Trophy Trap

Editor's Note:
Our multi-part feature on the dark side of trophy deer hunting (September 2010) struck a nerve with readers. We've received dozens of letters that run the gamut from the congratulatory ("Thank you for having the stones to say what needs to be said") to the revisionist ("The quest for a 'trophy' buck is being mislabled; it should be the quest for a 'mature' buck") to the critical (by publishing a cover with a 200-inch buck and content that advises hunters on new ways to kill a trophy "your editors would make great politicians"). Other readers missed an important distinction that we made in the "Management Mayhem" piece of this feature. That's the world of difference between quality deer management (lower-case)--or managing landscapes and herds to produce older bucks--and the organization Quality Deer Management Association. The QDMA (upper-case) is committed to healthy landscapes, the celebration of white-tailed deer and the future of hunting, not necessarily record-book racks. Still, our feature exposed a growing rift among deer hunters, between those who celebrate the tradition and experience of the hunt, and those who are focused on killing the oldest, biggest bucks out there. Which are you? Read our five-part feature and join the dialog.
Catch the Fever
Buck fever is a glorious, highly infectious ailment that most of us deer hunters aren't interested in curing. But what of the other, clinical side of this malady--the single-minded, obsessive pursuit of trophy bucks? The all-consuming tunnel vision that causes the afflicted to lose spouses and hunting partners, to bend or break game laws, to be relentlessly dissatisfied with any except the biggest bucks? The judging of an animal only by its inches of antler, and not by the landscape or the experience that produced it?
An entire industry has grown up around this obsession with super-size whitetails, to the degree that even first-time deer hunters go out with the expectation of killing a wall-hanger, and express bitter disappointment when they don't. Is this preoccupation with big antlers healthy for hunting? What has it done to wildlife management and hunting access? Or to the perception of hunters as restrained guardians of a public resource? At its most extreme, trophy hunting seems selfish, almost decadent, the opposite of the sort of modest stewardship that has defined the public image of hunters for generations.
At the risk of sounding hypocritical--after all, Outdoor Life's most popular covers are those featuring monster bucks--there's a difference between celebrating remarkable specimens and becoming so fixated with killing them that we forget hunting and hunters are at their best when it is a qualitative, not a quantitative, pursuit.
Fear and loathing in the Heartland: why you don't want your trophy spot to be discovered
By Andrew McKean Tom Tucker ought to be happy. He lives in one of the nation's hottest areas for giant whitetails, north-central Missouri, and he loves to hunt deer with his son Trevor. As a native of the area, Tom knows dozens of landowners who control access to thousands of acres of hardwoods, bottomlands and brushy upland pastures. He graduated with their kids and moonlighted on weekends fixing their tractors. Photo: Tom Tucker
But Tom is not happy. In fact, he's downright disgusted at the changes brought about by his county's reputation as a whitetail mecca. Despite being surrounded by legendary deer, Tom has nowhere to hunt. Year by year, more of the farmland Tom grew up hunting has been closed to him, leased by nonresident hunters or by the growing number of outfitters offering easy money to cash-strapped farmers. Even the church in Tom's tiny hometown was sold and converted into a dorm for guided hunters who flock to the area for a few days in whitetail paradise. Photo: OakleyOriginals
At least Tom and Trevor had access to a piece of family land with good numbers of deer and wild turkeys. Until last year, that is. When Tom called his cousin to schedule a hunt, he was told that the land had been leased and that accommodating family members wasn't part of the financial arrangement. Overnight, orange No Hunting and purple Quality Deer Management Association signs went up on perimeter fences. "I can't blame my cousin," says Tom. "It was a business decision. But I would have liked the chance to maybe lease the land on good-guy terms." Photo: Erin
For Tom, being a local boy doesn't matter when it comes to hunting access. "I used to hunt all this ground," he says. "Up until a few years ago, if you asked, you could generally hunt, and if you had a kid with you, it was almost automatic that you could get on. It's not that way anymore. The landowners always tell me they're sorry. They'd like to let me hunt, but they can't because they've signed away the hunting rights to their own land."
The few places that are open to hunting--small parcels of public ground or private land whose owners let everyone on--are crowded, and hunting success is predictably low. And because outfitted hunters and nonresident leasers are interested mainly in hunting trophy bucks, the number of crop-eating does has gotten out of hand. Photo: Missouri Department of Conservation
Doug Norris sees a different side of the big-buck intensity. Norris grazes cattle over several sections of north Missouri ridges and remote creek drainages, but during November's rifle season he spends most of his time running trespassers off his property. "They're either folks who have come in, bought a deer license over the counter and can't find a place to hunt, so they just cross a fence, or they're people who have bought little forty-acre woodlots and think that gives them access to their neighbor's place."
Norris calls the game warden, but he says the warden is so busy responding to other trespassing complaints that it's easier to "take matters in my own hands." Last year Norris detained a vanload of trespassing out-of-area hunters until the warden could arrive. "Usually the trespassers know what they're doing, but they figure it's easier and cheaper to get a ticket than it is to lease land," says Norris. "I want it to go back to how it used to be, before this area got known for its deer hunting."
Buzz Kill: How a singular focus on the biggest bucks changes the entire hunting experience
by John B. Snow One of my best friends belongs to a hunt club in South Carolina that has been around for generations. Every fall, friends and families gather there to reconnect with each other, hunt deer and celebrate their time outdoors. They come together around campfires, tell stories, put on deer drives and admire each other's deer on the buck pole. They hold kangaroo courts and cut off shirt tails when someone misses. In other words, it is a nearly perfect hunt club, except for one little problem--until recently, they never shot any big deer.
Historically, the bucks they took were nice, but most were one-and-a-half-year-olds, and even the older bucks they killed had modest basket racks on their heads. Good deer, but not the jaw-dropping wall-hangers that haunt so many hunters' dreams. So eight years ago, the club decided to do something about it and they implemented a management policy. They agreed on a 140-inch minimum--with fines for any buck taken that didn't meet the grade--and sought expert advice regarding the best foods to plant and other steps to take to "grow" trophy deer. This tight-knit group of hunters looked forward to the day when they had the pick of heavy-horned brutes grazing in their high-protein food-plot forage.
They knew this grand vision would take time, patience and an iron will to keep their fingers off the trigger when a sub-par buck wandered into view, and after several years their experiment finally bore fruit. The result? The club was nearly destroyed. Photo by: Nature Dude
For five long years the members held out, waiting for trophy deer to materialize on their land. Nobody shot any bucks except for a few unlucky hunters who misjudged their deer and had to pay for their mistakes. The camaraderie and joy that had characterized the club before they instituted the management policy evaporated. Young hunters were denied the opportunity to take their first bucks, and when it came right down to it, nobody was having any fun. For all their effort and good intentions, what they grew was a pervasive sense of bitterness and frustration, not large antlers. Photo by: Jim Ridley
Their failed quest for trophy deer taught them two lessons. One, just because you decide to manage for large deer doesn't mean you're going to get them. You can control every variable--harvest levels, food-plot quality, getting neighboring landowners to agree to your management goals--but you can't overcome the genetics of your local herd or the growing potential of your soil. Not every place is capable of producing huge deer. Most aren't, which is why trophy deer are rare.
The bigger lesson, however, cut to the reason they hunted in the first place. It's unusual to find a hunter who cares nothing for antler size. Trophy animals are special and deserve to be honored for the magnificent creatures that they are. But when they become the sole focus of our hunting efforts, we risk losing more than we gain.
Two years ago, I was hunting with my brother and my son Jack, then four years old, on our family farm in Michigan. It was a cold, gray evening and we were bundled up in a stand. A couple of does wandered out of the woods and Jack's excitement level spiked. His "whispers" got louder as he pointed at the deer, and after my brother shot, Jack saw the deer he had been looking at bound off. Photo: Sean Bordner
"Unkie, I think you missed," he said. After all our efforts to keep quiet, my brother and I burst out laughing. "No, really--I think you missed!" Jack insisted. We nearly fell off of our stools. Even after we walked up to the doe my brother had shot, all three of us were still giggling like a bunch of idiots. Jack still talks about that afternoon, and it is one of my favorite hunting memories. And there wasn't an inch of antler in sight. Photo: Sean Bordner
Management Mayhem: Why quality deer management might not be for you
By Gerry Bethge "Shoot every adult doe you possibly can!" I doubt I'll ever forget those words, partly because they were spoken by one of the country's preeminent deer biologists, but mainly because they sparked in my hunting club a dozen years of in-fighting and disillusionment. And they are responsible for my conclusion that the "quality deer management" doctrine is not for the faint of heart and certainly not for everyone in every locale. Photo: Gerry Bethge and his buck
The directive that would have such a profound effect on my hunting life was issued at a first-of-its-kind whitetail deer habitat development and food plot tour at Craig and Neil Dougherty's NorthCountry Whitetails facility in Steuben County, New York. Seated on stumps around a roaring campfire was a veritable think tank of experts in the whitetail hunting and management world. So I told the story of my nearby hunting club.
"We used to call the place 'Catskill Game Farm,'" I began. "We'd do a deer drive during firearms season and it was nothing to see twenty to thirty deer on every drive. Members would shoot fifteen bucks a season, but most were spikes, forkhorns or sixes. And the deer have eaten themselves out of house and home. The members agree that they want to shoot bigger deer, so what do we do?" That's when the infamous "doe death sentence" was summarily handed down.
Although I was thoroughly familiar with selective doe harvests as they related to quality deer management, the shooting of every adult doe we could find seemed anathema to me. Old traditions die hard, and to shoot adult does willy-nilly seemed a bit over the top. "Unless you're hunting a high fence," the biologist added, "deer will move in from other areas anyway. Shoot the adult does, which will leave more food for bucks, and then leave the little bucks to get some age on them."
I dutifully reported the results of my weekend in Steuben County to other club members, and, thanks to a plethora of deer management assistance permits, we embarked on an adult doe search-and-destroy mission. We took 23 does on our 2,000-acre parcel, but what followed has been described by some members as a disaster. That winter hit hard and stayed long, and by mid-March, it showed little sign of breaking. I watched a dozen or so winter-weakened deer lying on south-facing slopes in an attempt to make it through another few weeks. Many did not. "It's really difficult to say how many deer we lose in any one winter anymore," explained a state biologist. "Coyotes will scatter evidence of deer kills in all directions."
Our deer herd has yet to see a full recovery, raising the question of whether or not the recommendation to lay waste to does, in an attempt to grow bigger bucks, was off-target. "First of all, understand that the Quality Deer Management Association is not about overharvesting does," explains Dougherty, who is a board member of the group. "It's about balancing the deer herd with the available habitat and balancing the age and sex structure of the overall herd. There are areas where conditions might dictate a low doe harvest or no doe harvest at all. It depends on herd numbers and habitat."
And Dougherty reminded me that quality deer management (the philosophy--not the organization) has its roots in the South, and that it gained momentum in areas where deer populations were exploding and young bucks were being overharvested due to extremely generous buck bag limits. "Down South, winterkill is not an issue, though predators can sometimes be a problem." In the upper Midwest and Northeast, however, both can be an issue, so hunter harvest of does has to be balanced with other causes of mortality.
Last season, our hunting club shot three bucks and three does. The number of deer spotted on opening day by our 35 members numbered in the teens. Hunter interest lagged drastically after opening weekend. Even with a state-mandated 3-point antler restriction, no "trophy" bucks were shot, or even seen. Many remarked that they simply weren't having fun anymore. "It's boring sitting out there all day and not seeing deer," says longtime club member Eldred Carhart. "Why can't things just be the way they used to be?"
Interview The Deer Wars Revisited: Dr. Gary Alt, Pennsylvania's poster child for antler restrictions, discusses how hunting--and his life--were affected by a radical shift in deer management OL: In 2002, your campaign to get antler-point restrictions adopted in Pennsylvania was successful. How have hunters benefited? GA: I think hunters are seeing more bucks and they're killing older deer. But the real benefit wasn't hunters, it was woodland habitat. Before we did this, 85 percent of all the bucks shot in any given year in Pennsylvania were yearlings. But the deer herd wasn't being managed. The habitat was just getting hammered (because relatively few does were being killed) and we were looking at a situation where if we didn't get a handle on harvest we weren't going to have any deer--or any deer hunting--before long.
OL: Do you think that hunters are happier overall as a result of point restrictions? GA: Anecdotally, yes. People said pretty overwhelmingly that they were seeing and shooting bigger bucks, and I still hear from hunters who tell me their camps are killing the biggest deer they've seen in over 50 years. I never had anyone come up to my face and complain about antler restrictions. You hear plenty, about how I killed too many does, or made people pass on bucks that they would have been happy to shoot. But overall, I think it was positive.
OL: Does all this emphasis on "quality deer" somehow diminish the spirit of hunting? GA: Look, until you get a handle on deer populations, you aren't really managing anything, you're just caving in to hunters who like to see lots of deer. We all do, but it's irresponsible to manage deer at maximum densities because they will crash their habitat, and not just for deer but for every other woodland species as well. Quality deer management isn't so much about quality deer as it is about quality habitat. That's a hard message to tell someone who is used to seeing dozens of deer every time out.
OL: I've always subscribed to the notion that any deer should be considered a trophy. How do you tell a 12-year-old that the forkhorn that steps out in front of him on opening day isn't good enough? GA: The one consistent thing I heard in the 225 public meetings we held around Pennsylvania was that young hunters didn't want different rules for them. The most common comment from older men was that if we implemented antler restrictions, then their sons or grandsons would quit hunting. But when these kids got up to talk, they told us, "If it's right for adults, it's right for us."
OL: Still, how do you tell a first-time hunter that his little forkhorn buck isn't big enough? GA: I'd tell that hunter that he would be doing more for his future of hunting if he shot a doe instead.
OL: Can point restrictions and quality deer management work everywhere? If so, why hasn't every state adopted them? GA: It probably can't work everywhere, but the few states that tried it didn't try it over the entire state. They tried it in small study areas. Our experience in Pennsylvania showed that if it's going to work, it needs to work everywhere.
OL: When Outdoor Life last interviewed you, in 2003, you were on a multi-city tour of Pennsylvania, trying to convince angry groups of hunters to vote for antler-point restrictions. Your life was threatened, you began wearing a bulletproof vest to meetings and were accompanied by bodyguards. Was it worth it? GA: My marriage fell apart, I resigned the Pennsylvania Game Commission under pressure and I was possibly the most hated man in Pennsylvania. But you know what? It was worth it. I feel about that issue the way that our veterans feel about serving in the war. I served a tour fighting for what I believe in. I haven't met anybody who had that much opportunity to make a difference on that scale. This was a fight for the future of hunting, a way to bridge the gap between ecology and hunting. If we lose that ecology--the habitat--then we will lose hunting, and we were very close to losing the habitat in Pennsylvania. Photo by: Illinois wildlife
Market Hunters: As hunting turns from pastime to high-dollar industry, are we losing sight of what we should be hunting for?
By John Taranto The first sentence of the press release stopped me cold: "In a world where hunters work year-round to grow monster whitetail bucks, because success is measured in inches…" After 10 years at Outdoor Life, I have become desensitized to the uncomfortable idea that hunters' single focus is on killing big deer, but to have our "measure of success" distilled into such stark terms left me questioning the priorities of our industry, as well as those of the hunters it serves. Photo: John Taranto and his buck
It's not important which company sent the release. In our trophy-obsessed world, it could have been from any one of dozens of outfits that owe their existence and success to a naked obsession with antlers. But it made me wonder: When did we stop letting our hunting success be measured by a freezer full of nutritious venison and allow antler size to become the benchmark by which all deer are measured?
Or maybe a more critical question is of the chicken-and-egg variety: Did we hunters create this trophy obsession, and, as a result, the industry that provides us with new ways to detect, stalk and kill our next trophy? Or did the industry arise first, stoking our own private desires to kill our biggest buck year after year?
Whatever the answer, I participate in the trophy chase just as enthusiastically as the next guy. But have we hunters become so eager to kill big bucks that we voluntarily suspend our skepticism, believing it's the product that makes the hunter and not the other way around?
Then again, how can we be blamed for such a myopic view of deer hunting when we are inundated by trophy hunting on television and on magazine covers, and reminded routinely that our success as hunters hinges on the size of the deer we kill. We demand gratification and reward from everything we do in our personal and professional lives, so we shouldn't be surprised that hunting these days requires the same easily quantifiable outcome.
But I am surprised. From the hundreds of products that are purported to help us tag trophy whitetails, to the relentless media attention on big bucks and the untold acres of once-accessible land that have been sequestered for the sole purpose of raising monster deer, whitetail hunting in North America is increasingly an industry rather than a pastime or a cultural event--or even a source of wild protein. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service