The debate is fully entrenched now. It crept in through the back door, but now it pops up all over the place. It certainly caught me off guard. In fact, I probably would never have seen the issue on the Mississippi deer hunting radar screen if a co-worker had not mentioned it to me.

Jason Pope burst into my office one day with an agitated look on his face.

"Have you been reading the deer hunting forum on the state wildlife web site lately?" he asked.

I confessed I had not.

"Well, what's all this noise about cull bucks? I think these guys are just making up excuses for having ground-checked a buck finding it was a lot smaller than anticipated, and now they're covering their tracks by calling them cull bucks."

I told him I'd do a little research on the issue and get back to him.

So exactly what is the definition of cull buck, and how do we know if a buck really is a cull or should be culled? Are the recognition and indeed the accurate field evaluation of a certain buck to be classified as a cull a legitimate component of quality deer management practices? Maybe, in fact, some deer hunters have misapplied the term to cover up having shot the wrong buck.

Culling defined

Within the field of white-tailed deer research, quality deer management principles, and hunting applications as well, the term "cull buck" is a legitimate concept. Culling, of course, means to take out or remove from the whole.

In deer hunting this would mean to selectively harvest a buck that fails to meet certain established criterion for a specific hunting property. Typically, those criteria are at the highest rung on the deer-management ladder.

It is not intended to imply the willy-nilly shooting of bucks that might appear to be inferior because of a poorly shaped or small rack. Generally speaking, a cull buck is one that appears inferior due to its genetics. Hunters who actively manage their properties want these culls taken out so they won't continue breeding. That's an awful wide gate through which can march a lot of assumptions and miscalculations.

"Several seasons ago, we were exploring how to establish buck-harvest minimums on our hunting club in Holmes County," said Shawn Perry. "We settled on taking 8-point bucks or larger, but reserved one 6-point a year each for our youth hunters.

"Then one of the hunters came into the skinning rack with a buck smaller than 6-points. His excuse was that he had made a 'management decision.' He wouldn't have known a 'management buck' from a barren doe, if you know what I mean. He just made a bad decision and killed a small buck that might have matured into a really nice wallhanger."

Jimmy Riley, manager of Giles Island, has a specific criteria for determining a cull buck.

"We define a cull buck as a buck with 8-points or less that is at least 3.5 years old and would score less than 125 B&C points," he said.

If you pay to hunt at Giles Island, you will likely get a chance at seeing or taking a true trophy-class buck, but if you misjudge a buck and end up taking the wrong one, then you will pay dearly for the error. That's why Giles has expert guides to make the call for hunters.

Cull concept misalignment

I checked the forum traffic on the MDWFP web site, and it was a revealing experience. One dude with the handle "Stonepony" spelled out everything that was basically wrong about the whole culling issue.

"We should harvest all the nasty looking cull bucks out there," he wrote. "They're going down this weekend."

At the bottom of his post was a sort of logo that said, "cull = inferior genes = kill." I wish I could print all the negative flack that guy caught for his opinions on cull bucks.

Even after some well-reasoned replies hit the forum, this guy refused to accept the idea that a small buck could grow into a trophy several years later.

"I just don't believe that spikes can grow into a 160-class buck," Stonepony typed.

Maybe next time he should Google a little research done years ago by Harry Jacobson when he was at Mississippi State University.

Cull management outcomes

Lindsay Thomas is the editor of the QDMA magazine Quality Whitetails and quite an experienced deer hunter himself. His thoughts on the cull syndrome are pretty profound.

"Many hunters are actively culling bucks as casually as if they were harvesting does or planting food plots," he said. "Attempting to identify and remove cull bucks is recommended only for programs in advanced stages of management."

The misnomer remains in many circles that culling will correct seemingly poor genetics and lead to bigger bucks with bigger racks.

"After over 8 years of very intensive culling, we weren't able to show any benefits in terms of improvement in antler quality," noted Mickey Hellickson, the chief wildlife biologist on the famed King Ranch in Texas.

Indeed, these guys are at the top of the game for QDMA management, and they found culling did not yield the desired results.

Finally, if culling certain bucks has any implications for positive QDMA, then the hunter has to be precise enough in the field to judge a buck for both potential antler inferiority, and more precisely the age of the buck. Therein lies the most compelling reason to avoid using a cull-buck strategy on your deer property, because the average hunter simply is not experienced enough to make these critical judgments.

In the final analysis, most cull bucks turn out to be small, normal bucks because the hunter made a bad decision when he pulled the trigger.