|Grow Your Own Photography
by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III
As you may or may not know, I have been writing a question and answer natural history column for the magazine Deer & Deer Hunting for the past twenty plus years. Some of the questions that I am asked, over and over, are what can hunters do to produce bigger bucks, what can they do to hold the deer on their land and what can they do to help the deer population in general.
Over the many years that I was a columnist for Outdoor Photographer, I often got similar questions from photographers. They didn't want to hunt the deer, they just wanted to be able to get photographs of the biggest bucks possible.
It's sad, but true, that 99% of the time, it is only the photos of the biggest bucks that sell. This fact breaks my heart because, as a naturalist, I am interested in and photograph every aspect of a creature's life. I am as interested in photographing does and fawns as I am bucks and in all seasons of the year, but basically only photos of the biggest bucks will sell. That's a fact of life.
How do you get bigger bucks? Feed them, and by that I don't mean go down to your local feed store and buy a load of feed. What I am suggesting is that if you have any property at all, even if it's just an acre, you can plant food that, if it won't hold the deer on your property (and it won't) will at least attract them to it.
There are some basics you should know about deer. First of all, deer do not have a territory. The proper definition of a territory is an area from which the male, and sometimes the female, will drive all other members of the same species away.
This is done to ensure that there will be enough food available on the territory to feed the male, female and their immediate offspring. Robins have a territory because they need so many square feet to secure the needed feed. Wolves have a territory because they need so many square miles to secure the needed food. Deer do not have a territory; they do have a home range that, depending on the available food, water and cover, may be larger or smaller but averages out to about two square miles or 1,280 acres. Under optimum conditions, and we seldom have them, good habitat will support twenty deer to the square mile. Unfortunately, we don't have much good habitat left for a number of reasons, but primarily because the white-tailed deer is one of the most adaptable of all creatures. From a low of around 500,000 deer, nationwide, the whitetail population now exceeds thirty million animals.
The success story came about because an end was put to market and over hunting, because of better laws governing the taking of deer, better enforcement of those laws, better management practices, the conversion of marginal farmland back to brush land and woodland, control of disease and parasites, such as the screw worm, etc., etc., etc. In many areas, the whitetail is its own worst enemy; its comeback has been so successful that we now have thirty, fifty, seventy-five and even one hundred deer to the square mile. Any of those numbers are above the optimum number of twenty deer per square mile and it comes out at a cost, which is the destruction of the deer's habitat. The end result of the destruction of their habitat is that the deer are not getting sufficient nutritious food and will have smaller bodies, smaller antlers, fewer offspring, less resistance to disease and perhaps even die of starvation during severe winters. That's why anything you can do to make more food available to deer will help produce bigger, better bucks.
First and foremost, a deer is a browsing animal; it will feed first on high quality browse over any other food except acorns. It was after the heavy timber cutting during World War I and the abandonment of many marginal farm fields in the 1940s produced unlimited browse that the deer herds made spectacular leaps. The pre-Columbian Indians were this country's first game managers; they used to set fire to the virgin forests because they knew that deer thrived upon the diversity of brush that sprang up after a burn. The problem with most brushy areas that have been created by fire or clear cutting is that, in fifteen to twenty years, the brush grows into trees that grow beyond the deer's reach. Mature forests, where the canopy blocks out all the sunlight, will have very little in the way of deer food. It is true that the deer will eat the leaves of maple, ash, tulip - poplar, etc., as fast as they fall, and those leaves are good deer food.
Woodlots can be managed to increase food for deer by selectively cutting trees for timber. If trees are cut 4" above the ground, it will cause the stumps to grow a profusion of sprouts, excellent deer food. I would never cut a mature oak tree because it takes fifteen years for an oak sapling to produce acorns and thirty-five years before the tree is mature enough to really produce good acorn crops. Studies done in Pennsylvania have shown that, in good acorn years - and 2002 was a good year in most of the northeast, oaks can produce up to five hundred pounds of acorns per acre per year. However, not all years are good ones for acorns. White oaks hit peak production only one out of every three to four years. Red and black oaks produce good crops one out of two to three years. When available, deer prefer acorns over all other foods and gain weight faster. If you have some woodland, leave the oaks standing, selectively cut the timber trees to encourage brushy growth and leave the tree tops to provide cover.
Apples are also a favored food and the deer will know where every apple tree is in their area. If there are any old apple trees on your property you can increase the production of fruit by heavy pruning of the sucker branches.
Studies done in New York State have proven that up to one hundred times more deer food can be produced per acre from fields than can be gotten from forest lands. That's why I have suggested that you grow your own bucks bigger.
If you have just an acre of open land, I would suggest you plant the entire patch. If you have two acres of open land, I'd plant one acre and let one grow back up in brush. I'd make the food patch a long narrow strip of about one hundred fifty feet and lay it out in an east-west direction as it would get more sunlight that way. Also, with a 400mm to 500mm lens you can get frame-filling photos of deer at one hundred to one hundred fifty feet. Put your Rue blind on the south side of the food patch and the light will be in your favor both morning and evening. As most parts of the country have a westerly flow of air, the breeze should carry your scent away from the deer. If you have a larger tract of land, you can make several food plots, but I'd keep them about one hundred fifty feet wide and as long as possible, with brush on either side.
What you put in the food plots and how you prepare the seedbed is of the utmost importance. Go to your local county seat and meet with the agricultural agent. Have him come out to your land and test the soil, or get instructions on how to do it yourself and where to get the soil analyzed. Only by doing this will you know how much lime and what kind of fertilizer will be needed to make the land most productive. It does not pay to plant a crop if you don't do everything possible to ensure good results.
Living in northwestern New Jersey, I have followed Cornell University's recommendation of planting birdsfoot trefoil because deer love it, it has exceptionally high protein, it re-seeds itself and requires minimum maintenance for up to eight to ten years, or even more. There are many deer plot foods advertised in the sporting magazines, but these cost up to three times what you should have to pay for the same type seed. Somebody has to pay for all that advertisement. I have found that I can buy the best, cleanest birdsfoot trefoil by going directly to a farmer that produces the seed. I have been getting my seed directly from Martin Hamann by writing him c/o Hamann Farms, 61760 County Hwy, East Mason, WI 54856, calling 715-765-4654, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or visiting their website at www.hamannfarms.com. Directions on how the seed should be planted is provided. If you don't have the equipment to prepare the soil and plant the seed, you can probably get a local farmer to do it, which is what I had to do.
I found that I could maintain my food plots by having them mowed to about an eight inch height after the seed had dropped in August.
This guaranteed a re-seeding of the crop, controlled weeds and thistles and produced high protein new growth.
If you have land enough to also put in food plots of corn that can be left standing to provide carbohydrates for the deer during the winter months, by all means do it.
If you put in food plots, the deer will come and you can get your photographs.