For those who want to grow big-antlered bucks, the solution might be simpler than you think.
I met an old friend for lunch one afternoon. We wanted to catch up on white-tailed deer management topics, and of course he was going to bring me up to speed on what was new on his well-managed, free-range property. After lunch we went up to “the cabin” so that he could show me the shed antler he had recently found. At a glance, I could see it was likely from a 4-year-old buck, and he confirmed my determination with numerous trail cam photos as well as the matching sheds as a 2- and 3-year-old.
While we visited, he told me of a presentation he envisions giving; a fantasy if you will, but certainly one I could relate to. He sees himself advertising extensively that he is going to put on a seminar that will reveal all the secrets of producing big white-tailed bucks. Obviously, the advertising will have photos of many high-scoring bucks from his property. He hopes to fill a large auditorium with at least 250 people and charge them a pretty penny to learn his secrets. On the night of his presentation, when everyone is settled in, he walks up front and says: “Good evening. Thank you for coming. Tonight I am going to tell you the secret of managing for high-scoring, older-age white-tailed bucks on your property. The ‘Magic Pill’ if you like.” The audience goes silent. Pads and pencils are at the ready. They are aware of his success. They are prepared to hang onto his every word.
“Just don’t shoot the young bucks. Thank you for coming. Good evening.” And he walks away.
Yes, it’s improbable that he would do that, but I’ve actually had the same thought myself … or close to it. And, after 15-plus years of experience, my friend knows of what he speaks and, like me, wishes to share his knowledge with others. There is really only one secret to having large-antlered, older-age bucks on your hunting property and it’s not really a secret: Just don’t shoot the young ones. Age is the key ingredient to producing those high-scoring bucks.
WHAT ELSE AFFECTS ANTLER GROWTH?
You ask, “What about food plots? What about habitat improvement? What about genetics? Are they the Magic Pill or just parts of the whole?” What we have learned is that no matter what part of the country we are from, if we allow bucks to reach 3 years of age or older, we are amazed at the antler growth that we never thought was possible in our area.
Genetics? Let’s stop talking and writing about it. In wild, free-ranging herds you can’t predict or control the genetic makeup. Besides, in most areas we have a viable genetic base that we have never truly recognized … because we have never tapped into it. Let them get older and see what the gene pool in your area provides.
Food plots and habitat manipulation? If you have the time and the money, it’s great to improve the nutritional plane for your deer herd, and besides, it might just keep them home. Many average hunters don’t have the means, and often food plots are not really necessary, but they’re led to believe they are. One time, after wrapping up an afternoon seminar and asking for questions, an eager young fellow in the audience asked, “What about food plots? You never mentioned food plots.” I walked to the exit door at the side of the room and opened it wide. Pointing to the large fields of corn and lush alfalfa stretched out across the valley floor. My answer to him: “Your question should be, ‘If I plant food plots, will I be able to improve on what I already have?'”
That young fellow actually equated large-antlered bucks (only) with having food plots and I find that thought process all too common. However, I have learned that providing food plots clearly improves body size. And when the growth requirements of the body are taken care of, antlers are the next recipient of good nutrition. Just don’t think of food plots as the key ingredient of large racks. Passing bucks to the older age classes is the key to outstanding antlers.
For years, I worked at check stations and meat processors during the fall hunting season, aging deer by tooth replacement and wear, and collecting data. For 5 of those years, I compared the antlers to age on hundreds of the bucks. Those bucks came from various habitats—some good, some bad—but one thing always stood out to me: As they got older, their antler size improved tremendously. At 3 or 4 years old, many of them had outstanding antlers, regardless of whether they came from managed farmland or “hard-ground” state forest land. I could see that early birth (date) and growing to maturity are the keys.
PROVING THE AGE GAME
What about my friend? Our original meeting more than 15 years ago wasn’t by chance. He had heard of me from a mutual acquaintance and invited me to the newly acquired property to share my knowledge of whitetail management with him. I put together a management plan for his 1,000 acres, helping him get DMAP tags for harvesting extra does and a 3-year harvest plan that would improve both the buck-to-doe ratio and the buck age structure … provided he and his friends could stay on pace with my recommendations.
He followed my original plans to a “T,” and then expanded on them himself, learning as he went, but always coming up with the same conclusion: All that is really necessary for seeing more big bucks is not shooting the young ones. Now I use his experiences to learn from him and pass the knowledge on to others. Originally, his property was no different than any other; in reality, maybe not as good as some. The buck age structure was made up mostly of yearlings (spikes and fork-horns), and he was overrun with does that competed for the available food and created an extended breeding period.
He closely followed the harvest plan, taking does at a rate that would shock the average hunter or manager, and after 15 years he still does. But more importantly, he and his friends were careful to never shoot button bucks or any yearling bucks—even the outstanding ones with 8 or 10 points. Soon, they were passing 2-year-old bucks (including those high-end ones) and were hard-nosed about making mistakes. Using a little imagination, he was able to convince the neighboring hunting club to join in their management style, adding an additional 450 acres to the managed locale. And, yes, he planted food plots like everyone else. His property had little to offer in preferred browse species or basic nutritional needs, so he reclaimed some old agricultural land that was there and experimented with different varieties.
By passing three year classes of young bucks, he started producing outstanding bucks quickly and the number of total bucks increased rapidly until soon he had more than twice as many bucks on the property. Of course, now his buck-to-doe ratio and buck age structure are more than what nature intended. He told me that now a hunter can go onto the property expecting to take a buck scoring in the 140s. With careful planning and patience, he or she might take one of the many that score in the 150s or 160s.
My friend really does have the fantasy I mentioned earlier. The point of his “dream seminar” is that he learned it isn’t about the food plots or the other things we hear and read so much about. Managing for age has always been the most important factor, but it so often gets overlooked because of all the popular coverage of the other “stuff.” He learned that the potential for those great bucks was always in the gene pool—if you let them grow to maturity.