To some degree, success harvesting a trophy could come from a combination of their selective harvesting plan and hunting skills. Or is it just plain luck or fate?
The majority of tracts of land that are hunted cover only a portion of a deer's territory. In fact, most hunting properties are quite small, but huge bucks come off of these little woodlots every year.
Deer have simple needs: adequate food, cover, protection and available mates. A deer can live on a thousand acres - or on just a few acres - as their specific needs are met. Follow a few guidelines and have a little luck, and small pieces of land can be gold mines for trophy bucks.
South Carolina covers more than 20 million acres, with nearly a million deer roaming within its borders. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmland - including woodlands, croplands and pasturelands - makes up 25 percent or approximately five million acres of potential wildlife habitat and hunting opportunities, with the average farm being 147 acres in size.
According to S.C. Department of Natural Resources, nearly 147 thousand deer hunters slip into a deer stand in the state every year. If every acre of "farmland" was available to deer hunters and divided evenly, each hunter would still only get 34 acres.
Statistically, available tracts will be small and getting smaller as the Palmetto State's population grows at an annual rate of 1.7 percent, while wildlife habitat is lost as farms are converted to neighborhoods, grocery stores and fast-food plazas.
The bottom line is, tracts of hunting land typically are small, and their availability continues to dwindle each year. To bag a trophy buck, hunters need to learn how to grow or lure mature bucks onto their properties.
A whitetail buck's home range often is limited to a square mile, 640 acres, but they will expand their territories when rich food sources deteriorate, when they're pushed around by unnatural disturbance or in search of suitable mates. They will live in much smaller areas when all of their needs are met effectively.
November is prime time, arriving at the peak of the breeding season and at a time when food sources are dwindling. The peak of the rut coincides with the changing of seasons and the apparent browning of the woods. While browse and a few acorns may still available, tender green growth becomes a scarce commodity. Deer love tender, nutritious shoots, and green food sources become destinations for deer as winter approaches. Small parcels must have these food sources to lure deer away from other properties.
The single biggest factor in deer movement is the availability of preferred foods. Deer will travel miles for a rich food source. Trophy bucks often expend more energy than they consumed during the rut, being less concerned with food than available mates. Rich food sources attract does and keep them happy, with competing males showing up to make their moves.
Rich food sources in the wild change from poor to productive, depending on time and location. These shifts in the availability of natural food molds deer migration patterns within their home ranges and even extends those ranges. The need for food shifts deer to places where they can get the food they want, leaving any small tract a possible destination, as long as it has a permanent, fruitful energy source.
Many hunters on large and small tracts juice up their land with sacks of corn. The sweet flavor often coerces a small herd in a matter of days - sometimes hours. But these supplemental feeding stations play out quickly, offering temporary satisfaction. While hunters can quickly replenish the bait, doing so leaves more human scent, and that plus more disturbance will lead mature deer down a cautious road in these areas.
Supplemental feeding can be productive but expensive and time consuming as well. In order to keep deer on small parcels, natural or cultivated food plots are optimal choices.
Across the border in North Carolina, Todd Ramsey is a true believer in drawing trophy bucks by providing rich food sources. He took the fifth-largest typical archery buck ever killed in North Carolina (160-3/8 Pope & Young points) in 1994 on a 90-acre tract of land. Ramsey focuses his efforts on beefing up his small leases with rich food plots to attract trophy bucks and herds of mate-ready females.
"Something must attract deer to the farm," Ramsey said. "Bottom line: rich, plentiful food sources are key. We plant as many green acres as we can adequately manage during the course of a year on our property, with clover varieties making up the majority of our plots."
While many bucks are shot coming to corn piles, mature deer will become wary and nocturnal in such non-natural situations. Older bucks are smart creatures, having grown to adulthood by making educated decisions.
"Food plots are just more of a natural situation and offer deer a continuous food source (all) year," said Ramsey, who distributes food plots across his property, preferring small plots from one-fifth to a half-acre in size. "Numerous smaller plots offer mature bucks a sense of protection ... during daylight hours."
Kenneth Shuler manages his 200 acres in Orangeburg County with nearly 50 acres of food plots. He also prefers smaller plots, and he adds protective buffers around the edge of those plots, because older bucks are smart and prefer the added protection.
"All food plots need buffer protection. Smaller plots with buffers are key for encountering mature bucks during daylight hours," said Shuler, who prefers 30- to 45-foot buffers of native vegetation around each food plot. In addition to protection, buffers double as travel corridors, allowing deer to move between plots, woodlots, and other habitat types without being out in the open.
Shuler broke up his larger fields into irregular strips, planted food plots in partitions and either planted strips of trees around the perimeter or allowed natural brush to regenerate, increasing the edge and diversity of habitat. Deer are primarily an edge species, and Shuler's concept makes his food plots even more effective. He typically harvests a trophy deer every year.
Food plots provide deer with seasonal forage on small tracts, but naturally-occurring food sources exist on every property, offering specific nutritional gains. Hunters should enhance these native species to increase their diversity and available forage. Deer will remember certain foods as they ripen or become available. Generally, native foods are only briefly available, but deer will hit these areas with a vengeance as soon as they arrive.
Ramsey enhances natural food sources on his property by opening a bag - just not a bag of corn.
"I boost native foods wherever possible with standard 10-10-10 fertilizer during early development," he said.
He broadcasts fertilizer around honeysuckle, muscadine, persimmon and other soft-mast food sources. He digs small holes around the perimeter of big oak trees, within the drip line, and he fills with fertilizer to boost acorn production.
Shuler attempts to meet his herd's nutritional needs by providing a combination of hard and soft-mast trees, grains, and legumes.
"We plant apple trees, sawtooth oaks, Japanese persimmons and other similar species within and around our food plots to benefit our wildlife throughout the year," he said. "We try to introduce soft mast into areas where only hard mast is present - and vice-versa."
Shuler also utilizes a combination of selective herbicides, forest thinning, prescribed burning and clear-cutting to manage his forestland and to promote natural food sources for his deer and other wildlife species.
Increasing diversity of available foods on small properties plays heavily within Ramsey and Shuler's management strategies to attract and retain mature deer throughout the year.
Most South Carolina hunters don't get the chance to fully manage their deer. Deer are simple animals and have few needs, including food, water, cover, and available mates. Small properties can support and produce record-book bucks when the right recipe comes together.