Longtime hunter Steve Simmons explains the benefits of managing wildlife for hunting land, both to increase the health of the deer population and the hunting experience.
This article is the second installment in a three-part series. See also:
If you haven’t seen Steve Simmons’ trophy room, you might mistake him for an average hunter.
But it isn’t for lack of hunting prowess. A bowhunter who has been honing his skills since childhood, Simmons has a wall of mounts in his Fernandina Beach, Florida, home that would make any hunter drool. But he has a passion for wildlife management that runs just as deep as his passion for hunting -- and that inspires him to pass on most of the bucks he sees.
“My rule of thumb is, ‘If you’re not going to mount him, then don’t take him,’” Simmons says.
Following a strict wildlife management plan can be tough - especially the first time you let a nice buck walk in and out of your sites. But Simmons has developed premier hunting land in Florida and Georgia by using wildlife management. In fact, several bucks harvested on a tract he formerly co-owned and managed in Pulaski County, Georgia, made it into the Georgia State record books.
Simmons explains how and why managing wildlife on hunting land will maximize its value:
Why manage wildlife on hunting land?
“There are three factors that make good bucks: genetics, age and nutrition,” says Simmons. “You may not be able to control genetics, but you can work on the age and nutrition through good wildlife management.”
Even with the best genetics, Simmons adds, you won’t have the best possible bucks if they aren’t allowed to reach their optimal age. Likewise, good genetics won’t make up for a poor diet.
“A lot of hunters haven’t gotten into management mode, but it’s actually very enjoyable,” he says. “When a person can look at a tract of land through the lens of wildlife management, it’s not really about shooting a deer. It’s about controlling an environment for the wildlife and getting the most you can from the experience of being out there.
“In reality, you are not just managing wildlife. You are managing a property for optimum enjoyment for your family, your friends and yourself.”
A peek inside Steve Simmons' trophy room, featuring just some of the animals he's encountered on hunting trips throughout North America. / Photo courtesy of Steve Simmons
How to manage land for hunting deer
To manage land for hunting deer, determine a minimum age for a buck, or a minimum number of antler points, before it can be harvested.
“If you can get past letting that first deer walk because he’s a young buck, next year he’ll be more mature and possibly a great buck,” Simmons says.
He recommends talking to neighboring property owners to see if you can come up with a mutual plan for wildlife management to ensure the deer you’re managing don’t just cross property lines and still get taken before they’re mature.
You have no guarantee you’ll see the deer again next year, but if everyone is following the same wildlife management practices, everyone’s odds of a better hunting experience in years to come increases.
“One thing is certain,” says Simmons. “A dead buck will not grow bigger antlers.”
Allowing deer to pass is only part of wildlife management. Another aspect is planting nutritional food plots, which will improve the health of the deer and, ultimately, the quality of the meat.
But feeding programs shouldn’t be seen as a route to an easier harvest, Simmons says. Rather, they are a way to manage the deer herd and do everything you can to improve the deer’s health.
Managing wildlife on hunting land in the South offers additional advantages because the growing seasons are longer and food plots will accommodate a wide variety of food sources.
“You have more opportunities to do more for the deer than you can in other parts of the country,” Simmons says.
Simmons only photographs the animals he sees in the wild unless their racks are more impressive than those already on his trophy wall. / Photo courtesy of Steve Simmons
Even more benefits of wildlife management
In addition to improving the quality of the deer, themselves, allowing some deer to pass will give you the chance to improve your hunting skills.
“When you don’t shoot, you can watch and learn,” Simmons says. “There are things in that young buck’s behaviors that will help you hunt his granddaddy.”
After years of watching deer, Simmons understands subtle mannerisms. For example, when a buck seems to be nervous and picks up his back leg in a certain way, Simmons knows he’s about to turn 180 degrees and go right back where he came from (and usually at a much faster pace!).
If you return to the same hunting land each year, you’ll also enjoy following the progress of the deer population as it matures.
“Recognizing some of the same bucks from previous years is always exciting and very rewarding,” Simmons says.
Once while hunting in Canada, Simmons got a photograph of a young buck with an impressive rack. (Each deer’s antlers are unique to that deer, just as no two sets of fingerprints are alike in humans). A year later, a friend found a shed in a nearby field and Simmons identified it to be from the same buck. Excited to know that the deer had made it through another winter, he devoted his time to finding the deer once again when he returned to Canada. That deer is now mounted on Simmons’ trophy wall - the result of more than a year of patient watching and waiting.
“There was always that chance I would never see him again,” Simmons says. “But when I did, it was so rewarding. It’s an encounter I will never forget and a story that I will always enjoy telling.”
Simmons passed up this buck when he was younger, taking the photo on the left instead. Simmons later met the buck again, and its now on his trophy wall.