Selective harvest is an important part of white-tailed deer management. This is equally true for both the buck and doe segments of a deer population, but many hunters become obsessed with trying to determine which bucks to shoot or not shoot. For regular visitors to this site, you know that I have covered shooting deer and harvest management in the past, but this time I really want to stress the importance of not stressing out over the harvest aspect of a deer management program.
The most controversial issue on any hunting property usually revolves around what is and is not a cull or management buck. There is no stock answer to this debate because the quality of a cull buck will vary from ranch to ranch. We have all seen bucks with obviously inferior antlers that have been shot as culls, but I bet you have also seen some really good looking bucks on the web, in magazines, and on television that were harvested by someone and referred to as cull deer. So what’s the deal?
I mentioned earlier that the quality of cull deer will vary from ranch to ranch, but the most important thing to keep in mind when talking about cull deer is that the quality of bucks will vary within each age class (cohort) on a particular property. This is the easiest way to determine what is and is not a cull buck on a piece of property — bucks of the same age must be judged head-to-head against one another to determine which has desired (or at least more desired) antler characteristics and which one will end up in the sausage.
For example, there are some properties under intensive deer management that consider a yearling (1 1/2 years old) buck with 5 or less antler points a cull buck. This does not mean every ranch owner or guy trying to manage his deer hunting lease should hammer every deer with less than 5 points. It would be grossly oversimplified (and a bad idea) to say everyone should do the same thing on their property. This just would not be the case. There are just too many variables.
Let’s talk about spikes for a minute. Now this is a can of worms that hunters and even researchers have been actively discussing for decades, so I am not going to try to change anyone’s thoughts on the subject today. But using the spike buck as an example, I just want to throw out an example of culling bucks by age class. Let’s first assume that we need to harvest some number of bucks and that I am trying to improve the overall end-quality of bucks on a property. If two yearling spikes walk out and one has 3 inch antlers and the other has 10 inch antlers, I will shoot the one with shorter tines and leave the better buck of the same age every time. Why? Because my goal when culling is to remove the most undesirable bucks. The 10 inch spike grew over 3 times as much antler as his same-aged friend.
Although selective genetic manipulation through buck harvest is an important component of any whitetail deer management program, it is not the only component. Keep in mind that better deer habitat means better bucks at every age class. The key to producing good deer is to remove the very low-end bucks, allow the rest to get some age on them, harvest mature bucks then cull by age class so that you harvest no more than 15 to 20% of the total number of bucks each year, and then provide the best deer habitat that you can so that all deer reach their genetic potential.