October 19, 2016
By Dr. Grant Woods
If you are like me and hunt mostly in dense woods, I doubt you see many (or any!) bucks with 170-inch antlers like the ones commonly shown on hunting TV shows. The reason is simple: the sun is the source of energy for forages (deer food), and most of the sun's energy is trapped well above the reach of deer in the leaves of a closed-canopy forest.
It's true that oak forests produce acorns and that deer are very attracted to most types of acorns. However, acorns are commonly only available during the fall and winter. In addition, acorns can be high in energy but are relatively low in protein. Bucks that depend on acorns and twigs for nourishment won't express their full antler potential.
Protein is a key component of a whitetail buck's growing antlers. Without an ample source of quality, digestible protein during the antler-growing season, bucks rarely produce extremely large antlers. This is obvious when looking at the map of Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young records compiled by the Quality Deer Management Association.
The map shows the number of B&C and P&Y record-book entries from 1996-2005 on a county-by-county basis. The darker the color, the more trophy bucks came from that area, with counties shaded in red producing 51 or more record-book bucks during the 10-year period.
You will quickly notice there are many more record-book entries from areas where commercial production of corn and soybeans is common. In these areas, especially where soybeans are grown, deer have an almost unlimited supply of quality forage (protein) throughout the growing season.
These areas can typically provide a quality diet to a larger number of deer than areas covered with trees. In addition, these areas typically have fewer hunters per square mile. It also can be much easier to see and pattern mature bucks in areas where large quantities of corn and soybeans are produced. These regions have limited cover during most of the hunting season, allowing for greater viewing distances and giving hunters greater certainty that deer will be concentrated in the limited pockets of timber that do exit.
So, does this mean if we don't draw a tag for Illinois, Iowa or Kansas, we should just hang our bows on the shelf and find something else to do this fall? No way!
In fact, in this article, I am going suggest just the opposite. Certainly, there's nothing wrong with big antlers, and I enjoy hunting large-racked bucks as much as anyone! But rather than focusing on antler size, I humbly suggest that bowhunters would be better off — and probably enjoy their hunting even more — if they focused instead on the age of the bucks they are after. Regardless of what area of the country you live in, you can easily set a goal to tag a buck one year older than the "average" buck for your area.
Whether you live in one of the best big-buck states in America or a lightly regarded region with very few trophy bucks, this is a very reasonable challenge that will help you become a better deer hunter and develop a greater appreciation for what it means to be successful in the whitetail woods.
Age and Antler Inches
Regardless of whether a buck lives in an agricultural area or dense forest, antler size almost always increases each year as a buck matures. The amount of increase depends on the health of the individual buck.
As we already discussed, bucks that primarily consume acorns and twigs with a limited amount of quality forage can't express their full potential to produce large antlers. The good news is there are many examples of folks developing "islands" of quality habitat by using timber thinning and other forestry practices that allow more sun to reach the soil, resulting in higher-quality forage. Creating food plots is another great tool for boosting the quality of deer food in your area.
I recently worked with two brothers who reported a significant decline in buck quality on their family farm near El Paso, Ark. I asked a few questions and quickly learned the area (including their farm) in years past had been planted in corn and soybeans. But due to changes in economics, their farm and most of the fields in that area had been converted to pasture grasses. I didn't see a single row crop field while touring the neighborhood of their farm.
These landowners reported seeing noticeably fewer deer overall, as well as a substantial decrease in the average antler size of 3-year-old bucks. I admire the brothers for continuing to hunt. They introduced their children to hunting even though both the number and quality of deer had significantly decreased.
I developed a plan that included converting some of the pasture back to soybean production. The plan also included using trail cameras to monitor the estimated age of bucks using their farm. I advised them to maintain their buck harvest criteria such that they and their children had a realistic chance of success on their 200-acre farm. In other words, there was no point in setting a goal of shooting 4€‰½-year-old bucks if there were none, or only a few, in the entire area.
If these landowners set their harvest criteria too high, especially before they can implement the habitat improvements, they are bound to fail to meet their harvest objectives. Most hunters don't mind eating tag soup every now and then, as long as they believe they had a realistic chance to harvest a deer that met their goals.
On a larger scale, consider the historical restocking efforts in Missouri. Most hunters recognize that northern Missouri has a record of producing bucks with larger than normal antlers. There is a lot of soybean production in this area. Unlike the neighboring states of Kansas, Iowa, and Illinois, tags are available over the counter in Missouri. So, many non-resident hunters travel to northern Missouri annually.
Did you know there were almost no deer in northern Missouri just a few decades ago? The restocking records show that most of the deer released in northern Missouri came from southern Missouri, including the area where I live and hunt. Check out the number of record-book bucks from northern Missouri. Now, consider that in the two counties where I hunt in southern Missouri, there's been only one buck registered in Pope and Young and none in the Boone and Crockett records!
Does this mean I should drive five hours north to hunt rather than enjoying hunting close to home? I prefer to hunt close to home. The good news it that bucks can be allowed to mature and increase in antler size at any location. Mature bucks are a challenge to pattern and hunt anywhere! A buck's ability to avoid hunters isn't related to his antler size.
The genetics are the same, so why the difference in antler size? Again, the quality of the diet is much different! There are lots of examples from throughout the whitetails' range that the environment and specific quality of the diet makes a huge difference in antler size. In fact, antler size is much more strongly correlated with age and nutrition than genetics.
This is great news for hunters! Any hunter can make the choice to allow deer to mature and get a year older if larger antlers are part of their harvest criteria. In addition, hunters can work to improve habitat quality regardless of where they live! Deer in most areas have relatively small home ranges. This means that habitat improvements can certainly result in increased antler size as well as an increase in the overall deer population.
One of my first large deer research and management projects was just outside Charleston, S.C. This was back in the early 1990s, and folks in that area were just starting to discuss passing young bucks and allowing them to mature. In fact, gun season was open there from Aug. 15-Dec. 31, with no buck harvest limit!
Bucks more than 2 years old were rare — very rare — in that area. I designed a buck harvest program that allowed bucks to mature, and within a few years the area was producing nice bucks! Folks hunting that property and others in the neighborhood that used similar harvest guidelines became very satisfied with their hunting experiences.
The average antler size of harvested bucks increased significantly. So did the number of rubs, scrapes and the amount of rutting behavior hunters observed. There were plenty of does for the meat-hunting crowd. It seemed the majority of hunters were happy!
These experiences and others have taught me to truly appreciate and honor any hunter who has tagged a mature buck. I know that hunter beat the odds! To me, the trophy value of a buck is much more accurately measured in years than inches of antler. Don't get me wrong; I enjoy seeing and harvesting large-antlered bucks, but I value mature bucks even more.
Some of the toughest hunting I've experienced has been in the Deep South. Those areas typically have very long firearms seasons and lots of hunting pressure. In areas where timber is the primary land use, even mature bucks seldom produce more than 125 inches of antlers. Despite that, I am extremely proud of the bucks I have tagged in that environment. Those hunts were often more challenging than when I tagged bucks with larger antlers in the Midwest.
Those experiences certainly made me a better hunter, and I cherish the memories of those hunts!
On a larger level, I think it's entirely fair to say that many of the best whitetail hunters in America will never kill a 150-inch buck — simply because there aren't any where they hunt! But that doesn't mean those hunters aren't as skilled as many of the hunters who regularly kill 170-inch bucks on TV.
If, like me, you are among the majority of whitetail hunters who live in an area where there aren't many row crops, or if you lack the time or budget to travel to known big-buck areas where large antlers are common, simply enjoy the hunting opportunities close to home and embrace the notion that any mature buck is a true trophy!