September 22, 2010
By Les Davenport
The author takes an in-depth look at trophy whitetail hunting across North America -- where it's been and where it's going.
By Les Davenport
Every hunter's dream is to shoot a buck like this -- a buck that might qualify for the B&C record book. But what are the chances of actually making it happen? In today's whitetail world, they may be better than you think!
Trophy whitetail hunters and lottery players are eternal optimists. Although the odds are overwhelmingly against them, they habitually buy tags and tickets in hopes of hitting it big. The ultimate coup for a trophy whitetail hunter is, of course, to harvest a buck recognized by Boone and Crockett or Pope & Young. The average number of yearly B&C whitetail entries recognized over the past 10 years is about 382. This means that your odds of being one of the hunters who harvest a B&C whitetail during any given year are about one in 78,500.
According to the Pope & Young Club's sixth-edition record book, published in 2005, the average number of entries over the last 10-year period is 2,052 per year. For the archery hunter, this makes the odds of shooting a record-book whitetail about one in 14,600 per year.
Why do we ignore the odds and go hunting regardless? The answer is simple. We sportsmen love nature and the outdoors, and ultimately we love the challenge of hunting mature whitetails. Increasing the odds of harvesting a record-book deer means supporting state and private deer management programs. Better trophy hunting is one of many benefits of quality deer management. Its main goals, however, are to encourage health in whitetails, promote good buck:doe ratios, and sustain equitable populations and age structures within regional herds.
The popularity of deer hunting, and especially trophy whitetail hunting, has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few decades. During the 135-year period from 1830 to 1965, only 1,062 whitetails were entered in B&C. Ohio's Hole in the Horn buck, found dead in 1940, still ranks as the No. 2 non-typical today, with a score of 328 2/8 inches. It took almost 80 years for James Jordan's 206 1/8-inch Wisconsin world-record typical from 1914 to be bested by Milo Hanson's 213 5/8-inch Saskatchewan monster in 1993. And Mel Johnson's 204 4/8-inch Illinois archery buck from 1965 has remained No. 1 in Pope & Young for over 40 years. In February 2006, while being honored at an Illinois Bowhunter's Society banquet during the Illinois Deer and Turkey Classic held in Bloomington, Mel commented that he couldn't believe his "Illinois bean-field buck" has stood the test of time for so long.
From 1966 to 1975, only 615 whitetails were entered in B&C. The top typical during that period was taken by Larry Gibson in Missouri in 1971. Larry's 205-incher still ranks No. 3 today. On the non-typical side, Larry Raveling's 282-inch giant from Iowa, killed in '73, took top honors during that 10-year period.
From 1976 to 1985 the 10-year tally jumped to 872 entries. Peter Swistun's 200 2/8-inch typical from Saskatchewan, taken in 1983, topped that decade. The non-typical brute found dead in 1981 in St. Louis County, Missouri, scoring 333 7/8 inches still holds the No. 1 spot in B&C.
Things escalated dramatically from 1986 to 1995. By then the age of modern management was well under way. Typical entries hit 1,737, and non-typicals accounted for another 902 entries. These 2,639 entries more than tripled the previous decade. Milo Hanson's new world-record typical from '93 surpassed the Jordan buck by more than 7 inches. The highest-scoring non-typical taken that decade fell to Tony Fulton of Mississippi in 1995. Scoring 295 6/8 inches, it stands as No. 5 all time.
The recognized total of B&C entries from 1996 to 2005 jumped again by a huge percentage. Total entries of 3,822 equated to 2,491 typicals and 1,331 non-typicals. Robert Smith showed the world in 2000 that Kentucky had world-class potential by tagging a 204 2/8-inch-net typical. Then, in 2003, the best non-typical ever killed by a hunter fell to young Tony Lovstuen. This monster Iowa buck panel-scored at 307 5/8 inches.
It's interesting to note that a smaller percentage of B&C non-typicals are being entered today than in years past. From 1830 to 1975, more than 44 percent of all recognized B&C trophies were non-typical. From 1976 until the present, though, that number dropped to less than 35 percent. There are two theories on this: 1) Whitetails lived longer years ago and grew more abnormal points with age. 2) Non-typicals were more highly revered due to point count and oddity and they were more apt to be entered in the records.
With that said, can you guess the only place where history has shown that it's twice as likely for a hunter to harvest a B&C non-typical than a typical? You'll find the answer at the end of this story. (It should be noted here that with modern management and the increase in age structure in places like Illinois, the curve is once again swinging toward a higher number of B&C non-typicals.)
For several decades now, the popularity of trophy whitetail hunting has fed billions of tourism and conservation dollars into the economies of the top-producing states and provinces. Some state wildlife agencies have recognized the value of quality deer management, while others have not. But before deciphering the "who's who" of good deer management, let's look at the record book for the top 10 states and provinces. (See chart).
SOME INTERESTING STATS
Although Texas (with 261,797 square miles) and Saskatchewan (with 228,445 square miles) fall off the five-year chart that analyzes record-book entries by landmass, it's interesting to see that tiny Maryland (with 9,774 square miles) does make the cut. It's also interesting to note that Pennsylvania (with 44,817 square miles) comes in at No. 13 for B&C trophies and No. 7 for Pope and Young trophies. More on Pennsylvania later.
Obviously, Texas and Saskatchewan are great whitetail regions, but much of their total area holds sparse whitetail populations. Since the world-record typical presently hails from Saskatchewan, it's reasonable to assume that another could come from that province. What about Texas, however? Does Texas have the potential to produce either a world-record typical or non-typical?
More intensive management of whitetails probably takes place in Texas than in any other region of North America. Trophy whitetail hunting in the Lone Star State is an annual billion-dollar business, and millions of acres hold huge numbers of whitetails that are rigorously managed for big racks. Texas already has produced a 196 4/8-inch typical in 1963 and a 284 3/8-inch non-typical taken in the early 1890s.
Consistent management that allows top-end bucks to live to full maturity helps to ensure maxim
um rack size. The multi-thousand-acre ranches in South Texas make this a unique territory for state-of-the-art deer management. The development and expanded use of high protein whitetail food plots has also bolstered this region's chance of producing bigger racks. Although Texas falls off the five-year chart, it certainly has what it takes to produce top-of-the-ladder bucks.
STRIVING FOR EXCELLENCE
Back to Pennsylvania. In early 2002, Dr. David Alt gave one of the best speeches on deer management I've ever heard. At that time, Dr. Alt recently had taken over the Pennsylvania deer program, and he was attempting to change the mentality of hunters and the dynamics of the deer harvest in the Keystone State. Previously, he had spearheaded the successes of the Pennsylvania bear program and now he was gearing up to do the same with whitetails.
Dr. Alt's talk was held in a large high school auditorium. By the time my son, Monte, and I arrived for the well-advertised meeting, there was standing room only. The crowd was volatile to say the least. We heard many grumblings like, "This guy isn't going to tell us how to hunt deer in Pennsylvania" and "I'll shoot whatever I want no matter how they change the rules." I thought Dr. Alt was going out of that auditorium tarred and feathered for sure!
Dr. Alt started with a personal introduction and some great humor. This eased the crowd. With a detailed slide presentation, he methodically described why Pennsylvania needed a change in its deer program. Over-browsing, corrupt buck:doe ratios, poor age structure in the herd and less-than-satisfactory trophy hunting were topics that he discussed and backed up with photos and statistics. The crowd listened to his every word and seemed to agree with his summations. I could not wait to hear what he had to say next. Here is a synopsis of three of his key points:
1) Quality deer management is a mentality as well as a management tool. The "got to kill a buck" mindset of harvesting any male deer only to throw its skull plate in a corner needed change. This mentality had put the Pennsylvania deer herd on the road to disaster. The state's buck:doe ratios were more corrupted than anywhere on the continent. The average age of a hunter-harvested buck needed to increase by at least one year. Less killing of young bucks meant a higher doe harvest and a more natural buck:doe ratio.
2) Dr. Alt suggested opening a pre-rut doe season to thin out populations since early doe seasons make more management sense than late ones. A more equitable number of does to breed in November and December would mean better health for bucks. And healthy bucks that lived through hunting season and winter would grow better antlers the following year. Late doe seasons meant mistaking mature bucks that had already shed their antlers for does, and worse weather for a lower doe harvest.
3) In order for bucks to gain more age before harvest and offer better antler size, point restrictions needed to be implemented. This is undoubtedly the most controversial issue for deer managers today. Dr. Alt, however, had the fearlessness and passion to face the crowd and spell out what needed to be done to turn things around. He proposed a 3-point restriction in most parts of Pennsylvania and a 4-point restriction in the western section of the state.
When Dr. Alt finished his talk, the crowd gave him a standing ovation the likes of which I will never forget. Although he is no longer with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation, his programs were implemented and have since turned things around in this state. Pennsylvania went from off the chart on the all-time list to No. 13 with B&C trophies and No. 7 with P&Y trophies on the five-year analysis (see chart). Hats off to the conservation department's very successful program!
Quality deer management is a management tool as well as a mentality, as Dr. Alt pointed out. It's also a means of creating an enhanced economy for a region. According to an estimate by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, hunting is an annual $4.8 billion boost to the state's economy. It provides 45,000 in-state jobs per year.
To answer my earlier question, Nova Scotia is the only state or province where it is twice as likely to tag a B&C non-typical as a typical. This island-like province lies just off the coast of Maine and is about twice the size of Maryland with less than 1 million residents. It has recorded seven typicals and 14 non-typicals.
Next month, Part 2 of this feature will zero in on the top 10 B&C states and provinces and see how each manages its deer program.
(Author's Note: The B&C five-year analysis includes all recognized entries -- 160-plus inches for typicals and 185-plus inches for non-typicals. A big thanks goes to B&C's Jack Reneau and Pope & Young's Glenn Hisey for assistance on this feature. Visit both clubs' Web sites at www.boone-crockett.com and www.pope-young.com.)