Some whitetail hunters set an antler size standard at the start of each bow season. I’m a huge believer in setting goals. I also believe strongly that satisfaction is a function of expectations. Simply stated, if you set your goal to harvest a 125-inch buck and you harvest a 140-inch buck, you will probably be very pleased with your hunting season. If you harvest a buck with 125-class antlers, you will probably be pleased with your season. And if you harvest a buck that scores 80, you may feel you didn’t accomplish your mission.
I hunt for enjoyment and as a way to provide my family natural, lean, healthy meat! I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve tagged way more does in my life than bucks. I enjoyed every roast and loin! Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hope to tag a “nice” buck each year.
As a biologist, I’ve learned harvesting a buck of a certain antler size is not simply based on the amount of time spent hunting or the skills a hunter possesses. There are known factors that impact the average antler size of bucks in any area. The biggest factor is usually the buck’s age.
If growing conditions are normal (no disease, severe droughts, etc.), bucks will usually produce larger antlers each year of their life until they are 5 years old or older. Physical maturity for whitetails occurs around 5 to 7 years of age, depending on the amount of stress bucks experience throughout their lives. Stress can be related to food quality, adult sex ratio, predation, etc. The level of stress is usually fairly constant for all deer living in an area.
Years ago, Dr. Harry Jacobson, a professor at Mississippi State University, conducted research that showed bucks expressed 25 percent of their antler potential at 1 ½, 62 percent at 2 ½, 77 percent at 3 ½, 91 percent at 4 ½ and 100 percent at 5 ½. Very similar findings were reported by Dr. Mickey Hellickson from South Texas.
Management Works Everywhere
Clearly, one of the best ways to harvest a buck with large antlers is to hunt where folks opt to pass younger bucks. This can be a farm, lease or area with cooperating neighbors who decide not to kill bucks until they reach a certain age class.
States such as Kentucky and Kansas employ another proven strategy statewide. They allow hunters only one buck per season, no matter the choice of weapon or size of the buck. By limiting the number of bucks harvested, more bucks will likely reach older age classes. The percentage of hunters who harvest large-antlered, mature deer in those states each year is proof the strategy is working!
Another example is my farm near Branson in southern Missouri. My land is split by a county line. The last I checked, there had never been a Pope and Young or Boone and Crockett entry from either county. The countryside is primarily covered with low-quality oak/hickory timber and fescue pasture. Both provide low-quality food and cover for whitetails, and the local hunting tradition is not to pass up any buck.
Some folks argue that the reason very few large-antlered bucks are killed in these counties is genetics. However, most of the deer that were used to restock (the genetic source) northern Missouri decades ago were from the Ozark Mountains. The world record non-typical buck was found dead in northern Missouri, and the area produces a steady stream of Pope and Young and Boone and Crockett entries. The difference between the size of bucks harvested in northern and southern Missouri is the bucks in northern Missouri have access to much better groceries (corn and soybean fields). Further, hunters in northern Missouri readily recognize the potential of bucks if allowed to mature, so yearling bucks comprise a smaller percentage of the annual buck harvest.
I work with a group of families in south Florida that have a relatively large, long-term lease of a cattle ranch. Because of the cattle operation and the fact that about half of the club will flood annually due to the monsoon cycle, there are no or very few food plots each year. Yet, they continually harvest bucks with a bow that score in the 130s to 150s—in south Florida! How many guys travel to the Midwest or Canada and don’t tag a buck of that quality?
The point is that deer management can work anywhere. If bucks are allowed to mature, they will produce larger antlers. This form of deer management is not for everyone. I understand and support that. However, those hunters who want to harvest large-antlered bucks need to either hunt where a majority of bucks are allowed to reach maturity or hope to find the proverbial needle in a haystack by tagging one of the rare bucks that survived to maturity in a lesser area.
Next month, I’ll discuss research about nutrition’s role in determining antler size.
- Hunter: Ben Brogle
Location: Garrard, Ky.
Gross Score: 267 4/8
Net Score: 260 1/8 P&Y