MOORE — The deer rifle season is perhaps the most anticipated and popular hunting season in our state. In fact, I happened to be one of the many hunters out Saturday morning (opening day) eagerly awaiting that familiar glow in the eastern sky. If you have never sat in a century-old, weathered Cottonwood overlooking a frosted landscape and watched the sun come up, I’d highly recommend it.
Many folks experienced this same scene and probably saw much deer activity. The deer breeding period or “rut” as it’s commonly called is in full swing across our state. I frequently receive calls and emails about deer herd management, especially this time of year. Whether it’s checking trail cams, emailing buck photos to estimate age or planting food plots, deer hunters are busy from October to January, with November being the busiest.
One common question I receive is how many bucks hunters can or should harvest from a given property. Even though I try not to, sometimes I give the old “it depends” answer. The number of bucks that can be taken depends on several factors; some of which may or may not be within our control. Generally speaking though, few properties can sustain the harvest of more than one buck per hunter, per year depending on property size, individual goals, and many other factors.
While there are many things to consider, the biggest factors of all are simply the goals of a specific property. What do you want? If a person is hunting 40 acres surrounded by old-school, “antlers-its-down” neighbors, a goal of producing a mature buck annually may not be feasible without a tremendous amount of communication.
Of course, to produce bucks realizing their full potential, they must grow old enough to reach that point. Recently, I discussed the importance of bucks reaching mature age classes; 5.5 and up. The only way bucks are going to reach their potential is to breach the age classes past the point of skeletal maturity (4.5 years in most cases). This entails bucks being given the green light by every hunter along the way. It also means they need to stay out of other trouble involving vehicles, predators, disease, and of course other aggressive bucks during the rut. With a home range of several hundred to several thousand acres depending on the individual, bucks put themselves in harm’s way every day; especially during the rut. This is why it is so difficult to get them to mature age classes. In fact, if you take a 6.5 or 7.5-year-old buck, especially in Oklahoma, you are very fortunate.
I mentioned that communicating with your neighbors is imperative to get them on the same page with you and your management goals. However, so many people are focused on the “hunters across the fence” they fail to focus on their own self-imposed rules for their property. The number of bucks you can harvest really depends on your level of restraint and the age classes of bucks you want to hunt. If you choose to shoot yearling bucks (1 years old), you should not expect to see many bucks year after year any older than that.
According to the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), if yearlings are your primary target and the age class you and your hunters primarily harvest, then in each subsequent year, the age structure of the herd will be composed of around 75 percent plus 1-year-olds, 15 percent 2-year-olds, 7 percent 3-year-olds, 2 to 3 percent 4-year-olds, and 0 to 1 percent 5-year-old and older bucks. Now, break this down according to the age classes and total number of bucks your neighbors are harvesting as well. If they are also shooting young bucks, your age structure will be even lower combined with even less bucks available to harvest overall. Under these circumstances, you should never expect to see many bucks over 1.5 to 2.5 years of age.
If your goal is older-age bucks, and your property size allows it, you must be firm but realistic when it comes to setting and maintaining these goals. The starting point for QDM programs is protecting yearling bucks and then working your way up from there. If you choose to pass yearlings, your buck age structure should then look much better. In fact, according to the QDMA it may be composed of 45 to 50 percent 1-year-olds, 25 percent 2-year-olds, 15 percent 3-year-olds, 10 percent 4-year-olds, and 5 percent 5-year-old and older bucks. These better-managed herds are vastly different from the traditionally-managed herds, and they will provide a much different hunting experience as well. Older bucks equates to better hunting in most cases.
If you are not sure about the inventory of bucks using your hunting property, you can erect a few cameras near bait and begin logging each buck with his own name and folder on your computer. Trail-camera surveys are great tools for estimating the number and age classes of bucks on your property. You can then select the ages of bucks to harvest and calculate objectives from that point on. This helps you establish realistic expectations for the property you hunt and can be a rewarding and enjoyable hobby. If your goal is to shoot 4-year-old and older bucks, use your trail-camera surveys to estimate the number of bucks that meet this criteria. If you are serious about achieving your goals, you must be firm in your management strategies. Other than in the case of a child or first-time hunter, you should establish a stringent policy of only harvesting bucks meeting the age criteria set forth.
Coupled with bucks only being harvested based on their estimated age, bucks should not be harvested according to the size or shape of their antlers. You can tell little about the true age of bucks just by looking at their antlers and certainly nothing about their “genetics”. In theory, taking a small or odd-racked buck should help your herd “genetics”, but many studies have shown “culling” does nothing to improve the overall “genetics” of a wild deer herd. All you are doing by shooting “scrub” bucks is shrinking your overall pool of bucks that may one day reach maturity. As Mike Porter with The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation said in an article on culling, “culling bucks probably is a waste of bucks and a wasted effort”.
Some hunters do not have an estimate of bucks by age class using their property. For these situations, it’s suggested to use an approximate figure based on property size and habitat quality. Look at what deer need; food, water, cover etc. and ask yourself if you have enough land to support the number of bucks you wish to harvest of the age class chosen. For a rough estimate and example (this varies across regions, landowners, and in different habitat types) some properties may produce two or three 3-year-old bucks for every 600 to 800 acres of high-quality habitat. Obviously regulations, hunting pressure, drought, disease, and herd dynamics can sway this number higher or lower, but that is a starting point.
Lastly, in the midst of all this talk of bucks, don’t forget, good deer managers always take a doe or two for the freezer if deer densities and management goals warrant this. Like a wise biologist once said, “hunters in the know, let young bucks grow and take a doe!” Oklahoma Cooperative Extension and Oklahoma State University offer their programs to all eligible persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability, or status as a veteran and is an Equal Opportunity Employer.
Heath Herje is an agriculture and wildlife educator for Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service in Cleveland County. He can be reached at 405-321-4774.