Fifteen years ago, Senatobia resident Leslie Smith hunted the same tract of deer land he hunts today. However, a lot has changed for Smith through the years.

He used to go out into the deer woods in Panola County, and was lucky to see a deer in a weekend of hunting. These days, when Smith steps foot on his 900-acre tract, he regularly sees 30 to 40 deer in an afternoon, and several of these deer are bucks in the 120 to 130 class. These deer stay on his property year-round.

"I got tired of hunting and managing the land the same way year after year with the same results," he said. "I began to look into how to attract and grow more and better deer on my property.

"It has been a long process with a lot of trial and error, and I'm still not exactly where I want to be, but the days of not seeing deer and not taking good deer off the property are far behind me.

"One of the things that I am most proud of is that 99 percent of the people I talked to when I first got started said that I'd never be able to do this on just 900 acres."

Nowadays, quality deer management practices are easily found on any search of the internet, and have even given rise to the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), a Bogart, Ga.-based non profit organization that promotes the philosophy and management of balanced quality deer populations.

Though his success was only accomplished after much trial and error, Smith has identified a number of goals that have allowed him to be successful.

Along his journey, Smith obtained a few mentors. One was Natchez outfitter Bruce Heard, president of Independence Land Company. Together, these two have spent long hours discussing the tenets of deer management that increase both size and numbers.


Nutritional management

Any management strategy should start from the ground up, and that's where Smith decided to begin with his deer program. The first thing he had to do was determine the quality of his soil to see if it would support the food plots necessary to provide superior nutrition.

"During the soil preparation, it was mandatory that we get the pH levels down below 6.5," he said. "I was wasting time and money on seed and fertilizer because the soil was off. Even after we brought in lime trucks to treat the soil, I found it beneficial to obtain a pH meter to specifically check multiple spots in the same field."

Smith concedes that pulling random core samples often gives false impressions that the entire field is at one level. That's why he uses the pH meter to check behind the lime trucks.

With his soil in check, the land manager began experimenting with food sources for his plots. One challenge he discovered was a gap in available food based on annual crops - not to mention the time and effort it took to double crop in both the spring and fall.

"While I was spending time re-tilling for the annuals, the pregnant does had no available crop, and the bucks were doing without during prime antler-growing season," said Smith. "I found that keeping the majority of my fields in a perennial like clover kept food in the fields year round. When I switched over to clover, my deer herd went through the roof."

Heard concurs on proper nutrition during the critical times.

"On top of planted foods, we supplement our deer with mineral and pellet feeding during antler-growth season," he said. "It's harder with free-range deer than fenced deer, but the additional nutrition is there."


Local biologists

Additional assistance with habitat assessment and harvest management is available through the MDWFP and its Deer Management Assistance Program.

"I work closely with Chris McDonald, our local biologist, in managing our herd at Independence Land Company," said Heard. "Because we are in the advanced stages of management, we often have a need to harvest more does or management bucks than permitted by Mississippi game laws. I can petition Chris, show him what our needs are, and we are allowed to harvest those deer to bring our herd into balance."

This type of management philosophy, for which Heard gets full support from the MDWFP, brings stark contrast to the difference between trophy-deer management and quality-deer management.

"We aren't managing solely for big-racked deer," Heard said. "Our goal is to bring balance and quality to our herd. To do this, we need to be able to keep quality deer with good genetics on our property for future recruitment.

"We still offer our clients a chance at a good deer, often something up to 125 inches, plus we have opportunities beyond that if a larger trophy is what they want. But the basis is sound management, not just trophy deer."


Sanctuaries and intrusion

One of the most important facets of keeping and growing quality deer on any property is providing areas where the deer are safe from harm and human intrusion. Smith points to security as just important a need for deer as food. In fact, of the 900 acres under his management, two-thirds are restricted deer sanctuary.

"It takes a lot of commitment and fortitude on the part of the hunter to have land that never gets hunted," he said. "We don't go into our sanctuaries for any reason other than to recover a deer that's been shot. A lot of hunters don't understand that, especially since there's quality deer sign - rubs, scrapes and natural forage - all over those sanctuaries.

"The truth is, if you do the right thing with the doe herd, your food plots and your stand locations, at some point that mature 5½-year-old buck will come out into your hunting grounds, and you'll get a shot at him."

Although Heard's properties are more expansive, he allows plenty of sanctuary space for his deer, but also goes to what some may consider extremes to avoid human contact on the rest of his property.

"I'm a firm believer in minimizing human intrusion anywhere on our property," he said. "This dictates how we dress, how we behave in the stand and when, where and if we'll even hunt a stand."

Heard requires all of his hunters and guides to wear calf-length rubber boots on the property. Hunting is done from closed-in box stands. Excess noise, tobacco use and hunters with allergies or illnesses that cause excessive coughing are prohibited.

"We only hunt stands where the wind is in the hunter's favor," he said. "We'll even change stands during a hunt if the wind shifts, or move to all natural areas if the wind isn't consistent. We never hunt our winter plots unless the wind is consistently in our favor."

Another factor is approaching and leaving stands.

"I control how hunters are picked up after dark," said Smith. "Nobody leaves until full dark and even then, I'll usually have a four-wheeler come to the stand to pick them up. That way the four wheeler busts the deer out of the fields and not hunters. The deer are gone by the time the hunters emerge from the stands, and no association is made by the deer between hunters and the stand.

"In the morning, we do something a little different than most clubs or outfitters," said Heard. "We don't go into the stand until first light, and then our hunters hunt to the stand with a favorable wind. That avoids flash-lighting or bumping deer you can't see in the dark."


Adequate doe harvest

In the early years of quality-deer practices, changing attitudes from only harvesting bucks to acceptance that doe harvests were mandatory to keep ratios in balance was a hard first step. Today, most hunters understand that adequate harvest of female deer is an important management tool, even though they may not understand when and why.

"Once my deer numbers were up, I started thinning out does," said Smith. "We start early in the season, before the rut. Removing does keeps bucks in better shape - not wearing themselves out breeding does that end up getting harvested. Plus, there's that many less deer to feed through the winter."

Heard has a different philosophy, due in part to the timing of the rut farther south.

"We do not shoot does in our winter food plots in the afternoon," he said, referring back to his primary motive of lessening impact on trophy bucks. "We have a fairly late rut down south; most of our does don't breed until February and sometimes later. We have to be careful that we don't orphan fawns that won't have much chance of survival - much less prospering - without the aid and nutrition of their mother."

Smith agrees on the need to protect young fawns, and indicates that one of the challenges of selectively harvesting does is the ability for his hunters to distinguish between mature does and yearling button bucks.

"We're working against ourselves if we end up killing young bucks in our doe harvest," he said.


Part II will appear in the September issue.