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Whitetails: How Much Does Size Matter?

by Doug Howlett   |  August 2nd, 2011 18

When it comes to young bucks, most hunters agree: "Let them walk." When are they "trophy-sized"? When you think they are trophy-sized.

I heard the shot just before dark. The sound was so far off in the distance, I wasn’t even sure it was one of our guys until I received the text confirming “buck down.” I was elated. After three very cold and unproductive days of hunting Illinois’ second gun season–in the famed Pike County, epicenter of big-buck hype, no less–not a man or woman among the 16 hunters in camp had fired a shot. A doe had slipped in behind me on that final evening of the hunt and busted me shifting in the stand, effectively ending my hunt with her alarmed blowing. As a result, I was left to the vicarious celebrations of another hunter’s success.

The second text, received before I had even made it back to camp, was less reassuring. “Not sur buk is goin 2 B 140,” it read. With a 140-inch minimum imposed upon the hunters by the outfitter, the apologies had already begun. I wondered how much my friend had possibly misjudged the buck that he shot and hoped he was wrong. Besides the typical ribbing–and sometimes truly critical judgment from other hunters–shooting something undersized here also came with a potential financial penalty.

My Bad
Back in camp, it was easy to find the truck with the deer in it, as everyone was gathered around the bed. The truth is, it was a darn nice buck. But it wasn’t quite 140. Nevertheless, it was the largest deer the hunter from the Southeast had ever killed, still a reason for celebration. But as he accepted the congratulations from the weather-weary hunters, the look in his eyes betrayed the uncertainty he was feeling. Away from the rest of the group, he admitted disappointment in himself and his buck, saying maybe he shouldn’t have pulled the trigger. It was the fourth hunt I had been on that fall where I had heard hunters apologizing for bucks they had shot.

RELATED CONTENT: Judging A Buck On The Hoof

The interesting thing about all of these “apology bucks” is that just 10 years ago, most of them would have been driven around the county on a tailgate to show them off, the lucky hunters telling their story again and again to anyone who cared to listen. I have to wonder if maybe the success of the quality deer management faithful and our own modern obsession with hunting giant bucks are beginning to warp our perspective. At the very least, maybe it is taking a little fun out of our sport. Don’t get me wrong, I agree wholeheartedly with the principles of letting little bucks walk so they grow older and bigger. But I want to shoot sometimes, too! In the past few years, I probably haven’t stood among a group of hunters gawking over a 140-inch or better bruiser on the meat pole where no matter how impressive the buck was, someone didn’t say, “Imagine how big he would’ve been next year.” So how big is big enough?

Keeping It Real
Obviously, the answer to that is that it depends. If hunting with an outfitter, it depends on the rules he has set to keep attracting clients and maintain a viable operation for years to come. Few hunters pay thousands of dollars for the chance to hunt does or little bucks. If hunting on privately owned or leased property, it depends on the owner or people in charge to decide what potential the land and herd hold in order to determine what a realistic minimum for the area is. I stress “realistic,” because I think some older, more experienced or more determined hunters today are satisfied to hold out for years waiting on that monster buck to appear, while many others truthfully still want to pull the trigger or let arrows fly each season. Of course, if the owner says this is the minimum, regardless of what you think, you better follow the rules if you hope to get invited back. Many hunters will hold out for a while on their own land, but at some point, it’s time to shoot. Then there remains the “if it’s brown, it’s down” faithful, a diminishing lot in today’s world, which is an evolution most modern sportsmen will agree is a good thing.

To get a better perspective, I went to the head of the Quality Deer Management Association himself, Brian Murphy.

Can you compare deer from different parts of the country? It is probably a bad idea. What is considered a trophy in one place may still have a lot of growing to do in another.

“We’ve talked about this very thing here at QDMA,” he says. “The proliferation of magazines and television shows that focus on hunting big whitetails makes it look like if hunters don’t shoot a super-big buck, they are somehow less of a hunter. But if you hunt fair chase on land that you manage and the buck is nice for where you hunt, you should be proud.”

That is particularly true when comparing bucks–or hunters, for that matter–in different parts of the country.

“You can’t compare a buck killed in South Carolina to one shot in Illinois,” Murphy says. “If a hunter kills a 105-inch buck in Florida, it is a heck of an accomplishment.”

Rather than focusing on antlers, Murphy suggests that the true mark of a trophy deer and the effort it takes to successfully hunt it is based on age.

“That’s the real measure of a trophy. If you are killing bucks in the top 10 percent of the age bracket for your area, you are doing great,” says the QDMA leader. “Killing a five-year-old in Alabama when compared to killing a three-year-old in Illinois can be much more impressive even though that three-year-old’s rack will likely be larger than the buck from Alabama.

“I hope the benchmark will ultimately become buck age rather than antlers.”

What’s In a Trophy?
There are, of course, other factors that can play into the trophy aspect of a hunt that often get lost in the excitement over big antlers. It might be the strategy a hunter used, the novelty of the bow or gun he shot, even the circumstances of the hunt. It might be an unusually spectacular shot that was made, where the hunt took place or even the person with whom the hunt was shared.

Even where age is concerned, Murphy concedes that while today’s hunters have become much more skilled at aging deer on the hoof and sizing up antlers in the field, there are still plenty of hunters who haven’t and maybe don’t even care to. Regardless, Murphy says, in the end, hunting should still always be a good time, not one that causes worry.

“Keep it fun. If you can shoot deer that are in the top 10 percent of your neighborhood, you are doing as good as anybody can expect,” he says. “Every hunter is going to make a mistake at some point and shoot an antlered buck that is a little smaller than he meant to take or mistake a button buck for a doe. As long as he is genuinely trying to adhere to the management plan, he may still deserve a little ribbing in good fun, but nobody should be mad or angry about it.

“Accidentally killing a small buck or two or a few button bucks off of a property isn’t going to set your management plan back. Deer are a renewable resource; there will be more of them. Now, if a hunter does it several times in a season or year after year, OK, then somebody needs to have a talk with him.” Sounds sensible to me.




Be Honest With Yourself
It’s one thing to make an honest mistake in judging deer size when hunting your own land or the land of a club or shared lease where you hunt. It can be quite another to make that mistake on a booked hunt where the outfitter may charge you anywhere from $500 to $1,500 extra for shooting an undersized animal. When booking a hunt or hunting as a guest where the herd is managed, ask up front what type of deer is permitted to be taken, and if necessary, ask for comparisons, such as a mounted deer on a wall, to make sure you are clear on what is big enough. When it comes to age, that gets a little trickier for some hunters, but QDMA sells resources on its Web site (qdma.com) that can help you out.

If you are not comfortable with your ability to judge and meet the minimum standards or are not willing to hold out for such a minimum, look elsewhere; this isn’t the hunting spot for you. There are plenty of outfitters who will encourage you to take a certain size deer, but permit a guy to take one that he is happy with regardless of antler size. Whether you are paying money or simply hunting locally with friends, in the end, hunting should be fun. If you are going to have to worry with every deer you see whether or not to shoot, then educate yourself by getting out as often as possible or choose a hunt where a guide sits with you and can help be the decision maker on when to shoot.

  • Ron Phillips

    Deer hunting is a personal thing, what my be a trophy to one person may not be to another. I personally have harvested over 80 deer in various states. I don't consider myself a trophy hunter but I have set a size limit on what I wil harvest. Ohio is my home and we have a quality deer managment program. I have set myself personal size requirments, eight point or better, 17-18 inch spread, I have past-up many smaller deer. If I am looking for meat I will take a doe. Whats right depends on each person.

  • Pete MacMahon

    I think it's all a bunch of crap. I'm a meat hunter, just like my forefathers from the beginning of time. Like the saying goes "You can't eat the antlers". When I have a buck on the ground, it's a job well done, regardless of the size.

    • Bryce Bateman

      Thank you, I agree who cares how big the rack is all that matters is putting meat in the freezer and spending time in the woods

    • Bryan

      For any of you guys who say that hunting for big antlers is a load of crap, are idiots!!!!!! I respect you for hunting for food, and you should respect other people for wanting the deer to grow older and shoot bigger antlered bucks. You are in the sport for different reasons than other people. When I, and most others, shoot a big antlered buck it doesnt mean that we arent going to eat the meat, we do eat it. Im sure there are some guys who don't and thats sad. I, like others, like when my deer have a chance to grow up and try to reach their full potential. Pete, how is it a load of crap that I want my deer to grow older, give em a few years to live? Maybe you shouldnt run your mouth and claim that your way is the only way. Like I said I respect meat hunters, I just hope those meat hunters dont get permission on the same lands that I hunt and if they trespass, you can bet your a** the authorities will be after them.

  • Larry Bond

    I am a Hunter. My family loves to eat venison (Nothing beats Medium-Rare backstraps). I want my sons amd my grand children to enjoy, understand and look forward to the full hunting experience their entire lives. Spending time in the woods. Listening to the sounds before daylight. Smelling the air on frosty mornings. Hearing Stories. Getting their first bow, gun or boots. Getting buck fever. Shooting their first buck or doe. Understanding; "Clean Kill". Desiring to go a "Little Deeper" and wanting to learn a "Little More". Caring less about hanging trophy's "On a Wall", but instead Living and Sharing the "Hunting Experience" with family and friends.

    We take good care of the deer on our farm and we kill the one's we choose. No guilt. QDMA, High Fences, TV Shows and many Magazines are moving "Hunting" so far from what it was meant to be that someday we won't be able to remember what it was.

    • Doug

      exactly!! Well said Pete and Larry.

  • Gary

    Amen Larry

  • nathan

    I was lucky enough to get a 140 incher, but that was the best I ever did!!!

  • http://www.gamecamerasreviews.com/ scouting

    I enjoy hunting, although I've never got any trophy.

  • Pete MacMahon

    Actually, Larry said it better than me. The older we get the more we learn to just savor the time in the woods and the feeling of accomplishment of a shot well made, not to mention the satisfaction at the diner table when you serve up those tenderloins.

    I've been white tail hunting for 35 years and I've probably got upwards of 45 deer with 7 different guns. Besides my first buck, the kill I'm most proud of? A fat doe I shot with a S&W 696 3 inch barreled 44 special, tuned DAO. 30 yards through the heart with my own hand load. She's not hanging on any wall, but she sure was tasty!

  • http://petersonhunting tom montgomery

    I guied in kansas and still live and hunt here Ialways told my hunters to shoot what ever make you happy doe or big buck small buck, to many hunting shows and it is all about money. hunt to have fun to enjoy the company, tomany angrey people out there to out do each toher for the big boys injoy the out doors and each other god and mother natuer will take care of the rest.

  • Steve

    I love venison, and I love to trophy hunt!! If I need venison I shoot a doe, and trophy hunt for a nice buck. I have spent 7 straight days in a stand and never saw a deer, but it was the best 7 days I had that year because it was me with God's creation. I do agree to a point that we can become overwhelm with with the size of the antlers. Have the most blessed day.

  • Bill Laird

    Over the years (I am 60) hunting has taken a new meaning for me. I want the meat in the freezer just as much as anyone and thankfully now I don't have to worry about eating beans all year if I do not harvest an animal. What hunting brings to my soul is not measured in the size of the antlers nor the number of packages of meat in my freezer. Hunting puts me on the ground with the animals on their terms. Being in the forest before the sun comes up, listening to the forest wake up, the magical, mystical awakening that is never duplicated by anything I know of on this earth, is why I hunt.

    Friends, more importantly my fellow hunters, understand the awe inspiring beauty of waking up with the forest. These friends and I talk about how expensive it is to hunt today and we agree that there is a value to our hunting that cannot be placed into monetary terms.

    As you wait for the sun to settle in the forest, just before last light, you feel the change in the forest. Man does not belong in the forest after dark and the animals know that. Now you start to get the excited breathing knowing that at any minute you may see what you haven't seen all day long. Once again, it will not matter if you do see your prey or not. The incredible feeling of putting the forest to bed is something that cannot be described to anyone that has not experienced the last light of the day through the trees.

    Hunting is good for the soul. How you chose to partake in that gift is entirely up to the individuall

  • http://www.gamecamerasreviews.com/ trail cam

    I think size is not matter but sometime larger buck makes me proud.

  • kenneth

    size dont matter to each his own , i like to kill big deer to but i also like to eat them, its not about the deer , its about the hunt , its about watching the world wake up in the morning and watch it go to bed at night ,its about all the other animals you see and hear and about making memories,the killing of a deer is a bonus

  • Spike

    The size does matter, but width is good too. Sometimes just a nice dropper is good. Whatever you look for, it's the thrill of the hunt, that counts most. http://www.peartreegameranch.com seems to have many deer to choose from. I hope the best for all you hunters. Good luck

  • skinbow

    I say if the good Lord put it in front of me be it a doe spike or monster buck, then I am taking it. as luck wold have it, ive taken alot of does and thats suits me just fine. I know a few hunters who pass up does and wait for that buck all season long and end up buying a side of beef at the end of the season.

  • Bryan

    For any of you guys who say that hunting for big antlers is a load of crap, are idiots!!!!!! I respect you for hunting for food, and you should respect other people for wanting the deer to grow older and shoot bigger antlered bucks. You are in the sport for different reasons than other people. When I, and most others, shoot a big antlered buck it doesnt mean that we arent going to eat the meat, we do eat it. Im sure there are some guys who don't and thats sad. I, like others, like when my deer have a chance to grow up and try to reach their full potential. Pete, how is it a load of crap that I want my deer to grow older, give em a few years to live? Maybe you shouldnt run your mouth and claim that your way is the only way. Like I said I respect meat hunters, I just hope those meat hunters dont get permission on the same lands that I hunt and if they trespass, you can bet your a** the authorities will be after them.

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