Antler Score/Herd Management

Herd Management by Antler Score

The first Quality Deer Management meeting I ever attended was for an area 50 miles east of the family farm in central Wisconsin.  I was not familiar with what was being talked about at the meeting but listened carefully to what the hosts had to say about QDM.  At the time, I was basically in my research phase on how I could get the “family farm” to produce better deer.  There were a bunch of ideas discussed that night, but the only one I can say I remember was the method of restricting the buck harvest by putting limits or criteria on killing a buck.  I didn’t say a word that night, but came home pretty pumped up that we could in fact grow bigger deer and it didn’t seem all that hard.  The basic notion in passing up bucks was to let all antlered deer go that didn’t at least have 8 points and a spread outside the ears or about 16 inches.  Simple enough right!

Of course, deer management has probably come a long way since that first meeting I went to back in the early 90’s.  Probably hundreds of articles and books have been written on the subject, but one thing that has kind of taken hold in the deer circles has been managing for trophy class bucks by limiting deer harvests based on antler score.  I’ve even seen a trend with outfitters lately who restrict and fine hunters for shooting bucks unless the score reaches a minimum.  The method sounds reasonable enough; and I’m sure the intentions are sincere, but I do question the long term effects of managing for trophy bucks by restricting buck harvest based on antler score.

A typical method goes something like this…an outfitter or hunting group puts a minimum antler score as a prerequisite to shooting a buck; say 140 inches.  In the case of an outfitter, if you shoot something under the 140 inch minimum you pay a penalty or fine.  The system no doubt is intended to encourage hunters to shoot only bucks that have reached a certain potential.  The method is flawed for one basic reason; not all bucks will ever reach 140 inches in score because all bucks have different, sometimes vastly different genetic potentials.

Imagine this scenario.  Hunters in an area or with an outfitter under a 140 inch minimum set out each year to fill their buck tags.  As each year goes on, many deer are passed up that score less than the 140 inch minimum and many are shot that score at or higher than 140 inches.  How many older class bucks of 4 years old or older are passed up and maybe never shot because they never reach the minimum?  How many young 2 or 3 year old deer are shot each year that meet the 140 inch minimum?  Putting it in simpler form; imagine two deer walking in front of your stand.  One has a rack of about 150 inches but is clearly only a 3 year old deer.  The other, is an old buck with a bagging belly and huge shoulders and neck resembling a Brahma bull.  The old buck has a twisted up set of antlers with short tines and narrow spread.  The old buck is only in the 120’s for score so the hunter; not wanting to shoot a low scoring animal and not wanting to break the 140 inch minimum rule harvests the 3 year old buck.  Is it not obvious that this was the wrong move?

I know firsthand that putting pressure on buck harvests based on man-made criteria like antler score will actually decrease a herd’s antler potential.  I was part of a group that hunted a really good farm in western Wisconsin.  All the neighbors practiced management as well.  Every year we would see and have cam pictures of brute deer with rather pitiful racks and nobody would shoot those deer.  Not from our party or any of the neighbors.  And yet every year numerous bucks were taken with gorgeous sets of antlers that scored very well, but on noticeably young deer.  It got to the point that it seemed like most of the time when we would start to watch a couple good bucks each year that were only 2 or 3 but had impressive racks that it was almost a certainty that they got shot.  And the old brutes with not so much on their heads…well they lived year after year after year.  Nobody wanted to fill their tag on a buck that didn’t score well.  Toward the end of our stay on that farm (about 13 years) the area was filled with old mature deer with poor racks.  And because of the intense pressure being put on any younger deer with good scoring sets of antlers, it was becoming apparent that getting a buck to score in the upper 160’s and higher was going to get harder and harder.  We were able to somewhat control the issue by taking a number of the older bucks out every year; but immature deer are way easier to hunt than 4 year olds and older thus they got hit pretty hard each year by neighbors.  It got really bad when an outfitter moved into the neighborhood and started running hunters through by the dozens.  His clients hammered the 2 and 3 year old deer and because the outfitter saved different ground for himself and for his high profile clients he didn’t care and did nothing to reverse the trend.

One thing to consider with all this is also the fact that once bucks establish their home ranges when they are young (usually in their first year and a half or so), those home ranges are set.  By harvesting a buck with huge upside potential because they meet a minimum score requirement you are in effect ruining your chances of taking a truly big deer down the road.  By not harvesting brute older bucks with poor antlers you ensure a farm stacked with older bucks with not much head gear.  Those big old ugly deer aren’t going anywhere.  And what makes matters worse you are actually helping to prevent other bucks from establishing their home ranges in your area as the older deer seem to just stick around, take up space, and never go away.

The best way to truly manage your deer herd if you are serious about growing big antlered deer is to put a buck harvest restriction in place based on age and not score.  Of course for many people aging a deer on the hoof is a lot harder than deciding if the rack is big or not.  But in my opinion it would be better to make a mistake on a couple deer than to actually set up a program that by design is flawed.  I know firsthand the results.

Setting up a program for buck harvests based on their age class is the only way to go if you are serious about managing for trophy class whitetail.  Start with a goal of only shooting 3 year olds and older.  Once your group’s members have taken a few of this age, up the ante to 4 year olds.  And never ever think you have not harvested a true trophy because of its antler score.  Some of the proudest moments I have had in hunting have come from taking truly brute deer of older age classes (6 years +) with not so great scores.  And remember, we put the whole antler score thing together not nature.  Always remember that antler score is just that, a man made score.  The thrills of the hunt mean so much more!

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