Every season, hunters pass up bucks in the hope they will be trophies in a year, but will they really grow any larger? This year, maybe so.
In the 1960s, deer-hunting opportunities began to expand across southeastern states as deer numbers started to increase after restocking. Herds seemed to explode in the 1970s, and in the 1980s, deer hunting really kicked into high gear.
But in the mid-1980s, many hunters began complaining about the lack of adult bucks with big antlers. Quickly discovered in Louisiana — and in other states — was that most antlered bucks being harvested were only 1½ years old. In fact, on many clubs and private land around the state, the yearling buck harvest amounted to 60% to 90% of the total buck kill. No wonder there were not many adult bucks in the population; their life spans were really short.
That trend was slowly reversed over time with sound management work and today, that yearling buck (1½ years old) harvest has been dramatically reduced. More 3½-year and older bucks are being killed than ever before.
It seems to be quite vogue to come back to camp after the morning hunt and talk about the number of antlered bucks that were passed up. The big-buck mania that has been sweeping the nation for more than 30 years is still going strong.
It is interesting to read in a recent study done in New York that during a 3-year period, only 1% of the 3½-year and older bucks tagged scored 160 or better. That’s the minimum score for the Boone & Crockett Club’s Recognition Program; a deer scoring 160 is a true trophy. Almost 70% of the bucks 3½ and older scored 120 or less. Now, a 120-inch deer is nice, but once you drop below 120, the buck drops from trophy class to quality class.
Age, not antlers
Most hunters judge a buck’s age based on antler size, and this is a major mistake. Nutrition is the key to growing trophy class bucks, and the fact is, the nutritional plane in most of Louisiana’s habitat types is low. Dominant piney woods do not grow big bucks. In fact, a 130-class B&C buck is a top-end buck for this habitat type, and that is still a far cry from trophy classification.
At seminars and talks, I will frequently hold up a rack from an adult buck (3½ or older) and ask, would you shoot this buck. Very few hands are raised, despite the rack being from a 5½-year-old buck. Hunters need to be looking more at the body features and stop focusing on antlers.
A small-bodied, adult buck will still have body features just like a larger-bodied adult, but the rack will be smaller. Consequently, many bucks on clubs and private lands are dying from old age, disease or natural mortality rather than hunter mortality. There is a lot of competition for does among adult bucks, and this stress and fighting results in skull injuries that account for in a high percentage of buck mortality. Some studies on land managed for trophy bucks have found higher natural mortality than hunter mortality.
So with that in mind, is it sound management to pass up a 110-inch 4½-year-old with the idea that it will be bigger next season? It depends on the management work that has been done to increase the nutritional quality of your habitat. If you are doing the work, you could expect to perhaps see a 25% increase in B&C score, which would equate to a score of around 138, still short of trophy status. Of course, you’re rolling the dice that the buck survives and lives another year.
The reality is that in most habitats across Louisiana, I doubt one would see that percent of increase in antler growth. A 10% increase is probably more realistic, and that would equate to a score of 121. My feelings about that 110-inch, 4½-year-old is to shoot it and enjoy the harvest; meat for the freezer and a quality, adult buck.
Know your herd
Understanding age and growth is essential for any deer-management program, especially one that puts restrictions on what bucks may be harvested. The only way to understand and determine what is going on is to collect age and body data. Over a period of several years, growth and development trends should become clear and provide the land manager with a good assessment of the program and what the habitat will produce. This will give the manager an understanding of the habitat and the nutrition that the habitat is providing and what could be done to improve it.
Timber cuts, prescribed burning, mowing and fallow plowing, along with forage plantings, will improve habitat quality along with increasing nutrition. Many have opted to just feed corn, but this will fall short in meeting the physical needs of deer.
This year has been an exceptional one for rainfall, and the native habitat has been maintained in excellent condition. I am still seeing excellent growth in winter food plots of clover and chicory, as well as the new growth of woody and herbaceous vegetation on native habitat sites. Normally, as the heat increases and the rainfall declines, the quality of the native vegetation will decline, but this has not been the case this year.
There is new growth on blackberry everywhere and new growth in the clover strips. This new plant growth is providing the nutrition deer need during a generally stressful period. The adult buck photos I have gotten to date are verifying exceptional antler growth on adult bucks not harvested last season. I suspect this will be the case around Louisiana, and it would not surprise me for this to be a bumper year for both quality and trophy bucks.
If you passed up some adult bucks last season, you may be pleasantly rewarded this season with a bigger buck. There also appears to be a developing acorn crop, so you might want to keep this in mind as the price of corn rises at the feed store.
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