyway.
Based on his trail-camera photos and observations last summer, Cassell was able to identify more than 20 different racked bucks that fed in the cowpeas in the few days prior to the 2010 season opener.
"The biggest buck of the group was a monster 8-pointer that I dubbed Old Acorn Tip," Cassell recalled. "Based on the sheds I picked up this past spring and estimating a very conservative 18-inch spread, Old Acorn Tip's gross antler score topped out at just over 167 inches. Another 8-pointer in the 145-inch range and a very nice 10-pointer rounded off the best three bucks in the group of 20 that frequented the cowpea food plot."
Although Cassell targeted Old Acorn Tip as the buck he wanted to harvest, the opportunity never presented itself. The 145-inch 8-pointer also safely made it through the 2010-11 deer season as evident by his sheds being found this past spring as well. However, all was not a bust; Cassell was able to score on a mature management buck on opening day of the 2010-11 archery season. While one side was somewhat deformed, the massive management buck sported a 148-inch 8-point rack with an inside spread of 20½ inches.
Another one of Cassell's hunters, Lance Stroud, was able kill the big 10-pointer that frequented the pea patch on the second weekend of the season. Stroud's buck would measure out an equally impressive 144 inches of antler. And with Old Acorn Tip still roaming the woods near the cowpea food plot, it won't be hard to figure out which stand Cassell will be perched in on opening day of the 2011-12 archery season.