Ronnie Corkern had to wait only one year to see the value of quality-buck management.

Five years ago, his third season hunting a 2,200-acre tract in Jefferson County, Corkern had a beautiful 15-inch-wide 13-point at only 10 yards.

The buck was as good as dead. All Corkern had to do was pull the trigger, and he'd have another rack for his trophy room.

"I let him walk," Corkern said. "He would have scored 115 to 120 – a real nice deer – but he was young."

That summer, the club managed intensively, including planting protein-rich soybeans in a 100-acre field at the heart of the lease. The deer on the tract had plenty of food and cover, and probably couldn't find a single reason to leave the area.

So they didn't.

The next year, hunting the same stand, at 8:30 in the morning on Jan. 1, Corkern saw the same deer on the same trail.

"I knew it was the same deer because the G2 on the left beam was the same length as the brow tine," Corkern said. "He had a really long brow tine."

This time, though, the animal was a true trophy. Corkern didn't waste a minute. He lowered his .30-06, found the vitals in the scope, and eased back on the trigger. The rifle roared, and the buck fell.

The horns that he could have put on his wall the previous year had grown to 143½ inches.

It's amazing what 365 days can do.

The decision to let young bucks walk has been monumental for the 22-member club to which Corkern belongs. He and club president Bimbo Brock have ingrained in other club members the importance of letting bucks get some days on them.

"If you don't let them age, you can feed them all the protein you want, you can plant all the food plots - whatever - but you won't have trophy bucks," Brock said. "He's not going to reach his potential if you don't let him get to at least 4½ years old.

"But we're fortunate: We've got a good group of guys here, and everyone's got the same goal. We don't have too many problems with people shooting undersized bucks."

Club rules require bucks to sport 8 points with at least a 16-inch inside spread, but several of the members let bucks that are just past these minimums walk.

"We've had legal bucks that we've let walk, and then they'll get killed a few days later by another hunter in the club," Brock said. "That's a trophy for them, so we'll be high-fiving with them even though it's something we let walk."

To be sure, the club's location in the rich loess soil of the delta region makes it a prime place for quality, and even trophy, management, but the club makes numerous sacrifices to ensure big bucks walk the woods every season.

The club plants 36 plots every year with Buck Busters seed mix, which was designed by wildlife biologist Ricky Smith.

"That's what we've found works best for us," Brock said. "The deer really eat it well."

The blend is a mixture of oats, wheat, elbon rye, peas, rape and Dixie crimson clover.

Club members fertilize with 13-13-13, and reduce the acidity of the soil every third year with pelletized lime. They plant the second week of October.

In addition, this year, they will do some supplemental feeding for the first time, offering corn mixed with protein to their deer herd. It will all be done in accordance with state law.

"We don't really want to feed, but all of our neighbors are feeding, and they pull deer off of our land because of it," Brock said.

The club will place the feeding stations near the center of their two tracts, far away from any of their 50 hunting stands.

Most interestingly, the club shuts down all doe shooting on Dec. 15. Prior to that, does may be killed only in the woods, never in the fields, except on the youth weekend.

"That doe you shoot might be the one that brings that big buck right in front of you," Brock said.

Since they've instituted the doe policy, they've seen a marked change in the habits of their deer, according to Corkern.

The first year we had the lease, we hammered the does in the fields," he said. "After a few weeks, you'd go to the fields and you'd never see any deer.

"Now when you hunt a field, you see them in broad daylight. If a buck comes to the edge of a field at prime time, and he sees 10 does out in the field, he's going to feel very comfortable coming out."

Still, even with the restricted doe harvest, the club brings 30 to 40 does to the skinning shed every season because the deer feel so unpressured.

"Every time you hunt you see deer," Corkern said.

That's particularly true during the rut, which peaks in the area the first week of January. The pre-rut begins around Dec. 15, and at any point from then on, hunters expect to see some crazy things in the woods.

"I had two bucks under my stand fighting non-stop. I thought they were going to knock the ladder out from under me," Brock said. "Anything you've ever seen in a hunting video or on a TV show, we've seen it here."

That wasn't the case during the club's first season on the lease eight years ago. The previous lessees subscribed to the "if it's brown, it's down" philosophy, and the quality of the bucks on the land reflected that mindset.

That first season, club members were able to shoot a total of only three bucks that met the club's minimum requirements, and they weren't especially impressive.

By the fourth season, club members put 11 bucks on the wall.

If you let them live, they'll continue to grow. Just ask Ronnie Corkern.