It seems like in the days of social media, discussions between hunters with differing points of view are becoming more and more frequent. I’m of the camp that believes that we can all have different goals and still stay unified to work towards protecting this way of life we all enjoy. I try to stay above the fray and usually choose to forego addressing many of the discussion points brought up on social media platforms.
One comment that gets stated often is “You can’t eat the horns.” It often starts the same way; a hunting page on Facebook posts a picture of a healthy three year old buck with the caption, “”Shoot or Pass?” Enter: hunter debate. There are other variations of this that spur on the same reactions and the same comments. It could be a picture a half rack buck with a deformed or broken side with the same above mentioned caption, or simply a picture of a monster buck with a well-known celebrity hunter sitting behind it. Soon, a full blown discussion/argument ensues between the “meat hunter” crowd and the “trophy hunters”.
I don’t have an opinion one way or another about the “right” way to hunt deer, or how to select what you choose kill. We are all at different places in our hunting experience, and so we have different standards and goals. As long as people are hunting legally, I say “live and let live”. When I start wishful thinking, the one thing I would like to see discontinue is this aforementioned argument about the ‘palatability’ of antlers. Arguing that you “can’t eat the horns” is kind of a straw man argument, when you really get down to it, but the bigger issue is that the argument is altogether unnecessary. Let me explain…
First, let me be clear that justification for taking any legal buck by legal means is unneeded. If taking a 1 1/2 year old deer makes you happy and fulfills your season goals, by all means, take that deer. At the same time, there are hunters who choose to pursue an older age class of animal for additional challenge. With older age comes larger antlers. Holding out for a deer that you are proud to take should be looked on with no more negativity than shooting the first legal animal you encounter. “Trophy hunting” shouldn’t have to be a stain on a hunter any more than “meat hunting” should.
I see the interesting part of the argument being that the hunter who sees antlers on a 1 1/2 year old buck and chooses to let that deer pass is the one who is accused of being “antler obsessed”. Watching that deer’s natural movements and actions and learning from it can make you a better hunter and more appreciative of these animals we love to pursue. Choosing not to shoot that animal, even though legal, is precisely the opposite of antler obsessed, in my opinion. Likewise, taking a yearling buck is a trophy and huge accomplishment for many and should be treated as such.
The second implication of the “you can’t eat the horns” argument is that the most important part of hunting is acquiring meat. While I have never seen a “meat” hunter take a picture of the back end of a deer in order to show off the hams, it still seems that the fall-back justification for shooting the animal is the meat on its bones. And let me reiterate, the justification is not needed. If you are satisfied with that animal, enjoy the fruits of your labor and stop justifying your decision. It should be noted, however, that a 3 1/2 year old buck provides a significantly more amount of meat than a 1 1/2 year old. Likewise, a mature doe often provides more meat than a yearling buck and in many areas within the whitetails range a herd can sustain the harvest of several does, which can help habitat regeneration and overall herd balance and health. If the antlers on the deer’s head truly mean nothing, harvesting a doe, or waiting for a larger bodied mature buck serves to fill the freezer more than a yearling buck.
The third important consideration in these conversations is that what someone else chooses to do has relatively little impact on your own hunting goals, regardless of which side you align yourself with. If you are a “meat” hunter, your neighbor’s passing of yearling bucks leaves more yearling bucks for you to shoot. Likewise, your neighbor passing on yearling bucks also gives you a chance to kill a more mature buck. I don’t know any meat who wouldn’t take the opportunity to harvest a mature buck, whether they care about antler size or not. A trophy hunter’s goals are perhaps slightly more affected by high buck exploitation rates in “brown and down” areas. Even in these high pressure areas there are usually a few bucks that manage to survive several seasons and produce a trophy class of deer with which most hunters are satisfied with. At the same time, if you are looking for a Boone and Crockett class of animal and you’re hunting in the highly pressured North East, where a four and a half year old buck is a rarity and other less obvious factors, like soil type, make a 170″ whitetail a near statistical anomaly, you may need to adjust your standards or find another location to hunt, rather than blame it on your neighbor.
I believe many people in the Eastern part of the Whitetail’s range incorrectly believe that their neighbor taking part in the killing of young deer is directly responsible for their own lack of success. These same people, many times, are failing to hunt their properties with low pressure tactics and driving the same deer their are trying to protect onto their neighbor’s properties. Still, you’re neighbor harvesting a few immature deer from the local herd is not, in and of itself, completely detrimental to your management goals. Furthmore, looking down on that hunter for harvesting a buck you let walk isn’t going to get them into the QDM camp, so passing judgement is only counterproductive to your cause.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a hunter who admits that antlers matter to me. I pass yearling bucks, however, I do shoot bucks that many hunters would choose to pass. One thing I won’t be doing is making excuses about the bucks I shoot. I like eating venison, but the size of a buck’s headgear is also directly proportionate to the pounding I get in my chest. There was a time when I was content to shooting yearling bucks and happy whenever I was able to do so. I’ve progressed to wanting other challenges, and in the areas I hunt, a good 2 1/2 year old (or better) is plenty hard to come by and provides more meat than a 1 1/2 year old buck to boot. I’ve decided to set my own standards, hunt ethically, focus on the method of harvest and eat what I kill (minus the antlers), so I have no need to look down on any hunter who’s goals vary from mine.