Unrealistic Expectations Are They Making You Crazy?

 By Craig Dougherty

Turn on hunting TV any night of the week, and most likely you will see a celebrity hunter pass up a couple of 130- to 140-inch bucks before taking the 170-inch Booner he was after. Often after doing a little touchdown dance, he will grab a handful of antlers, look straight into the camera and tell you how you too can be taking bucks like this if you’ll just buy whatever he is selling that week.

What he should be telling you is bucks like the one he just took are as scarce as hen’s teeth, and unless you are managing property located in just a few specific regions of the country (with almost perfect conditions for growing huge bucks), you had best forget about 170-inch bucks. While he’s at it, he should add that good management can lead to a much better class of bucks on your meat pole and increase hunter satisfaction immensely, but unless you set realistic goals and expectations, you may make yourself crazy. As deer property experts, we deal with clients every day who are actively managing property for whitetails and hunting. They are pretty much a gung-ho group of landowner/ hunters who are willing to do most anything to create a great hunting property. They create cover, plant food plots, pass young bucks and hunt intelligently. They do everything by the QDM book and work hard to implement our recommendations. Most see results almost immediately. Improved nutrition leads to an average weight gain of about 15 percent. Harvesting more does and letting young bucks walk lead to an improved buck-to-doe ratio and more and better bucks. They set a shoot-don’t-shoot buck policy — like a 16-inch inside spread or maybe a 125-inch minimum score — and by the third or fourth year, they are taking some nice bucks. Everyone is happy. Then they start watching hunting TV and their heads get all Boone and Crockett again. They raise the bar to 150 inches, and the misery sets in. They forget they are hunting Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania or Michigan, and those states and another 30 or so like them produce very few 150-inch or better bucks—much less many 170-inch Booners. They forget that all properties have limitations (including theirs) that will prevent them from growing deer like they see every week on hunting TV. They have set an almost impossible goal for their property, and within a few years, their hunting buddies are playing golf instead of planting food plots.

Realistic Goals

This is one of the most prevalent and debilitating problems faced by our clients who experience initial success. Many draw a trend line and expect to be growing world-class bucks in a few more years with a little more work. Sadly, it most often doesn’t work that way. We send them back to their initial site evaluation report and remind them of the limitations they face with their property. It could be poor soils, property size or location, or maybe a neighborhood full of yearling killers, or even a property plagued with swirling winds or poor access. Virtually every property has limitations that will keep you out of the B&C record book. But that doesn’t mean they can’t have the best hunting place in the county. It simply means they need to establish a set of realistic expectations. When it comes to big deer, the best way to set realistic goals and expectations is to apply the 10 percent rule. That is, set a goal for your property of producing the top 10 percent bucks in your area. Visit your local taxidermist, and ask him what some of the better bucks coming out of your area are scoring. Then get in touch with your regional deer biologist, and ask about ages, weights and antlers. If big buck contests are held in your part of the world, find out what kind of deer have been entered the past few years. Put all this information into a hopper (add the top 10 percent factor), and if you push the right button, a shoot-don’t-shoot bar will pop out. If you start consistently filling your meat pole with the top 10 percent, you can move it up to the top 5 percent or even 2.5 percent. And, if you have set it too high, you can always lower it. The trick is to set goals that are ambitious enough to be challenging and rewarding yet realistic and achievable. What follows is eternal bliss. Understand, we’re not talking only antlers. Some folks, such as New Englanders and Mainers, think in terms of weight. Others, like us and many other QDMA diehards, are all about age. The 10 percent guideline works with any and all. And one more thing: With the advent of trail cameras, it is relatively easy to get a fix on the deer using your property during a given year. Some thought should be given to putting the green light on a few bucks even if they don’t measure up. Your bar just might be set too high. The goal is to have some fun, and nothing acts like a wet blanket to a camp full of hunters like a “nothing-here-to-hunt” announcement the night before the opener.

Getting To The Top

After you have established a realistic set of goals and expectations, you can achieve them relatively easily if you understand the three cornerstones of creating great deer. Age, nutrition, and genetics are what deer are made of, and the deer you see on TV have ample doses of each. Unfortunately, most properties won’t even come close. That’s why you need to set realistic expectations for what you can produce. That said, it is pretty hard to be disappointed when you are in the 90th percentile or above (county wide).


If you are managing a property of say 200 to 300 acres, raising the age structure of bucks using your property can usually be readily accomplished. The easiest way is to live in a state that protects young bucks with antler restrictions, brief buck seasons or some other program designed to reduce the number of young bucks taken by hunters. If the program is sound and everyone complies, you will see results almost immediately (year two). The second easiest way is to get a bunch of neighbors together, form a QDMA co-op and agree to cut back on the young buck kill. The larger the area, the better. The results will come slower, but in most cases they are seen in two to three years. The third easiest and yet most difficult way is voluntary restraint by you and the hunters hunting your property. If the neighborhood is not hunted to death and you have a sizeable property with plenty of food and cover, and you practice low-impact hunting, you should see results in two to three years. Age will do more to put extra inches on your bucks than anything else. Any fool can see that a 3-½-year-old buck will out-measure a yearling any day of the week. It would be great if all bucks could live to be 7-1/2 and express their full antler potential, but that is an unrealistic expectation. If you can get them to 4-½ to 5-½, you will be thrilled with the antler results and achieve a significant age accomplishment as well.


Nutrition can be significantly improved on properties, too. Experts agree that good nutrition is a product of good soils, and good soils can be in short supply. However, you can always do something to improve the nutrition on the property you manage and hunt. Food plots are probably the most popular and effective method of improving nutrition. A good food plot can produce tons of highly nutritious forage per acre. We like to see our clients plant three percent to five percent of their property in food plots. The planting ratio should be about 60 percent perennial plots versus 40 percent annuals. We like to see plenty of nice nutrition-rich green stuff pop up in early spring, when does are close to birthing fawns and later lactating. Winter-weary bucks also need good groceries in spring to rebuild their bodies and for antler development. Annuals are fine for attracting deer for fall hunting and pre-winter nutrition, but the best food plot programs show a balance between annual and perennial plantings. Enhancing and even planting native vegetation can also move the nutrition needle in the right direction. On the planting side, you can plant all kinds of hard and soft mast species and see results in a few years. Native vegetation can be enhanced with judicious use of a chainsaw and pruning tool to release mast-producing trees and shrubs. Timber cutting works wonders. Any time you use a chainsaw to bring sun to the forest floor you have done well by your whitetail herd. A good nutrition program will add weight to your deer and inches to your bucks. Does, fawns, and bucks on most managed properties that we work with are typically 15 percent heavier than their counterparts taken on properties with poorer nutrition. Bucks seem to produce about the same amount of extra antler. Supplemental feeding can also be used to improve nutrition. It can be extremely costly when compared to planting food plots or enhancing native vegetation, and we do not often recommend it to clients. It is also illegal to supplemental feed in many states.


Unless you are working behind a high fence, genetics are virtually impossible to affect. According to the QDMA, the average size of a property managed by its members is slightly more than 200 acres. There is no such thing as a resident deer herd on 200 acres — or even 500 or 1,000 acres. Sure, some bucks are homebodies and tend to hang around certain areas, but if you think you are going to buy a half dozen $5,000 breeder bucks and turn them loose on your place to improve the genetic composition of the herd, you had better think again. Chances are, half of them will be three properties away by morning, and the rest of them will die of natural causes such as cars, disease or rival breeding bucks within a year. And if any of them manage to breed with wild deer, by the time their antler genes are passed on through a few generations, they will be so diluted they will make very little if any difference in the wild herd. The gene manipulation business is definitely a high-fence game where you start from scratch with breeder bucks and does.

So What Do You Do?

Assuming you have set sensible goals, how do you achieve them? For starters, you can purchase a property in an area known for producing bucks with sizeable antlers or heavy weights. There are soil and mineral belts across states capable of producing deer 20 percent to 25 percent larger than surrounding areas. Working with ground like that can make life easier. You can also buy into an area (neighborhood) where QDM is practiced, and that will help you with the age equation. Some areas also seem to contain deer with better antler genetics (or maybe it is just the soils). This is an option well worth consideration if you are in the market for property. But most have already bought in and already own or lease the property they are working with. In that case, the most direct path to the 90th percentile is age, nutrition and hunting smart. But — no matter what — have fun!