Are You Looking Through a Glass Ceiling on Your Hunting Property?

By Craig Dougherty

If you think the glass ceiling effect only operates in business or politics, think again. The whitetail world is full of glass ceilings, and there are thousands of landowner/hunters out there with bumps on their heads to prove it. A glass ceiling in business generally refers to an invisible barrier that prevents women or some other class of individual from attaining upper-level positions. Talented individuals, intent on promotion and a career, clearly can see the upper rungs on the career ladder but just can’t seem to get beyond a certain point. They have hit an invisible barrier so to speak.

Many of the property owners my son and I work with in our consulting business are plagued with the same problem. They let young bucks walk in hopes of turning them into old bucks with big antlers, but it never seems to happen. They set management goals for themselves but keep bumping their heads on invisible (to them) barriers. It typically kicks in when landowner/hunters try to transition from taking younger deer to mature deer in the 4 to 5-year-old range. We see it all the time in our consulting business, and here are some of the most common reasons why.

Great Expectations

One of the most common problems my son and I encounter is unrealistic expectations. Landowner/hunters are covered up with images of world-class whitetails. It’s all you see on TV, on magazine covers and on the internet, and some of it is bound to rub off. Many landowner/hunters ignore local norms and conditions and are bound and determined to raise and hunt magazine-cover bucks. If you’re intent on taking 160-180 inch whitetails like you see on TV, you had better start hunting where the TV stars do. And trust me, that is not Alabama, Massachusetts or even Pennsylvania. It’s Iowa and Illinois and a handful of additional midwestern states that are known for producing monster bucks. The Quality Deer Management Association publishes a nifty map showing exactly where the record-book bucks are coming from. You guessed it — Midwestern states such as Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin are right up there. Overlay a soil quality map, and you see how strongly correlated good soils are with big buck production. Don’t make yourself crazy by trying to grow Iowa-caliber bucks on a South Carolina property. Except for those occasional freaks it just isn’t going to happen. But trying to get bucks into older age classes and providing the best food possible can help you start killing the best bucks in your neighborhood. But the glass ceiling effect is about much more than setting realistic expectations. In fact, it is more about hunting than goal setting. Most of my clients know the difference between growing deer in Iowa and New Jersey. They know that good antlers come with age and nutrition, and they know what the top bucks in their area look like. They are doing everything right: passing young bucks, planting food plots, providing cover and security and hunting hard, but they still are having trouble breaking through the glass ceiling. For the most part, they can get two and even three years on a buck, but when it comes to growing and killing 4, 5 and 6-year-old bucks, that is where they start bumping their head. A closer look will start to answer why.

Size Matters

At one time, deer experts were telling us that you couldn’t manage deer on anything less than 1,000 acres. Happily, that is old information, and plenty of managers are doing quite nicely on considerably smaller properties. It all depends on how the property lays out and what surrounds it. My son and I have seen successful older-age deer management occur on properties of 200 acres and more. We do nicely on our 500-acre New York property, but we take extreme measures to keep the deer close to home. We have laid out the property so the critical feeding and bedding areas are at the center of the property and as far from our boundary lines as possible. Most of our acreage is off-limits to humans, and we have numerous access roads and trails around the property so we can always approach from the downwind side of wherever we are going to hunt. Most important, we practice low-impact hunting to the extreme. We disrupt the property as little as possible, which means electric carts only, evening hunting only (until the rut), resting the property between hunts, only hunting the outer perimeters and a dozen other practices designed to keep the deer where we want them. Hunters having 100 acres or less are going to have difficulty managing for age or antlers. They can have great deer hunting, but if they think they are going to control deer straying from their property, they are kidding themselves. If their 100 acres is in a neighborhood full of QDM properties, they are in luck. The same goes for small-property owners who are lucky enough to own property in a state that protects young bucks. They can focus on creating the best 100 acres for miles around and attract deer with food, cover and security. Short of highfencing them in, you just can’t consistently keep bucks contained on small properties. If you are lucky enough to get the occasional slammer on your small property, use extreme caution when hunting him. Too much pressure, and the neighbors will have him.

Neighborhood Watch

When it comes to setting your sights on big bucks, your neighbors matter as much you and your hunting buddies. Unless you are working with a large chunk of real estate of, say, 200 acres or more, your neighbors can make you or break you. The worst situation is trying to manage deer in a neighborhood full of poachers. They trespass, shoot deer illegally and do everything else under the sun to undermine the principles of hunting fair chase and sound game management. I hate to say it, but in some parts of the country trespassing and poaching is the norm, not the exception. Poachers and trespassers are a scourge and often a good reason to pull up stakes and pull out. More than one property with real potential has been ruined by the wrong kind of people. Neighbors who do not share your management views can often be convinced to get with the program. When we first started to manage for age 25 years ago, our neighbors thought we were nuts. “That will never work,” and, “We hunt for meat not horns” was heard more often than not. And then they started to see older deer on their property and even started killing a few. Before long, they were passing up young bucks and waiting for that nice 10-pointer they got on camera the previous summer. Sure, it’s great if all your neighbors buy into your program, but don’t give up on them if they don’t. That is, unless they are confirmed brown-and-down guys and you are surrounded by them. If that’s the case, and if you are managing less than a few hundred acres, it is going to be very tough to get any age on your deer. You will be lucky to see a 3.5-year-old buck every so often. Some areas are notorious for their inability to produce older-aged bucks, and it can generally be placed at the feet of hunters who kill every buck they see. No matter where the property is located, if everyone in the neighborhood is shooting young bucks and you are on a small property, your dreams of growing big bucks are just that — dreams. If your sights are set on taking mature bucks, your options are to convince your neighbors to pass young bucks, find property surrounded by like-minded neighbors or wait for your state to pass laws protecting young bucks (most are there or headed that way).

Ground Rules

Some properties have good soils, and some don’t. It’s about that simple. Sure you can amend poor soils with lime and add the right kinds of fertilizers, but some soils are just chock-full of great minerals that help bucks grow large antlers (assuming that is your goal). The Whitetail Institute produces a full complement of food plot forages that can make significant nutritional differences on almost any property you should have. But remember, a good portion of what a whitetail eats is native vegetation, and here is where good soils make a difference. Good ground grows good deer, provided they live long enough. But soil quality is only part of the story. Aspect to the sun (ground slope) is important, too. In the North, a property that slopes in a northerly direction (away from the sun) will be colder and wetter in spring and summer, and will stop producing food and freeze up earlier in fall than south-facing slopes, which gather sun more efficiently. We have one major north-facing slope on our New York property, and it is a dark, damp place. Bucks love it in summer, but food production shuts down early in fall, and by mid-hunting season, deer are generally feeding elsewhere. If your hunting property is in the North and you only have north-sloping ground to contend with, you are at a distinct disadvantage as far as keeping deer happy all season. You will be fighting Mother Nature by trying to grow fall forages in areas that get little fall and no winter sun. We combat this by planting Tall Tine Tubers, which grow well in the cold, and attract and feed a lot of deer, but we are definitely working against Mother Nature on north-facing slopes. In the South, it is pretty much the opposite. North slopes are better growers than hot, dry southern exposures. Deer don’t spend much time around hot, dry side hills with midday temps that will pop the top off of a thermometer. Ideally, the property you are working will have multiple slopes of every orientation, providing you with the best of all worlds in terms of growing deer foods. Landowners found out years ago that planting quality food plots for whitetails really can make a significant difference. If you can get some age on a deer and are able to provide top-of-the-line nutrition, you really can grow healthier, heavier and larger-antlered bucks. Start with some good soil and some favorable locations, and the sky is the limit as far as nutrition goes. And good nutrition usually means older-aged deer and good antlers. Start with a poor piece of ground, and you’ll eventually be bumping your head.


It’s one thing to grow a big mature buck but another to kill him. The vast majority of our glass ceiling clients have photographed good bucks on their property but can’t seem to find them when hunting season rolls around. Indeed, the question most often asked of us in our day-to-day consulting business is, “Now that I have grown him, how the heck do I kill him?” The answer to this question will have a good deal to do with how you hunt, but it will also depend on how your property hunts. Some properties are a dream to hunt, but others are almost unhuntable. Three hundred fifty acres of our 500 are unhuntable because of poor wind conditions. Our property is plagued with uneven terrain, and covered up with dropoffs, ups and downs, and benches and points, any of which will make the wind hook, swirl and up-sweep, and any of a dozen other tricks that will tell a mature buck that it’s time to get out of Dodge. It is almost impossible to kill a mature buck with a bow during irregular wind conditions. Some properties are almost impossible to hunt because of constantly swirling winds. It took us years to figure this out, but it has been proven to be true time and time again. We always look for properties with clean air when shopping for hunting land. Clean-air properties have gradual, sweeping slopes that allow air to pass smoothly over them. If you own a 200-acre piece of hunting ground and 100 acres is relatively unhuntable because of dirty, swirling air movement, you are looking at a partial glass ceiling. You wind up hunting the same places again and again, and that is never good when you are after big old bucks. Some properties simply hunt better than others, and getting beaten by the wind every time out is one of those glass ceilings you don’t know is there until you start lighting smoke bombs or releasing wind floaters to truly understand what is really going on in the air.


How you access a property for hunting is also a make-or-break issue. The best properties can be accessed from multiple locations and in every kind of wind. The worst have a single access point, and by the time you are in position to hunt, every deer on the place knows you are out and about. You might grow them, but you will rarely, if ever, kill them if they know every time you are in the house. If your scent blows over your entire property on your way in or your truck’s headlights light up every buck on the North 40 heading out, you are at a distinct disadvantage when hunting mature deer. During the past 25 years, we have gradually developed complete network access roads that allow us to get in and out of our hunting locations without being detected. Through time, we have closed off all the old roads (that didn’t work) and replaced them with a network of roads built with hunting in mind. This is one glass ceiling that usually can be shattered. Stealthy hunting is a critical ingredient in hunting mature deer, and you can’t be stealthy if you can’t enter and exit a property without every deer on the property knowing they are being hunted. But it doesn’t end there. You neighbors can also screw up your deer hunting by tipping off all the deer in the neighborhood that the hunt is on. You can’t do much about your neighbors, but sometimes you can fix access issues on property. Boundary lines and/or carving in new roads or building crossings can often be a solution. Physical limitations such as lakes, rivers and vertical fall offs can seldom be fixed. There are all kinds of reasons for hitting the glass ceiling as far as age and antlers go. Unrealistic goal-setting is obvious, but most landowners are able to see their way around this issue and get real in a hurry. More common are the invisible ones that truly are holding landowner/hunters back from growing or killing mature bucks. The ones mentioned above are ones we commonly see. It can be tough, but your job is to put a plan together to overcome these issues.