For some antler restrictions are all too familiar, yet others are not as familiar with them. Fish and Game agencies use antler restrictions to promote the harvesting of older age class deer. This is supposed to help the overall population as well as allowing younger bucks to grow older, which in turn means larger antlers. Hunters fall on both sides of the fence when it comes to these restrictions. Some agree that not shooting deer with smaller antlers and passing on them this season is alright. Others argue that by not shooting deer with smaller antlers you cannot effectively cull out inferior bucks or that in some areas finding deer big enough to shoot becomes a problem.
Both sides are right in one way or another. However, antler restrictions have several major drawbacks and there is another method of selecting which bucks to harvest that many deer experts recommend.
If your goal as a land manager is to increase buck numbers or age structure on your property, then antler restrictions are not for you. For several key reasons.
Antler restrictions sometimes include that a bucks outside spread must be 15 inches or more. This is about the length from the outside of one ear to the outside of his other ear. The major problem with this is that it is extremely hard to tell 15 inches from 40 yards away in a tree stand or ground blind. Yes, you can use the outside the ears criteria, but that is not always accurate. You may end up taking a buck that is too small or passing on a buck that was plenty big. This extremely limits how effective antler restrictions can be.
Also, as a sport that is trying desperately to recruit more hunters, antler restrictions can hurt junior hunters. Think back to your first buck. Would it meet antler restriction criteria? Odds are, probably not. A key in keeping young or new hunters interested in the sport is letting them have some success. If that means they take a younger, smaller antlered deer, that is perfectly fine. If it means that young boy or girl is going to be a hunter for rest of their life that is perfectly fine with me.
Antler restrictions also have land restrictions as well. In order for antler restrictions to work it takes thousands of acres. That is why Game and Fish agencies can use them with some helpful effects. The whole state of Missouri or Illinois is enough land to make a change. A small 120 acre property in one of those states is not enough land. Bucks have home ranges that can be quite large and controlling buck age structure in a small area is nearly impossible.
Antler restrictions are also site specific. What works on a property in one part of the state will not work on another property in the opposite corner of the state. That is the main problem with some statewide antler restrictions and also why your property should not be treated exactly like your neighbor’s property. You need to look at your property and your unique situation. Fertile soil, food availability and many other factors that contribute to antler size relative to different age classes are widely variable. This makes it difficult for antler restrictions to work on properties that may actually have an area large enough for them to work.
For landowners who want to improve herd health, age structure, and along with those antler size, the voluntary passing of younger deer is a much better choice. This means aging buck’s on-the-hoof and applying harvest criteria based on age class. This too can be difficult. It takes lots of practice to be able to correctly age a buck while it walks past your stand, but it is a much more effective way to go. Aging bucks by one characteristic (antler size), is not very accurate and leads to mistakes in judging deer age. Older bucks do not necessarily have larger antlers. By taking into account many different characteristics when field judging deer such as chest size, sway back, length of legs to the rest of the body, sagging skin and others, judging and eventually shooting a deer based on age class is much more effective.
With all that being said antler restrictions have seen some success by the Game and Fish departments that have implemented them. Antler restrictions, however, are not the way to go if you are a small or medium sized land owner, shooting by age class is a much better option.