In highly pressured hunting areas, perhaps it’s time to adjust expectations and consider a 100-inch whitetail bucks as a “Booner” worthy of appreciation.
By John Eberhart
White-tailed deer are the most widespread, abundant, adaptable and sought-after game animal in the country. In normal hunting conditions, a mature buck is the smartest animal we can hunt.
The Boone & Crockett Club was established to promote and log record-class game animals. A buck’s rack must net 170 inches as a typical or 195 inches as a nontypical to qualify for B&C’s all-time records program. Those scores are quite a bit higher than those — 125 and 145, respectively — of the Pope and Young Club for bowhunters. To keep it simple, the hunting industry nicknamed B&C-class bucks “Booners” and P&Y-class bucks “P&Ys.”
Pope and Young bucks are trophies of a lifetime to most bowhunters, although they are prevalent in every state with huntable whitetail populations. In farm country, 2½-year-olds often sport P&Y-caliber antlers, whereas big-woods bucks often don’t grow such racks until they are 4½ years old.
Booners are another story, as they are extremely rare throughout much of the country. However, some pockets produce quite a few Booners every year. These areas include farm-rich, lightly populated rural areas of Kansas, Missouri, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, southern Ohio and western Wisconsin. Booners are also prevalent in wooded suburbs around most large metropolitan areas.
What these states have in common is a lack of hunting pressure because of low general populations or large tracts of private land hunted by few people — sometimes both. Metropolitan areas are so big-buck rich because of the lack of hunter access. The common denominator is these areas often let deer live the four to six years it takes for a buck to reach Booner status, provided the deer has the necessary genetics.
For many years, because of hunting pressure, free-ranging bucks rarely survived to reach Booner status anywhere in the United States. Privatization and intense land management practices have changed that. In many areas, this management has been elevated to the status of deer farming sans the fences. Hey, that’s America. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it gives new meaning to the phrase “free range.”
What I have a problem with is that too many hunters try to correlate hunting skill with someone’s resume of big-buck kills without considering where those deer were killed. The overwhelming majority of bowhunters do not hunt micromanaged properties and must work for every inch of antler they lay their hands on.
I sometimes question whether many so-called whitetail experts even realize the areas they hunt are gross misrepresentations of normal hunting conditions and deer herd compositions. I question that because they never mention the lack of hunting pressure on the vast amounts of land they have to hunt. Worse, they’re often arrogant to the point of belittling anyone who shoots deer that are beneath their standards.
Changes in the Whitetail World
I read an article in a hunting magazine about 20 years ago, and the first paragraph went something like this:
There was a time when a wealthy big-game hunter’s trophy room would have monster elk, mule deer, antelope, bears, goats, sheep and occasionally African animals on the wall. The animal usually missing was a trophy whitetail. There was a simple reason: Trophy whitetails were difficult to locate and kill, and guided trophy whitetail hunts didn’t exist. A guide could, with relative ease, put hunters on any other game animals, but true free-ranging trophy whitetails were simply too smart.
Unfortunately, that’s no longer true. As with other game animals, if you have the cash to buy or lease enough property and manage it, or you can help someone promote their deer farm (ranch), you can kill trophy whitetails on a regular basis. Hunting skill is no longer a prerequisite.
Why call it “deer farming?” Because that’s what it is. Large tracts of property are bought or leased and then micromanaged with food plots and mineral sites to make bucks grow huge antlers. Young bucks are passed up so they can grow to maturity, inferior-antlered bucks are often culled so they don’t pass their poor genetics into the herd, and the so-called experts kill one of the many monster bucks on the property.
How does that scenario differ from a cattle business, in which a rancher gives his cattle the right feed to make them grow as large as possible, lets them reach optimum size for the market and then takes them to slaughterhouse? I’m all ears if anyone can help me differentiate raising livestock as a business from raising big bucks as a business, other than the way they are eventually killed.
Hunting pressure influences success and dictates what age-class of bucks a hunter can expect to have — not necessarily see — in his hunting area. As hunting pressure escalates, more deer get killed, particularly bucks, letting fewer live to maturity. It makes sense that areas with heavy hunting pressure produce far fewer mature bucks than areas with light hunting pressure, and that it’s far more difficult to kill mature bucks in heavily hunted areas.
The Essence of Pressure
In some areas of Michigan where I hunt, more than 80 percent of the bucks killed each year are 1½ years old. That means that 2½-year-olds are somewhat rare. Some biologists estimate the survival rate of bucks to real maturity — 3½ and older — is less than 1 percent. That means that if there were 20 bucks per square mile in such areas, there would only be one mature buck for every five square miles. It’s not only rare that a hunter takes a P&Y buck in such areas, but booners simply do not exist — period.
Although Michigan tops the list of states for hunting pressure and is at the bottom for record-book entries per licensed hunter, it doesn’t have exclusivity on either category. Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, Georgia, Alabama, Maryland and Tennessee also have high hunter densities per square mile and low record-book entries per hunter. In most areas within those states, a 100-inch buck is far more difficult to kill than a Booner in micromanaged, lightly hunted areas. That statement is not up for discussion. Having hunted in both types of areas, I’m speaking from direct experience.
You might see a TV show or video in which guys take big bucks in a pressured state, but rest assured, those kills occurred in an enclosure or at a large managed farm. Many hunters hunt micromanaged properties and have several Booners to their credit. On the flip side, I know some excellent bowhunters from heavily pressured areas who have only one or two “100-inch Booners” under their belts.
Bucks that survive to maturity in pressured areas are severely nocturnal. Even during the rut phases — when testosterone levels go through the roof — those deer rarely show themselves during daylight. Mature bucks in pressured areas know what the consequences can be, because they likely have old wounds from previous hunting seasons.
I cannot think of one 3½-year-old or older buck I’ve taken in Michigan that didn’t have at least one old wound. In several instances, there were as many as three from separate projectiles. Conversely, of the 11 mature bucks I’ve taken on out-of-state hunts, none had a scratch from a previous hunting encounter.
Bucks in managed or lightly hunted areas associate hunters with danger, but because of the scarcity of hunters, the terms of hunter engagement, and the competitive nature of the rut among so many mature bucks, they move much more during daylight than their brethren in heavily hunted areas.
Hunter expectations should be tightly bound to the area in which you hunt. A closer look at the Commemorative Bucks of Michigan record book proves that.
More than 50 percent of counties in the state don’t even have 10 125-inch bow kills listed, and I’m talking about all-time entries. Many bucks that hunters from managed areas wouldn’t even lift their bows off the hook to shoot are taxidermist material in pressured areas. It only follows that the number of big racks a hunter has isn’t necessarily an indication of his skill level.
Many bowhunters believe that no matter the circumstances, if there are several other hunters in the same vicinity, they are hunting pressured whitetails. That is not true. In reality, a heavily pressured area only applies to areas with at least 10 bowhunters per square mile, most of whom target any antlered buck regardless of age and antler size.
To unpressured bucks, hunters simply represent a human presence that doesn’t alter their daytime movement habits. So on managed properties, no matter how many hunters there are, only mature bucks receive consequences. All others are allowed to pass. When there are no consequences for daytime movement, there’s no reason to change those habits, so those bucks almost become oblivious to human danger.
A Prime Example
The person who best exemplifies the 100-inch Booner phenomenon is my friend Ed Simpson. He is an incredible bowhunter, yet he has never taken a net 100-inch buck in his home state of Michigan in more than 40 years.
How can that be possible? After all, he has killed 62 bucks in Michigan, including a dozen 2½-year-olds and three 3½-year-olds. Despite that success, none of those deer sported racks netting 100 inches. I bet many of you reading this can relate. But that’s only half the story. Here’s where it gets interesting.
In 1998, Simpson began traveling out of state to hunt in Iowa or Illinois. During some of those years, he hunted both in the same season. At the time of this writing, he has logged 15 one-week out-of-state hunts, none of which were on pay-to-hunt properties. During those hunts, he has killed 13 bucks scoring 116 to 168 B&C inches. Even more amazing, the average time for each successful hunt was four days. That’s quite a staggering statistic, especially for someone who hasn’t killed a 100-inch deer at home during 41 seasons of hunting six weeks per season on his own 40-acre property.
As a side note, I know quite a few Eds. I’m also confident stating that if he — or many hunters reading this article — were allowed to hunt on the same playing field with the nation’s so-called hunting experts, they would easily match the success of those experts and likely outperform them. In my opinion, a consistently successful hunter — one who doesn’t hunt over bait — from a heavily hunted area can consistently kill mature bucks in lightly hunted areas, but a tremendously successful hunter from a lightly hunted area would likely be lost if thrown into an area with heavy hunting competition.
The differences are staggering.
This article and Ed’s story were written to shed light on deer hunting reality and let you everyday bowhunters know if you’re hunting in a heavily pressured area, you should be ecstatic about taking a 100-inch buck. Further, you should definitely consider it a Booner.
Above all, hold your head high, because you’ve done what hundreds of thousands of other bowhunters will never accomplish.
Conversely, if you hunt an area with light pressure and access to unpressured, mature whitetails, consider yourself extremely fortunate. You are blessed beyond measure. Enjoy the situation, and be humbled by it. You can also hold your head high, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re somehow a better hunter than anyone else.
Where someone hunts should have everything to do with their expectations for mature bucks but not their perceived credibility to other hunters.
— John Eberhart specializes in hunting heavily hunted public land and knocks on doors for permission to hunt private land in Michigan. He has never owned or leased land, or hunted on a ranch or with a guide.