Find Your Buck Harvest Sweet Spot

May 29, 2018 By: Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Prescribed fire brings a bonus to hunters in the South, where dense forest cover dominates most landscapes: Fire helps us find sheds. Most sheds in my personal collection are blackened by fire, and it was in a newly burned area that I enjoyed a successful morning of shed hunting a couple of years ago, finding the six shed antlers you see in the photo above. Unfortunately, the sheds were all dwarfed by antlers I found that were still attached to pieces of skull and were lying near a jawbone and other skeletal fragments. The remains had been there awhile, and the buck was not known to me, but still it was frustrating to find a quality mature buck that died without being enjoyed by a hunter.

No hunter of wild deer can corral all the bucks and ensure they all die when and how you want them to. We are hunters, not managers of livestock. Regardless, for every QDM program there’s a sweet spot where our buck-harvest goals maximize recreational enjoyment. If we pass too few young bucks, we miss the fun of hunting the rut in a population with a healthy buck age structure. Or, as QDMA member Dana Rogers of South Dakota found, if we pass opportunities at middle-aged or older bucks, there may be more non-hunting loss than we can tolerate.

When setting your buck-harvest criteria for this season, make them age-based if you can, and customize them to meet your unique desires. Every hunter and every situation is different.

Dana introduced QDM principles on his family’s South Dakota land and was able to quickly increase numbers of adult bucks in a population that had previously been heavily pressured and rarely produced a buck 3½ or older. After significant initial success, Dana increased his goal to protecting bucks until they were 5½ and then eventually 6½, as he explained in an article he wrote for Quality Whitetails magazine in 2016. He produced good numbers of these older bucks, but he also began to lose more of them to other causes than hunter harvest, including some that simply vanished.

“It was the bucks that succumbed to winter stress, disease and injury that finally changed my mind,” he wrote. “My project left me with a lot of great data, but losing 4½- to 7½-year-old bucks each year, bucks that someone could have tagged, was wasteful in my mind. For our small acreage in the northern Great Plains, I’m now turning on the green light at 4½. For maximum fun and huntability, I believe this is the best course of action on our farm.”

When setting your buck-harvest criteria for this season, make them age-based if you can, and customize them to meet your unique desires. Every hunter and every situation is different. Your personal sweet spot for maximum enjoyment may be 2½-plus or 5½-plus, and it may change over time, moving up as you gain hunting achievements or, as in Dana’s case, moving back down if you find you set it too high.

Dana made his adjustments using data he collected with annual, pre-season trail-camera surveys and age data from harvested bucks. You’ll need sound data of your own to set goals that maximize your enjoyment.

This season, select bucks for harvest based on a target age that will produce maximum fun for you and your hunting crew.

About Lindsay Thomas Jr.:

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of Quality Whitetails magazine, the journal of the National Deer Association, and he is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.

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