Does Size Matter?
How you determine if a buck is a shooter.
Inches, points, age, weight, history, or if it’s brown it’s down.. which are the
best criteria for determining whether to pull the trigger on a whitetail buck? It’s a big controversy with many varying opinions and arguments across the whitetail hunting world. The reason why there is such passionate debate is simple: competition over a limited resource. If there were an endless supply, and little demand, most hunters wouldn’t care much about who shoots what. However, since what the neighbors do does indeed affect the hunting on your property, we hunters tend to care.. a lot! So we are going to break down a few points, and make a few arguments to consider on this topic, but beware: this is an opinion blog. It won’t go into every single nuance, and you may have a different opinion. That’s fine. However, as we look at this debated topic, like other debates and “opinions,” I believe it is important to have these supported by strong arguments and facts. As they say, opinions don’t matter - informed opinions do.
So let’s briefly lay out the foundation of the debate and some critical factors that play into the decision to shoot or not. I’ll list some main criteria used by hunters, in no particular order, with key arguments as to why that is used as a deciding factor for harvesting a buck, or not.
1. Antler Points:
Defined -the primary means I experienced growing up in the heavily hunted state of Michigan. More points (supposedly), means a bigger buck, older buck, and therefore more bragging rights. This also has become a means by which DNR and lawmakers have put restrictions on what hunters can legally take (APR’s - like 4 points on a side, etc.).
Problems: The big and obvious problem with this method is that more points doesn’t mean a bigger, or older deer. If the goal is to shoot bigger, then this definitely fails the test. I’ve seen many 1.5 year old 8 and 10 points, while also 6 points that were mature deer just with odd genetics - maybe even many more inches if measured. Also, this can lead to proliferating bad antler genetics and actually removing the good. If you keep shooting young 10 points, but allow scraggly 6 points to keep breeding, the argument is you are actually promoting bad antlers since they will be the ones doing the breeding.
Defined: Trying to figure the age of a deer on the hoof by things like number of points, size of antlers, shape and size of the body, size, etc. is used (which can be difficult unless a history with trail camera photos is established).
Problems: Validity of the ability to determine this by limited sightings and pictures arises. Without using the tooth wear or cementum methods, this can be hard to tell with any deer over 2.5 years old. Nevertheless, social media and magazines are flooded with pictures asking “what’s the age” and subsequent “expert” guesses. This method really takes knowing the deer in your area well, and tracking them from year to year methodically - something not everyone does.
Defined - how much actual antler is on the buck’s head should determine if it is a shooter to this crowd. If it’s 2 or 12 years old doesn’t play in here, just the size of the antlers, although many would also add age as a criteria. These are the “trophy hunters.”
Problems - this does not take into account the reality that different areas grow deer differently. This could be region to region, state to state, or section by section. A “big” buck in Michigan is not the same as a “big” buck in Iowa, period. It’s way more area specific than just the inches on the head.
Defined - this includes a wide range of what is considered a “cull buck” or buck to take out of the gene pool due to “bad genetics” and not wanting that to be proliferated in the herd. Some would say a medium size 8 point is a cull, others a spike since it won’t amount to much down the road.
Problems - numerous studies have found that “culling” doesn’t actually change the antler potential or quality in a herd. Also, in many cases it can lead to taking out bucks that could have had great potential, but just didn’t show it at a young age. Will a spike always be a spike? Observations show this is not the case. In fact, this can lead to actually taking out the best genetics. Also, many times culling is just an excuse used by hunters who have an itchy trigger finger.
Defined - if it’s legal shoot it! The DNR biologists know more than you, a regular joe, and they obviously wouldn’t legalize shooting something that wasn’t good for the herd in your area. The thought here is - if it’s legalized it must be ok and not “wrong” for your deer goals.
Problems - DNR seldom have the same goals you do. They also have little data about the microherd in your area, and are making broad decisions on a region or state level that may totally hurt what you’re trying to accomplish. Since the DNR is a government agency, it is many times plagued with government-size problems and bad decisions.
Defined - the “can’t eat antlers” crowd. Filling the freezer is the priority of these proponents.
Problems - A true statement, but does not take into account the amount of meat that can be vastly different between a younger vs. a more mature deer. Many times this is also used as an excuse to just shoot something with antlers, as many times these hunters will shoot a 125 lb. 4 point, and not shoot a 180 lb. doe.
7. Whatever Gets You Excited:
Defined - If you get a slobbering case of buck fever, that’s an indication to shoot!
Problems - this would be the feelings over facts data bunch. This mentality makes it very difficult for anyone having property or herd goals, as you need to define where the bar is in order to reach it.
APPLES AND ORANGES:
Before we go any further, it needs to be understood that different states, regions, and even counties are very different in the quality of deer they hold. This could be for many reasons (including genetics, poor or good management, food/nutrition, and hunter density), but the differences are truly vast from one area to the next, making comparing them difficult at best. One
needs to remember this, and that “apples to oranges” might be a more fitting description not “apples to apples” when talking about these areas and what makes good criteria for deciding if a deer is a “shooter buck.” For example, if someone wanted to go on a trophy hunt they would probably go to a state like Iowa (known for big bucks) and not a state like Michigan (known for small antlered bucks and high hunter density). If going by the inches criteria, you could pass up a buck of a lifetime in Michigan (120 inches) while shooting a subpar or average buck in Iowa if let's say 150 inches was your cutoff. Even within a state this can change drastically. In my home state of Michigan this is clearly seen when comparing the Upper Peninsula to the Lower third of the Lower Peninsula. A scrubby 8 point might be the top 15% of bucks in the UP (and be a heavy, mature deer) and that same scrubby 8 point would be the bottom 15% in the Southern Lower. A “shooter buck” can be a very relative thing, and the “one size fits all” criteria of deciding to pull the trigger just doesn’t seem to work.
At the root of the argument is the goals of the individual. If these goals are different, then it stands to reason that the methods to meet them will be different. One example of this is again my home state of Michigan, and what the DNR has been doing the last few decades in regard to the deer herd. In my interview with head Biologist Chad Stewart, I found that the main goal of the DNR in Michigan (paraphrased) is to have enough deer for hunters to shoot, keep numbers in check to keep insurance companies happy, and bring in revenue. No part of their goal is to balance the herd (which in many areas has a very high doe to buck ratio) or to manage for a healthy age class. Is it any wonder no out of stater hunters come to shoot a big buck? Their goals are miles apart, and thus the outcomes, as well.
CONCLUSION: So what is the best criterion for pulling the trigger on a buck? Although several of the above could be valid, a few stand out to me that should be used in conjunction with each other. My personal main goal would be a healthy deer herd both in age class, and sex ratio. Approaches like APR’s, or even inches of antler don’t facilitate this very well in my book. To do this a balanced approach is needed. Knowing what the health of the herd is in your area currently, making goals based on this, and coming up with a plan to reach that is key. The approach must also be realistic. You can’t manage your Michigan herd with an Iowa approach, and visa versa. Again, a 100 inch deer might be a shooter to be happy with in a high pressure state, while a 160 might be borderline in a buck mecca. Being realistic with goals will allow both improving and enjoying hunting at the same time. Last, with too many “know-it-alls” on social media, it’s important for hunters to drop the act and realize everyone’s herd situation is different, and what is a “shooter” will be very different from one area to the next. We should maybe not criticize, but try to encourage others to know their herd, and make fact-based, common sense goals and strategies.
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