June 30, 2011
In 2010 I hunted whitetails across several states. All of the hunts had some sort of management program in place, and to be perfectly honest, I'm tired of it.
I understand the philosophy of Quality Deer Management. I get it, I really do. I understand that by passing up younger deer, we can shoot mature, bigger deer. It is a simple concept and one I believe works€¦but I have to ask: is quality deer management ruining hunting?
I have hunted deer since I was old enough to carry a gun. Over those past 25 seasons I have tagged my fair share of spikes and forkies. Eventually, I graduated to what some would call trophy hunting. I don't search out big deer for the bragging rights; I do it for the challenge. I pass up deer because it allows me to stay in the woods. I do it because deer hunting has gotten so good in most places that I have the luxury of holding out to see what else comes by. I fill the freezer with does, and I'm at a point where I'm OK going home empty-handed, but I like that decision to be my own.
In Missouri my outfitter enforced a 135-inch minimum. I have no problem with minimums being set, but in my mind you should see lots of deer just below this minimum. We were filming an episode of PHTV, and in six days of hunting from daylight till dark, I didn't see one buck that would even come close to approaching the 135-inch benchmark, nor did anyone else in camp. On the final day I pulled the trigger on a mid-120s buck, packed my truck and went home. We got a show. The cameraman was happy. The outfitter was not.
Later I went to Texas — the holy grail of managed deer. The outfitter had a cap instead of a minimum. Deer had to be less than 145 inches (gross), and if points were broken off, they estimated and added them in. Interesting science, isn't it? OK, simple enough — it should be easy to find a deer under 145 inches, but to make it tougher, the deer could only be eight-pointers and had to be at least 4½ years old. However, if a deer had 10 points and was still under 145 and at least 5½ years old, it was also fair game. It was confusing enough to require crib notes in the blind. I examined buck after buck for six days and second-guessed myself time and again. With much trepidation, I pulled the trigger on an old eight-point buck. He was big in body and had a
Roman nose and a small rack — exactly what the ranch wanted removed.
When I brought it back, the outfitter agreed with my assessment. So did the ranch biologist — until he looked at the teeth and proclaimed the buck only 3½ years old. So was this buck a genetic abnormality? Would he have been huge next year or just so-so? Was he older than his teeth indicated? Who knows. All I know is that it was the most frustrating hunt I have ever been on and likely will be my last heavily managed deer hunt. I enjoy deer hunting; I enjoy making decisions on my own, mistakes and all, and I don't care for hunts where you are too scared to shoot a deer.
The final straw occurred in Pike County, Illinois. I was hunting on a friend's 800-acre family farm, which has stunning whitetail habitat. Thick brush sanctuaries that never get penetrated are surrounded by man-made food plots and native grasses — it is whitetail Mecca. The owners are committed to improving the size of the bucks and consequently practice QDM. If you ever want to come back, you don't dare squeeze the trigger on a buck less than 135 inches and/or younger than 3½ years old.
The first morning I watched a half-dozen 125-class eight- and 10-pointers on the lush food plots. One was close to the minimum, but close doesn't count. He eventually fed past my stand and jumped the barbed-wire fence that marks the property. He hadn't gone 50 yards into the neighbor's property before I heard the shot. The deer would be a 130-inch buck forever.
The rest of the day I heard shots from all the surrounding properties. Of course, they could be shooting does, but my guess from what I had seen in pickup beds was that the 2½-year-old eight- and 10-points were getting hammered.
That night when I return to camp, no one had a deer hanging. We all had similar stories of letting the young ones walk. We felt smugly superior for our restraint, even though it probably didn't make a bit of difference to the young bucks hanging from every meat pole in the county.
Shortly after dark, my buddy pulled up in his truck with his 13-year-old son. You didn't have to look in the bed to know there was a buck there; you could see it on the boy's face. As he grinned from ear to ear, his story rolled off his tongue in one strung-together, breathless, barely coherent sentence. He proudly told us about how he shot his deer, how he couldn't get a shot at the bigger one that came by, but when this one came into his shooting lane he dropped it at 100 yards. It was his first buck, and it made me realize how exciting a buck — any buck — should be.
The buck was a basket-racked 125-class 10-point that was probably 2½ years old. You could tell from the looks on some of the hunters' faces that this deer was too young for the farm's guidelines. One hunter started to chastise the boy, but before he could get very far, I cut in and shook the boy's hand. Others followed suit. "A hell of a deer. Congratulations. Nice shot." The boy beamed with pride as his hand was pumped. As I walked inside I thought to myself, What the heck has this world come to? When a kid should pass up a 10-point buck to let it grow another year, I've had my fill of it. How many years does he need to sit and pass up deer before one comes along that meets what other hunters think is acceptable? Do we really think he
will stick around the sport, or will he simply gravitate to something that is more rewarding and exciting?
I will continue to hold out for bigger, older deer, but it is because I want to, not because some farm biologist tells me I have to. And I will never tell someone else what he should or shouldn't shoot. Deer hunting is too personal for that.