Buckmasters Magazine

The Trophy Equation

The Trophy Equation

By David Hart

It takes more than one ingredient to make big bucks, and some factors are beyond a hunter’s control.

What do Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois have in common? The answer is pretty obvious to Buckmasters readers. Those states, and a few others, have well-earned reputations for producing lots of monster deer. On the other hand, states like Virginia, South Carolina, Michigan, Vermont and a host of states with good populations of whitetails don’t make a blip on the radar for most big-buck hunters.

The truth is, it takes more than a food plot to grow trophy class bucks. Good nutrition is part of the trophy equation, but some regions produce big bucks on a regular basis and there isn’t a hunter-made food plot for miles. Big deer are the result of a combination of factors that create an ideal recipe for big bucks. Some ingredients are the result of blind luck, while others are because of sound management principles and quality habitat.

AGE BEFORE BEAUTY

Biologists agree that the number one consideration in producing big antlers is age. It might seem as obvious as a full moon on a cloudless night, but too many hunters still wonder why they don’t see trophy class bucks as they tag yet another 2 1⁄2-year-old basket-racked 8-pointer. While there is no guarantee that buck would have ever grown a record-book rack, one thing’s for certain: Once a small buck has been killed, its antlers won’t ever get any bigger.

“A buck generally won’t reach its prime until around 61⁄2 or even 71⁄2 years,” said Missouri Department of Conservation biologist Lonnie Hansen. “The odds of a buck getting that old anywhere in Missouri are extremely low, but we do have a good number of 4- and 5 1⁄2-year-old bucks.”

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ chief deer biologist agreed. Tom Litchfield said a number of factors contribute to antler size, but nothing matters more than age. Hunters seem to be getting that message and in many places have demanded — and received — regulations that protect younger bucks. Hansen said Missouri experimented with antler restrictions in a small area of the state recently and expanded them to most of the state at the request of hunters.

“Anything that will help a buck grow older will help the overall number of quality deer in the population, and antler restrictions are one way to achieve that,” Hansen added.

PRIME HABITAT

Of course, old bucks in regions with poor habitat might never make the record books. States that have a reputation for producing high numbers of trophy class deer also have outstanding habitat and plenty of high quality food. Ohio Division of Wildlife biologist Mike Tonkovich said habitat is the main reason some parts of his state are so good. He points to Ohio’s western region, which has far more agriculture than the southeastern region. As a result, bucks are much bigger on average in the farm area than in the heavily wooded eastern region.

“Bucks tend to get harvested at a higher rate in the agricultural areas because they are confined to smaller wood lots, but there is no question the bucks in farm country have better antlers than those in the forested region, where the deer rely on the mast crop for high-quality food,” Tonkovich said. “There’s not much to eat in mature woods if we have a poor mast crop.”

Hansen echoed Tonkovich. He said bucks in Missouri’s northern and northwestern farm country generally carry far bigger antlers than those in the forested, mountainous region of southern Missouri. “The soil is much more fertile in the agricultural areas, which means the natural forage is more nutritious,” he said. “Some nice bucks come out of the Ozarks, but not nearly as many as come from the northern part of the state.”

That northern section of Missouri borders Iowa, which is a giant food plot with millions of acres of row crops high in protein. Corn, beans and other high-quality deer food provide vital nutrition during the winter when deer might otherwise struggle to find valuable food sources. Whitetails come out of winter in better shape and are able to put more energy into growing antlers throughout the spring and summer.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just southern Iowa that produces big bucks. Litchfield noted that 98 of the state’s 99 counties have produced record-book bucks.

“There are a whole bunch of big deer from all over the state that are never entered into the record books because the people who harvest them just aren’t interested in that,” he said. “Southeastern Iowa gets more non-resident pressure, and I can only assume they are more interested in entering their bucks in the record books.”

Weather also helps grow big bucks, more specifically, the lack of long, severe winters. That’s one reason places like northern New England and the northern regions of the Great Lakes states don’t produce high numbers of giant deer. Bucks have to put more energy into producing body mass than antler mass. And in some cases, a harsh winter can wipe out a large percentage of the deer. Mature bucks, still stressed from the rut, are often the first to die.

The Trophy EquationLIMITED HARVEST

Top trophy destination states like Iowa and Ohio have strict limits on antlered deer, which automatically cuts down on buck harvest. That reduced harvest contributes to the age factor. If hunters may only take one buck, then more antlered deer will make it to the next season. Although Iowa residents can buy more than one either-sex tag, they may purchase only one for the general firearms seasons. Missouri also allows hunters to take more than one buck, but only a small percentage actually do, according to Hansen. Kansas hunters also are restricted to a single buck.

Luck also helps grow big deer, and Iowa is a prime example of that. Litchfield said the state’s deer season was established in the 1950s, and the dates were set with farmers in mind. The December firearms season gave landowners time to get their crops and livestock taken care of before hunting season opened. It was mere coincidence that the seasons were set outside of the November rut, but that coincidence has been a major factor in the state producing so many quality bucks.

“Bucks, especially mature bucks, are much more vulnerable during the rut than any other time of year. They are out wandering around in the daytime when hunters are out, and they often lose their sense of fear because their number one drive is to breed,” Litchfield said. “Since our gun seasons fall later, our bucks are not vulnerable during the rut.”

Litchfield said some hunters have asked the Iowa DNR to shift or extend the deer season to include the rut, but if he has any say in the season structure, that will never happen. He fears the state’s reputation as a trophy deer destination will suffer, and while many residents don’t care about shooting a giant deer, lots of resident and non-resident hunters do.

BRIEF WINDOW

Not only does Iowa protect bucks during the rut, the hunting season is short — only 14 days of either-sex hunting with a gun. Ohio hunters have just 13 days to tag a buck with a shotgun or muzzleloader, and Illinois allows only seven days of firearms hunting. Kansas’ general firearms deer season lasts 12 days. Archery seasons are usually much longer, but hunter harvest is considerably lower and not as big a factor in the trophy equation.

In Iowa, hunters are not allowed to use centerfire rifles to take antlered deer. That automatically protects bucks for the simple fact that shooting distances are limited and bucks have a better chance of staying out of range through nothing more than luck. Although shotguns have become far more effective in the past decade, they still don’t have the range of a .270 or .30-06.

That’s one reason Ohio has earned a reputation for producing some giant whitetails. The entire state is shotgun-only. And, like hunters in other known trophy states, Ohio hunters are restricted to one buck per year, which automatically forces hunters who want a quality buck to pass younger deer.

“Our entire general firearms season is either-sex, so hunters don’t have to shoot only a buck and, fortunately, have shown a willingness to take does when the opportunity presents itself,” Tonkovich said. “In a way, a one-buck limit might do more harm than good, because when a hunter shoots his one buck, he might not be as willing to go back into the woods to shoot another deer. As deer managers, we want hunters in the woods so they can trim the doe herd.”

Which leads to another ingredient: a balanced herd. When antlerless harvest goes up and the total deer population falls, there is more food available to remaining deer, including bucks. More and better food translates to healthier bucks and better racks.

WHAT ABOUT GENETICS?

It’s no secret that genetics play a role in antler size. Just look at the growing industry of deer farming, which focuses on growing incredible bucks with freakishly large antlers through careful genetic screening and selection of only the best animals. It’s a near-exact science. For hunters, however, genetics is essentially a non-issue.

“It’s the last thing a hunter needs to worry about if he wants to produce bigger bucks on the land he’s managing,” said Jason Sumners, a resource scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “We certainly can’t control genetics on a large scale, and it’s been attempted for years on private ranches in Texas with negligible results.”

Although he studied whitetail genetics while a graduate student, Sumners said even he doesn’t fully understand the role of genetics in wild whitetail populations. Neither do other biologists, so it’s understandable that hunters can’t effectively weed out “inferior” bucks with the goal of creating a herd of super bucks. Researchers can influence genetics in pen-raised deer, but trying to do so in the wild is virtually impossible.

“There are so many factors involved,” Sumners said. “In most cases, the potential to grow big bucks in the wild is there, but because of outside influences like habitat quality and hunter harvest, there isn’t really anything you can do to change the genetic structure of a whitetail population.”

He said some sub-species of whitetails like those in parts of the South will never produce large numbers of record class deer no matter how much effort hunters put into management. What they can do, however, is let deer get old enough to reach their full potential, no matter where they live.

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This article was published in the July 2009 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

Copyright 2017 by Buckmasters, Ltd.

Copyright 2017 by Buckmasters, Ltd