October 17, 2022
By Josh Honeycutt
The hunting industry is still relatively young, figuratively speaking. While it’s technically a mature market, it really only began about 75 years ago, and didn’t begin really take shape until the late 1900s. Since then, it’s changed in many ways — some for the better, some for the worse.
One of the many changes is the increased focus on bigger deer. The counting of antler inches has become quite centralized, even obsessive, in some regards. Not all hunters put so much emphasis on it, but some do. And when it leads to minimization of other aspects of deer hunting, such as venison, adventure, camaraderie, and reverence for all deer, big or small, it becomes a problem. Kept it check, big antlers aren’t a problem.
One must analyze the situation, though. It’s much like the fact that too much air, food, or water can kill you. Good things always remain so until they’re taken too far. The same is true for virtually all aspects of life, including big whitetails. Hunting big deer is good. Celebrating this lifestyle is grand. Obsessing over big whitetails is not, though.
Equally abhorrent is the modern commonality of little buck shaming. People running down other hunters for shooting an inferior deer to their standards is not OK. Still, it happens, and the problem remains.
The flip side of that coin is big buck shaming, which is also detestable. The first reaction to a big deer shouldn’t be, “it’s high fence.” Or “you paid for that deer.” Be happy for your fellow hunter. Don’t tear one another down. Build each other up.
To clarify, I’m very passionate about hunting big, mature whitetails. I hold my buck tags each season for whitetails with some size to them. I write about big whitetails regularly. I’m immersed in the world of big deer. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with the pursuit of big deer. There’s nothing wrong with shooting big bucks. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying these adventures.
In fact, celebrate these things. Be proud of them. But when the aforementioned negative factors creep in, that’s when big deer become an issue for an individual. That’s when it’s time to “check themselves,” and re-center on what matters, and how a true hunter should be.
With that, let’s analyze five key conversations.
1. Organizational Efforts
There are many aspects and contributors to the “big deer” aspect of the hunting industry. And many of these things are good. Consider the Quality Deer Management Association, which is now the National Deer Association (NDA), and its former “Quality Deer Management (QDM)” campaign. It did so much good in educating hunters on how to elevate the quality of hunting in their area. That’s a good thing and led to improved hunting in virtually every state it operated in. Modern hunters have more and bigger deer to pursue than ever before, in part thanks to this organization and its positive role in the hunting industry.
Furthermore, conservation organizations such as NDA, Whitetails Unlimited, NWTF, and other groups have long led the charge in hunter recruitment, retention, and reactivation. They’re doing incredible work. They’ve worked to conserve hunters, who in turn help conserve the industry.
Or, consider the conservation organizations, such as Boone and Crockett (B&C) and Pope & Young (P&Y), which focus on numerous things, including record keeping. These were born to preserve the greats within the species. Sure, that contributed to the “big buck” craze, but the craze itself isn’t the problem. It’s hunters who take it too far. Again, B&C and P&Y serve vital purposes, fill necessary roles, and do much to help preserve wildlife and our hunting heritage.
Today, even a variety of manufacturing- and service-based hunting companies are joining this initiative. They’re working to conserve wildlife and the hunters who pursue them. Sure, most modern companies have put some sort of emphasis on shooting bigger whitetails. But again, there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as it’s in moderation and in good taste.
2. High Fences
The Wildlife Society (TWS) states there are approximately 10,000 for-profit deer breeding operations in North America. According to many agencies, organizations, and individuals, the conversion of wildlife as a public resource to a privately-owned commodity isn’t a good thing. Most of America, and even hunters, disagree with high fences.
Not everyone agrees wholeheartedly, though. “Ethics are a personal choice,” said James Heffelfinger, wildlife science coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “One thing to consider is that in many cases, hunters aren't hunting in a pen (if they are, it isn't hunting). Many high-fenced properties are huge and [animals’] home ranges are not affected by the fence. Most deer on the property may not see a fence in their lifetime. It all depends on how big the ranch or pastures are.
“My view of hunting in high fences depends on the size of the property,” Heffelfinger continued. “There is a continuum of acceptability for me personally. I'm not going to hunt in a 1-acre pen. [But] I would like to walk into the wind and rattle giant whitetails during the rut on a 50,000-acre ranch with one perimeter fence managed for a mature buck age structure. There is a whole gradient in-between and I don't know where in that spectrum I would stop hunting.”
While that’s an interesting perspective, there are still other issues with (some) aspects of high fences. Generally, depending on state regulations, it’s still an issue of being classified as “wildlife” versus “livestock.”
“The use of certain fencing does have practical purposes, whether it be to keep livestock in or unwanted intruders out,” said Ralph Meeker, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission deer program coordinator. “However, when it comes to wildlife and/or wildlife management, enclosed fencing has no acceptable, practical application. If wildlife truly belongs to everyone, it therefore also then belongs to no one individual or entity. Anyone who privately holds or restricts the free-ranging movement of a wildlife resource (i.e. restricting the ability to view, experience, and/or responsibly partake in its use) is therefore stealing from society and is also creating an unnatural balance within the environment itself.”
Furthermore, high fences seem to directly conflict with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. “The very first pillar of the North American Model of Wildlife Management, which is also its keystone, is that all wildlife are a public trust resource,” Meeker said. “In other words, wildlife is owned by no one, but is held and managed by governments in a trust for all its citizens, both present and future. The construction of any fence or barrier which restricts the movement of wildlife across the landscape or implies their private ownership is in direct conflict with the North American Model.”
In addition to the ethical and regulatory issues, high-fenced hunting can pose risks to wild deer. “First, high-fenced hunting damages the traditional image of fair chase and further reduces public support of hunting in general,” Meeker said. “Second, there are many documented accounts of the introduction and/or spread of wildlife disease(s) that were attributed to the movement of animals to/from high-fenced enclosures by humans. Third, institutions which regard captive wildlife as alternative livestock undermine the ecological role that wildlife have. Fourth, high-fenced enclosures also restrict and influence the natural movement of wildlife which reside outside of the fence, thus impacting natural interactions of many species of free-ranging wildlife.”
Meeker is right on several points. Transportation is a major concern. As of right now, the movement of cervids (both captive and wild) seems to be a major vector of disease spread. So is captive deer escaping from enclosures and potentially risking exposure of diseases — such as chronic wasting disease (CWD) — to wild herds. It’s not uncommon for captive deer to escape. There are many reported incidents of this occurring.
3. Media Perceptions
Some hunters like to blame outdoor media for the industry’s problems. Hunting shows commonly get a bad rap for portraying unfeasible goals and outcomes for average hunters. And thus, when hunters don’t see similar results, become discouraged and quit hunting. There is some merit to this argument, and hunting shows should do a better job of showing all aspects of hunting, including the hard work, frequent failures, and the eventual success. Sadly, hunting shows have only so much time, and it’s difficult to cram all of that into a short episode and keep it entertaining.
Regarding high fences, other issues hunters tend to take with hunting shows include high-fenced hunting. Some hunting shows attempt to pass off high-fenced hunts as wild pursuits. That’s deceptive and shouldn’t happen. If you’re hunting high-fenced areas, tell it as it is.
Of course, most hunting shows are great. They do things the right way and do their absolute best to tell a good story. What more can you ask for? They’re doing their part to entertain in an ethical, tasteful, proper manner. That’s a good thing. Don’t bash the good because of the bad from a select few.
Magazines and websites increasingly publish stories of record-class whitetails. I would know because I write dozens of these each year. These aren’t bad, though. In fact, they’re good. These showcase hunters’ hard work, and honor the massive bucks that grow to such substantial levels. But when people react negatively, leave nasty comments, and communicate in unsavory manners, it reflects poorly on us all.
4. Social Media
More traditional media aside, many people blame social media for the hunting industry’s status. They say it’s a cancer that continues to erode the core of our values. In some ways, that’s true. But in the ways it is, it doesn’t just apply to the hunting industry, but across most facets of humanity. We must find ways to eliminate the negative aspects of social media while retaining the good parts.
Part of that requires each one of us to monitor ourselves. Crafting clean posts, leaving positive comments, and sharing things that show hunting in its good, true light, are all very important. Conducting in a manner that conflicts with that is a problem.
5. Where We Go
Looking back across time, there’s no doubt that big whitetails sell. For decades, shooting big bucks has been big money, especially when done strategically with marketing plans in place. Executed properly, it sells lands, products, and more.
Despite that, deer hunting is not all about shooting big deer. It’s time that each of us start seeing that again. There’s no need to pull emphasis away from big deer. That can continue. But it’s important for everyone to remember that deer hunting is about a culmination of factors, including adventure, camaraderie, family, friends, venison, wildlife management, and more.
And so, to answer my own question, no, big deer are not ruining whitetail hunting. But individual hunters can allow big deer to ruin whitetail hunting for them if they cannot be content with the caliber of deer they have access to. The same holds true for anyone who forgets what our priorities should look like as hunters.
As for me, I’m going to continue hunting, shooting, and writing about big deer. I’m passionate about the subject. But I also plan to keep everything in context and in moderation. I’m going to remember that while big antlers are fun, and even good, there are other aspects of deer hunting that are just as or more important. Keeping things in perspective. Yeah, that’s my plan.
Overall, the hunting industry has come a long way. It’s full of great people accomplishing incredible things. And the 99% are doing what they should in the ways they should. It’s the 1% that ruins it for the rest. So, don’t contribute to the problems we face. Be among the solutions.
The author is a freelance outdoor writer from Kentucky.