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Deer Plans Drying Up

Hunters need to adjust thinking to help out deer herd in drought

By: Steve Rogers,

As deer seasons approach, hunters across the nation are filling out their annual preseason check lists, making preparations in hopes of bagging that trophy whitetail.

But throughout much of the middle portion of the United States, widespread drought has caused hunters to make drastic changes to those plans.

More than 52 percent of the nation is classified as being in a "moderate" drought or worse, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center's most recent report on July 31. Parts of the country are in even worse shape. 

Terry Drury, who hosts television's BioLogic Whitetail Obsession with his brother Mark, said his primary hunting land is in northern Missouri, a state that has been classified in "extreme" drought over more than 90 percent of its acreage.

"This is a drought like none we've ever had before," Drury said. "Hopefully we never have another one like it again, but the Weather Channel is saying this is the new norm. I really hope that's not the case."

Drury said the conditions create added burden for deer and their day-to-day activities and survival.

"More than anything else, it increases the stress level for the deer," he said. "During normal conditions, there are only a few deer congregating at a water hole at one time. Now there are 10 or 12 or more at one time. It's a new level of stress.

"And because of that new level of stress, the deer don't water as frequently as they normally would. Their water source is farther away from the bedding area and they don't want to expend the energy to make multiple trips to the water. So they consume less water, don't stay hydrated as well, and it ends up having an adverse effect."

Drought conditions also increase the threat for Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD). Born through midge flies, and typically in stagnant pools of water, the infectious, often fatal viral disease can wreak havoc on a deer herd.

"The big thing you worry about is the EHD breakout," said Don Kiskey of Whitetail Freaks. "You'll have floodwater that sits and becomes stagnant in the holes. Whether the hole is wet or dry, it can attract the midges."

As both an added water source in the bone-dry climate and a deterrent to the midge-invested pools, Drury said adding new water to the herd's habitat is a plus during the current conditions.

"If the pond is dry, the creek is dry, the wet weather spring is dry ... you need to create a water hole for your deer," he said. "It can be a 55-gallon barrel, a cattle trough, anything. Of course, you'll have to check to see your local regulations to determine if it's legal to hunt over a water source.

"It's also a shortcut from the EHD standpoint. Those larvae are getting ready to hatch. Getting those deer away from those stagnant pools and into some fresh water, you can help cut down on the EHD problem."

Keeping a constant and viable food source for the deer herd is always critical, but even more so during severe drought conditions.

"We had a fairly moderate spring, and because of that, there was good forage and understory for the deer to nibble on early," Drury said. "It gave them a good start, but that doesn't carry into the summer. A lot of the row crops that deer can turn to in the summer aren't there. The corn crop is pretty much nil, same thing for the beans."

"(The drought), it's killed all of my corn, all of my soybeans," Kiskey said. "And I've been looking at the oak trees, and most of the mast crop is killed. It's definitely going to be an interesting year to be hunting over food."

Also, Drury said, the conditions of one season will likely affect the next one as well.

"The winter is where we are going to see problems, too," he said. "At the food plot, the deer have eaten the leaves and they've eaten the stem. But in the winter, they're not going to have the pods they usually have.

"One, the deer can't get to their water as frequently. Two, they can't store the body fat with the carbs that they normally are able to get from those pods. We haven't seen the most adverse effects yet."

Supplementing those food sources are on the minds of hunters every year. This year, however, those hunters will likely have to deter from their normal practices.

"I would definitely be looking into the drought-resistant hybrid crops," Kiskey said. "The yield is a little less, but at least you can get something out of it. If the crop burns up as soon as it breaks the ground, it's not going to do you any good either.

"Mark and I have using BioLogic for 12 to 15 years, and it has been extremely successful for us," Drury said. "Our favorite is Maximum. But right now, the subsoil moisture is not as great as it could be, of course. So we may have to switch gears, go with something a little heartier and a little more drought resistant - oats, rye and wheat. I've also heard that alfalfa will work really well.

"You have to give them an option for a green food source. That is so important for the deer during the rut."

Both Drury and Kiskey said the early, best-laid plans for the food plot have likely withered during heat and drought. But it's not too late, they said.

"You have to start over and re-plant, get some seeds in the ground. That's about all you can do, unless you are going to irrigate," Kiskey said, laughing.

"You want to do everything you can that will be productive for the herd and for the hunt," Drury said. "If this drought continues on into the fall - and it very well may - I can't stress how important those water holes will be. And preparation for the food plot is going to be even more crucial than ever."

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