Why Most Bucks Don’t Get Big

Slug guns are getting more accurate and reaching out farther. The Savage 220F, with its fully rifled barrel, is as accurate as most rifles out to 200 yards. It’s a great choice where you have to hunt with a shotgun. Photo by Steve Sorensen.

Contributing Writer
Steve Sorensen

Most of the deer we hunt are young deer. Only one percent of whitetail bucks ever get older than 8½ years. That’s the word from the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Few bucks get old enough to display their full antler potential, at about 4 to 5 years. The buck wearing his first set of antlers is the equivalent of an early teenager. If he were human, his voice is beginning to change, and he’s exploring the world of junior high girls. And chances are—if he were human—a bullet would find him before he gets old enough to take his driver’s test.

Here in the east, hunters put a lot of pressure on deer. Almost half of all bucks never get old enough to shed a set of antlers. Even with Pennsylvania’s antler restriction policy, 48 percent are harvested by hunters before their second birthday. Why do our deer fail to reach full maturity like they do in the fertile, flatland states across the midwest?

I can think of seven reasons why it’s hard for northeastern whitetails to reach maturity.

1. Hunting pressure. In 2015 Pennsylvania sold over 900,000 hunting licenses. New York sold almost 600,000. The midwestern states don’t sell nearly as many. Most license holders hunt deer, so the pressure northeastern hunters put on deer is very high.

2. Lower nutrition. Deer in New York and Pennsylvania don’t grow as fast as midwestern deer grow because the soils in the east produce less nutritious food. In the hilly northeast, heavy snows and spring rains wash nutrients downhill, so vegetation doesn’t provide as much nutrition as it does in the midwest.

3. Less reliable nutrition. Northeastern deer are at the mercy of weather factors that make nutrition unreliable. Frequent hard freezes after the trees begin to bud can destroy a fall mast crop. That, along with snow depths that can be significantly higher than in the midwest, makes deer work a lot harder to forage for food that’s less nutritious.

4. Diversity of habitat. When you drive through the midwest, you cast your eyes across endless miles of grain fields. That’s why the midwest is called the nation’s bread basket. Deer thrive on that, but in the east the deer have a greater diversity of habitat, and not all of it supports deer like midwestern agriculture does.

5. Rifle hunting. Pennsylvania has a history of rifle hunting, and New York is following suit. Rifles are much more effective tools than archery tackle or even shotguns. Rifle hunters can reach out and touch a buck 200, 300, even 400 yards away. Most states restrict hunters to shorter range weapons—bows, shotguns and muzzleloaders—so more deer survive to reach older age.

6. Long seasons. Pennsylvania has a two-week rifle season. New York has a three-week firearms season. By comparison, Ohio and Illinois each have a one-week shotgun-only season. With a shorter time for fewer hunters to use less efficient weapons, more bucks survive to older age classes in midwestern states.

7. Small properties. Landowners in eastern states have smaller properties. Why? It’s simple. Eastern states are older states. When great-great-granddad owned 1000 acres, he subdivided it among his four sons, and they subdivided among their sons, and on down the line. Thousand-acre parcels became 250-acre parcels, then 100 acres, and then 50 acres. Property deeds in the midwest don’t go back as far, and lands started out bigger to begin with. Smaller northeast properties are harder to manage for people who want to have more mature deer.

Those are the reasons I come up with that explain why Pennsylvania and New York bucks don’t have the trophy potential midwestern bucks have. Maybe you can add to the list. But that doesn’t mean you can’t kill a big buck here in the northeast. You probably can. Mature bucks are here, and hunters take them every year, but those reasons help to explain why we don’t have as many.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, writing about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. Contact him at EverydayHunter@gmail.com, and read more of his thoughts about hunting at www.jamestowngazette.com.