What Is a Management Buck?
Make Sure You Understand Deer Biology Before You Take The Shot
Matt Walker - Contributing Writer
In recent years television hunting personalities have put an extreme amount of pressure on the average hunter to begin practicing Quality Deer Management (QDM) in an effort to increase herd health. A byproduct of QDM and increased herd health is trophy quality antlers. Every one of you on this page has heard the term Quality Deer Management and you yourself probably consider yourself a “manager” of the deer on your properties. You’ve also heard people throw around words like carrying capacity, population density and management buck or cull buck, not to mention a page in the dictionary worth of other terms that go hand in hand with the conversations we all have this time of year about hunting trophy deer.
I’m going to focus this on people tossing around the terms management buck or cull buck. Ask yourself this very simple question: What is a cull buck?
So, to truly answer the question, what is a cull buck; we have to understand the life cycle and the development of a Whitetail's body and what is required to produce trophy quality antlers. But, not only do we have to understand the life cycle and development of a Whitetail's body, we also have to decide what we think of as trophy quality antlers. This answer will vary from person to person and region to region but, for the sake of conversation, I’m going to use 140” as a standard for a true trophy Whitetail. A 140” Whitetail is likely a mature deer of average genetics, a quality representation of the species, and a trophy in almost any one’s eyes. So, having that established, let’s say we are trying to grow 140” deer on our property. Now, how do we know a cull when we see one?
For a Whitetail to produce trophy quality antlers there are three things required.
No animal regardless of species can reach their genetic potential regardless of what it might be until they have reached physical maturity. Regardless of nutrition or other factors, they have to be able to reach maturity before we truly know what their potential is. To illustrate this point, let’s compare them to people…
An average American man is probably around 6 feet tall and 180lbs. He can’t reach that potential if he dies as a child. If he came from parents who were all star athletes who were perfect physical specimens, and his diet was absolutely nutritious and flawless, he would never reach even average physical potential if he died prior to maturity.
DEER ARE NO DIFFERENT. Deer cannot reach their genetic potential if they are harvested prior to their physical maturity. Too few people understand that deer do not put very much of the nutrition they consume into antler development until their 4th year. This is why if you look at pictures of a buck developing as he ages, yes his antlers grow but the truly important growth is taking place in his skeletal and muscle structure. By his 4th year the skeletal system is fully developed and requires far less nutrition to maintain than it did to build it. Also, his muscle structure has basically fully developed and requires far less nutrition to maintain than it did to build it. This means that in his 4th year, the nutrition he consumes goes to sustain the body he has developed, which requires far less at this point, and so far more nutrition goes toward building bone on his head. The result is an explosion in antler growth in the 4th year.
There is a HUGE, HUGE, HUGE misunderstanding about spikes as well. It has long been the idea that spike bucks (1 ½ year old spikes) are genetically inferior. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. If your goal is to produce more trpphy bucks in your area; DON’T SHOOT SPIKES. If you want the spike problem in your area to go away, start shooting more does. It has been proven that the majority of the “spike issue” is the result of a lack of nutrition. Harvest some does, take mouths away from the table, which will in turn, increase food for the remaining deer and you’ll see that “spike issue” dwindle over the next couple of seasons. I know it works, because I’ve done it.
It has been proven that a 1 ½ year old spike was no less likely to grow into a 150” deer at 5 years old than a 1 ½ year old 6 point did. However, the 1 ½ year old branch antlered bucks did have a slightly, and I mean slightly greater occurrence of growing to be 170” or more. But when you get to the 170” class we aren’t talking average genetics any more. We are talking Shaquille O’neal genetics, which are far from average.
Also, outside of a game fence situation or a massive QDM cooperative amongst adjoining landowners it is basically impossible to manage a herd for genetics. All you can truly control is the age and the nutrition.
So, learn to identify deer’s age by body structure. Fawns and 1 ½ yrs old and truly mature deer are easy to recognize. It’s the in between age classes that can get confusing. Learn those 2 ½ - 3 ½ year olds. If you “cull” a deer at 3 ½ and he was showing poor antler quality, then you probably made a good choice. If you cull a deer at 2 ½ you may have made a mistake.
I can attest to this. I passed a little 100” 8 point with double throat patches one morning in KS. I honestly thought about shooting him just because of the double throat patches (I love double throat patches) and the fact that a 100” 2 year old deer in an area where nutrition is ample seemed a bit on the small side to me, I honestly thought he was a “management” type of buck. But, I didn’t pay $400 to bow hunt KS for throat patches, I was head hunting so, he walked and survived the year. I even found one of his sheds.
The next year I saw him again and had him at full draw with a great shot opportunity. Although I knew him to be 3 ½ (which is my bottom line age for harvest) I strongly considered taking him, but given his year 2 to year 3 growth I wanted him to live to see what year 4 looked like. As a 3 year old he was every bit of 145” and was now a nine point. Just the season before, I figured him to never amount to anything, just a scrubby little 8. Assuming he survived last season I expect him to be in the mid 160s this season and with double throat patches. Can you say dream buck? Too bad I lost permission on that land.
Guys, just ask yourself why you’re killing the deer. Do you want meat? Good take him. Are you happy with a small buck? If he makes you happy to put your tag on him, take him. Is it for your kid to shoot? Fantastic, let the kids shoot any deer that walks in front of them. Make hunters out of them. If it makes the kid smile, let the kid shoot. Or, do you think he is a “cull"?
Just try to be honest with yourself about ages. If it’s a 1 ½ year old and you think you’re culling it, chances are you really aren’t. Learn to accurately determine ages more often than not, and if it’s not a 3 year old, then my advice is don’t “cull it”. Shoot it for meat or whatever you want but, if you’re truly managing, you don’t know what you’ve truly got on your hands prior to their third year.
None of this is to say that people shouldn’t shoot younger deer. Hunt for the reasons that make you a hunter and don’t worry about outside influences to harvest trophy animals. Hunting and the reasons you hunt are to be held sacred to you. I hunt because it was something I grew up doing, and once I learned to be a fairly successful deer hunter I wanted to increase the challenge and chose to pursue only mature animals. That’s my choice and that is what I do. I begrudge no one who shoots the first deer that walks in front of them for the sake of putting venison in their freezer to provide purely perfect table fare for their family. I simply want to provide those who do want to learn to better manage your deer herd with some useful information that can help you become a better manager.