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Bama’s Deer Management Cinderella Story
Thanks to the state’s DMAP program, a Madison County hunting club turns nothing land into big-buck paradise.
 
By Mike Bolton
Originally published in the May 2017 issue of AON
 
Robby Gates admits that he was a skeptic when his club joined DMAP in 2004, but after taking two Pope & Young bucks in recent years, he’s now a believer.
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Huntsville’s Bill Gates doesn’t deny that he once shared the same thought process that was once so common among so many Alabama hunters. In his younger days, you couldn’t legally shoot does in Alabama. So on the rare occasion that he might see a buck of any size, he automatically shot it.

“I had gotten permission to hunt this 480-acre piece of property in Madison County 19 years ago,” he explained. “That was back in the day when you couldn’t shoot does, but you could legally kill a buck a day.

“You could sit at the base of the mountain, and if the wind was right that last hour before dark, it was nothing to see 40 to 50 deer, and they would all be does. You might see one buck a month.

“You never knew if you were going to be able to get permission to hunt there the following year, so if you saw a buck of any size, you shot it.”

The Alabama deer landscape has changed greatly since those days. Long gone are the days when finding a place to hunt simply consisted of knocking on doors and asking permission. Bill’s access to free hunting lasted longer that most, but after the 2003 season, the brothers who owned the property decided they wanted to make a little money by leasing the 480 acres.

The Dry Creek Hunting Club found itself in a less-than-ideal situation. The property was small by most Alabama hunting club standards. It was heavily over-populated with does. The property owners also leased the land to a farmer who kept cattle there. The property was pretty much mountains and pasture land with two creeks running through it. There was room only to plant one half-acre food plot.

Despite the drawbacks, the small number of members liked the property that was close to their homes. Bill took the lease, but he did so vowing there would be some major changes.

“I decided that if we were going to take the lease and keep it, we were going to change things,” he said. “We had to get everybody on the same page. It was definitely a transition.”

Bill decided to immediately put the property under the state’s Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP). Under that program, the property is assigned a wildlife biologist, who surveys the property and makes recommendations for buck and doe deer harvests and for wildlife plantings. Club members agree to abide by the plan and to keep detailed records of the deer they kill.

Prior to the 2004 season, the wildlife biologist found that the Dry Creek Hunting Club property had the same problems so common across much of the hunting land in Alabama around the turn of the century. The property was heavily overpopulated with does, and those who hunted there had inadequate standards for the bucks they killed if they wanted to grow big bucks. In short, the deer had exceeded the carrying capacity of the land, and the bucks were being killed before they were getting much age on them.

“We put in a few buck limits, including a minimum inside spread of 14 inches and a minimum main beam length of 18 inches,” Bill explained. “That pretty much ensured that the bucks we killed would be at least 3 1/2 years old.”

The hunting club was also given 20 doe tags by the state to start reducing the doe population.

The decision to make wholesale changes in the club rules drew mixed reviews among members, Bill said. The common conception that killing a doe was a sin was still ingrained in many hunters across Alabama. The claim that “my granddaddy would roll over in his grave if he knew I shot a doe” was heard often.

Even worse, members couldn’t fathom the idea of letting a 6-point or even an 8-point walk because it didn’t meet some formula.

Among those unsure about the club’s new direction included Bill’s son, Robby.

“I kind of had mixed feelings,” Robby said with a laugh. “I was 24 or 25 at the time. I did want to kill better deer because I never saw good deer. I might see four or five spikes a year and get a glimpse at maybe one or two racked bucks running off in the distance.

“But possibly passing up an 8-point? It was hard in the beginning to think that was a good thing. I didn’t like the idea that I might see a racked buck and couldn’t shoot it.

“I know now that is what it takes to have good deer.”

Bill says in 2004 the club’s deer herd was frightful.

“The deer herd was a mess at the time we started the DMAP program,” Bill said. “There were way too many does and very few bucks. You couldn’t tell when the rut was because the few bucks we had couldn’t get to all the does.

“We started keeping the records required by the DMAP program. By doing that we could see what kind of shape our deer herd was in.

“Looking back at those records, I see where during that first year in 2004, we shot a 2 1/2-year-old 8-point that field-dressed 92 pounds, a 6-point that field-dressed 105 pounds and a 3 1/2-year-old 8-point that field-dressed 100 pounds.

“There were so many deer on the property that our deer were about to starve to death.”

By the 1990s, deer management and producing bigger bucks was becoming a science. Deer management was getting a lot of ink in hunting magazines and airtime on hunting shows. DMAP was a huge success almost immediately, and by the mid 1990s, 2,100 landowners or land lessors were enrolled in the program.

Biologist Chris Cook, the technical assistance coordinator for DMAP, said many of those enrollees in the program were genuinely interested in producing quality bucks, but in reality many just liked the ability to legally kill does with the doe tags the program afforded.

“They were basically in the program to shoot does,” Cook said. “They were in it to get doe tags. The overwhelming majority weren’t in the program to get feedback from biologists.”

That mentality became more and more evident as DMAP began to lose participants as the state eventually began to liberalize deer hunting seasons to allow more and more doe harvests. The state originally charged a fee to participate in DMAP, but in 2000, DCNR made it a free service in an effort to stop the slide of participants.

Today, only 86 landowners or land lessors in the state participate in the program. Many clubs have instead chosen to tap into the widely available information on deer management. They design their own deer management plan with their own doe harvest and buck antler limitations.

There are those like the Dry Creek Hunting Club, however, that bought into the program early and have stuck with it. Club members feel that a wildlife biologist familiar with their property and their goals is definitely the best route to take, and it has shown up in their success.

“We first take site visits to look at a property to see what they have to work with,” Cook explained about the DMAP process. “We sit down and talk about what their management objectives are. Some have unrealistic goals. We’re honest with them and educate them about more realistic goals.”

WFF’s Matthew Brock, who is now the Dry Creek Hunting Club’s assigned wildlife biologist, says the DMAP program is an excellent way for landowners or club managers to have a partnership with a trained wildlife biologist. He says there is not a one-size-fits-all strategy for managing deer. He said needs and goals vary from property to property.

Brock said the assigned wildlife biologist meets with the landowners or hunting club to study the property and survey the existing deer herd. The biologist and the landowners or hunters then meet to discuss what the deer hunting goals are and what they hope to accomplish.

The biologist then takes that information and formulates a plan to accomplish those goals. That plan includes recommendations for planting, doe harvests and minimum buck antler requirements.

As part of DMAP, landowners or hunters have several requirements they must fulfill. They must remove the jaw bones of all harvested bucks and does, so the deer can be aged. They must also weigh all harvested bucks and does and record those weights.

A relatively new requirement for DMAP is that hunters must record observational data during each hunting trip. That data includes how many deer that hunters see and what kind of deer they see. That data also includes how many hours of hunting takes place on the property.

“People think we ask for that because we want to estimate the deer population, but that’s not what it is for,” Cook said. “Over time, it allows us to see trends. It’s fairly good for getting a better understanding of sex ratios. It gives us a better idea of fawn recruitment. It makes them look closer at the deer they see. If they see four antlerless deer that they might think are does, but if they look closer they might see that it could be two does and two small bucks.

“Over time the observational data gives us a good idea of what we’re dealing with.”

All the information—including the observational data, deer kills, deer ages and body weights—is tabulated at the end of each season. That information is given to the wildlife biologist for him or her to determine if any changes need to be made to the property’s deer management plan.

Bill Gates, the president of the Dry Creek Hunting Club, says following the DMAP guidelines has made an undeniable difference in his club’s success.

“This is our 13th year on the program, and this past season we killed nine bucks that made our criteria. That happened on 480 acres,” he said. “I think what is interesting is that a nearby club has the same antler restrictions that we have, and they killed only 14 bucks on 6,500 acres.

“During the 2015-2016 season, we killed three bucks that scored better than 140 and another one that scored in the 150s.

“This past season, I killed a 4 1/2-year-old 8-point that will score in the 140s that I entered in the AON Truck-Buck contest and an 8-point that scored 147 that had 24-inch main beams and an inside spread of 20 6/8 inches. We had a 9-point that field-dressed 190 pounds. All the other bucks had racks that were in the 120- to 130-range.”

Former DMAP skeptic Robby Gates has taken two Pope & Young bucks with his bow in recent years and now swears by DMAP.

“You just don’t take two Pope & Young bucks in north Alabama,” he said. “I have now taken a mature buck five or six years in a row. Everything is different here now.”

Robby says he was able to witness a situation this past season that showed him just how far things have changed for the better not only in his club, but in Alabama as a whole.

“I talked a cousin who is in his 50s into joining our club last season,” he said. “He had quit deer hunting years and years ago. I convinced him that he needed to get back into it.

“Well, he killed two bucks that didn’t meet our minimum antler standards. As he remembered it, those were good bucks.

“As the season went on and he saw what we were killing, he realized he had make a mistake. He finally realized what kind of deer that we had on our club. He realized that he could only kill one more that season, and he shouldn’t limit himself like that.”

Bill Gates said it’s fun to look back and see just how far the Dry Creek Hunting Club has come under DMAP.

“Since getting into the management program, we have seen body weights increase by 15 to 20 percent,” he said. “During the season, we now may see more bucks than does. You used to couldn’t tell when the rut was, and now you can set your watch by it. I would recommend the program to everyone.

“When you do things right, you get a sense of accomplishment,” he added. “Before, we were just killing deer.”

Enroll In DMAP

District I
Blount, Colbert, Cullman, Fayette, Franklin, Lamar, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Limestone, Madison, Marion, Morgan, Walker, and Winston counties.
Telephone: (256) 353-2634

District II  
Calhoun, Chambers, Cherokee, Clay, Cleburne, Coosa, DeKalb, Etowah, Jackson, Marshall, Randolph, St. Clair, Talladega and Tallapoosa counties.
Telephone: (256) 435-5422

District III
Autauga, Bibb, Chilton, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Jefferson, Lowndes, Marengo, Perry, Pickens, Shelby, Sumter, and Tuscaloosa counties.
Telephone: (205) 339-5716

District IV 
Barbour, Bullock, Coffee, Covington, Crenshaw, Dale, Elmore, Geneva, Henry, Houston, Lee, Macon, Montgomery, Pike and Russell counties.
Telephone: (334) 347-9467

District V 
Baldwin, Butler, Choctaw, Clarke, Conecuh, Escambia, Marengo, Mobile, Monroe, Washington, and Wilcox counties.
Telephone: (251) 626-5474
 
 
 
 
 
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