Record-keeping organizations are receiving more trophy whitetail entries today than at any other time in history. There’s no question North American hunters are obsessed with trophy bucks.
Is That a Good Thing?
Data compiled by the Quality Deer Management Association in its 2012 Whitetail Report shows more and more hunters in most states are letting young bucks walk in favor of holding out for older deer. So if it’s trophies you’re after, the hunting is good. Also, hunter numbers across the nation are on the rise again, after a decade in decline – a trend some believe is at least partially fueled by the media exposure given to trophy whitetail hunting.
Does hunting seem to be less about enjoying the overall “experience” and more about how high your buck scores?
But as the trophy obsession has grown, so too has leasing and the hanging of “POSTED” signs, leaving less land to hunt for hunters without fat wallets. And for some, the hunting experience has become more about score than anything else. “I’ve seen more “happy hunters” change their moods dramatically because of a tape measure,” said Doug Doty, owner of Illinois Whitetail Services LLC. “They come in to camp thrilled because of a nice buck they just made a perfect shot on, and then they ask me to measure it. When I do, and tell them the score, if the number isn’t what they were hoping, all of a sudden they feel bad.
“Why should that tape measure matter? We don’t hunt for that. We hunt for that feeling when we’re drawing back on a buck that’s in bow range that we’ve determined at that moment is worthy of shooting. That’s what should matter most. Not the score.”
Around 2000, state wildlife managers across the country began a shift in deer management from producing as many deer as possible to producing healthy deer and healthy forests. In an effort to improve the health of deer herds, managers such as Gary Alt, former chief deer biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, have pushed for ways to protect young bucks, primarily through the use of antler restrictions. Herds are healthier, Alt has said, when there are older bucks breeding does.
SIgn of the Times? Absolutely. Never has hunting land been so hard to aquire. The days of a gaining access with a hand-shake and a kind gesture are gone.
The fact that older bucks also grow bigger racks is a byproduct Alt said is appealing to hunters, but it not so imprtant to management. Age is most important, he says. Well, there’s no question whitetail bucks are being given a chance to see more than one birthday. According to QDMA data, 60 percent of the bucks killed across the U.S. in 1989 were 1.5 years old; by 2010, that figure had dropped to 38 percent.
For a state-specific look at the change, check out Nebraska’s buck-kill figures. In the mid-1990s, only about 35 percent of the bucks shot by Cornhusker hunters were 2.5 years or older. In 2010, the percentage of bucks age 2.5 and older killed across Nebraska’s 18 management units ranged from a low of 65 percent to a high of 93 percent. The statewide average was 75 percent.
It’s no secret that the three ingredients to growing trophy bucks are genetics, nutrition and age. Twenty years ago, age likely was the leading impediment to having lots of trophies running around. In recent times, that’s been a decreasing problem.
Coinciding with the proliferation of older bucks has been a boom in the whitetail-hunting industry. And the emphasis clearly has been on growing and hunting trophy-class whitetails. There’s a glut of television shows, web sites, magazines and books that glorify the trophy lifestyle. How many times have you seen a decent buck walk under the stand of your favorite TV hunter, who leaves his bow on its hook, looks into the camera and says, “He’s a good one, but he needs another year or two to really blow up!”
“I think TV has had a lot to do with the trophy mindset,” said a bowhunter from Ohio. “Everybody wants to be like those guys on TV now, hunting for the biggest racks around.”
But TV hunters, websites and magazine editors are only producing what the public wants to see.
“You’re going to sell more DVDs if they’re full of 160-inch kills than if they’re 110s,” a professional hunter said. “That’s just the way the business works. The demand for seeing big bucks is there.”
Is it good for the sport to put hunting celeb’s on such a high pedestal?
It was unheard of for a whitetail outfitter 20 years ago to impose a minimum score restriction on clients. A few had minimum point requirements, but now it’s common to walk into a camp and hear that all bucks under 125 inches or 140 inches, etc. are off limits.
“If you don’t do that, guys will shoot all your future trophies before they have a chance to grow up,” a Missouri outfitter said.
Jeff Brown is a Pennsylvania bowhunter and a state bowhunting education instructor. He’s noticed an impact of all the hype about trophy bucks. “Everybody talks about inches of antler and record books these days,” he said. “If you shoot a 115-inch eight-pointer, you’re made to feel like you did something wrong. What happened to just enjoying the hunt?” Doty sees some good in the growth of knowledge of and interest in antler scoring.
“We can communicate better about the bucks we’re seeing,” he said. “You can say, ‘I saw a 10 pointer,’ but there are small 10 pointers and there are big ones. If someone tells you they saw a 150-inch 10-pointer, then you can visualize what they saw.”
Big Bucks for Big $
The biggest of the trophy bucks most likely are those that are truly mature – age 4.5 or older. For a buck to reach 5.5 years of age he either has to be an exceptional escape artist or he has to live in a place where hunting pressure is limited. Killing a 5.5-year-old buck on public ground, where access is not restricted in any way, may just be the rarest of all hunting accomplishments.
On private property, trophy potential generally is considered to be better, since access is controlled and bucks have a better chance at surviving. Hunters old enough to have hunted prior to 1996 probably can remember gaining permission to hunt private property simply by knocking on doors and asking. Money rarely was involved.
Increasingly over the past two decades, hunters have turned to acquiring land either by buying it or leasing it. And besides securing a place for them to hunt, a primary goal is to keep others out. “I had 35,000 acres that I could hunt for 23 years, and I never had to pay a thing for it,” a Kentucky bowhunter said. “Word started getting out about the bucks Kentucky was growing, and people started coming in from out of state and leasing everything up. I can’t hunt any of that ground I used to hunt. It’s all leased.”
Hunters used to hunting private ground who can’t afford to pay for access, now find themselves forced onto public ground, where the hunting can be crowded. Many hunters believe hunting is becoming a rich man’s game. And to hunt many of the places that grow the biggest bucks, you’ve got to shell out the biggest bucks just to get in.
With 46 typical entries and 16 nontypicals in the Boone & Crockett Club’s record book, Buffalo County, Wisc., leads North America in trophy production since 2000. A large outfitter that operates in several Midwest states said he was offered 3,000 acres in Buffalo County to lease for $100 per acre. In Missouri, he leases land for about $30 per acre. “We didn’t take it,” he said. “It would have cost us $300,000 just to break even on the lease.”
The cost of hunting doesn’t end when you aquire land. Is hunting becoming a “Rich Man’s” sport?
At $4,000 per hunt, he’d have to run 75 hunters through just to cover the lease payment. He’d still have to pay for lodging, meals and gas to fuel his guides’ trucks, which would mean raising the price on the hunt or pressuring the land even more by signing up additional hunters. On the flip side, landowners are benefitting mightily from the booming interest in trophy bucks. When the weather ravages their crops, cutting their fields’ per-acre yields, they can count on some extra cash from hunters to make ends meet.
“It’s another way for them to generate income from their land that might mean the difference between keeping it or having to sell out,” said a Midwest land broker, who connects hunters with landowners looking to lease their ground for hunting. Selling out can lead to development, which means fewer places for hunters and deer. Even with many landowners taking in hunting lease payments as a fairly new source of farming income, the American Farmland Trust reports 7.5 million acres of rural land was converted to developed uses nationwide from 2002-2007. That’s a rate of lost farmland of 1.5 million acres per year. Anything to slow that trend is a good thing for hunters and the wildlife they chase.
The Ugly Side
It’s unfortunate, but a result of efforts by hunters to secure their own slice of deer heaven and turn it into a trophy hotspot can be fights with neighbors. Hunters who nurture sizable properties to attract, hold and grow large-racked bucks can get peeved when a neighbor who is less concerned about antler size shoots a young buck that strayed off the trophy paradise. They can get even more miffed if the neighbor shoots a trophy buck that the other hunters had been watching and feeding for the past four years.
Big antlers can devide even the closest friends. How does it affect your relationship with fellow hunters?
“Guys start accusing neighbors of shooting ‘my deer,’” Doty said. “Twenty years ago, those two neighbors probably would have worked together and hunted each other’s land. Now they’re fighting over a deer because it has a big rack or it had the potential to grow a big rack.”
What is your opinion? Let us know what you think about the direction hunting is headed in. Is it good or bad?