Deer Management - Taking a Census of Your Herd | Great Days Outdoors

This summer, many hunters will be searching for the best ways to know about the deer that live on their club or hunting lease lands. Great Days Outdoors magazine talked with Brian Murphy, a wildlife biologist and the executive director for the Quality Deer Management Association about the effective use of motion-sensor cameras for better deer management. Murphy tells us how to use cameras to manage deer herds, while also protecting them.

motion-sensor camera

One of the best tools for wildlife management is the trail camera.




How to Catalogue Bucks

“Motion-sensor cameras are highly effective when used to catalogue deer of various sexes and ages,” Murphy explains. “Most hunters are interested in cataloguing the numbers or the sizes of bucks on their properties, but they should spend more time looking at the deer and dividing them into age categories like yearling, 1.5-, 2.5-years old or older. The hunters need to know each age class of deer living on the property and identify the individual bucks they may want to try to harvest during deer season.” 

motion-sensor camera

Doing a trail-camera survey of your deer herd is one of the best ways to know what the buck-to-doe ratio, buck size and size of the fawn crop on the land.

Murphy says that in most herds, the younger bucks will be the most numerous because they’ve just been born and haven’t gone through a deer season yet. Buck fawns will be more numerous than yearling bucks and 2.5- to 3.5-year olds. Minimum size and number of points also affect the number of deer in the different classes. If all the 1.5-year-old bucks are protected on the property, then naturally the land will hold more 1.5-year-old bucks than 2.5-year-old bucks. Generally, quality deer management involves protecting the 1.5-year-old bucks. Some hunting leases even protect the 2.5-year olds. 

“With either of these deer management programs, you’ll see more bucks under the age of 3.5 years,” Murphy reports. “However, under a quality-managed program, you can expect 25 percent or more of your bucks to be 3.5 years old or older. With intensive management, 50 percent of the bucks may be 3.5 years or older. Cameras allow you to determine how good a job of deer management you’re actually doing. Trail cameras have been proven in extensive studies to be as good, if not better, than the vast majority of other deer census techniques, particularly in forested habitat.”



Finding the Correct Sex Ratio of the Herd

Most biologists recommend that to take a complete census of your deer herd, you place one camera per every 100 acres. The camera needs to be set up near a desirable food source. Research has shown that even a 10-day census will capture 95 percent of a deer herd from any given piece of property. 

motion-sensor camera

Although many hunters put out trail cameras just before and during hunting season, the outdoorsmen who place their cameras in the summer will pattern deer better and can set up a shot list of the deer they want to hunt during the upcoming deer season.

“Research also has shown that during the late summer period, you don’t photograph as high a percentage of individual does as you do bucks for two reasons,” Murphy says. “During the summer months, since bucks feed very heavily to store fat, you’ll see them more. Does are relatively secretive during this time of year because they still have young fawns with them that may not be more than a month or so old. If you use cameras in late summer or early fall, only expect to capture 70 to 80 percent of the does on the property with the cameras. Take this factor into account when figuring ratios. However, you can determine fairly accurately the sex ratio of bucks to does on any piece of property by factoring the two percentages when you use a motion-sensor camera for deer management on your property.” 

According to Murphy, a realistic adult-sex ratio of bucks-to-does should only include the number of racked bucks to the number of adult does that are at least 1.5 years old. Having one to two adult does per buck on the property is an obtainable, realistic ratio. Quality deer management of your herd is achieved if you can reach and maintain that sex ratio. Your sex ratio is out of proportion if you have three to four adult does per adult buck. Then, you need to consider the possibility of removing some of the adult does from the herd.

Many monster bucks like this one will only be spotted on trail cameras in the summer or after dark.


Hit and Protect Lists

“In my opinion setting up a hit list and a protect list is one of the most exciting and fun deer management practices,” Murphy emphasizes. “If you do a deer census before hunting season, you can choose the bucks you or members of your hunting lease want to harvest. Once you’ve selected the photographs of the bucks you want to take, you can create a mug shot catalogue of the bucks for each of the members. The bucks you’ve chosen to harvest are on the hit list. The bucks you want to let grow and reproduce another year are on the protected list.” 

Hit and protect lists provide hunters with a great preview of the bucks they’re likely to see while hunting the upcoming season. Then hunters are more likely to make the right decisions about which bucks to harvest and which bucks to leave in the herd. Some hunting clubs break their hunting lease into sections and then give their members hit and protect lists based on the section where the buck has been photographed to know which ones they should and shouldn’t take. 

deer management

If you put out mineral blocks in the summer, you’ll see the type of bucks you’ll have to hunt during hunting season.

“Yet another advantage to the hit and protect lists is that they enable you to identify bucks that fall through the cracks of a deer management system,” Murphy says. “For instance, if you’re managing your land to take 3.5-year-old bucks and older, along with an 8-point and an 18-inch-spread minimum for bucks that are to be harvested, and you identify 3.5- to 5.5-year-old bucks that only are 6- or 7-pointers on your preseason survey, you can put them on the hit list.”  

Murphy suggests a photo census be done every year, as part of your deer management process, to identify individual bucks by their racks. Then, you can see and identify whether there are bucks that aren’t performing up to standard and that need to be removed out of the herd.


Other Uses for Cameras

Trail cameras are can be useful for hunters in other ways as well, not just for deer management. You may be surprised to know that many hunters are using motion-sensor cameras to patrol their hunting lands. They have these cameras located at gates and access points where poachers may enter their properties. In a number of legal cases, the key source of evidence has been a camera that’s photographed hunters trespassing on hunting lands, whether they’re in vehicles, on ATVS or walking. 

Another use for cameras is for landowners to record the number of truckloads of logs being removed off their properties. Most landowners get paid per number of truckloads of wood. By simply placing a camera in an inconspicuous spot along the road that logging trucks use, a landowner very easily and effectively can keep up with and determine the number of truckloads of logs that are harvested off his property each year. Then, if there are any discrepancies, the landowner has photos of the dates and the times that the log trucks have come onto and left the property. We’re seeing many landowners using motion-sensor cameras for a wide variety of security functions.


Capturing Unknown Wildlife and Settling Disputes

“One of the really neat things about motion-sensor cameras is they can photograph wildlife that you may not have known lived on the land, such as bobcats, foxes, possibly a bear or wild hogs,” Murphy explains. “We’ve had many landowners who’ve used cameras for deer management tell us about animals they’ve had no idea are living on their land, until a camera actually has photographed those animals. 

“A good example was when a friend of mine, another deer consultant, was doing a deer census on an island in Michigan called Fox Island. The island got its name because many years ago a fox had been spotted on the island. However, in the last 20 years, no one had reported seeing a fox there. Everyone assumed that all the foxes had died out, but while doing a camera census for deer, the cameras photographed a fox. This proved that at least there was one fox still living on Fox Island.

deer management

More deer hunters are letting nice bucks like this one walk, betting on them  becoming bigger the next season.

“Many times, hunters report taking pictures of trophy bucks on their lands that no one has ever spotted. These hunters never would have known that they have a 150+ Boone and Crockett buck on their property if they haven’t used cameras for deer management. 

“Also, cameras can solve landowner disputes. For instance, if a neighbor has a dog that gets loose and chases deer on your property, but the neighbor refuses to believe that his dog ever leaves the yard, if you get a picture of the dog on your property, you have evidence that in fact the dog does come on the property. 

“The most obvious use of cameras for hunters remains trying to pattern an individual buck and determine where and when he moves. If you use motion-sensor cameras prior to hunting season, triangulate the route the buck travels and identify the time when he normally travels there, you can get a good idea of where you need to set up to take that buck. If you use three different cameras, for instance, on a 100-acre piece of property, you can determine where a buck is at three various times of the day if he walks in front of those cameras. Then, you can quickly and efficiently pinpoint the routes he’s traveling.” 

Murphy mentions an example of how effective cameras can be for hunters. One of Murphy’s friends photographed a very large buck on his hunting property in Georgia that looked as though it would score close to 200 inches B&C. When he took the buck, it did score almost 200 inches and was the biggest buck killed in his home state that year. By using trail cameras for deer management, he collected a number of pictures of this buck prior to deer season and had worked out a pattern where this buck had been photographed by all three cameras at certain times. On opening day, he sat in the middle of the triangle where he knew the buck had been traveling and bagged this buck that scored 197 inches. As Murphy says, “A whopping-size buck.”

deer management

After watching a buck like this one for two, three and four seasons, you may decide it’s time to pull the trigger.

Cameras are great hunting and deer management tools and are fun to use before, during and after deer season. In addition, Murphy genuinely believes that the motion-sensor camera has advanced our knowledge of deer, the biology of deer and the behavior of deer as much as anything, with the exception of the radio collar developed and used for studying whitetails. You don’t have to be a wildlife biologist to use a motion-sensor camera to determine deer movement and behavior. 

With the pictures you take, you can see how deer grow, watch fawns turn into yearlings, see yearlings become 2.5-year-old bucks and watch the size and antler growth of bucks over the years. If trail cameras are used wisely, they can provide plenty of useful deer management information to hunters, landowners, wildlife biologists and anyone else who wants to know, “What kind of animals are in the woods?” 


Look for more great Deer Hunting information from John Phillips in “How to Hunt Deer Like a Pro” on Amazon. This hunting guide will teach you how to hunt big bucks where no one else can find them, how to call deer, and how to become versatile as a deer hunter, so that if one deer tactic doesn’t work, another one will. Click the photo to check out the book on Amazon.




This article first appeared in the July 2017 print issue of Great Days Outdoors Magazine. For more great hunting and fishing content for the deep South, subscribe to Great Days Outdoors print and digital editions or click the image to download this issue.





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