Patiently you wait, enduring the cold conditions. Finally the woodland silence is broken by the slight rustling of withered leaves as the game you’ve been pursuing makes its presence known.
There, through the maze of timber, searching for hard mast, is a whitetail buck.
With bridled excitement, you see the deer, yet just before releasing the safety you realize the buck at hand is illegal.
It’s a young buck, and according to the antler restrictions under which you hunt, you can’t take it — despite a hefty body of venison.
Knowing that the harvest would be rewarding and fill the freezer, you’re forced to pass on the immature deer; and again question the state agency that dictates your hunting decisions with mandatory antler restrictions.
Throughout today’s world of whitetail management, the topic of antler restrictions is an ongoing topic of conversation. With laws being implemented by state agencies and hunting clubs testing the waters, antler restrictions are still controversial and questionable. For some regions, the protection of younger bucks has paid off, while in other locales, the results have been nominal.
Many hunters and biologists note that antler restrictions allow a young yearling buck the opportunity to reach its potential maturity — not just for antler growth, but its physical potential, as well. Allowing immature bucks the opportunity to fully develop creates older bucks in a local deer population.
In turn, more hunters can experience harvesting mature deer from 2 ½ years and up with fine sets of antlers.
At the same time, antler restrictions are designed to balance herds for productive breeding.
Others claim these types of harvest regulations promote trophy hunting while discouraging youth hunts. There is also the claim that, no matter how much good nutrition a particular buck consumes while being protected, it might never grow a desirable symmetrical rack.
Following on the tracks of antler restrictions is the debate over cull bucks and genetics, as well as the harvest of female deer.
The main objective with antler restrictions is to protect 1 ½-year-old bucks (commonly called yearlings). Once these bucks near maturity, the hope is they will provide hunters not only with the challenge of fair chase (older deer are typically better at evading hunters), but will also satisfy those hunters who yearn for harvesting bucks with multiple points.
From a biological standpoint, antler restrictions in conjunction with harvesting females work to create healthy, sustainable deer herds.
According to numerous scientific studies, when a deer population prior to the season is unbalanced — with significantly more does than bucks — the herd goes through prolonged ruts and breeding can take place over extended periods of time.
Most research biologists have concluded that these drawn-out ruts dictate fawn birthing times — causing infants to be born during the late summer months the following year. This is when tender nutritious forage is at its lowest quality. In turn, the parenting female’s milk is less nutritious.
Some experts also believe genetics and proper antler growth could be negatively affected because of these prolonged ruts.
When the rut gets underway, there will be a certain number of females that do not breed if mature healthy bucks are scarce and does are abundant. If these females cycle into estrus again, the rut becomes an extremely grueling process for the few surviving older bucks.
Simply put: Those bucks have to work overtime to try and service all the receptive does. The end result is more physical stress due to abnormal rut times.
If these bucks cannot consistently obtain good nutrition and maintain body weight, it is believed that all these factors work to influence what is considered to be inferior antler growth.
Also, mature bucks under extreme rut stress are much more susceptible to post-rut mortalities due to injuries, stress and predators.
According to some of the science, when deer herds are not managed through proper harvesting of both male and female deer, antler growth and possibly genetics are adversely affected.
Also, not allowing younger deer to reach or near their prime creates a void in the population of mature bucks. This can be a discouragement for those hunters who claim there is a created hierarchy in the breeding of whitetails and that this ladder of dominance is represented by mature males displaying a full set of antlers — excluding the excessiveness of extreme antler growth in some trophy bucks.
When there are too many females in a herd and younger bucks are not permitted to age, the local deer population experiences unbalanced buck/doe ratios. In turn, there are fewer mature deer because the older bucks are few and far between.
If this is the case and an area has moderate to heavy hunting pressure, most hunters become concerned that if they don’t harvest the smaller buck they will go home empty handed.
When that happens, an unbroken cycle of harvesting yearlings can manifest — unless harvest regulations are implemented.
Typically, antler restrictions are practiced and sometimes enforced where hunting pressure is high and mature bucks are scarce. Of course, these regs do vary by counties and regions, and are more common on public lands — especially wildlife management areas.
Yet for antler restrictions to work, it is usually recommended to reduce the number of female deer.
Most state biologists recommend a balance of two or three does to one buck. These numbers can be difficult to obtain, so achieving three to five does to every buck is considered acceptable by some deer managers.
To obtain an older age structure of bucks and balance the herds, harvesting female deer is usually a must — bringing the rut into biological balance.
Of course, determining the population density of the local deer herds is vital in setting the standards for female harvest.
Some years the doe harvest is liberal, while during other years the taking of antlerless deer might need to be more conservative and selective.
Some research has shown that older matriarch females consistently reproduce fawns and are more adapt in raising their young — ensuring their survival.
So, though controversial, some hunters might want to pass on older females.
At the same time, other studies have shown that taking matriarch mothers has no significant impact on fawn recruitment. Even so, taking females is usually a concern and should be closely monitored. Although most biologists recommend antlerless harvest, one downside is when too many females are taken in a given area because there could be fewer buck fawns the following year.
Also, the impact of fawn mortality and recruitment is vital in determining antlerless harvest — especially if predators are gaining a stronghold. If a particular area is losing a high percentage of fawns to predators, the number of females taken might be in question.
In extreme cases, some biologists recommend ending the harvest of females if fawn recruitment is being seriously jeopardized.
Recent studies have proven that if liberal antlerless harvest is done annually and the area has a sufficient number of predators such as coyotes, circulating fawns back into the population can be a struggle. Some biologists refer to this as the “predator pit.”
The analogy is like getting a haircut regularly so it never grows back to its original length before the cut. If the “predator pit” takes hold, the only way to rectify the problem is through a more-conservative doe harvest and aggressive predator management.
If diseases like epizootic hemorrhagic disease hits in combination with liberal doe harvest and un-managed predators, the outlook could be grim.
Antlers, genetics and culling
There are questions that arise about protecting young bucks. Many hunters questioned if certain young bucks would even be desirable for future harvest. Will their genetics develop a nice full set of antlers?
Sometimes, despite all the efforts of good habitat management and balanced harvesting, occasionally there are younger males that never grow a full, symmetrical rack. This is a concern for scores of hunters, who have preconceived expectations of taking mature bucks with good antler mass of at least 8 points.
However, according to most biologists, if larger-antlered deer are a hunter’s goal, then antler restrictions can be effective — allowing the majority of yearlings to reach their full potential for growth.
Even so, genetics and the maturity of older bucks do play into antler restrictions.
Researchers, as well as deer farmers, have determined that besides age and nutrition, heredity significantly contributes to antler mass and tine shapes/formations. In turn, bucks with desirable genetics are vital in breeding for a local deer population to maintain a good age structure of mature bucks.
Even though this is true for the most part, there are some hunters and managers who stress that focusing on proper herd management and nutrition allows genetic potential in mature bucks will unfold.
As to whether to cull young bucks, particularly spikes that might never produce a sought-after set of antlers, the studies on the subject are conflicting.
Harvesting these young deer that are considered to be genetically mediocre could hamper the age structure of a local deer herd, thereby minimizing the chances to harvest mature bucks.
Some in the industry claim that critiquing spikes and their antlers is not an accurate way to determine future antler development. Others state that inferior antlers can be identified at a young age, and therefore these so-called misfits should be removed.
Overall, most studies on the subject, particularly done on wild, free-ranging whitetails, have concluded that yearling spike bucks still possess a high probability of generating antlers with multiple points.
So just culling a young yearling that might never produce a desirable rack will usually not make any difference on genetics, but could prevent a potential buck from entering the class of mature bucks.
The challenges of antler restrictions
A dilemma for some hunters comes when considering yearling bucks with three to four points. Unless one has the time to accurately assess a shooter buck and is trained in antler restrictions, hunters often typically assume such a buck is 2 ½ years old or older.
In some cases this is true. And some state game agencies have implemented a 4-point restriction to ensure yearlings with less than four points are protected.
Mississippi biologists implemented such regulations in the late 1990s, but abandoned them in several seasons ago in favor of inside spread and main-beam length stipulations.
Another approach by some wildlife officials calls for bucks to have 3 points on one side before it can legally be harvested. This approach undoubtedly protects yearlings with good genetics for antler growth.
The fact is that balancing antler restrictions can be demanding. For example, restrictions requiring bucks carrying more than 4 points to be legally harvested would undoubtedly protect yearling bucks, as well as the majority of 2½-year-old males. However, this type of restriction also would protect some old bucks as well — possibly ranging from 3½ years in age and up.
The downside here is that, while protecting younger bucks, older males with less-sought-after antlers would also be off-limits. So small-racked old bucks would not be harvested — despite the fact they may be bulging with venison.
This leads to the debate over harvesting older deer that are never going to develop antlers fully. Allowing these older bucks to roam could create a class of bucks with inferior racks, which are primarily dictated by nutrition and genetics.
If bucks like this are not taken, then these deer would not only compete for nutrition with potentially superior younger males, but they would also breed and spread their genes for inferior rack development.
Antler restrictions usually have to be implemented on lands with considerable acreage. The process also takes time and patience. Of course, where private land owners form cooperatives for smaller land tracts, results of antler restrictions become a reality within just a few years.
Another concern about mandatory antler restrictions is a motivational factor with youth hunts. Most children have short attention spans, and if positive results are not achieved within a short time, they lose interest.
For a youngster to be told not to shoot when the highlight of sighting a buck unfolds can be ultimately discouraging.
However, wildlife agencies and hunters are now working to educate youngsters on the science of artificial restrictions.
The difficulty of aging bucks and the button buck dilemma
Another obstacle for hunters in terms of antler restrictions is properly assessing the age of a buck as well as its rack. If a buck enters the scene but is obscured by understory or timber, accurately assessing its antlers to see if they meet the legal criteria can be rather challenging — if not impossible.
One of the biggest problems is determining the spread of the antlers. Depending on the angle of view, a buck’s spread can look bigger than reality.
Before a buck reaches the stage of a yearling with hardened antlers, the male is a button buck or buck fawn. Here, antler growth is absent because pedicels are not developed enough at this time.
Several states allow button bucks to be taken as an antlerless harvest if polished antlers are not visible.
Whether the button buck is on its own or with the clan of its mother and her other offspring, it can easily be mistaken for a female deer — especially if antlerless harvest is on the agenda.
Here proper identification of a young male deer is crucial for those desiring to protect young bucks. Even if it is legal to take a young button buck without a polished antler above the hairline, most hunters want to pass on young males — giving them the opportunity to grow and mature.
Although it is debatable if button bucks should be protected, enforcing this tricky identification on antlerless harvest can create backlash if hunters are penalized for a case of mistaken identity.
Surveys on antler restrictions have concluded that the majority of hunters support artificial restrictions.
Most aspire to harvest bucks with multiple points, and the majority of studies have indicated that after mandatory laws were enforced, hunters soon started taking 2½ year bucks and older that possessed multiple points.
However, there are scores of hunters who have their doubts. They believe that some hunting clubs pass on genetically inferior bucks — allowing these particular bucks to mature into the older age structure.
In turn, they claim that these less-desirable bucks will breed — passing on inferior genes.
Others attempt to judge bucks by age. Depending on the time of year, neck size with testosterone is the method they use to decipher younger bucks from older ones. They also believe that antler restrictions force hunters to overharvest mature bucks like western states did with mule deer.
These hunters advocate that WMAs should simply limit the number of hunters in sections and rotate these locales from time to time.
Hunters also feel that antler spread restrictions, 13 inch for example, are unfair — especially for bucks with genetically narrow main beams. These bucks could possess multiple points yet would be illegal based on spread limitations.