Imagine an old friend joins you for a weekend hunt on your QDM lands. The night before the hunt commences, your friend asks an important question:
“Which bucks can I shoot?”
For you, this is an easy question. You’ve hunted here for several seasons, followed bucks in trail-camera photos, killed deer and pulled jawbones. You know your age-based harvest goal for bucks and how to recognize deer that clearly meet your goal, and you can restrain yourself on those tough calls when a buck is right on the line.
But you won’t be there. Your friend is going in alone and will make these calls on his own. You do your best to explain your harvest goal, how to age bucks, and how to recognize and handle the tough calls. But as you finish covering the body characteristics that generally separate one age class from another, your friend gets that glazed look. As you leave him at his stand the next morning, you realize you can just prepare yourself to accept a mistake – or hope he doesn’t see a buck.
Luckily, there are better ways. Affordable trail-cameras have not only given QDM’ers a great herd monitoring tool, they’ve also given us an easy way to handle guests, friends or anyone who hunts with us who lacks our experience at aging deer on the hoof. We all bear a responsibility to encourage others to join the hunting community, and we should seek ways to make this path as easy as possible for those we take hunting. It probably took years for you to accumulate your knowledge of deer management; you can’t expect everyone else to be as interested, or to catch up to your experience level in one weekend’s hunt.
Trail-camera photos of the bucks using your hunting land can bridge this gap. I saw a highly effective use of trail-camera photos while hunting with friends last season: a mugshot card deck. The hunt leader printed multiple enlargements of the best photo of each individual wish-list buck in his trail-camera collection that year. Then he cropped each enlargement down to show only the buck’s head and antlers, laminated each card, hole-punched the corners, and attached them to a small carabiner. The card decks were scattered on the breakfast table along with the coffee and biscuits. A hunter could grab one and clip it to their belt or backpack before heading to the woods.
With this idea, any buck in the card deck is a wish-list buck: the ones that appear to meet the age-based goal for the property and that hunters wish to encounter. If you see a buck and he isn’t pictured in the card deck, don’t shoot.
This idea can be easily implemented anywhere you use trail-cameras to capture most of the local deer population. Photos from a formal pre-season trail-camera survey can serve this purpose, but there’s a weakness: As the rut approaches, bucks will begin using a greater percentage of their home ranges, and some bucks will make excursions outside their home ranges. This means an increased likelihood of encountering individual bucks during the rut that were not photographed in your pre-season survey. To keep your card deck as comprehensive as possible, you’ll need to update it as you continue to monitor sites like scrapes, where you will likely photograph new individual bucks. New wish-list bucks can be added to your card decks.
Mistakes may still happen. If your friend manages to goof up despite the help of your wish-list mugshots, remain calm. Remember two things:
1. It’s not the end of the world, or even a big deal. One harvest error is not biologically significant in the big QDM picture.
2. Hunting and QDM should be fun, above all else. If a dead deer causes you to lose your cool, and possibly an old friend, maybe you are taking this all too seriously and need to re-evaluate your goals and motivations.
(Besides, it’s more likely your guest will see and kill the biggest buck ever to walk your hunting land, the one you’ve been hunting for years without success.)
The mugshot card deck is just one way to use trail-camera photos creatively as an aid for guest hunters. I want to hear your ideas. What are some other solutions you’ve come up with?