Shooting inferior bucks may have its value, but it's never a valid excuse for poor judgment...
Should I truly have "culled" this animal from the herd? Or was I hiding behind an excuse just to take the buck?
Before I deployed to Afghanistan, my buddy Don Stout invited me to hunt the Eastern Shore of Maryland for the first day of the firearms season. As during previous years, our plan was simple: Take stands in a little sanctuary tract where we never hunted until this time of year, and wait for all the gun hunters around us to funnel deer to us.
As the morning sun crested the horizon, the food plot, planted in clover, started to reveal the only green in the immediate area. If this year was similar to previous years, within an hour deer would start entering the field, and right on cue a deer showed up at the far end of the food plot. Although the deer was over 100 yards away, I could easily see antlers reflecting the morning sunlight.
Raising my binoculars, I immediately determined he was 2½ years old with a decent inside spread but no brow tines. No matter how hard I tried to add points, he was a typical six-pointer. Raising his head only to acknowledge an occasional gunshot, he slowly continued feeding across the clover field toward me. When he stopped under my treestand, I went on autopilot and dropped him in his tracks.
This was not a buck I normally would have considered shooting, yet I still decided to use my tag on him. Why? Like many bowhunters, shooting yet another deer isn't something I need to do to have a great hunt. So, was my management decision justified? Would you have made the same decision?
WE ALL HAVE READ articles and watched TV shows in which hunters have said, "To help the herd, we're going to focus our attention on management bucks." I always cringe when I hear or read this, because the majority of the folks writing or saying it have no idea of what a management buck is. More times than not, their explanations are simply weak excuses for shooting younger deer that weren't given the chance to show their genetic potential. In other words, the hunters are hiding their actions behind a baseless defense.
Biological research on culling bucks is contradictory at best. Biologists at the Kerr Wildlife Management Area in Texas suggested that harvesting yearling spike bucks increased antler quality. Another study in Mississippi showed that protecting bucks with three points or fewer (under their statewide four-point antler restriction) produced smaller antlers in older bucks. Yet, aggressive culling on the King Ranch in Texas demonstrated that culling has little, if any, impact on antler quality.
Obviously, biologists have and will continue the debate over whether to cull "inferior" bucks. Before taking sides, you must understand that research has shown that yearling and 2½-year-old bucks sire 15-30 percent of all fawns. And, on average, even mature bucks sire only three fawns per year that make it to six months of age. Research also has shown that multiple paternities exist in many herds. In fact, there's a 22-24 percent chance a doe will successfully breed with multiple bucks. Here's what all this means: Genetically, it's very difficult to produce superior antlers in a deer herd by selectively harvesting bucks based on antler characteristics. At least that's true in the wild.
Latest Study on Culling
Dr. Mickey Hellickson and his colleagues on the King Ranch conducted an eight-year study on culling. They studied a treatment area (9,496 acres) where intensive culling was applied, and a control area of similar size (9,429 acres) where they did not cull any bucks. They defined cull bucks as 1½-year-old bucks with fewer than six points, and 2½-year-old bucks with fewer than nine points. Each year, biologists used a helicopter to survey the quality of deer in the cull and control areas. After eight years of hunting and surveying, 60 percent of the bucks in the area in which cull bucks were aggressively eliminated still met the definition of a cull buck. In the control area, where no culling occurred, only 34 percent met the definition of a cull buck. The takeaway message was this: Even after eight years of intensive culling, the expected results of increasing antler quality through elimination of inferior bucks did NOT materialize.
"Overall, the bucks were just as big on the control area eight years later as they were on the treatment area," Dr. Hellickson said. "There was also no noticeable difference in antler quality comparing age class to age class."
Why did this occur? Maybe because the study on the treatment area caused the sex ratio to skew toward the doe component, which in turn caused an extended rut. The variable rainfall throughout the years could have had an effect. Or the yearling male dispersal rates between the two areas could have influenced the end results. Another factor may have been the constant genetic flux from the does in each area. Whatever the cause, culling of inferior bucks did not improve antler quality in the herd. And this was on a large tract of land. Culling most likely will not work on smaller-sized properties either.
"On the King Ranch, we're not in a situation where we have too many deer for the habitat, so we weren't improving nutrition by removing those culls," Dr. Hellickson continued. "Any improvements in antler quality would have to be related to genetics, and it didn't show up."
Because so many environmental variables are involved in antler size, what is a hunter to do? The easy answer is, don't let arrows fly at any deer but mature bucks. As wildlife biologist Dr. Grant Woods says, "Dead bucks don't grow."
Personally, the harvesting of immature bucks drives me crazy. Sure, we all have different criteria for defining a "good buck," but nowadays, most hunters are after quality bucks instead of baby bucks. Please don't take this the wrong way, but the arrowing of mature bucks is definitely one of the reasons why we hunt. I've never heard of anyone's passing on a mature eight-point to take a spike instead.
There is ample evidence that four-point yearling bucks can grow up to be Boone and Crockett-class animals. Yet, some hunters insist on dropping young bucks they consider inferior animals, and then they justify their actions by saying those are cull bucks. Keep in mind that culling is practiced most heavily in Texas, and only a small percentage of deer ranches there ever achieve the desired benefits -- namely superior antler quality -- from this practice.
What this means is simple: Culling is an overused term for justifying bad judgment. Since I preach -- and practice -- the quality deer management philosophy, I really get tired of experienced hunters coming up with excuses on their "management" actions. Instead of filling their egos and tags with "cull bucks," I suggest t
hey leave these bucks alone for one more year.
WITH ALL THIS SAID, do you think I made the correct decision in taking the 2½-year-old six-pointer? I would say yes, because the area we were hunting had a high percentage of older bucks that maxed out at six points. Also, very few bucks in this area reach 4½ years of age. Either hunters take them or automobiles do. The carrying capacity in the area is also stressed with too many deer. Thus, the need to help bring down the total deer numbers and the fact this buck most likely would never grow more than six points made my decision to take him a wise one.
Again, with what you read about cull bucks within this column, do you agree with my decision? Someone once said, "The wisdom of the group is greater than the wisdom of the individual."
Culling can be defined as the taking of spikes or three-point yearling bucks that apparently will never grow quality antlers. Culling can also refer to the removal of older bucks with eight or fewer points or missing brow tines. Whatever the specifics of culling, it's an overused term in many hunting circles.
If quality antlers are the goal, then passing on young bucks should be mandatory so each buck has the opportunity to express his full genetic potential. Hunters should judge the maturity of bucks based on body structure, not antlers, and they should shoot only mature bucks. The Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) has an excellent poster called Selective Buck Harvest that shows you how to age deer on the hoof. You can find it at www.theshed-qdma.com