Are whitetail hunting’s glory days a thing of the past?
It’s been nearly more than 25 years since an unassuming farmer from Biggar, Saskatchewan set the deer hunting world on fire. Milo Hansen had no idea he was looking at the new world record when he pulled the trigger, but he set in motion what turned out to be a decades long obsession with giant whitetails. It might have started in Saskatchewan, but it quickly spread south through Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas and even Ohio.
And then another phenomenon crept into the hunting world: The advent of cable and satellite outdoor channels and the dozens of shows dedicated to deer hunting. They weren’t just about deer hunting. They focused on big deer that lurked in places that weren’t even on the radar for most hunters. Who even thought about Iowa 20 years ago?
Every episode ended with a tag on at least one giant buck, creating the illusion of an easy hunt and a guaranteed route to a wallhanger. The big deer craze turned into the equivalent of the California gold rush.
Nearly two decades later, however, some hunters are wondering if the big buck boom has been a victim of its own success. One hunting industry insider who travels regularly in pursuit of big whitetails suggests it has.
THE NONRESIDENT FACTOR
“I’m afraid many of the traditional big buck spots like Pike and Adams counties in Illinois, northern Missouri and southern Iowa have been shot out,” he says, adding that the increase in nonresident hunters and the outfitters who cater to them is largely to blame.
“There are so many outfitters leasing land and hunting that land hard,” he said. “When a client who’s paid several thousand dollars and taken a week off from work doesn’t see a 150-inch deer toward the end of his hunt, he shoots a two-year-old 120-inch deer because he doesn’t want to go home empty handed. That means fewer bucks are making it to four or five years old.”
Longtime Illinois resident Luke Estel agrees. Although he lives in southwestern Illinois and is removed from the world famous Pike and Adams counties, he says the number of quality deer has declined in his region as well.
He doesn’t blame outfitters or nonresidents. Instead, he says the entire big buck culture, everything from magazines and the Internet to television and consumer sports shows has put an enormous amount of pressure on the state’s buck herd, reducing the number of giant deer.
A look at license sales figures suggests he’s right. In 1995, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources sold 4,561 nonresident deer tags. In 1999, that number jumped to 11,376 and then to an astounding 36,113 in 2005. Just three years later, it hit 52,000.
Iowa, which didn’t allow nonresidents to hunt deer until 1989, has also seen an influx of out-of-staters. The first year, Iowa allowed just 1,200 deer hunters in the door.
Since then, the nonresident quota has inched up to 6,000, a number that has stood for a decade. But is it enough to put a dent in the state’s big buck population? Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife research unit leader Willie Suchy doesn’t think so.
“That’s a very small fraction of our deer hunters,” he said. “From what I’ve seen, I don’t think the number of really big bucks has declined much, if at all.
“We thought we would see a decline in the number of trophy class bucks over the last five years because the number of does declined as a result of increased harvest,” he continued. “You’d expect the buck population to decline, but so far that hasn’t happened. Could it happen in the next couple of years? Maybe, but it hasn’t yet.”
However, according to Buckmasters Trophy Records, just 40 of Iowa’s top 100 whitetails were entered into the book in the 2000s, which seems to counter the notion that the state is as good as it ever was. It’s not a scientific indication of the state’s big buck trend, but it certainly raises questions.
A close look at the DNR’s own trophy deer records tempers any suggestion that the number of big bucks coming out of the state is decreasing. In 1998, for example, hunters registered 348 bucks that scored 135 inches or greater for bow kills and 150 inches or greater for firearms kills. Ten years later, that number was 367, indicating there is still no shortage of bruiser bucks in Iowa.
Ohio Division of Wildlife deer project leader Mike Tonkovich says entries into the state’s Buckeye Big Buck Club are also keeping pace with entries from 10 or 15 years ago, despite a sharp increase in nonresident hunters.
“To the naked eye, Ohio seems to be as strong as ever in terms of truly large bucks,” Tonkovich said. “It might even be better than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Our average age has definitely gone up, and it only makes sense that more bucks are making it to the age necessary to grow larger antlers.”
Not surprisingly, Ohio, like the other big buck states, has seen a dramatic increase in nonresident hunters, which numbered nearly 35,000 last year but only 10,669 in 1998.
He can’t say for sure, but Tonkovich said hunters, even nonresidents, might be more inclined to pass up 120-inch bucks than they were 10 years ago. The only hitch? Those older bucks aren’t scoring as high as they did a decade or two ago.
“I know for a fact we are pushing more bucks into older age classes,” he said. “Our age data is showing an overall increase in older bucks in the harvest, but they aren’t scoring as high.”
It’s not that the bucks are getting shot before they reach maturity. Instead, Tonkovich thinks the habitat has changed for the worse. What used to be early successional habitat — young forests — is now mature forest, which offers little in the way of high-quality food. That’s not the case in Iowa and Illinois, which are the equivalent of endless food plots.
That’s one reason Illinois, where Estel hunts, doesn’t seem to be slowing down, says Illinois Department of Natural Resources deer project manager Tom Micetich.
“I’m not seeing any indication that the number of really big bucks is declining in Illinois,” he said.
IS PERCEPTION TRUMPING REALITY?
Despite what his state’s deer biologist says, Estel is convinced things aren’t what they used to be. He shot his biggest buck ever, a 190-inch giant, in 2007, and he took two other brutes, a 160 and a 145, a few years before that. However, things have slipped since. Last year, the 37-year-old Department of Transportation worker saw one mature buck all season, an average 9-pointer he didn’t shoot.
“We just don’t see the numbers of real big bucks out in the fields like we used to. I like to drive around in the evenings in the late summer looking for big deer, but they just aren’t there any more, at least not like they used to be,” he said. “It’s like big fish in a lake. Once they’ve been pressured, their numbers are going to go down. There will be some left, but not like it was before they were pressured so much.”
One reason the big buck boom might seem to be slowing could have as much to do with perception as reality. In other words, the golden hotspots within Iowa and Illinois might be producing just as many bucks as they always have because they didn’t produce that many to begin with.
During the heyday, hunters assumed there was a giant lurking in every woodlot, thanks in part to the television shows. But data from various record keeping organizations show the numbers of trophy class bucks is about the same as it’s been for at least a decade. Only two bucks from Adams County, Ill., were registered with Boone & Crockett in 1999, and none were registered from Pike County. Two came from Adams in 2009, and one from Pike that year.
The BTR records from Illinois paint an equally confusing picture. Despite all the hype, just seven of Illinois’ top 100 BTR bucks came from Pike County, and only one came from Adams.
Neither record book offers a scientific look at overall buck populations, but they present a snapshot view of trends. Still, it’s hard to dispute on-the-ground observations from hunters who are in the woods frequently.
THE GOOD NEWS
Even if outfitters and nonresident hunters are to blame for a decline in the number of giant bucks in the traditional hotspots, resident hunters and even trophy minded nonresidents could be countering the effects of increased pressure.
While the interest in high end bucks has grown exponentially, so has the interest in quality deer management. QDM doesn’t necessarily mean growing big bucks, but that’s certainly a by-product, and it’s the goal of many QDM practitioners. That could be exactly why the number of entries into various records programs seems to be on par with those from a decade ago.
Even better, hunters everywhere are becoming more educated about what it takes to have healthy whitetails. Scan through the BTR records and you’ll see dozens of entries from places that never make the big buck radar of most hunters. And you’ll also see plenty of entries from the past few years.
Things might be slipping in a few places, but overall, there’s never been a better time to chase your dream buck.
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