Quit Worrying About Genetics: How Successful Deer Hunters Think About Antler Growth, Cull Bucks, and Passing Good Deer
This year was the year we’ve been waiting for at the family deer camp. All summer and fall we pulled trail camera photos of more—and bigger—bucks than had ever been seen on the property. It was a far cry from the early 90s, when the bucks my dad and uncles did spot tended to have a signature narrow spread with tall, skinny tines. Now, nearly 30 years later, we’re finally seeing a caliber of deer we weren’t even sure the property was capable of supporting. It’s taken a lot of intensive habitat improvement and discipline, but it’s working.
Still, there was probably a faster way to get here. It should have taken years, not decades, to improve our whitetail habitat. And there are still things we’re trying to figure out—like how to kill those bucks now that we’ve got them. So, I decided to find out what a lot of whitetail hunters get wrong by talking to some hunters who having been succeeding at the management game for a long time.
You cannot accurately predict the size of a buck's antlers by looking at the antlers of his father. (Neal Lewis / NPS /)
Does Selective Culling Improve Antler Quality?
Typically, a cull buck is one that deer managers have identified as genetically inferior and should be removed from the wild herd. This might be a deer whose antlers are too small or too funky to keep in the gene pool. Studies show that killing these deer solely on the basis of selective harvest (rather than for the traditional reasons of fun, meat, etc.) is ultimately a waste of a good buck tag.
“Many hunters simply believe that you can influence antler quality through genetics in the wild,” says Kip Adams, chief conservation officer of the National Deer Association (formerly QDMA). “We know very clearly that yes, behind a fence—when you can pick which buck is doing the breeding and which doe is doing the breeding—[you] can absolutely can influence the genetics. In the wild, it’s very clear we cannot do that.”
This is for a few reasons. For one, does are contributing half the antler DNA to buck fawns. (If you can identify which does have favorable antler genes from your treestand, please share with the rest of the class.) Also, the rut doesn’t lead to quite as many fawns as you might think.
The number of fawns any given buck sires is relatively low, as is fawn recruitment—yet another reason why culling bucks doesn't have any meaningful impact on antler growth. (Brett Raeburn / NPS /)
“It’s not like the biggest buck out there dominates all the does and sires the most fawns,” Adams says, noting that the average U.S. fawn recruitment right now is .59, or less than one fawn per doe. “Research shows that most bucks sire very few fawns during the course of their life. We can’t dominate the gene pool that way.”
And even if we could?
“We can’t predict what a buck’s son will have—from an antler standpoint—by looking at a buck’s antlers,” says Adams.
Let’s say that again for the hunters in the back: Just because a buck has big antlers doesn’t mean his offspring will. And just because a buck has small antlers doesn’t mean his offspring will have small antlers. (Part of that goes back to the fact that you can’t tell what kind of antler genes a doe is carry around.)
That all boils down to Adams’ original point: A hunter cannot influence the genetics of a wild deer herd. Selective buck culling to optimize antler size doesn’t work. So, what can hunters do, if they want to shoot bigger bucks? It’s a simple two-part plan rooted in the classic QDM refrain. First, let deer get older.
“We tend to see and hear about more bigger bucks than ever before because older deer are encompassing a higher percentage of the total buck harvest today than ever before,” Adams says. “Hunters today are letting deer get older at unprecedented levels, and that’s the reason that, across the whitetails’ range, we see, hear of, photograph, and shoot bigger deer than ever before.”
The second thing you can do if you want to increase antler size? Increase the available nutrition for deer. This means increasing habitat quality, decreasing the number of deer using the habitat (that is, shooting more does), or both.
A trail camera photo of the 4-year-old buck Brent Cearlock passed during the 2020 Illinois bowseason. (Courtesy Brent Cearlock/)
Passing Big Deer
It’s all good and well to recommend passing bucks to let them mature, but what does that look like on the ground? Some of the most successful big deer hunters follow this advice, and with good results.
Brothers Brent and Justin Cearlock, two of the Illinois hunters behind the world-record whitetail, enjoy considerable success year after year. Part of this is because of where they live, in the prime big-buck county of eastern Illinois. But it’s also because they pass more bucks than they shoot, even with two buck tags apiece per season.
“I have no intention of shooting a deer younger than five, unless it has just a substantially huge rack,” says Justin, who mostly relies on trail camera history to help him establish age estimates. “I don’t care if I think the deer is four. I’m just going to let him get to five, just to see what happens.”
This past season, Brent made the call on a stud buck that didn’t meet this age threshold. Instead of picking up his bow that morning, he grabbed his phone and shot some video.
“I passed a phenomenal deer—the biggest buck I’ve ever let walk in my life,” Brent says. “He was already in the mid-160s, flirting with the 170-inch mark as a 4-year-old deer. I called him Will, because I didn’t know if I would have the willpower to pass him.”
The guys could only imagine what Will might look like in fall 2021. Brent ended up killing a lower-scoring buck that same day: a deer that was at least seven years old, and that he had history with.
“We’re very fortunate to have access to the properties we do. If you don’t have good properties, you’re not going to shoot big deer,” Brent says. “But we do put a lot of effort into it and we pass deer that most people probably wouldn’t pass. There are a lot of guys that say they’ll pass a deer like that. But when they’re standing there and it’s getting dark, they’re like, I’m shooting that deer.”
Brent didn’t regret his decision—the older buck meant a lot to him—but he couldn’t help feeling torn when he learned a neighbor shot Will a few weeks later.
“Passing a big one comes with risk, and I am genuinely happy for the other hunter to get a great buck like that,” Brent says. “But I’d be lying if I said part of me isn’t sincerely disappointed that we just lost what we thought might be our No. 1 target buck next year.”
A photograph of the buck Cearlock called Will, because he didn't know if he'd have the willpower to pass the 4-year-old buck if he walked out. (Courtesy Brent Cearlock/)
Often the decision to pass a deer is fraught because of the property itself. Other hunters with permission and neighboring hunters are just two of the many factors that reduce a deer’s odds of surviving into the next season. And the Cearlocks don’t begrudge anyone who wants to shoot younger bucks: They’ve been those guys themselves, earlier in their hunting careers. But the knowledge that a neighbor might shoot a buck isn’t enough to make them abandon their management strategy in the heat of the moment.
“There’s a lot of things that can happen,” Brent acknowledges. “But if you shoot them, they’re definitely not going to make it to five.”
Add Nutrition, Add Inches of Antlers
This past deer season, Rick Dahl secured access to a new whitetail property in central Missouri. Dahl believes the new farm, which is in the same county as the parcels he currently hunts, actually holds better potential for bigger bucks. The new property is promising for a few reasons, including its superior soil quality, fewer neighbors to compete with, and the anecdotal evidence that big bucks are being harvested nearby. The fact that the new property doesn’t have any shooter bucks on it yet doesn’t seem to phase him.
“The food supply is very limited on the new farm,” Dahl says, who is a lifelong Missouri deer hunter and chairman of the NDA board. “[But] it’s in the right area and, if we give the deer there what they need to eat, time will tell whether we’ll be able to produce a bigger-antlered deer there.”
Although the property has fertile soil, Dahl says the food supply is limited because it hasn’t been managed for deer yet. A mature forest canopy has prevented understory growth, and many of the tillable fields were used as cattle pasture. Dahl’s no biologist, but he still knows good soil is important for growing big deer.
Dahl conducted a trail camera survey late last year, which revealed a relatively even age-class distribution of deer—and some clues to support his hunch that nutrition is currently a limiting factor for antler growth. The photos of yearling bucks seem to be mostly spikes, instead of fork-horns. And, with the exception of one deer with an extra point, not a single buck on the property seemed to have more than eight points.
Two of the big 8-point bucks Rick Dahl captured on a trail camera survey of the new hunting property. (Courtesy Rick Dahl /)
“That was really interesting to me,” Dahl says, who noticed four bucks in the 4- and 5-year-old age class that probably scored 140 inches. “It takes a big 8-pointer to score like that. So, there’s clearly an 8-point genetic thing going on there. I will be really interested to see what transpires over the next three to five years as we begin to introduced more food.”
What confused me about this particular endeavor—investing time and money in a whole new property that’s going to need careful timber, habitat, and food plot management—is that Dahl currently has a 4.5-year-old minimum age limit agreement with his hunting buddies on the excellent properties they’ve already got. Why not just raise the age limit for shooter bucks to five, like the Cearlock brothers?
“I’m at the point where I think five and a half is the right age [for me],” Dahl says. “But I also realize that everybody’s at a different stage in the maturation process that we all go through as hunters. My hunting partner is a perfect example. He hasn’t shot a lot of bucks. And if we say we’re not going to shoot anything less than five years old, well, what are we doing? We just went from five deer out there we can hunt to two. At some point you’ve restricted yourself. And for me, if there’s only one deer on the farm that I’m willing to shoot, then the question becomes, ‘Is it really fun anymore?’ And maybe that deer jumps the fence and gets shot by the neighbor on October 30. What do you do? Are you just done?”
Happily for Dahl, he doesn’t have to pick. He can tinker with the new farm, and see if those nutritional improvements eventually support the 4.5-year-old bucks he’s interested in.
Growing Mature Bucks and Killing Them Are Two Different Things
The Northeast isn’t exactly known for dedicated deer management. This is a combination of multiple factors, including high hunter numbers in states like Pennsylvania and poorer soil quality. But Neil Dougherty, the president of NorthCountry Whitetails consulting services, finds the challenges of creating QDM programs for clients that much more rewarding.
“Iowa is like Disneyland—it’s fake,” Dougherty laughs. “It’s such a wonderful place in those areas where deer have the ability to explode like that, but it’s not the everyman’s hunt. It’s such a foreign thing to most people who are trying to play this deer game.”
Dougherty with a mature New York buck, on a property carefully optimized for habitat—and hunting access. (Craig Dougherty/)
When Dougherty examines a deer property, he takes into account 17 different factors—from native habitat to huntability—to determine the property’s potential. He can almost always improve a property to help “unlock the genetic potential” of the deer that are there. But he’s not a magician, either.
“There’s a magic intersection with the amount of food that’s produced on a property, and the amount of deer that are there to consume that food,” Dougherty says, “The problem is, in some big woods country, that could be eight deer per square mile. That kind of hunting sucks.”
While almost all the properties Dougherty works on need some serious rehabilitation of the natural habitat, the biggest problem with a new property usually lies not with the land, but the client.
“When I show up, there’s almost always a hunting strategy that’s flawed,” Dougherty says. “Just about every property has a hunting strategy that does not lend itself to the intersection of the hunter coming in contact with 5-year-old deer. [Those hunters] just haven’t been exposed to 5-year-old deer. They don’t understand what it takes to speak the same language.”
If you broke down those flaws, Dougherty estimates poor understanding of the wind is to blame about 40 percent of the time. That’s a big improvement compared to even 10 years ago. Today’s hunters are generally much more sophisticated at hunting downwind, he says, and being aware of steady or swirling wind patterns.
“Access is the biggest issue I’m finding. It’s super hard to get out of these spots—getting in isn’t that hard to do, but getting out in the dark and not blowing up the area? That requires a lot of discipline. And sometimes we’re limited by the physical characteristics of a property.”
While Dougherty is a habitat expert, his consulting work involves much more than recommending where to put food plots and want to plant in them. At the end of the day, he’s teaching clients how to hunt.
So, even if the stars align and you end up with big deer consistently using your property, the question remains: Can you kill one of them?
As it turns out, I couldn’t last fall. When I did finally get the biggest buck on the place in front of me, I choked. Painful lesson though it was, it was a reminder that managing for mature deer isn’t like shooting fish in a barrel. Sure, it can be a lot easier when you’ve got 5,000 acres and no neighbors or public land for miles around. But that’s unrealistic for most hunters. Even some basic habitat work and personal discipline can improve the number and quality of deer where you hunt.
“I would encourage people to not get caught up in this whole genetic thing,” Dougherty advises. “Learn what your [deer] potential is on the property you hunt, know what you’re doing when it comes to habitat, and just be happy with what you’re doing.”