THEY’RE NOT ALL BIG — And Don’t Always Need To Be!

Anti-hunters have done such a good job of co-opting the phrase “trophy hunting” that they have confused selective hunting with “wanton waste.” The latter is not just ethically reprehensible, it’s a serious wildlife crime in most places. Trophy hunting, on the other hand, goes back to early cave art.  Our ancestors were subsistence hunters, but they rarely depicted small horns and antlers.

Not all hunters seek the biggest and the best. In fact, those who do are probably in the minority. In North America, most hunters seek venison for the freezer, or simply to enjoy nature with friends or family. This is good and there’s nothing wrong with looking for large animals, just so we understand that, the higher our standards, the lower our chances for success. Trust me, I admire big animals as much as any mastodon-hunting cave man.

One problem with seeking the largest antlers and horns is they are not always carried by the oldest animals. With antlered game, older animals regress, eventually growing funky, smaller antlers. Horns (and tusks) grow throughout an animal’s life. However, older animals are more likely to have one side broken and growth slows with age. In most species, a point is reached where wear exceeds growth, so old animals can’t have the longest horns.

Our European counterparts are more advanced in selective hunting. Culturally, they revere old animals and also prize animals with broken or freakish horns. Their permits are often allocated by age class. I admire the ethic. However, Europeans are accustomed to paying game fees based on size. Americans are not.

Pricing a hunt by animal size is done in North America, but mostly on intensively managed private land. In the larger sense, we have management tools. Antler point restrictions, sheep seasons with three-quarters or full curl minimums and bears with cubs are off-limits. Extremely tight restrictions don’t work well in the U.S. or Canada because our systems are based on (more or less) free access to public or Crown land. Few of our millions of hunters are accompanied by experienced guides and almost none by trained foresters or biologists.

I can count antler points just fine. However, if my permit states that a bull elk must be 12 years old, or a black bear a ten-year-old male, then I want somebody beside me competent to make the call. Our system isn’t set up that way. Admittedly, our wildlife isn’t managed as well as in Europe, but our North American Model has worked well, creating the largest hunting culture on Earth and healthy wildlife populations on both public and private lands.

The tradeoff, extra-large animals are hard to come by. North American hunting is more difficult and on-average less successful, than most hunting on other continents. This is a natural by-product of the large hunting public that, for comparatively low individual cost, funds wildlife management. Harvest goals often mean short seasons not set at the optimum time, hunting opportunity is often more important than hunter success.

Our Kansas deer seasons are a good example. We have a long bow season, but a 12-day rifle season after Thanksgiving. It’s been that way since the first modern deer season. The idea was a post-rut season, so bucks had the opportunity to breed. It’s still mostly post-rut, but with our later falls we catch more rutting activity than we used to.

Compared to elk or sheep, whitetail hunting isn’t tough, but it requires concentration and patience. Like most whitetail hunting, we aren’t 100 percent. Close in some years, but never quite there. And no, not all our bucks are giants. (Like the word “trophy,” what constitutes a “giant” is a personal thing, up to interpretation.) Most hunters see an acceptable buck, but monster bucks are rare. There are better places for really big whitetails.

Despite the legend of we barbaric hunters seeking big antlers and nothing else, most of our hunters adopt a sensible approach, taking a nice buck when it appears. Most of them take (or ship) their venison home and many also take does, for meat and to help our management. A nearby church has freezer space ready and local families who need the protein. Sure, most of our hunters keep their antlers and some have bucks mounted. However, the meat from all of the deer we take is utilized. Lots of good venison!

We are not a free public land hunt. Neighbors Chuck and Ruth Herbel and I offer good lodging, food, fun and safe, comfortable deer stands. Guiding and field care are only marginally competent since I do much of it, but we have a good time. Armed with reasonable expectations, most of our hunters take nice bucks and that’s the goal. Some hold out for greatness and that’s fine. However, the higher one’s standards, the lower the odds.

Under the stigma of hunting only for the largest horns/antlers and falsely accused of wasting good meat, my intentions vary with time and place. I always assume edible meat will be utilized, and that’s invariably the case. Given a choice, I always prefer to take older males, limited by my ability to judge and local management.

Boddington’s 2020 Kansas buck, taken on the next to last day of the season, was an eight-pointer with small, stunted rack, a perfect “management” buck. The rifle is a 1950s Savage 99 in .300 Savage, still a great deer rifle. Boddington used a handloaded 150-grain Swift Scirocco.

I don’t pretend to be able to age unfamiliar animals in strange areas, but I’ve gotten pretty good on our Kansas deer. That puts me in a different situation from our visiting hunters. Also, I have different goals. We have some poor genetics running around our woods, normal on one side, long spike or crab claw on the other. I’d love to get them weeded out, but Kansas is a one-buck state, so we can’t cull without sacrificing that precious buck tag, available to nonresidents only through drawing.

Occasionally we have hunters who, like Europeans, admire “weird” deer. We love it when one of these bucks is taken, but unless it’s by choice, we don’t expect our hunters to take a poor buck, but I can!

After the hunters are out, I’ll take a leftover spot or head to one of our older treestands that I’m reluctant to put people in. Whitetail movement is somewhat random, a good buck might appear anywhere (or nowhere). There aren’t any “bad” places, but we figure some stands are better mornings, others more likely evenings and we watch the wind.

I don’t exactly have a home court advantage, because I won’t take a (safe) stand where a big buck seems likely. But I have the whole season. History has been that, sooner or later, one of our weird bucks will show. Usually, it doesn’t take long. This past 2020 Kansas rifle season was an exception. I hadn’t hunted that hard in years.

I spent most of the season in a tall, original stand on my northwest ridge. No big bucks appeared, but I saw a number of nice young bucks. There were at least two normal-by-weird bucks in this area and two older, downhill fork-horns. I’d have been happy with any of them and all were seen by other hunters. In ten days, I got one glimpse of a big forky, chasing hard in thick stuff and gone. On the next to last morning, I was thinking this would be a season when I never punched my tag.

Whether we think of ourselves as “horn hunters” or “meat hunters,” it’s almost axiomatic that, if two male animals present themselves, we’ll shoot the larger one, right? About nine-thirty I heard rustling on the ridge crest behind me. A buck headed my way, followed by another buck. The second one I knew. A tall-antlered eight-pointer, probably three and a half years old, not a bad buck and likely to get bigger.

A week earlier, I’d gotten a good look at him and passed. The lead buck was a stranger, also an eight-pointer. Darn it, he wasn’t one of our weird deer, but his beams were stunted and I figured he was a year too old to have such miserable antlers. So, I did that which hunters are accused of never, ever doing. I ignored a nice buck and immediately shot the smaller, uglier deer. They don’t always have to be big. I’d had a wonderful season waiting for that chance!–Craig Boddington

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