Managing Deer and Turkeys in the South

By Claibourne Darden


It was 17 years ago, but I still remember the indescribable feeling I had walking through the woods of my newly acquired place in the country. It was mine — all mine. The trees, rolling hills, open fields and six creeks running through it were mine to enjoy; to hunt on with my family and friends, and to make it a better place for us and the wildlife that lived on it.
My place of 524 acres is in Taliaferro County, Ga., which has a population of 2,077 people. It's in the rolling hills part of piedmont Georgia. Alexander Stevens, vice president of the Confederate government, was born and lived there. In fact, he grew up about 300 yards from our place. The area is rich in antebellum history, and the soil is much depleted of nutrients because past generations grew so much cotton.

The first thing I did was to order metal “Posted — No Trespassing” signs. The metal ones hold up much better than others. I used a yellow background and black ink. The yellow color stands out better than white or any other color. These signs should be affixed to trees with 1.5- to 2-inch aluminum roofing nails. Nail them in only far enough to get a good, firm hold in the tree — not all the way! If you do, your signs will start popping off the trees in three to four years. 

Second, I started cleaning up our land from numerous generations of trash and neglect. There were refrigerators, tires, furniture, household garbage, broken glass, and bottles and cans throughout the property. Two hundred large garbage bags of trash later, and our property was looking pretty good. We should take pride in our places and make them better than we found them, whether we own them or lease them. After our land was properly posted, gates had been installed on entrance roads, and the property was cleaned up, our attention turned to managing it for deer and wild turkeys. Deer and turkey management go hand-in-hand. Most of what's good for deer is also good for turkeys. Managing for deer is conceptually very easy, but operationally, it's drawn out through time and can be difficult. Managing deer requires only three things:

1. Do not shoot any small or medium-sized bucks, and stack up does like firewood.

2. Manage your woods for maximum nutrition and proper cover.

3. Have high-protein nutrition with cool-season and warm-season food plots. Mineral supplements in our mineral-poor soil are also valuable.


Easier said than done, you say — yes and no. The old saying, “Everyone makes mistakes” is indeed true, but good people make very few. Not-so-good people or folks who do not try hard make many mistakes. Which type do you want hunting with you? The first step is to have a plainly written hunting agreement specifically stating what someone can and cannot shoot, complete with fines for violations. Yes, fines. It will not work without them. I know, because I tried the agreement without fines, and it did not work. I hated to do it, but I had to put in the fines to get satisfactory results. If hunters shoot buck fawns or spikes with antlers shorter than four inches, they must pay $50. For bucks that have seven points or more that hunters don't get mounted, they pay $350 “no later than returning to the deer cleaning-area or camp, whichever is first.”

There needs to be a no-nonsense approach to the fines. The amount of the fines needs to be high enough to get people’s significant attention, but not so high as to be crippling when they must be paid. When people come to hunt deer at our place, I tell them to bring two things: their binoculars and their checkbook, because they will use one of them. When necessary, I work with the relatively inexperienced hunters, showing them photographs so they can learn to easily identify fawns. Anyone can do it. Fawns are like puppies in that they have short noses. That's what we look for. It is a much better method of identifying fawns than looking for smaller deer, because most of the time, our deer are not standing on level ground close to each other. After folks identify a fawn, we use binoculars to determine if it's a doe or button buck. Since we got our place, we've stacked up does like firewood. We take absolutely as many as we can. This helps even the sex ratio between bucks and does and also helps limit a seemingly ever expanding deer population. After several years of intense doe harvest, we began to see significantly more buck signs in the woods and significantly more buck movement. On our place, I don't think it's possible to take too many does. Our problem seems to be not being able to take enough of them.


Where do you see most of your deer? In the woods. Yet most of us ignore our woods.We should not. 

The first thing we did in the woods was to thin our pines — too much, some would say. We wanted a lot of sunlight to hit the ground so the many natural plants, berries and grapes deer eat would grow. Some people spread a balanced fertilizer, such as 13-13-13, for an acre or so around some of their deer stands in the woods. We've done this, too. The next thing we did is burn the pine woods in winter. Do not burn your hardwoods, unless you want enough firewood to supply a city the size of Atlanta. A hot fire can kill many of your hardwoods. We burn up to 75 to 100 acres of pine woods per year.We burn on a one-, two- or three-year rotation in blocks — admittedly not square ones — of not more than 25 acres each. This technique gives your land a diversity of various stages of plant growth within your pine trees, and we're convinced that it's good. We don't follow a set timetable in burning, but we burn when we need it. It has been said that you get more for your money and effort from burning your woods than anything else, and I believe it.

Oh, by the way, when you are new to burning, there's one thing you can count on: You will catch on fire. I did the first three or four years, but it's not a big deal. Just stop, beat it out with your leather gloved hands, and then get back to work. As with all good things, burning causes a problem. When you burn a sweetgum tree, three or four or more new sweetgums sprout from its roots the next spring. Each time you burn, you get more sweetgums until the entire understory is completely choked with sweetgums. That stops the growth of plants that deer, turkeys and rabbits eat. You must spray sweetgums to kill them. This is a very arduous task, but we have done it and continue to do it. We use a 3 percent solution of 41 percent concentrate glyphosate (Razor Pro, GlyFlo or Roundup) to spray the sweetgums. You must spray all the leaves on the sweetgums. This is by far the least expensive chemical we have found that will do the job. We start spraying sweetgums at the end of July. Using a balanced fertilizer (13-13-13), we regularly fertilize high-producing persimmons and oaks throughout our woods. This is done in March, right before turkey season. We like to think this helps. It seems to. We also cut and poison the stumps of competing trees around those selected persimmons and oaks.

The last thing we do with the woods is set aside four or five thick areas we don't hunt or even go in. That hopefully gives bucks a sense of security so they will stay on our property.


This part of management is the most fun, at least for me. Besides being of significant benefit to the deer and turkeys, I get a great deal of gratification just looking at our well-done food plots. Many of you know exactly what I mean. Many others, hopefully, will have the pleasure of finding out. There are two basic types of food plots: feeding plots and hunting plots. Feeding plots are large plots that produce lots of food. As a rule, these are rectangular or square, because those shapes are the most efficient when using farm equipment. These feeding plots can be up to several acres in size. In many of our large feeding plots, we divide them into two or three segments and plant various items in each. This works well, and I strongly recommend it. Hunting plots are relatively small and always adjoin thick cover. There are several ingenious designs you can use for hunting plots. Some are long and narrow, but others are in a V-shape, like spokes to a wheel or like an hour-glass with a squeeze point. If you are rifle hunting, the only rule for design it that you must be able to shoot any deer that enters any part of the food plot. If you don’t have any hunting food plots on your place, you need some. After years of experimenting with many plants in food plots, I have come to the firm conclusion that you need to plant what is good for deer. That is, plants that are high in protein and digestibility, and plants deer prefer. Through the years, I've put more importance on what deer like to eat. Consequently, the foundation of our cool-season food plots is clover. Of all the clovers I have tried — and I’ve tried many — Imperial Whitetail Clover does very well on our place. It is a mix of clovers developed by the Whitetail Institute, and they're not available anywhere else. In fact, it's the only seed mix I cannot duplicate. Seed mixes sold by many companies have a very high mark-up. Imperial Whitetail Clover is the only one I’ve tried that I can not duplicate for 50 cents on the dollar. I’m sold on it. Several years ago, I started to add chicory to Imperial Whitetail Clover.

During years of severe drought, this chicory, with its very deep tap root, grew well and was the only green plant around. The clover took a bad hit during these severe droughts, but the deer still had something to eat. Much of the clover comes back when rain finally comes, but that does not help deer during the extended drought. Our experimentation helped lead the Whitetail Institute to introduce the Chicory Plus mix of Chicory and Imperial Whitetail Clover. You should try it. Some of our clover plots are seven or eight years old and are still very healthy and productive. Proper planting of your clover plots is critical. The planting instructions from the Whitetail Institute are very good. Follow them. The only thing we do that's not in these instructions is to first subsoil our plots.

Then we put lime on our plots to increase the pH to around 7.0. We bushhog our plots two or three times a year to create new, tender growth, which deer love. But the real maintenance problem with clover plots is weeds — specifically grass and broadleaf. To kill grass in your plots, use Arrest. We mix Arrest with crop-oil concentrate (one quart per acre) and ammonium sulfate (one quart per acre). We usually spray our plots three or four times a year, starting in late March. To kill broadleaf weeds, we use Slay. You can only use Slay twice a year on your plots (no more than six ounces per acre per year). Our first spraying of Slay is in late March or early April, as soon as our ground temperature reaches a consistent 55 degrees. We do not mix these chemicals together when spraying. We spray one, wait a week, and then spray the other. Arrest and Slay are slow-kill chemicals. It usually takes about three weeks to see significant results, but they will kill almost all of your weeds. And, oh yeah, turkeys not only look for bugs in your clover, but they actually eat your clover. Look inside a turkey when you get one, and you will often find clover. Most of the time spent spraying is going back and forth to refill your sprayer. Consequently, you should buy the largest sprayer your equipment can handle and the best one you can afford. Such a sprayer makes life much more pleasant. We have modified our sprayer so we can lower and raise the arms from the tractor seat.

For several years, along with hunters across the country I have been helping test brassicas (turnips, rape and kale) for the Whitetail Institute. Through this research, the company has developed a super mix of brassicas that grow extremely well, called Winter-Greens. It will grow just about anywhere, including areas with little water, and it produces a tremendous volume of forage. It's also very easy to plant, is high in protein and requires next to no maintenance. I am very pleased with it and will continue to use it. But before you go out and buy 200 pounds of brassica seed, you must realize that on our place, brassica is not the top preferred food for deer. When more preferred food is available, deer eat that. So why plant brassicas? It grows well during droughts, which we seem to have more frequently. Five years ago, we had a bad drought in late summer and early fall. We planted Whitetail Institute test brassicas, and they grew well. The clover was really hurting. The deer really hit the brassicas hard, starting in early October. During gun season, I would sit in my stand after the last shooting light and just enjoy listening — yes listening — to deer chewing brassicas. We took several deer out of our brassica plots that year. The next four years, we did not have extreme early-fall droughts, and deer didn't use the brassica plots as much. In short, our brassica plots are drought insurance. Consequently, we have taken relatively small sections of our clover plots and put them in Winter-Greens and will continue to “buy” this drought insurance. I recommend that you do the same.

In terms of other cool-season plots, we are continually experimenting with various plants to see what produces well and what deer prefer. You might see some of these offered by the Whitetail Institute in the future Like most of us, I started by planting only cool-season plots for deer. We thought we were doing a good job of feeding deer, but we were not. Six years ago, we started planting warm-season food plots, and man, did the deer hit them hard. They consumed tons of high-protein forages from those plots. After the first year of planting warm-season plots, we had about a 10 percent weight gain in deer we took off our place. Weight gains have continued, albeit at a slower pace. During this past season, I took the heaviest doe we have ever shot. You need to plant warm-season plots. Several years ago, I helped with the testing of the Whitetail Institute’s warm-season mix, Power Plant. It's a good one that produces tons of forage and really attracts deer. Just one note: If deer bite the tops off your soybeans, cowpeas or lab-lab in the mix when those plants have just leafed out, it will kill them. You must plant a large enough area to get the plots ahead of the deer.

We put out minerals for deer. Most of our soil is low to very low in minerals, and I think mineral supplements help them develop well. We put out minerals in fairly thick places beside deer trails. Trial and error will tell you which mineral sites are being used the most.We put out minerals in late February or March, and create at least one mineral site per 100 acres. We add more minerals to heavily used sites later in the year.

Through many years, I've been part of the testing of many products for the Whitetail Institute. Some have done very well on our place, and others have been failures. We've tested some products, with slight variations, several consecutive years. You will never see these failures on the market — at least not from the Whitetail Institute. The Whitetail Institute conducts extensive testing of its products before it puts them on the market. Some other seed companies appear to let customers do their testing for them — after they pay their hard earned money. We enjoy working on our place and managing it for deer and turkeys. In everything — I mean everything — we do on our place, we do it absolutely as well as we know how and are always looking for ways to improve. We take no shortcuts and never do anything halfway. I strongly recommend this approach to everyone.

Now you know most of what we do to manage our land, but what are our results? During the rut, more than 40 percent of the adult deer that we see have antlers. And yes, we have some whoppers, but darn, they are still difficult to kill, and the stupid ones don't make it to 4 1/2 and 5 1/2 years old. And we have loads of turkeys. My late father had a place in the country in North Carolina. He used to say, “Son, this place has added 10 years to my life.” I think he was right.

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Claibourne Darden has served on the national board of directors of the NationalWild Turkey Federation for 15 years and the Quality Deer Management Association for five years. He also was named the Conservationist of the Year in his area by The Soil Conservation Service.