Tighter rules might seem limiting, but in the long run they are liberating.
Within the last two decades, many hunters and hunting groups have imposed antler restrictions upon themselves, and some state wildlife agencies have mandated antler restrictions in one form or another. Whether you agree or disagree with this approach, I would argue that most hunters will eventually want and demand some kind of antler restrictions simply to enjoy better deer hunting.
This is a guide the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department used to educate hunters on identifying legal and illegal bucks.
Granted, many hunters, especially those new to the game, are happy shooting young bucks, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, many hunters these days want more out of their hunting experience, and as a deer biologist, I have learned this simple fact: Dead deer don't grow! In short, antler restrictions are the key to taking bigger bucks and opening up a truly incredible hunting experience.
Wildlife biologist Bob Carroll from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) knew it would be an uphill battle in trying to convince the majority of hunters and landowners on all the benefits of antler-restriction rules during a three-year experimental study for six counties in the Post Oak Savannah region of Texas.
Carroll and his fellow biologists met this challenge with hard work, countless seminars, and numerous Wildlife Management Association meetings. Their goals were relatively simple -- increase the age structure of bucks without reducing hunter opportunity, and encourage landowners and hunters to become more involved in habitat management.
The first step in achieving these goals was to ask, "What bucks should be protected, and what criteria should be used to determine the size of legal bucks?" Data collected at check stations over the years suggested that a 13-inch inside antler spread restriction would protect about 25 percent of 3½-year-old bucks, 80 percent of 2½-year-old bucks, and all yearling bucks.
The next challenge was to get hunters and landowners on board. To help in doing that, Carroll and his biologists cited Dooley County, Georgia, as an example. The first to implement an antler restriction on a county-wide basis, Dooley County adopted a 15-inch outside spread antler restriction, a move that dramatically improved hunting. The regulation still exists today.
However, Dooley County did learn one lesson -- it needed to loosen the antler restriction for junior hunters. Recognizing this, Carroll pushed for regulations that, in addition to the 13-inch minimum inside antler spread, allowed the taking of bucks with at least one spike antler. After considerable debate, a legal buck was defined as one with: 1) at least a 13-inch inside spread (in that part of Texas, that's roughly the distance between a buck's ear tips in the alert position); 2) at least one spike antler; 3) six or more points on one antler. In the end, hunters and landowners passed the proposed plan with a 70-percent acceptance level.
As Carroll and his biologists predicted, within one year, the total number of bucks harvested was the same as it was prior to antler restrictions.
Interestingly, after three years, the total number of spike bucks harvested dropped from roughly 42 percent to 19 percent. Since the original six counties in the study had one-buck limits, it was believed hunters were passing on spikes in hopes of taking mature bucks. The previous 10 years of antler data in these six counties showed that 1½ and 2½-year-old bucks comprised 80 percent of the buck harvest. After three years of the new rules, only 29 percent of bucks harvested were younger than 3½ years.
"Prior to antler restrictions, if the typical hunter did not see a buck in the first three to four hunts, the chance to even see a buck the rest of the hunting season became slim," Carroll said. "Nowadays, it's not uncommon for a hunter to see several bucks every time he goes out. Many hunters are now passing on bucks in the 13-inch range in hopes of seeing exactly how big some of these bucks will get."
Since the adoption of antler restrictions in Texas, the inside spread of bucks has increased significantly. By the third year of the new rules, only 29 percent of bucks killed by hunters were younger than 3½ years.
After the third year of antler restrictions, the plan was fully adopted in all six counties, and 15 adjacent counties followed suit in 2004.
"Allowing hunters the opportunity to take spikes seemed to make most people happy," Carroll said. "And believe it or not, the antler restrictions were easier to sell to youth hunters than older hunters."
Data from Texas show that 25 percent of all yearlings are spikes, while 93 percent of spikes are yearlings. In other words, hunters could take every spike from the yearling age-class, and that would still leave 75 percent of the yearlings alive and well in the field.
Not only did the spike-only option promote hunter opportunities, but it also opened the door for the TPWD to raise the annual bag limit from one buck to two, as long as one of the bucks had at least one spike antler.
Additionally, this strategy may have helped reduce any "high-grading" in the 1½-year-old age class. High-grading means that hunters harvest all the top-end bucks and leave the lower-quality bucks (spikes) to breed. In addition to increasing the bag limit to two bucks in the antler-restriction counties, the TPWD dropped the option of six or more points on one antler.
As of today, 61 counties in Texas have adopted the antler-restriction plan, and an additional 52 counties have expressed interest in doing so by next hunting season. If this happens, 113 counties -- the area east of I-35, roughly from Fort Worth south to San Antonio -- will have antler restrictions. Obviously, the antler-restriction plan sells itself!
And as they say, the rest is history.
C.J.'s Summary: Do antler restrictions work as a way of increasing the age structure of bucks? Yes! Although this is a controversial and emotional topic among hunters and wildlife managers, what choice do state wildlife agencies have but to embrace this management scheme if the majority of hunters and landowners want improved buck hunting?
With that said, one thing that keeps some states from implementing antler restri
ctions is the percentage of spikes in the 1½-year-old age class. Some southeastern states report that 70-80 percent of yearlings are spikes. Thus, harvesting spikes only could take a huge bite out of the yearling buck population. Additionally, in the Midwest, many yearling bucks have antler spreads of 15 inches and greater. Would an inside spread criteria work in this region? Probably not. The point is that antler restrictions can be wonderful, but they must be evaluated on a site-specific basis.
Regulations that improve hunting quality are good because they promote more recreational days afield, which increase revenues for conservation efforts. Currently, these dollars contribute more than $3 million a day for management of both game and nongame species. As former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said, "It's NOT the people who hug the trees, it's the people who hide behind the trees and wait for something to come out who are the real conservationists."