Avoid the Road-Trip Fantasy

When hunters say they tried Quality Deer Management (QDM) and found it doesn’t work, you can usually listen to each story and find the real problem. There are a handful of common story-lines I hear, and one of these is the Road-Trip Fantasy. It goes like this:

Hunter travels to _____ (insert name of state known for outstanding whitetails) to hunt with an outfitter. Hunter is blown away by the number and quality of bucks he sees. Hunter notices that the outfitter protects immature bucks, provides quality food plots, harvests does, or conducts other practices associated with QDM. Hunter returns home burning with excitement to launch his own QDM program and have hunting like they have in ______. Three or four years later, hunter says “QDM doesn’t work” because number and quality of bucks where he hunts is nothing like he saw in _______.

In this story, QDM did not fail. The problem is the hunter’s unrealistic expectations, one of the most common killers of QDM enthusiasm.

After witnessing the quality or quantity of bucks in Kansas, a hunter returns to Georgia and expects to see and kill the same number or quality of bucks by implementing the same QDM practices. Or they leave Illinois and go back home to New York. Or from Texas back to Tennessee. There are any number of combinations of states that work to set up the Road-Trip Fantasy scenario, and even different regions within the same state. In all the cases, factors on the ground in one state or region are vastly different in the other.

If I give you a box of bicycle parts and tell you they can be assembled into a Harley Davidson, you’re bound for disappointment.

Usually it’s habitat related. For example, the soils and forests of the Deep South and the Northeast just can’t compare to the rich loam and the expansive corn and soybean fields of the Midwestern heartland – not for maintaining numbers of deer, or fawn production, or body sizes of deer, or potential antler inches.

Hunting pressure is another factor. For example, the low hunting pressure across the vast brush country of South Texas means that some bucks die of old age without ever encountering a hunter, making it easy to create a deer population with a complete age structure and abundant mature bucks. Reaching the same level of achievement in eastern states can be an uphill battle… like where hunting leases are wall-to-wall; or rural tract sizes are small and each is hunted by several friends and family members; or where orange vests fill the woods for a short, intense, and highly anticipated traditional hunting season. Even if most of the hunters in a locality are interested in protecting young bucks, they all still want to kill a quality buck when the opportunity is presented, so the more hunters per square mile, the more effort required to produce a supply of quality bucks that meets the demand.

QDM is a science that functions according to reliable biological laws. The science works, but every piece of hunting land comes with a unique set of limitations that determine how much can be achieved with QDM, and how much effort and time are required to get there. These limitations explain why you can or cannot achieve the same results as a hunter in another state, or even a hunter across the creek in the next county. You can overcome many of these site-specific limitations, but to avoid burnout and disappointment you have to recognize these limitations before you set your expectations.

If I give you a box of bicycle parts and tell you they can be assembled into a Harley Davidson, you’re bound for disappointment. But if you are well-informed at the start, you’ll be extremely pleased when you find yourself riding a bicycle you built from the ground up.

Keep the same perspective about deer management: Set goals, analyze progress, and measure success based on the realistic potential where you hunt. Someone else in another state may be riding a Harley, but don’t be disappointed that your box of parts can only produce a bicycle. Celebrate that you’re no longer walking.

About Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of Quality Whitetails magazine, the journal of the National Deer Association, and he is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.