Head games – Defining a trophy deer is difficult

Most hunters dream of killing that one jaw-dropping buck, but the issue of exactly what defines a trophy deer is still very personal. Here are some thoughts on the matter.

Every year scores of hunters harvest whitetails throughout the state. Each buck, in the eyes of the beholder, is truly a trophy – hosting a set of antlers that are individually unique. Yet once comparisons of harvested bucks are made, the stigma of big verses small and scoring classifications can toy a hunter’s perspective. Simply put: Competition and influence from the hunting media attempts to set a standard of what constitutes a trophy buck.

Today there is an explosion of media frenzy that is trying to set a precedent (standard) for hunting. The goal is the bigger the better.

This is particularly true with some (though not all) high-fenced hunting preserves. The same perspective occurs on lands with free-ranging whitetails where buck age structures are aggressively advocated.

The driving force is to harvest a “big, mature buck” that usually means more money to access the land.

Yet despite the impressive and enticing media productions of monster bucks, the majority of sportsmen are still wanting to treat all harvested bucks equally – not based on excessive mass or the number of points.

Venison is still a priority. This perspective is vital to maintaining a healthy, moderate view of the deer-hunting tradition.

Locating free-ranging deer, be it on leased or public land, is a devotional effort for many of today’s hunters. They could care less about boasting rights in terms of antler size. This attitude and devotion is undoubtedly to be respected and admired. In their opinion, there is so much more to the hunting tradition and experience than harvesting a trophy buck.

Even so, the depths of human nature possess an unknown fascination with the dominant male species of the cervid family (deer, elk, moose, etc.) – especially those towering antlers ranging from the 160- to 200-inch class.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with admiring a nice set of antlers; and it is historically common in some regions to harvest whitetails that naturally reach this scoring classification.

There is a created order where a mature, dominant male’s impressive headgear is fundamental for whitetail hierarchy that strongly dictates procreation (breeding). This display of supremacy might help prevent inbreeding. A few superior males typically reign; and so, in reality, every whitetail locale should hold several notable bucks sporting a nice set of antlers.

For those hunters who have access to areas known for trophy bucks, the sight of these brutes can get the adrenaline going. Though there is nothing wrong with getting excited about a huge buck, most hunters say the trick is not to get caught up in the obsession of trophy antlers where the authenticity of hunting becomes distorted.

So how should hunters define bucks, and should the scoring systems be a goal for a hunter to set?

Ultimately, the majority of sportsmen say ‘No’ to advocating trophy antlers.

Even so, most will admit that they are intrigued with the hopes of taking a mature, dominant whitetail.

The reality of antlers and management

So how do males sport a large set of antlers and how much occurs naturally in comparison to human intervention?

Foremost, beside maturity, deer experts believe that genetic coding is central to antler formations and size.

For bucks to top that 150- to 160-inch class, genetics is the primary force. Proven examples are scores of deer, both wild and penned, that never sport big antlers no matter the quality of nutrition available.

It is also believed by a host of deer breeders that females — hosting at least half, or possibly even a little more of the genetics — may be the key to large males.

That’s not to say nutrition isn’t important, but without good genetics the potential for bucks to move into the 140 to 150 classification is not reality.

Of course, there are other environmental realities — such as soil PH, drought, predators, over population, etc. — that adversely affect antler growth.

To harvest larger bucks and promote good genetics, some hunters and managers are advocating the passing on of yearling bucks (1 ½) and even 2 ½-year-olds. In doing so, the hopes are that these young deer with good antler potential can eventually work their genes into the breeding population while increasing the buck age structure for local deer herds.

This is one approach to ensure a continuous pool of genetics.

Also, “selective harvesting” can be used to improve and maintain good genetics for antler growth. However, this approach can be time consuming — taking several years for results with free-ranging deer.

So once the importance of genetics is established, the second factor that contributes to antler growth is age.

Typically, most bucks reach their maximum antler development at 4 ½ to 5 ½ years of age. articularly on public land, young bucks should not be harvested until they are at least 3 ½ years old; this is the recommendation from most biologists and managers.

In wild, free-ranging deer, the age structure from 3 ½ to 5 ½ years of age is crucial for creating trophy antlers.

However, in enclosed hunting preserves the guidelines are not so rigorous. Usually preserve deer are larger than normal at 2 ½ and 3 ½ years of age. This is due to superior genetics and sometimes bizarre breeding practices.

Nutrition falls into third place for bucks to sport a nice hefty rack. Without adequate amounts of at least 8 to 16 percent crude protein and access to minerals like nitrogen, calcium and phosphorous, antler development can be stunted.

Pliable native and exotic forage consisting of cool-season grasses, forbs (flowering plants like clover), woody browse and hard mast are essential for wild, free-roaming bucks. Balanced herds, where the number of deer doesn’t exceed the habitat’s ability (carrying capacity) to support deer and other wildlife, is also vital.

In other words, too many deer can adversely affect proper antler growth.

Another factor adversely affecting wild deer and antler growth are predators like coyotes. Although the verdict is still outstanding on the effectiveness of coyotes attacking healthy adult whitetails, one thing is known: The canines periodically run deer, which induces stress. In turn, the physical exertion can negatively affect a buck’s metabolism, which in turn hinders antler growth.

Overall, it’s important for bucks to sport impressive headgear. In theory, it is believed by many researchers that large antlers may visually attract estrous females to bucks with quality genetics. Here, the rack could possibly play a significant role in females selecting their mates to instinctively carry on the whitetails social hierarchy.

Even though this visual cue may contribute to the breeding process, scent communication between bucks and does at “community scrapes” is most likely the main factor determining who breeds who. This aspect of deer behavior is setting the stage for bucks and does to communicate via scent — prior to the actual rut (see Community Scrape, Mississippi Sportsman, January 2012).

Antlers certainly play a crucial role in bucks establishing their pecking order. Bucks with impressive racks will use their headgear to visually intimidate rival bucks, as well as maintaining dominance over smaller younger bucks. During the rut, a host of aggressive body posturing and vocals along with towering antlers are used to drive competing bucks away from estrous females.

Antlers are also the primary tool when bucks aggressively clash for dominance and breeding rights. Here, antler formations, along with strength and an instinctive gritty disposition, typically determine the victor.

Although bucks with large racks tend to win rut battles, it is not always the case. Narrow racks with sharp, solid brow tines are designed to give a fighting buck the edge. This puts wide spread antlered bucks at a disadvantage.

Of course, there are also exceptions to the rule, when a highly assertive buck with a smaller set of antlers starts to wreak havoc on larger bucks — strictly due to attitude — not antlers (see Dominance Dilemma, Mississippi Sportsman, July 2012).

As mentioned before, creating a good age structure of mature bucks is of foremost importance if one is going to harvest a trophy in the wild. Quality deer management and its approach of allowing younger bucks, primarily 1 ½ to 2 ½ year olds, to grow is the basis of achieving genetics with age.

In turn, this management strategy helps establish more mature antlered bucks in a local deer population.

Initially, this type of management brought on a horde of controversy amid the hunting community. Many hunters did not want to be advised of what to shoot and what not to shoot.

Despite the opposition, QDM’s science is a natural, sound biological approach to establishing solid, healthy deer herds in an effort to maintain a normal surplus of mature bucks.

Surveys and studies have clearly shown that where QDM is being implemented hunters have had more opportunities to harvest bigger bucks.

However, in the last decade or so, the QDM approach to aggressive liberal doe harvest could actually be counterproductive to maintaining mature, dominant bucks if females with good genetics are over harvested; and if the “predator pit” takes hold of a particular deer locale.

Recent scientific studies have consistently shown that fawn recruitment can struggle when liberal doe harvest occurs on lands with a sufficient number of predators like coyotes; the predators are able to seriously hinder and sometimes suppress the deer herds from rebounding.

In turn, deer numbers cannot meet the supply and demand for hunters until the predators are effectively managed and controlled — primarily through trapping.

Biologists refer to this aspect of fawn recruitment as the “predator pit.” Add diseases like epizootic hemorrhagic disease to liberal doe harvest and the predator pit, and the outlook could be grim for harvestable deer.

Undoubtedly, the type of hunter management and the locale determines if mature bucks will be available for harvest. This is one reason it is advisable for hunters and managers to closely monitor deer herds, knowing when and how many does and bucks to take as well as advocating predator control.

Antler manipulation

Though highly controversial, the other alternative for trophy antlers is hunting preserves and the deer breeding industry.

Here, genetics are preserved and carried on either through artificial insemination programs; out-cross-breeding that is more like unrelated bucks and does breeding, even though the deer are confined; and finally line breeding, known simply as inbreeding.

Though line breeding is a bit touchy in getting bizarre antler results, at times, it produces 200-class bucks with minimal non-typical antlers.

Overall, hunting preserves and the deer farming industry provide monster bucks ranging from 200 inches and up, as well as typical shooter bucks in the 140- to 160-inch classification.

Some hunters periodically utilize this alternative, depending on their time and skill to scout and pursue free-ranging whitetails.

Of course, to harvest whitetails in enclosures is costly.

It’s interesting to note that, in years past, during large-scale restocking programs, some northern penned whitetails with quality genetics were raised and released into the wild. Although it is difficult to know the degree of hereditary success there has been with these releases, it is believed that these particular bucks and does have passed on their genes into wild free-ranging deer herds.

Though there are scores of naturally developed native free-ranging whitetails that have historically produced Boone & Crockett trophy racks, one might be surprised that some counties produce enormous free-ranging antlered bucks simply due to the genetics from deer breeders and preserves.

In portions of the South, the northern genes of whitetails have worked into the herds through these restocking programs. However, these deer are also more vulnerable to disease like EHD in comparison to native southern whitetails.

Even so, deer breeders and preserves have actually enhanced the hunting experience for some.

Historically, with the exception of South Texas, most southern bucks do not possess the genetics for large antlers in comparison to northern deer.

In conclusion

The questions of what really defines a trophy buck and by whose standards are hunters to evaluate antlers remain.But no matter if it’s Pope and Young, Boone and Crockett, or the Safari Club’s scoring system, the overwhelming majority of hunters focus more on the hunting experience and venison.

Antlers should not be the center of attention.

Even though this is the mainstream attitude for hunting enthusiasts, others sporting gun or bow do hunt for the rack. It is the primary reason they take to the field.

Either way, whitetail headgear is still a matter of choice and individual preference.

About Tommy Kirkland 24 Articles
Tommy Kirkland aggressively pursues whitetails with camera and extensive observational work on free-ranging deer. He is a novice turkey hunter; and his articles and photos have been featured in many outdoor publications.