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The Game Trails Challenge: Part II

By: QDMA Staff

Would you like to be the person who gets to sort through and categorize the photos from a deer camera survey on Thompson/Center’s 12,000-acre Kentucky lease known as “Game Trails”? Before you jump at the chance to see what these cameras revealed, you first should know the scope of your task – when it’s over, it’s likely to be the largest deer camera survey ever conducted. So far, the folks conducting the survey have sorted through and filed nearly 20,000 digital images – and that set represents only half of the property!

An accurate deer camera survey was among the tasks that QDMA’s management team prescribed for the property when they were asked earlier this year to help install a top-notch QDM program. The invitation came from Gregg Ritz, President and CEO of Thompson/Center Arms Co. Since the first property visit back in April (which we covered in the June issue of Quality Whitetails), QDMA and the Game Trails on-site management team, headed by Dirk MacTavish, have been busy implementing the recommendations aimed at reaching several of Gregg’s goals for the 12,000-acre lease owned by Kimball International. Here’s a brief update of the efforts.

World Record Camera Survey?

Conducting an accurate survey of deer using infrared-triggered cameras on a 12,000-acre property is a monumental task, but the information will give Gregg and Dirk valuable guidance for their deer population management efforts. It will also give them a clear idea of bucks that currently exist on the land, which will help them offer realistic harvest guidelines to the clients who hunt the property. In order to accomplish the survey, QDMA Heartland Regional Director and wildlife biologist Chris Pevey, who lives just across the Ohio River in Illinois, helped Dirk and his crew set up and run the survey this summer. Chris is now in the process of working with survey results.

“It was a huge task for Dirk and his team,” said Chris. “We ran a 10-day survey with 40 cameras on half the property, and then we moved the cameras to the other half and ran another 10-day survey. Each site was pre-baited with corn, Trophy Rock mineral blocks and Wildgame Innovations mineral/attractant mix. Plus, five days into it we had to switch out the digital image cards because we were getting so many photos. They worked their tails off to do this, but they did a heck of a job setting the cameras up in well-lighted areas, oriented north to south so you didn’t get sunflare.”

Each digital camera was set with a 10-minute time delay between photos, yet each camera still averaged 425 to 450 pictures over the course of 10 days. “There were deer in front of the cameras pretty much 24/7,” said Chris.

After buying a new external hard-drive to hold all the images, Chris began sorting through the first batch while Dirk’s team began baiting and setting up cameras for the second batch. Chris is using BuckSpy Advanced software to sort and categorize the images and produce the final data, but first he must judge each deer as to sex, age and, for bucks, antler size.

“Gregg and Dirk wanted to know about their shooter bucks, because they had clients coming in for early bow season,” said Chris. “So, I pulled all the images of bucks that were definitely 41?2 or older, or 140-class or better, or both. I would pull the best buck off of each camera meeting these criteria, and that gave us 26 individual bucks. But some of the cameras had as many as three individuals meeting the criteria, so there were at least 35 individual shooters in that first batch, from just half the property.”

Dirk used the photos Chris gave him to put together a “most wanted” list to show to clients. He also produced a “don’t shoot” album of younger bucks with great potential. The album will hopefully help avoid problems in the past with clients taking bucks that did not meet harvest criteria.

Meanwhile, in September, Chris was getting ready to tackle the second batch of images. In the middle of his long nights of work on the first batch, Chris got an unexpected call from David Aurbeck, a QDMA member and a junior at Illinois College in environmental science. David was looking for part-time work related to wildlife management.

“Do you like looking at pictures of deer?”, Chris asked David.
Chris has an assistant now.

“I’ve just glanced through the second batch briefly,” said Chris, “and I saw some even better bucks in the second batch. That’s the side of the property with more agriculture.”

When the camera survey is complete, the BuckSpy software will calculate sex ratios and other population characteristics. But Chris said his impression from looking at the photos is that Game Trails has a very healthy deer herd, and also that there is work to be done to achieve an appropriate doe harvest.

“We’re starting to see some neat genetic trends in the buck photos,” said Chris. “The coolest thing is G-2s with matching kickers off the back – you see that in probably 30 percent of the bucks. Also, I’ve noticed that the older bucks seem to show up on different cameras more than the younger bucks. That's kind of sparking my interest.”

In addition to managing the camera survey, Chris has visited Game Trails during scheduled bowhunts. He is helping Dirk’s team pull jawbones, show them how to estimate ages, and help them collect harvest data using QDMA Log Books.

The Food Plot Program

While Dirk and his team were conducting the camera surveys and getting ready for hunting season, they were also busy implementing the recommended food plot program. Commercials blends from the Whitetail Institute, Biologic, Pennington and Tecomate were selected for use in both the warm- and cool-season plots. The program this year had two phases. First, the QDMA advisors recommended placing a number of warm-season food plots in unused corners, pockets and strips adjacent to commercial corn and soybean fields. Their purpose was to buffer the agricultural crops from deer damage.

For most of these warm-season plots, an unexpected problem emerged – because many of them were planted in edges that were out of agricultural production but had a long history of cultivation, an enormous bank of weed seeds awaited. As a result, the only warm-season crop that was not engulfed by weeds was Biologic’s Biomaxx, a blend of Roundup Ready corn and soybeans. Contract farmer Kurt Devine was able to spray these plots twice over the summer with Roundup, reducing the weed problem.

“The Biomaxx was successful, and it cut down on the agricultural crop damage, but it didn’t stop the damage,” said Kent Kammermeyer, QDMA’s senior technical advisor. “There was enough forage there to take some pressure off the crops we were trying to protect. With the other plots, all of them germinated and began growing well and attracting deer, but then the weeds caught up with them. There was a serious weed seed bank in the ground – a real bad one – just waiting for conditions to get right.”

Kent said the weeds included johnsongrass, foxtail grass, sicklepod, crabgrass, goosegrass, horsenettle and others.

“We’re going to have to put a lot more thought into buffer crops and weed control next spring,” said Kent. “But we’re starting to chip at the edges of the crop-damage problem. The doe harvest this season is going to have to be a big part of that.”

Meanwhile, more than 60 acres of cool-season food plots have recently been planted.

“In August, we identified brand new plots on the half of the property that does not have agriculture,” said Kent. “The great majority of these plots will be in cool-season perennial clover blends with a few cool-season annual mixtures. In some of these plots we’re going to have to lick the weeds before we attempt to establish perennials.”

These plots will provide cool-season nutrition, hunting-season attraction, and help move more hunting pressure onto this half of the property. Previously, almost all of the hunting occurred on only half of the 12,000-acre lease, the half with existing agriculture.

“If the commercial mix does not contain a cereal grain, I instructed Dirk and Kurt to mix winter-hardy oats at 50 lbs./acre. This will help with hunting-season attraction and will serve as a nurse crop to protect the perennials like clover and chicory while they become established.”

The Hunting Program

In addition to managing and implementing the food plot planting and camera survey, Game Trails General Manager Dirk MacTavish has been busy preparing for and hosting the first of the bowhunting “camps” at Game Trails. This year’s camps are designed to minimize hunting pressure on bucks by spreading hunters across the property and minimizing total numbers of hunters. Only five bowhunting camps will be held this year before the muzzleloader hunts begin later in the season. Each five-day bow camp includes eight hunters.

“We’ve split the property into four sections, one for each guide,” said Dirk. “Two hunters are assigned to each guide, and they hunt that guide’s specific area, so we’ve spread the pressure out across the property.”

With a 12,000-acre property, that means plenty of room for each hunter, and almost limitless potential stand sites.

“We’re just finishing up the second camp right now, and so far all the deer we harvested fit our specifications (for bowhunters, there is a 130-inch minimum rule),” said Dirk. “We had three taken in the first camp and three more in the second. That included a 154-inch buck in the first camp, and we took one that went 1511?8 this morning (September 20).”

“The camera survey was a tremendous amount of work, but the education we’ve gotten is incredible. We’ve used that to show our hunters what we’re after, and as a result a lot of hunters have passed 130-inch 8-pointers. We’ve had guys passing up deer that they felt were 21?2 that would meet the inch requirements. They’re taking our goals and efforts very seriously.”

Stay tuned for future updates on the ongoing QDM effort at Game Trails.