Forsaking Trophy Management for Deer Stewardship

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Rethinking what it means to manage land for white-tailed deer

One of the fastest-growing hunting trends is deer management. It has value, but the right perspective is critical. It’s difficult to produce big, mature bucks on purpose, even in great areas. I’ve seen the challenges with managing for big deer.

Bill Winke sits beside a great buck and reflects on the hunt. (Midwest Whitetail photo)

When Trophy Management Works

Most of the time, it’s random when someone kills a giant buck. They might contribute to the process and do a lot of things right to make it happen, but many of the factors involved are out of their control.

But for some hunters, those same factors can be influenced. I know guys who hunt areas where they churn out giants every year. It’s worth looking at their situation to see what is different, and in the process, gain a bit of perspective.

One group of guys in my home state of Iowa has stacked up more than 5,000 acres of contiguous ground. It’s enough land that if they decide to pass up a buck, it’ll likely live another year. That’s what they do, and a number of these are deer you’ve seen on TV. It’s big business shooting big-racked bucks, and these guys have it down to a science.

Still, that isn't reality for most hunters. It’s important to understand this so we don’t make the mistake of comparing our situations and bucks to theirs. Hunting isn’t supposed to be like that.

Deer stewardship is no easy task. It takes dedication and hard work. (Midwest Whitetail photo)

When Trophy Management Fails

The primary components of trophy production are age, genetics and nutrition. But even in areas with the best of everything, not every buck will produce big antlers. Managing deer in a vacuum would be easy, but outside factors are in play. Foremost? Other hunters. If everyone had the same harvest goals, deer management would be a lot more effective.

Bucks that are genetically superior already look big when they are young, and they oftentimes get shot before getting old enough to express full potential. Hunters usually tag bucks with the best genetics early on, which can wipe out most of the genetically superior bucks each year.

Most people pass up smaller bucks, but these won’t all grow into big ones. Usually, they just grow into older small bucks. So, in this pseudo-managed setting, the area fills with old bucks with small racks. It’s a common outcome.

My own resolve was tested again several seasons ago when a neighboring hunter shot a buck that I was hoping would live another year. It was the biggest buck the guy had ever shot, and he was ecstatic. I couldn’t blame him one bit for shooting it. I was sorely tempted to shoot the deer myself.

Reflecting, I think it’s always a bad thing to be discouraged with hunting. The mistake was my own attachment to the deer simply because it had big antlers. That’s where the seeds of discontent were sewn.

Maybe you are like me, and you don’t control enough land to grow bucks to full maturity without them crossing property lines. Or, maybe you hunt by permission and other hunters won’t pass up the same deer you will. Either way, you’ll be discouraged without changing perspective.

It's possible to enjoy deer hunting even in areas where trophy management isn't probable. (Midwest Whitetail photo)

When Deer Stewardship Is the Answer

My conclusion? Antler size causes too much heartache, and I want to enjoy every God-given moment in the deer woods. I love hunting for what it is. So, the obvious solution is finding a different standard by which to grade the experience while keeping it challenging at the same time. For those who aren’t in positions to manage massive acreages, perhaps deer stewardship is the right mindset.

You can do this and still shoot big bucks, too. My standard is the one-on-one nature of hunting specific bucks. I select several older bucks and focus on hunting them, regardless of their antler size. I choose them based on age, history, and the odds of tagging them. If these bucks have big antlers, great. If not, no worries.

By hunting this way, I preserve the joy and excitement of the outdoors and keep antler obsession from spoiling my season. The best part? My joy is great despite the fact that I’m not consistently killing record-book bucks.

It’s about the quest, not antler size. In deer stewardship, you’re still doing most of the things you would in trophy management. Providing food sources. Improving bedding cover. Responsible harvests. The difference is in the mindset. You’re no longer focused solely on the size of the deer, but the well-being of it, and the full-fledged adventure that follows. Live in that frame of mind, and I promise good times are ahead.