Look at a Minnesota map showing deer density, and the Park Rapids area comes prominently into view. But many hunters in the region, as elsewhere, believe deer numbers aren't everything. Deer quality, they say -- measured by body size, antler size and the ratio of bucks to does -- also is important.
Too many does, for instance, and the number and size of bucks necessarily falls below optimum. Hunting does, while simultaneously protecting bucks, particularly young bucks, brings the sex ratio more into line, and overall buck quality improves.
Or so goes the theory behind "quality deer management" (QDM).
Or is it more fact than theory?
That seems to be the case in what doubtless is one of the nation's most ambitious, privately undertaken QDM programs. Called Hillview Management (www.hillviewmanagement.com), the effort extends to properties approximately within a five-mile radius of tiny (actually barely existing) Hillview, Minn., not far from Park Rapids.
"It's home base for our QDM program," said Andy Aho, 44, who farms in the area.
Aho comes from a family of 18 kids, 10 boys, nine of whom hunt (oldest is 62, youngest 42). Together, the family owns about 5,000 acres, and it was Andy and his brother Melvin, of Seattle, who kick-started the QDM program about five years ago.
"We wanted bigger bucks," Andy said. "There were a lot of deer in the area, but a lot of does. We wanted to change that. We also wanted to develop better relations with our neighbors. Deer hunting can make enemies of neighbors."
The region's landscape is prime for deer, with cropland (the Ahos primarily grow soybeans and corn) mixed with woodlots, meadows and river draws.
From the outset the Ahos knew the involvement of their neighbors was essential. Blessed with landowners in the region who own, in many cases, 200 to 400 acres, land covered by QDM quickly expanded.
"You can't win everyone over," Andy said. "But we've got 60 or so landowners who have signed up."
No rules govern the size of buck that can be killed on QDM-enrolled land. Too many variables exist, the Ahos say. Example: Kids might want to kill the first deer they see, small buck or not. The same goes for older hunters afield for the first time.
"We strive for at least a 150-class buck before we shoot it," Andy said. "But that's not something that is hard and fast. Even some seasoned hunters can make mistakes. Generally we say that if you've killed a buck one year, you should try to kill a bigger one the next year."
For the record, Andy Aho's biggest buck scored 159, weighed 250 pounds field-dressed, and was taken by bow.
Program participants are given incentives to shoot does. Hillview Management, for instance, offers a big doe contest rather than a big buck contest, with prize money (tops is $1,000) awarded not only to the hunter, but also the registered landowner on whose property the doe was shot. (No Aho or relative thereof can win).
Successful as the Hillview program has been, it would be difficult to replicate. Gaining public support for such a plan statewide, or even region wide, would be politically challenging.
The reason: Too many deer hunters in Minnesota and elsewhere think about whitetails only one weekend a year, and at least some of these want to draw down on whatever walks by that weekend, small bucks included.
Still, there are lessons to be learned from the Hillview undertaking. One is that efforts to privatize deer management will continue to expand. Another is that education about whitetail management can be a valuable tool to help influence and mold opinions about deer, deer hunting and deer management.