Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Ragweed Buck

Mornings like today's are few and far between. That's probably a good thing because I don't know if I could stand to be any more obsessed and addicted to deer hunting than I already am. A couple more days like today could really do me in.

The story behind this deer starts, to a certain degree, with something I learned a couple weeks ago at the Middle Tennessee QDMA Field Day. During a discussion of the importance of native plants for wildlife, Clint and Chris mentioned that ragweed is both high in protein and a favored food of deer. The significance of that didn't really hit me at the time, but luckily, I remembered it last week while I was scouting for spots to hunt during opening weekend of bow season.

I was checking an area that has had some good buck activity in the past when I noticed that a small overgrown field was full of ragweed. On the edge of the field, I found a freshly opened scrape about twenty yards away from a white oak that had dropped a few nuts (a rarity this year) and a red oak that had also dropped some of the biggest red oak acorns I've ever seen.

Neither tree was what I would consider to be a dominant tree. The nuts that were on the ground appeared to be due to squirrels, not an active acorn drop. It was clear from the churned up ground that deer were feeding there, but there just wasn't enough food on the ground for the sign to accumulate to the degree that normally gets me really excited.

Nevertheless, the combination of acorns, browse, thick cover, a fresh scrape, and lots of walk sign got my attention. It definitely had potential and I decided to hunt it when I had a favorable wind.

Last night, the weather channel was predicting 46 degrees and a SSW wind for the morning. I checked a topo map and sure enough, the wind was perfect for that spot. I thought about waiting a while to let the acorns start to drop a little heavier but I had a gut feeling and eventually I decided to give it a go.

I arrived at the spot about fifteen minutes before legal shooting light and picked out a tree to climb by flashlight. Here is the setup.

I had only been settled in for a couple minutes when I heard a "snap" out in the weed field. Something was definitely headed my way but it was too dark to see into the field. I eased up out of my seat, clipped on my release, and fought back that first shot of adrenaline that can develop into a full-blown case of sewing machine knees if you aren't careful.

As I scanned the edge of the field, straining my eyes to catch a glimpse of movement, a buck materialized in the scrape and started pawing the ground and chewing on the overhanging dogwood limbs. It was still about twenty minutes before sunrise and the light was just starting to come up. I could tell from the deer's shape that it was a good sized buck, but I couldn't make out any details of its rack.

Under other circumstances, I might have waited to get a better look before taking the shot, but with archery gear in the woods, you sometimes don't have the luxury of time. I decided to take the shot if I got a chance.

Luckily, the buck turned to the right and started to "do his business" as my mother used to say. That was the opportunity I needed. I put the twenty yard pin behind his right shoulder and concentrated on getting a smooth release and following through like I've done a thousand times in the back yard.


The buck vanished back into the thick darkness of the weed field in an instant. I followed the sound of it crashing off and thought I heard it fall. Or had I? Two other deer had exploded out of the thick cover when the buck bolted, so I really couldn't be sure of what I had heard.

I replayed the scene over and over in my head as confidence and doubt battled it out. "The shot felt good." "The impact sounded good." "Did I shoot the right one of the three?" "I think I heard it fall." "What if I hit that little limb that I can see now?" "Was it as good a deer as I thought?"

I decided to give it about an hour before I took up the trail. The wait was agonizing so I distracted myself by taking the above photos and texting my son and some buddies.

Finally, the time came to get down. With a mixture of anticipation and dread, I approached the scrape where the buck had been standing when I shot. "Please let me find a bloody arrow where it ought to be."

"Yes!" There it was, covered in bright red blood and stuck in the ground about two feet away from the scrape and the buck's last "business." You can click on the picture to enlarge it.

The deer had run back into the thick weeds, so I had to track him carefully. There were very few actual drops of blood on the ground (at least that I could see) but by moving very slowly, I could follow the tiny spatters of blood on the tall blades of grass and weed stems.

It took me about twenty minutes to cover the fifty-or-so yards to where the deer lay, but I eventually crested a small rise and spotted him down in the thick stuff.

Wow! What a rollercoaster of emotions in the course of a couple hours. Exilaration, confidence, doubt, hope, dread, joy, awe...

When I checked the deer's stomach contents, I expected to find lots of acorns. Instead, it contained nothing but ragweed and other browse. "Well I'll be," I thought, "you're never too old to learn something new. I guess those fellas from the NRCS and TWRA know what they're talking about."

As I drove my four wheeler the two miles or so back to my truck, I purposely took my time so that I could savor the moment. The sun was shining and glistening like diamonds off a clear stream beside the trail. The air was cool and smelled of fall. A plan had come together and a nice deer was riding shotgun behind me. I remember thinking, "Man, if you don't love this, you just don't love life."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Middle Tennessee QDMA Branch Field Day

On September 13, the Middle Tennessee QDMA Branch held its kickoff event with a mini-field day at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Resort's Outdoor Demonstration Area. Chris Wolkonowski, Area Resource Biologist with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and Clint Borum, Private Lands Biologist with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency were on hand to discuss the planning and initial implementation of a conservation plan they developed for the 100 acre site.

Chris and Clint discussed how they developed the conservation plan in conjunction with the landowner, taking into consideration the landowner's objective for the property, which was to develop it into a showcase for wildlife habitat management practices. The plan will take three years to implement and involves removal of invasive species, establishment of early successional habitats, field borders, firebreaks, upland wildlife habitats, native warm season grasses,foodplots, and much more.

Attendees were treated to a wide ranging discussion of the steps that have been taken thus far, including herbicide applications to control invasive species like johnson and bermuda grasses and chinese privet, establishment of cover crops to control erosion and reduce browsing pressure, and the planting of numerous test foodplots in a wide variety of seed mixes.

NRCS Biologist Chris Wolkonowski points out one of the invasive species, bush honeysuckle, that is being eradicated from the site.

Of particular interest to the QDMA members on hand was a discussion of the key ingredients in a habitat management plan designed to hold and develop quality deer on a particular piece of property. Their number one recommendation... cover is king. Food is generally not a limiting factor in the southeast, but cover is.

They recommend creating cover by establishing early successional habitats through clearcutting of selected areas of the property. They also recommend taking steps to encourage the growth of native plant species which can be more nutritious and more drought resistant than cultivated species. Finally, after those steps have been taken, then the landowner should think about adding foodplots.

Their recommendation for foodplots... a mixture of red, white, and crimson clover which will provide three to six years of high quality, low maintenance food at a minimal cost.

TWRA Biologist Clint Borum discusses foodplot strategies in front of the foodplot demonstration area.


Clint and Chris recommended several books for those who are interested in learning more about native plants, invasive plants, and foodplots.

Native Warm Season Grasses, by the UT Agricultural Extension Service. Available in print through your County/Regional UT Extension office which can be located here.  Or, if you prefer, it can be downloaded free here.  If you download it, you will need to download each chapter separately.

A Guide to Successful Wildlife Foodplots, by the UT Agricultural Extension Service.  Available in print through your County/Regional UT Extension office which can be located here.  It can be downloaded for free in its entirety here.

A Landowner's Guide to Native Warm-Season Grasses in the Mid-South, by the UT Agricultural Extension Service. Available in print through your County/Regional UT Extension office which can be located here.  It can be downloaded for free in its entirety here.

Forest Plants of the Southeast and Their Wildlife Uses, by James H. Miller and Karl V. Miller. Available from Amazon.

Weeds of the Southeast, by Charles T. Bryson. Available from Amazon.

Friday, September 9, 2011

QDMA Field Day Announcement

Anyone interested in improving white-tailed deer habitat is invited to attend the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Course being held by the Middle Tennessee Branch of the Quality Deer Management Association. The event will be held at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, September 13, at the Gaylord property on Pennington Bend Rd, across Briley Parkway from the Opryland Hotel.

Speakers from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency will discuss topics of interest to deer hunters, land owners, and land managers including Managing Your Property for Wildlife, Creating Early Successional Habitats, and Food Plots vs. Native Habitats. In addition, the speakers will cover USDA/TWRA Programs for Wildlife, including the creation of free conservation plans and federal assistance programs for wildlife habitat improvement.

The meeting site will be outdoors and will include hands-on exhibit of a conservation plan being implemented on the property. Admission is free and the event is open to the public. Directions are available here or on the our facebook page at www.facebook.com/midtnqdma