Last month, Mississippi Sportsman profiled two different land managers about their philosophies and practices for establishing and maintaining quality deer herds on their properties.

Leslie Smith is an avid hunter who owns and leases a 900-acre tract in Panola County just above Sardis Lake in northern Mississippi. Bruce Heard is a professional outfitter and land manager, and is president of Independence Land Co., which operates on over 2,000 acres in and around Adams County in the southern portion of the state.

Supplying appropriate year-round nutrition, establishing a good working relationship with local biologists, providing sanctuaries and making sure an adequate doe harvest takes place to balance ratios provides a starting foundation for successfully managing quality deer land.

But that's just the beginning. The purpose of quality deer management is to attract and grow mature bucks with optimum genetics, while keeping a good balance within the entire deer herd.

Many hunters are unaware that the life expectancy of a whitetail buck can be over 15 years. In real situations, hunting pressure often reduces that life span to less than 3 years.

Age, however, is not the only determining factor on whether to harvest a buck or let it grow. That decision is the basis between what constitutes a management buck, a buck that will be culled from the herd because of its reduced growth and antler size, and what makes a true trophy buck.

"Most male deer will peak much earlier than their normal life span," said Heard. "That buck will be what he's going to be at 5½ years old. We decide if a deer is going to make it to that age on our tract by the time he is 3½ years old. If we identify a 3½-year-old buck that isn't what we expect or want for our deer herd at 3½ - that is, a deer that should score somewhere around the 130 class - then that deer will be classified as a management buck, and we're going to remove him from the herd."

Smith, on the other hand, wants one more year before he feels he has enough knowledge to make that decision. His opinion is that he can't be sure what a deer will be until he's 4½. He looks at a lot of 2½- and 3½-year-old deer that may be only 4- or even 8-pointers, but doesn't feel confident of knowing what that deer will or can be until he sees him when he's 4½.

"I culled a 10-point deer this past season that weighed 220 pounds and had a spindly rack with only 19½-inch main beams," he said. "I took that deer out because I didn't want him passing those genes on to my does or running off my smaller bucks that had better genetics."

One thing that both Heard and Smith agree upon is that hunters may have their own opinions of what constitutes a "trophy buck," even if a seasoned deer herd manager considers it a "cull deer."

"I love to be able to put a kid or a new hunter in a stand and have him kill a 4½-year-old management buck," said Smith, "because to that hunter, that management buck is a trophy."

Heard agreed.

"We have a lot of clients who come hunt with us who are frustrated with deer hunting back home," he said. "They are not accustomed to seeing a lot of deer, and here they have an excellent chance of seeing a management deer that may score near the 130s. They can take that 130-class deer, and it's an exciting trophy hunt, especially if there's a bit of either luck or skill involved in harvesting that deer. Management hunting is not always as exciting as trophy hunting. It's all in the eyes of the hunter."

With regard to a deer for the wall, much emphasis is placed on antler size when the deer is in the crosshairs and after it's on the ground. When it comes to selecting a trophy-class deer on the hoof, both Smith and Heard agree that antler size is one of the least determining factors. After a buck has passed the management benchmark at 3½ and 4½ years of age, body features are the way land managers determine a buck's age.

"Most hunters and land managers never take the time to learn body types to age deer," said Heard. "They simply look at headgear to make the distinction of whether or not that deer is going to walk or be shot on that particular day."

Learning to age deer on the hoof takes some effort.

"I study everything I can find that's out there on aging live deer," said Smith. "I do a lot of videotaping of my herd beginning in the late summer and throughout the entire season, looking at body sizes and features. I'll take those tapes home and study that deer on video. It helps me tremendously to know something about that deer when hunting season opens and I'm in the stand ready to decide if it's time to harvest that deer.

"It's funny, because four or five experts will often look at the same videotape of the same deer and come up with a different age."

One of the requirements of being a participating DMAP land owner with the state of Mississippi is to record the weights of all deer harvested as well as pull both lower jawbones of harvested deer so that biologists can age them based on tooth wear. Heard and Smith discuss many of the deer they see and even trade photos and videos with the goal of accurately judging a specific buck's age while it's still alive.

"Since the majority of bucks will sport their best racks at 5½ years, it's essential to be able to tell a 5½ from a 4½ and so on," said Heard. "Look for a big, blocky body, there should be a lot of sag in the throat area and a fat brisket. The face should be full to a point where the buck looks like it's squinty."

Smith looks for similar traits.

"A little sag in the belly and a deep barrel chest on a big frame," he said. "Also a big Roman nose (a prominent bridge, giving it the appearance of being curved or slightly bent) and a sway in the back."

More than any textbook or instructional video, Heard and Smith learned the art of aging deer on the hoof by spending a lot of time in the field looking at different deer, even keeping notes from one year to the next about a deer they may have had a question about.

"I'll admit it takes a lot of fortitude to accurately judge a deer from a stand during hunting season with a rifle across your lap," said Smith. "I'm a firm believer in buying the best optics I can find both in binoculars and scopes so that I can see and positively identify that deer. You don't want to go rushing the gun and take a big deer only to later find out it was only 3½ or 4½ years old, and hadn't reached his potential yet."

Last month, Smith and Heard both discussed the importance of lessening the impact of hunter intrusion on their deer herds. A lot of this takes place on the way to and from the stand. Both feel that with ample food plots, adequate doe numbers, surrounding deer sanctuary and a smart approach and retreat from their hunting stands, they will see trophy deer in their food plots.

But that doesn't mean they just stick any stand in any location.

"I build all of my rifle stands as permanent 5x5 box stands," said Smith. "I try to keep them pretty air tight, high in the air and only shoot through small shooting windows."

Another important facet of stands for both managers is their ability to see deer at great distances. Ideally the stand will be placed downwind from the food plots and minimize hunter intrusion by having a way to access the stand, coming and going that is out of the direct line of sight of deer in the field.

"On most of my stands, I can see deer up to 400 yards away," said Smith. "The basic strategy is to put the stand where it overlooks a field but the hunter is completely concealed on his way to the stand. The worst thing in the world is to have to cross open ground within sight of a food plot to get to a stand."

Hunters want to minimize the chances that deer will learn where stands are located.

"Deer will eyeball stands if they know there is a likelihood of hunters being in them," said Heard. "In a lot of clubs and leases, if a hunter sees a trophy deer or if a big rub or scrape shows up overnight, they will cut the distance by getting closer to where they think the deer will be and hang a lock-on or climber to be the first one to get a shot at that deer. Most of the time, they never do.

"Hunters intruding into a buck's domain will drive him away. It's not unusual for us to quietly slip into one of my stands, with the wind in our favor, and have a 130-class buck bedded down in the middle of the field because it is so rare that he has any contact with a human."

As with most pursuits, the determining factor of success is not what kind of tools you have to do the job, but how you use them. Trophy deer hunting is no exception.

"I reload my own ammo, and we have a range here on the property," said Smith. "I believe a well-placed shot with an acceptable caliber, meaning something of at least a .243, will get the job done. We do have some areas that we've identified as being favorable to bow hunting, and some of the guys who hunt with me have taken some nice deer using a bow from those locations."

But when it comes to management, a bow may not be the best option.

"I have nothing against bow hunters - there's nothing like the thrill of having an animal in such close range and having to take the shot without that buck busting you," said Heard. "The truth, however, is that a bow is not a very effective management tool."

Both managers would agree that the ability to make an accurate shot at distances around the 200-yard range is more important than a particular load or caliber.

"At 200 yards, I can use my optics to judge if the deer is a good buck, or if I'm harvesting does, I can make sure I'm not taking a big button buck by mistake," said Smith. "On my property, that's also a pretty common shot to have. We'll even shoot video at the range if a hunter is having trouble holding steady so they can learn to consistently make that kind of shot."