We just can’t help ourselves. As hunters, we continually ride waves of trophy obsession, but they always eventually crash. When they do, we usually lean into the experience of the hunt for a few years. But, over time, the swells build, and we find ourselves right back to the antlers-over-everything mindset.
The latest example of this cycle occurred within about the last 10 or 12 years. Before that, network outdoor television and print magazines dominated, although digital content was already leaving the fledgling stage and starting to transform into the behemoth it is today. But back then, TV and print showed us a message—big deer matter the most. The audience demanded it, but they also got sick of it.
This spawned the public land craze. I saw this coming from the letters and emails I received as a magazine editor, and I dove in head first. It served me well because it was rare. Now, it’s not.
It has become so common, that shooting a young buck on public land isn’t much different from shooting one on private land. It’s even looked down upon. Because the general expectation—from the hunting media and the audience alike—is that big deer are out there, and they should be targeted.
No one knows this better than Andy May, a Michigander with a largely unparalleled track record of killing public land bucks. Even though he’s as into mature bucks as anyone, the trophy obsession in the whitetail arena makes him uneasy.
“The emphasis on trophy hunting and growing big bucks ends up with guys trying to lease as much land as possible,” May said. “This drives up leasing prices and demand, makes it harder to get permission on private ground, and forces more hunters onto whatever public land is available.”
That, in a nutshell, is a problem.
It’s not too hard to find hunters who think bringing more hunters into the fold is a bad idea. They argue that the experience out there is degrading by the season. To them, more folks chasing a limited resource results in a drop in quality for everyone.
Of course, that’s largely true. Very few hunters would tell you they want more competition in the field, but it’s also a selfish move. Without fresh recruits, this thing we love is going to die on the vine. It will anyway, in my opinion, but we don’t have to accelerate the process by gatekeeping.
To be fair, this movement to lock up land, name deer, and kill them when they are deemed old enough, isn’t the only motivation hunters have. They want an experience that speaks to them, and they have the money to make it happen. That’s not going away, so what do we do about it?
My thoughts are simple—we need more land that is open to everyone. Since we are witnessing a growing divide between the deer hunting haves and have-nots, a hedge against the latter losing out is more land open to anyone. Walk-in programs, state-tax incentivized programs, and whatever else it takes to open up some opportunities, are worth looking into.
Do you know why you see grip-and-grin photos of more hunters with 200-class bucks now than ever before? The obvious answer is social media and our exposure to other hunters. The less obvious answer is that we’ve figured out how to create a whitetail hunting situation that is essentially high-fence hunting, without the fences.
With enough land or just some land in the right neighborhood, you can raise deer to maturity. It’s not wholesale deer farming, but it’s not totally divorced from a livestock situation, either. I don’t think the act, in and of itself, is good or bad. But it has convinced an awful lot of hunters that they, too, can raise deer and kill them with consistency.
This accelerates the land access issues May brought up, and also contributes to the antlers-above-everything-else mindset. Now, a lot of people would tell you that this type of deer management is good for the herd, and that food plots feed plenty of non-whitetail critters. They’re not wrong. They also wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t the best way to grow and kill big bucks.
No one is planting food plots to feed rabbits. No one is paying big bucks for a lease solely to hunt does and forkies. It’s about a lot of things, and big antlers are a big part of it. The experience is there, too. But that experience, whatever motivations are behind it, often comes at the cost of someone, or multiple someones, getting the chance to hunt deer for their own reasons. Maybe this is just a survival-of-the-fittest moment, where soon it’ll be similar to the King’s deer, and the peasants will be left to eat a vegetarian lifestyle.
Or maybe we will, collectively, realize that huge antlers and old bucks are cool, but so is deer hunting for meat, or simply check out of the rat race for a few hours. Maybe we will acknowledge that this thing we all love is worth sharing, even if that means fewer bucks to go around.