| Winke believes this is the oldest buck he has ever shot. The deer was
at least 7 ½ years old based on sightings and trail camera photos.
Winke’s first encounter with the deer dated all the way back to the
2006 season when the deer was already this size. He was primarily
nocturnal and a great trophy despite not having a large rack.
One of the fastest growing trends in whitetail hunting during the past ten years has been the growth of the deer management philosophy among a wider range of participants. Even hunters who knock on doors are now becoming part of the movement by learning to age deer on the hoof, shooting more does and sometimes even planting small food plots. There is a lot of value in deer management, but you must have the right expectations and a lot of patience. If not, setting out to change the local deer herd is going to be disappointing, discouraging and take the fun out of deer hunting. So many pieces have to fall into place that even in great areas it is still quite challenging to produce big, mature bucks on purpose.
Over the past couple of years, I have seen the start of a backlash against deer management. In this article, I will dig into the root of this unrest. I will offer suggestions that will keep bowhunting fun and challenging without losing your perspective.
Managing deer in a vacuum would be easy, but many factors always affect our ability to achieve the results we seek. I have heard it said that managing deer is much easier than managing people. That is certainly true. If everyone hunting in the areas you hunt would let the same bucks go that you let go, or they shoot the needed number of does to keep the herd in check without shooting too many, etc., deer management would be a lot more rewarding. Keeping the fire lit in the face disappointment can be tough.
First, I will give you my own deer management story and then I’ll circle back around to shine some light into the difficulties of making a major difference. My goal here is to help you keep your expectations in line with reality.
I started managing deer in 1995 when I bought part ownership in a big farm in southern Iowa. My wife and I took out a loan using our life savings as the down payment. My sister had to co-sign, putting up her Ford Explorer as collateral. That is how thin we were slicing things in order to make the deal work.
|Selecting the bucks you will hunt based on theirage and the
history you have hunting those deer will lead to a more
rewarding season than basing the decision on antler size.
At first, I was like a kid at Christmas. Santa was bringing me more big deer than I had seen in my whole life. During that very first year, (before we started doing any management) I shot one of my biggest bucks, an 11 pointer that grossed around 185 inches. I hunted that farm for eight more seasons. During the entire nine years, my first buck ended up being the biggest I saw. As time went on, we started to realize that we weren’t producing many big antlered bucks despite pumping a lot of money into food plots. Unbelievably, during one year I had 300 acres of row crop food plots (sorghum and corn) and 65 acres of clover! Imagine that – 365 acres of food plots. That was before fertilizer and chemicals were as astronomically expensive as they are now and the seed was free – left over from the prior year at a big seed company.
My friends and I shot a number of good bucks during the nine years that I hunted there, but 160 inches was the typical trophy. Most years, the 160-class bruisers were the biggest bucks we saw. We could imagine bigger, but shooting something larger was very uncommon. Of course, human nature demanded that we start to produce bucks like the ones we were seeing on the covers of hunting magazines. We couldn’t get it done and then little by little each person started to lose interest.
Eventually, I sold my share and bought land nearby. I saw some giant bucks at first and thought I had surely found the Promised Land. I even encountered a true world-class buck that got away. He was a non-typical in the 225 range. I lost a lot of sleep over that deer. Then as if on schedule, my own expectations started to ratchet up and the quality of the hunting started to drop. I had seen the potential and I was sure that it was just a matter of time before I would hunting bucks like that every year. Or was it?
It has been seven years since that buck got away and I haven’t seen anything even remotely as large. In fact, 160-class bucks are my realistic target once more. During those years, I passed every young buck regardless of how large his antlers were (some were very big even as 3 ½ year old deer) and I fed those deer with food plots better than they had ever been fed before. Yet, the biggest bucks I have seen on the farm were here before I started any management. For sure, my situation sounds like a dream to many readers (and I love hunting here), but it is human nature to want to press farther.
After 16 years of managing deer very aggressively, I have not seen a significant increase in the size of the bucks I am hunting. I am not the only one to have seen this phenomenon. I get comments like this regularly on my website from very serious deer hunters and managers in other parts of the Midwest. The temptation, of course, is to lose heart and quit the fight, but is that the right solution? To find out, I think we need to take a step back and look at the big picture.
|The joys and satisfactions of stewardship are a big part of
why many deer hunters become managers. Yet, the payoff
in larger antlers is often slow in coming.
WHERE IT WORKS
At the same time that I have been discouraged by my inability to effect the production of giant bucks, I know guys who hunt areas where they churn them out every year. It is worth looking at their situation to see what is different, and in the process, to gain a bit of perspective.
There is a group of guys in my home state that have blocked up literally thousands of acres of contiguous ground. I mean more than five-thousand acres. Enough land that if they all decide to pass up a buck that is living near the middle of the co-op, he will live another year. That is what they do. A number of these bucks you have (or will) see on TV and on video. It is big business shooting big deer, and these guys have it down to a science.
I have no problem with what they are doing. In fact, the quest for individual success is at the heart of what makes this such a great country, but it is important to understand what is happening in these areas so we don’t make the mistake of comparing our situations to theirs and our bucks to their bucks, and thus come away disappointed. Hunting is not supposed to be like that.
So here is my point. At least in the Midwest, the number one thing that affects trophy production is age. Other areas have other limiting factors (such as nutrition). But even here, not every buck has the potential to produce big antlers. Those that do generally already look big when they are young. For example, that big 225-inch buck was a 145-inch ten pointer at just 2 ½ years. At 3 ½ years he was 185 inches (an honest 185, we found one of his sheds). He was just 4 ½ years old when I messed up the opportunity. Neighbors found him dead that winter so he never made it to 5 1/2 but there is no telling how big he might have been. He had a beautiful big frame with long, high scoring points. He could have easily been over 250 inches when he stopped growing after adding more sticker points and mass.
OK, so that buck was Shaquille O’Neil, in a world where most of the bucks are Spud Webb. In nearly every part of the country, bucks with high genetic potential are shot when they are young and dumb. They look very good and are easy to kill. Only in areas where very disciplined, like-minded hunters have locked up large blocks of land would such a buck routinely make it past 2 ½ years old. I passed him up three times at that age and could have killed him with a gun the next year when he was 185 inches, but elected to let him go. If there had been more hunting pressure in the area then, or if he had been more prone to roaming, he doubtless would have gotten whacked.
|Winke shot this giant buck in 1995
on a farm he co-owned. He killed the
buck prior to the start of any
management on the property.
Ironically, this is the biggest buck Winke
saw on the farm in nine seasons, even
after he and his friends enacted
Now, when you throw in other hunters and potentially more effective, better-educated hunters who are all trying to shoot a trophy buck, it is not surprising that they pull out the the bucks with the best genetics early. That is what happened in both chapters of my own personal deer management story.
Interest in shooting trophy animals surged during that time and the pressure in the neighborhood was so focused that it literally wiped out most of the genetically superior bucks each year. Sure, most guys were passing up small bucks, but small bucks aren’t all going to grow into big bucks. Usually, they just grow into old small bucks. So in this “pseudo- managed” setting, the area fills up with old bucks with small racks. It is one possible outcome in “managed” areas.
NOW MAKING IT PERSONAL
I realize that not everyone can identify with what I am laying out, but I think it is fair to say that no matter where you manage deer, you will fight this same battle on some level. You may be trying to get your bucks to 3 ½ years old whereas I may be shooting for 4 ½ or 5 ½ years. Or maybe you simply don’t care a bit about managing. If that is the case, you may be the happier for it.
However, all is not lost for those who want to combine stewardship with hunting. I am assuming that you are like me in many ways. You don’t control enough land to take your bucks through to full maturity without them jumping the fence regularly. Or maybe you are hunting on permission and the other hunters on the property won’t pass up the same deer you will. Either way, at the end of the day, you will be discouraged unless you change your measuring stick.
|This is the second buck that the author took during the
2010 season. This buck actually fell on New Year’s Day,
2011. It is another older buck with average antlers, but
one with which the group hunting Winke’s farm had
WHY THIS IS BAD
I think it is a bad thing to be discouraged about hunting. My own resolve was tested again last season when someone hunting the neighbor’s farm shot a buck that I was hoping would live another year to become a true giant. It was the biggest buck the guy had ever shot and he was ecstatic. I couldn’t blame him one bit for shooting the deer; I was very sorely tempted to shoot him myself. The mistake was my own attachment to the deer simply because he had big antlers. That is where all the seeds of discontent are sewn.
I love to hunt, and I don’t want to go through my hunting life in a state of edgy discontent. I want to enjoy every God-given moment I have in a tree stand. So the obvious solution is to find a different standard by which to grade the experience and to keep it challenging at the same time. Antler size is causing too much heartache.
A REALISTIC SET OF GOALS
I have to admit that since I started filming hunts and using trail cameras to pattern bucks, I have really started to enjoy the one-on-one nature of hunting certain bucks. Let me give you an example. Last season, the other hunter shot “my” big buck in early November. I groused around for a couple of weeks but then was fortunate enough to shoot a buck that had been on our farm for at least 7 years. I had many years of trail camera pictures of this primarily nocturnal buck.
When I finally shot him, I was just as proud and satisfied with that deer as if I had shot the biggest deer in the area. I really appreciated what that deer was and how long he had lived here even though I have hunted the area daily for many years. In fact, I had only seen him three other times on the hoof in four seasons. When I finally got him, it struck me that I cared more about the history I had with the deer and many years long quest than I did with his stubby, low scoring antlers. I forgot all about the other buck that died in early November.
|Even in some areas with lots of food plots, where the deer
are very well fed, they still don’t put on bigger antlers
without the needed act of letting the genetically
superior young bucks get old.
I shot a buck at his peak of age, a deer that may have been passed up repeatedly when he was two and three years old not because he had great potential and everyone wanted to see him grow, but rather because no one wanted him. Despite the fact that management wasn’t working the way I had hoped it would, I had a rewarding and enjoyable outcome to my season. In fact, it was very liberating to feel that good about a buck with mediocre antlers. The whole event made me feel like I was hunting for the right reasons.
That is my new standard. I am going to look at the deer I hunt differently. I am going to select several older bucks going into the season and focus on hunting them, regardless of their antler size. I will select them based on age number one, my history with the buck, number two and the chances of actually taking them as my number three criteria. If some of the bucks on the list happen to have big antlers, great. If not, that is great too.
By doing it this way, I will preserve the joy and excitement of hunting and keep antler-obsession from spoiling my season. I may shoot some buck I would otherwise have passed up during other seasons, but I am certain that my joy and satisfaction will be great despite the fact that I am not killing magazine cover bucks.
|Greg Clements shot this old buck on the author’s farm
last season. It was a buck that Winke had been aware
of for several years. It is likely the buck was at least
7 ½ years old and a very worthy trophy despite the
fact that he doesn’t have big antlers for that part of
Forget the antler size and focus on hunting bucks with some age, deer with which you have a personal connection. If November of 2010 proved anything, it proved that this approach can produce a very enjoyable and satisfying season. It is still all about the quest. It is not all about the antler size. Never forget that or you will become road kill under the tires of a misguided management mentality. Keep it realistic and keep the challenge by setting your sights on the oldest bucks around and you will have a blast this season.