Prioritizing Your Bucks
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard frustrated hunters talk about how many years they have gone between harvesting a good buck or in some cases the fact that they have never harvested a good buck. Obviously, the definition of a good buck changes from hunter to hunter but regardless of this it is obvious that they are not satisfied with the quality of the deer on their land or their ability to harvest one. This article focuses on prioritizing the money you spend on hunting—with the assumed goal of harvesting a “good buck”.
I cannot even begin to try and address all the emotional issues around deer hunting and what people spend their money on. For example, if you have a lot of money tied up in your land that surrounds your home, or if you own the “family farm”, it is hard to address the emotional value that this land may have for an individual. Or possibly the emotional value an individual has in staying with and hunting with the family hunting group or a group of friends. The return on investment in these cases could be measured emotionally in the form of satisfaction and not necessarily in the goal of harvesting a big buck. For the purposes of this article I will assume NO emotional value for anything (leaving this up to you) and instead strictly base my opinions on what it takes to harvest; or rather consistently harvest a good buck in terms of where to get the most for your money.
Before I start the meat and potatoes of this article, I think it pays to go over briefly my story on how I got to the point to which I could harvest a good buck every year if I chose to do so. From the age of 12 to about 16 I shot pretty much any legal deer I could. I never shot nor did I ever see a buck which looking back today was 2 years old or over. Even the standard 8 point deer I shot were young deer. My emotional return was very high, but my return on what I was able to hunt and harvest was very low. I also spent very little money (also had very little money) and so the return on financial investment was ok. At about 17 or 18 I really wanted to shoot a buck that at the time I would put at around 100 inches. Also at this time I didn’t necessarily understand the difference in age classes of bucks or anything about antler score. I was basically looking for something I could put on a wall plaque! This simply wasn’t going to happen under the current situation on “the family farm”. At only 18 I tried like heck to get a QDM program established in our area but after a few years it was apparent I had to make a choice—keep trying to implement QDM in our area which seemed was going nowhere, or something else. Reluctantly, my best friend and I moved to northern Wisconsin to the Chequamegon National Forest where big bucks lurked around every tree (sarcasm intended). My investment just increased but would it pay off? I did see some good bucks but for a very long list of reasons I was never able to harvest a good buck over the next few years. And it became apparent that harvesting a good buck at all yet alone consistently under those conditions was not going to happen (It’s a long story). My money investment went up, but my return was zero! We decided at this point to find access to hunting grounds in an area that had good deer and enough of them to make it realistic to harvest one every year—so we leased a farm in west central Wisconsin. Comparatively our investment just skyrocketed but the return on investment also skyrocketed. For the first time in my life I was able to shoot a good buck year after year and as we managed the farm it only got better. Considering that all the money I ever spent on hunting up until this point never yielded me a good buck those returns were dismal; and although I was now spending more money the return on investment was through the roof. So in the completely raw terms of spending money to obtain the goal of consistently harvesting good bucks, I had struck gold! By our own choosing, we walked away from our leased farm for emotional reasons and I purchased my own farm in Southern Iowa. My return on investment today has never been higher. Can you see where all this is going?
Yet, although this might be obvious what happened to me I seriously doubt most hunters who find themselves in the situation described at the beginning of the article know or are willing to admit why they can’t harvest good bucks on a consistent basis. In many cases they are spending their money where they will never get any return and yet wonder why the results are the way they are. Let me also say at this point that as avid hunters we are constantly bombarded with marketing getting us to think that buying a certain product or service will get us the results we want. In many cases spending money on these highly marketed products will yield you negative results or at best case not do you any harm—and when you consider that any money you spend on stuff that gives you zero return takes away from other better things, well the mistakes compound themselves.
Assuming that as hunters we have fixed or limited budgets it only makes sense to only spend our money on the things that will help us reach our goal of harvesting good bucks. If this is truly your goal…then let’s now start talking about how to do it.
- I don’t care how much or how little your budget is, your number one purchase has to be access to hunting land that contains big deer. I know, I know, you already know this. But let me explain. When we hunted in northern Wisconsin we had access to land that had big deer…but the other issues that northern Wisconsin had made the hunting near impossible for us (again, it’s a long story). When we hunted “the family farm” in central Wisconsin there were also some big deer once we started the QDM program. But they were few and far between and the hunting pressure was so extremely high that it made it unrealistic to think we could ever be consistently successful. Having one or two good bucks in the area in which you only have access to 80 acres puts the odds squarely against you. To make this work you need two things…exclusive access to a lot of acres (500+) with a few good bucks around or…exclusive access to some acreage with many good bucks around. Under either scenario you can expect to start having a realistic chance at taking good bucks year in and year out. If this means no food plots, using an old bow, cheap arrows, and a plaid flannel shirt for camouflage then so be it. Access to good ground trumps every and all other considerations—period! If you value driving a new pickup over harvesting big deer that is definitely your choice—but remember it is your choice.
- For the money, your next best investment would be habitat management. Investing in increasing the natural habitat or carrying capacity by planting trees, harvesting trees, creating bedding areas or natural feeding areas, limiting hunting pressure, timber stand management, etc. For the most part, these things are cheap and many are sweat equity items. For examples, creating small clear cuts in the timber to promote undergrowth thickets for bedding areas, or creating small ¼ acre timber openings for food plots and staging areas. By my home I have planted 15 thousand spruce and pine to create almost impenetrable thickets for deer throughout the season and into the winter months. These things don’t get a lot of print or time on TV because they don’t necessarily generate cash for the hunting industry participants.
Access and habitat will supply you with the critical base you must and should have to start this process. They aren’t the sexy things you hear the most about but they are the two most important. Buying a piece of ground in a good area, leasing, or going with an outfitter are all ways to get good access to top ground. Owning your own land makes it easy to improve the natural habitat. Leasing gets tricky unless the landowner is on board. And unfortunately most outfitters don’t spend any time on habitat improvement—but they are out there if you do your homework. I know many hunters that stop right here and do quite good because contrary to what people selling you stuff want you to think, you can be very successful with not much else if you now just put in your time and have some basic hunting skills. I know many average to poor hunters that take good deer simply because of their access to good ground and many good hunters who struggle because of their lack thereof. Now, if you have any money left….
- Creating food sources is now the next biggest return on your money. Natural food sources covered by habitat improvement first, then by putting in food plots. Food plots can get expensive but can become crucial in some cases. During the hunting season, especially as the season gets later into the early parts of winter, having food sources can become important in drawing the deer to your property enough of the time to make it practical to hunt them. During the rut this is less crucial but before and after the breeding season food sources can become make or break in your successes. Having standing beans or corn into December and early January in the mid-west is critical if you plan to hunt during these times. And, be careful buying name brand food plot seed. I haven’t found too many name brand products that aren’t overpriced. You will get the same results at sometimes half the price by buying the identical seed at your local farm supplier.
- Having enough stands and blinds to hunt from become our 4th most important expenditure. Not only does having adequate stand locations keep localized hunting pressure down and stands fresh, it allows the hunter to have plenty of sites for different wind directions or hunting scenarios. On our 440 acre farm in western Wisconsin for example, we had about 50 tree stands and ground blinds. That ensured that for the 4 primary hunters on the property that no stand was over hunted and that numerous stands were available for each wind direction and scenario. 50 sounds like a lot but for 4 guys hunting every day for a few weeks it sure didn’t seem like much. It took us about 10 years to get to that level of stands on the farm. One important thing to note here—comfortable stands will increase your success rate because time on stand will increase your success. (comfortable stands=more time in them)
- At this point, if there is any money left over in the budget, I think it becomes important to have some good clothing and boots that make it possible to spend the most amount of time in the field as possible. This could mean rain gear, comfortable and warm hunting clothes, and a good set or two of warm boots. Sounds pretty basic but having some good hunting apparel will make it more enjoyable and possible to spend longer hours in the field. Longer hours in the field generally equal greater chances to harvest your game.
So, that pretty much ends the list. What? What about the rest of the stuff? It’s all just stuff! It goes without saying you must have a bow or gun that you are proficient with, but that should for the most part be a onetime cost. The other stuff, gadgets, accessories, and all the other things that you get bombarded with by marketing campaigns when you really think about it will never truly help to put you in front of a good buck. They might be nice, they might make things easier, but they won’t help you get to your goal of consistently taking good deer. Especially when the money you spend on them take away from the other critical areas. And yet, so many hunters spend sums of money on the things not mentioned in this article and nothing on access, habitat, food, and time in the field. Take this one example: There are two hunters both with budgets of $3000 dollars for a hunting season. The first hunter spends his $3000 on a new scope for his rifle, a new set of scent clothes, a new site for his bow, new top of the line arrows and broad heads, upgrades his 10 year old bow with a new top of the line bow, and runs out of money. The second hunter does no upgrading because his equipment is deemed well enough and instead spends $2200 on access to prime hunting grounds. He then spends a minimal amount of money to put in two interior food plots in the timber, and plants some apple trees on the farm. 5 acres of soybeans are put in and another half acre of a brassica blend is put in with seed bought from the local farm supply center. A few new stands are bought and hung in good spots. Is there really any doubt at this point as to which hunter just drastically improved their odds of taking a good deer this year?