Coming up with a deer census strategy for better hunting in simple terms, can boil down to the phrase, "you can't hunt what you don't have". Of course, that's pretty darn simple! However, an accurate deer population count at the right time of the year, can provide much more than just a hunting forecast.
I want to introduce you to a time of the year that I refer to the pivot point, for indicating the quality of not only your hunt, but your overall herd and habitat efforts. While traditional deer census efforts focus on the August/September timeframe, this is actually one of the most misleading times of the year for the small parcel deer manager, to census a deer herd. Instead, this period of time is actually the pivot point of deer population trends and understanding this concept, can provide a deep understanding for the quality level of your herd, habitat and hunting practices. Which way will your deer pursuits turn this season, the pivot of whitetail shift is the beginning of the journey and not the end.
*Corn and trail cams equal an accurate count? Probably not. Bait piles in most high pressure states spell trouble to mature bucks, even during the off-season. While corn pile trail cam surveys may work great for low pressure whitetails states, they can be highly unreliable in high hunter density states.
Population Pivot Point of Success or Failure
Deer populations take a drastic shift during early to late September, and there are many reasons for this:
1. Alfalfa's last harvest and soybean maturity
2. Hunting seasons first dose of hunting pressure
3. Loss of undisturbed bedding habitat
4. Regional native forage maturity dates
5. Traditional mature buck movements to Fall habitat
Recognizing, experiencing, defining and coining the phrase of the annual Whitetail Shift many years ago, has had a profound influence on my personal and professional whitetail management practices. September isn't a time to guage your deer population numbers in all but the largest of highly controlled parcels. Instead, the month of September is a time for you to sit back, wait and observe just what kind of a job you are doing at build a quality herd and hunt. At some point during the month of September, your efforts will begin to be rewarded, or not.
*Are they moving, or not? It is very important for you to name and follow individual bucks as soon as you can recognize them. To make sure that I am never missing a buck or a buck movement pattern, I strongly rely on DeerLab, and it would be worth it for you to check out!
Deer Census Launch or Implosion
Rarely do deer population numbers remain stagnent during the hunting season. For the most part, there are 2 different types of deer parcels. Which ones is yours?
Falling Fall Deer Herd Numbers
If mature does are hard to harvest, deer numbers are falling and your trail cam pics of the local buck population are largely during the cover of darkness, there is a problem. While the culprit may be excessive hunting pressure, inconsistent food sources or spook-out bedding areas (or any combo of all 3), the bottom line is that your habitat and hunting game is missing it's mark. It pays to be overly critical! A great deer parcel will almost always experience an increase in deer numbers as the season progresses. I you are not, major changes of habitat or hunting strategies need to be made.
Increasing Deer Numbers
Would a hunting season deer census on your land, reflect a consistent increase in deer numbers as the Fall progresses? Then count yourself fortunate, because your small parcel habitat results are in the minority and not the majority. An increase in deer population numbers typically takes 3 ingredients to happen: Consistent cover, consistent food and limited hunting pressure. Even in low pressure states, consistent food and quality cover can influence the entire neighborhood. If you consistently observe the increase of deer numbers each season, it pays to recognize "why", so that the trend continues. There is 1 great period of time that I have found to take a deer census each season, to make sure that you are getting the results that you need on your land, to make an accurate herd and hunting assessments.
*Are your cameras so reliable that they feature a 5 year warranty? An Exodus Trail Camera does!
Small Parcel Deer Census Strategy
If you have 1000 acres or more and enjoy the captive attention of a solid deer herd, then your August and Septmeber census numbers should command an ever increasing level of respect, as the overall size of the parcel becomes larger. However, when it comes to counting the ever shifting numbers of whitetails residing within small chunks of habitat, a census guestimate during the later 1/2 of October will deliver your true level of success or failure. Mature bucks in particular, can consistently change their home range, from Summer to Fall to Winter and finally to Spring. It is important to take a deer census at a time when the local deer herd has already established their hunting season residence, which is the only population model that you can actually attempt to improve, partially control and strategically hunt.
The later 1/2 of October is when the majority of a shifting whitetail herd has finished its annual movements from Summer to Fall ranges. With a quality, unpressured food plot program in place, it becomes very easy to simply count deer numbers during the last hour of light, with the use of trail cams or personal observations. This can be accomplished non-invasively and across an expansive hunting parcel, with very few cameras and very few hunters. Best of all, if you have allowed deer to feed and live in and around your land without being pressured, the total numbers that you do experience, should be a highly accurate reflection of actual deer numbers. I have found that unpressured, consistent food plots often attract 95% of the local deer herd out of cover and into food plots, prior to dark. After just a few sits with a hunter or two, combined with the intel discovered from a handful of quality trail cams during late October, a highly accurate deer census is not only not out of the question, it should be expected.
"You can't hunt what you don't have" and that's why an accurate deer population count for small parcels, should feature specific small parcel strategies. Late October is the best period of time that I have found, to experience a relavent and and accurate deer census. By moving from August and September, while at the same time ditching the bait piles and mineral stations, a reliable annual number can be experienced that you can count on and compare from season to season. It pays to be critical in your herd and hunting efforts, and making sure that your population efforts are on the rise throughout the season with reliable population data, should be a portion of the foundation of your whitetail management activities.