A few minutes later, a doe burst out running full speed. Not far behind her, a massive buck came crashing out of the thicket, hot on her trail. Nolen raised his .270 Remington, centered the crosshairs on the trophy and squeezed off a shot. Ka-Wooom! The buck of a lifetime was felled by the precisely placed bullet and never knew what hit him.
Nolen's hunt happened on a Thanksgiving Day a few years ago, but the trophy buck he harvested was really just the culmination of a process that began years earlier when a quality deer management plan was put into place, utilizing sound biological planning, with crops, supplements and selective deer harvest all playing important parts of the plan.
First you need quality deer and prime habitat, and then you must allow the bucks to attain the maximum age for quality antler growth. To be a real contender for the record books, bucks must live to a minimum of 4 or 5 years of age to begin reaching their potential.
Although the plan had been enacted years before, the final pieces of the puzzle started forming earlier in the year when local game managers began planting protein-rich crops that would carry the bucks through the dog days of summer, when the quality, protein and nutrient-enriched foods would be scarce and hard to find for deer sorely in need of them for their milk and protein for their antlers.
"August is traditionally the hottest month of the year, and plants and vegetation have almost stopped growing in most of the state," said Chad Dacus, the MDWFP's head deer biologist.
In fact, most of the rain has ceased by late July and August, making prime food sources scarce and hard to find. Lactating does and antlered bucks are both under extreme stress, brought on by hot dry weather and lack of proper food sources providing proper nutrition. The does must produce milk for their young, and the buck's antlers demand a large supply of protein.
"Late summer stress is something that deer encounter almost every year in our state," Dacus said. "Late July and August usually has a drastic decrease in rain, and there's no new plant growth, while most of the soft mass is gone.
"Does are producing milk and raising fawns, which produces stress along with the extreme heat.
"Bucks are still in bachelor groups, and a lot of their energy and nutrition will go toward antler growth.
"August is also a month when many deer contract blue tongue and EHD. And it's normal for whitetail deer to have diseases in the South."
It's a given that August will be hot in Mississippi, and that weather brings even more stress to the deer herd as a whole. The stress may negatively affect the health of deer, which could mean lower body weights and smaller antlers later in the fall. As hunters, we all want to see large deer with big racks, and most want to help the deer also. The question is can hunters help the deer herd in their hunting areas?
Dacus said that there are several things hunters or land managers can do to impact their deer herds positively throughout the hot summer months on into the fall.
"Hunters need to be aware of clipping food plots in late July and August as the fawn drop usually occurs around fields and in open areas," said Dacus. "And the fawns have been conditioned and trained to stay put while mother is gone, so cutting the fields during this time may impact the herd negatively if we're not careful."
Although many hunters start thinking about deer hunting and management this time of year, it's too late to plant things to help the herd get through the summer. According to Dacus, land and game managers should actually begin their thought processes and form a land-management strategy much earlier in the year.
"By late July and August, it's too late to actually plant something that will help the deer during this critical time," Dacus said. "You need to plant in May.
"Soybean, cow peas, joint vetch and Alyce clover are all good sources of nutrition for the deer, although joint vetch has become really expensive recently and almost priced out of the equation."
By planting a combination of plants and natural food sources early in the spring, it will keep the deer off of them and give them a chance to mature as there will be a lot of other fresh growth for them to consume early in the year. This will give the plants enough time to grow and mature, which will help provide a positive food source during the hot-weather months. If you plant later, many deer will just mow down the fresh sprouts and new growth, and keep the food source from maturing and becoming a quality food source for them during the extremely high-stress time.
If there's a lack of rainfall, the plant's growth will be impeded as well and negatively impact the plants and the deer.
While many hunters want to plant corn for the summer, Dacus said that corn is not good for summer stress.
"I wouldn't plant corn unless you leave it standing for the winter when the deer will utilize it and benefit more," said Dacus. "You can plant corn and other food sources in combination in the same field, however, if you plant in sections. And many hunters and land managers will plant corn and peas in the same field. They'll plant beans and peas right beside the corn, and that gives the deer an early food source and leaves something for fall and winter also."
Although many hunters do plant food sources, many other's don't have the means or areas big enough to positively impact the deer herd, thus they turn to supplemental feeding. Although Dacus and other wildlife biologists prefer planting natural crops and utilizing the natural growth, supplemental feeding is something that can contribute to deer health and antler growth in a positive manner.
"If you're going to provide supplemental feed, then you need to provide supplements that have at least 16-percent protein," said Dacus. "And don't feed over 20-percent protein, as their bodies can't handle that either."
Most major feed brands offer supplements that are high in protein, and this can be verified by reading their labels or by talking with the retailers.
For landowners and managers who have control of their land, there is also a few things that can be done to enhance the deer herd and provide more and better food sources through the year.
"Thinning and control burns are two things that will promote the growth of new vegetation in pine thickets and other areas," said Dacus.
For hunters who have the authority and means to implement this strategy, the positive benefits just can't be overstated.
Disking instead of mowing an area is also something that managers can do to get a variety of deer foods growing.
"During the early summer, just turn the soil over and expose seeds in the seed banks, and you'll get a variety of plants coming back, which will really benefit the deer throughout the summer," Dacus said. "If you mow the edges of the fields, food plots and along openings, you're just mowing the grass and letting it grow more.
"If you just drop a disk into the ground and open up the soil, then you're allowing an opportunity for new growth, and that can be done almost anywhere on a property."
At certain stages of a pine plantation's growth, the canopy will become so thick that new growth will cease and no browse will be available for the deer. As hunters, almost all of us have seen this situation, and the deer simply move on to other sources. Areas that were once full of deer sign and tracks become almost devoid of them.
It can't be stressed enough that hunters, game managers and
landowners should begin planning now for their deer-management strategies.
"Deer management should be a year-round activity to maximize the health and size of your deer herd," said Dacus. "And you should go ahead and get your plans ready by February or March and begin implementing them at that time, and just carry it through from year to year, making adjustments as needed."
Mike Malone is a lifelong hunter who utilizes many of the techniques that Dacus recommends for successful deer management during the summer months. And what that means is that Malone has a year-round habitat management plan that provides optimum nutrition for the deer during all seasons of the year, and specifically when the deer population needs nutrition the most.
When Malone started managing his deer herd, there were very few deer to be seen in his home area. Starting almost from scratch, he implemented a long-term management plan that included habitat management, selective harvest control and providing optimum nutritional opportunities.
"We don't usually feed the deer, and when we do it's really very little," said Malone. "We prefer to plant different varieties of plants, trees and food sources that will provide better nutritional supplements throughout the year."
With some food plots and fields up to 30 acres in size, Malone provides supplemental plantings to go along with his habitat management plan of manipulating the timber and timber harvests.
Along about the first of May, Malone plants a variety of plants that will mature at different stages and times, giving the deer and game more to eat over the course of the year.
"We'll plant browntop, sorghum, millet and partridge peas," he said. "And I'll do a lot of clipping and tilling around the place also."
Malone plants in the spring, summer and fall, providing the deer with ample forage throughout the year.
"We also plant a lot of clover, but most of it has been eaten up this year, with the lack of rainfall," he said.
In addition to the natural food plantings, Malone also fertilizes the hardwoods, while cutting less desirable trees such as sweet gums.
"I'm a firm believer in getting the proper soil pH and maintaining the phosphorous at prime levels," he said.
With his habitat manipulation of thinning and harvesting timber at optimum times, Malone also cuts sections of land, as much as 40 acres in a block, and replants native trees.
"In one 40-acre section, I cut all the pines and then root-raked it and left the hardwoods that were there," he said. "Then we planted hardwoods, fruit trees and millet.
"We just try to manage the native stuff, and we're seeing an increase in the quail population also as a byproduct of our deer and land management."
On one section of land, Malone has two creek bottoms situated in the middle with hardwoods and pines on either side. Malone is also planting some of the native longleaf pines in some areas such as on a 400-acre tract that has a conservation easement on it.
While he believes in natural plantings and maximizing the natural habitat growth on his land, Malone does have a few feeders on one section to provide a little something extra during the late summer/early fall months when the habitat is in poor shape due to high heat and slow plant growth.
"I've got a few feeders, and during late summer we'll feed about 20-percent protein pellets to supplement the deer's nutritional needs for growing antlers and providing milk," he said.
Malone also feeds soybeans and 20-percent soy pellets to the deer during the late-summer months.
Malone has the results to prove his deer and habitat management is working.
According to the Hattiesburg hunter, the average mature deer on his place will score in the 160s to 180s, with body weights averaging 200 pounds in late season after the rut has finished.
"We usually harvest about two does for every buck we take, and it seems to be working well for us," said Malone. "I don't know why, but it seems like we're seeing more bucks born now than we ever have before."
During the rut, Malone rarely sees the biggest deer in the herd, as they usually stay in the security of the thickets and creek bottoms on the property. He does see increased buck activity and numbers of bucks chasing the few does that are left, however.
"Sometimes I'll see five bucks chasing one doe, but there'll usually be one big buck hot on the doe's trail, with the others just trailing behind," he said. "And for some reason we see less fighting among the bucks. I don't know what's behind that unless the does get bred real quick and the other bucks just don't want to fight the mature deer that are following the does."
Malone keeps a keen eye on his deer herd through the use of game cameras, and by just keeping his eyes open during his daily operations around the farm.
"We've got a few really good bucks, but they go into hiding once the gun season opens," he said. "And once they reach 3 1/2 years of age, you can't hardly kill one as they become nocturnal and rarely venture into the open during daylight hours."
One of the better deer harvested on his property was a 182-class typical 10-point that was 6 1/2 years old.
Though Malone has harvested many deer in his lifetime, he prefers to manage and film his herd now when possible. However, on occasion he will harvest one for the dinner table as well, as evidenced by an impressive 8-point that he killed last year. The buck had a 20-inch spread to go with 29-inch main beams and weighed 230 pounds. The deer aged out at 3 1/2 years old, and more impressively was taken while running a much bigger 12-point. To top it off, Malone had never seen the deer in person or on any of his game cameras.