Missouri's 2006 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Last month we covered places to go to get a deer; this month we track the big boys. (Nov 2006)

The Boone and Crockett Club sets the ultimate benchmark for the term "trophy animal."

In the case of the whitetail deer, a buck whose rack exceeds B&C's minimum score of 170 all-time (160 awards) for typicals and 195 all-time (185 awards) for non-typicals is often described as "a buck in a million." That's actually an optimistic ratio across North America as a whole -- but not in Missouri. In fact, from 1996 through 2005, Missouri logged 222 B&C bucks out of a total antlered deer harvest of well under 1 million.

Although I'm certainly in a great position to know that Missouri's a great trophy whitetail state, I'll admit to being surprised at the number of bucks reported to B&C in the past 10 years. Truth be told, I'd chosen 10 years primarily because it allows sufficient time for more than one generation of bucks in a given area to reach trophy size without allowing enough time to allow for shifting trophy production patterns. Further research revealed that Missouri has produced 359 entries since 1986.

Missouri's impressive showing between 1986 and 1995 (137 B&C bucks) demonstrates that the state was producing huge-racked whitetails before management of the state's deer herd began to require ever-increasing harvests of antlerless deer. Even so, the fact that the 222 B&C entries recorded between 1996 and 2005 represent 62 percent of all the B&C bucks taken in Missouri over the past 20 years is even more exciting. Boiled down to the essence, these figures strongly suggest that the time to hunt super-trophy bucks in Missouri is right now.

Unfortunately, telling you to hunt "in Missouri" doesn't help very much. If location is vital in the case of the 140- or 155-class bucks we usually discuss in this section -- and it is -- picking the right spot to spend the hunting season is even more so if you dream of taking a B&C trophy. To try to narrow the search for that "right spot," I sorted the 222 1996-2005 trophy bucks by the region and county in which they were taken. Here's what those efforts revealed.

THE NORTHEAST REGION

Conventional wisdom, to say nothing of common sense, would indicate that the Northeast Region, which leads the state in overall deer harvest and in the Missouri Show-Me Big Bucks Club record book, could not possibly be the best place in the state to find bucks that live long enough to produce B&C racks. Logical though such reasoning might be, it's false. In fact, 28.8 percent of all the B&C trophy bucks taken anywhere in Missouri during the past 10 years have come from the Northeast Region. That's 42 typicals and 22 non-typicals.

Every one of the region's 15 counties tallied at least one B&C buck during the study period, a distinction the Northeast shares with no other region. Pike (8) led the way followed by Adair (7), Macon (7), Putnam (6), Knox (6), Lewis (6), Randolph (5), Monroe (4), Sullivan (3), Scotland (3), Clark (3), Marion (2), Shelby (1), and Ralls (1). Note that Lewis, Knox, Adair, Putnam, and Macon form the T-shaped "Booner Alley" that has long since earned its place in Missouri deer hunting lore.

Between 1996 and 2005, the region's best non-typical, killed in Pike County in 2000, scored 266 1/8. Killed in Macon County in 2001, the top typical scored 188 4/8.

So what's so special about northeastern Missouri? The fact that it's bounded on the east by the Mississippi River and on the south by the Missouri River certainly doesn't hurt. Even so, big river habitat obviously isn't the whole story because some of the region's best counties lie far from either river. It must be noted, however, that those counties, like the overwhelming majority of the rest of region, are dominated by nutrient- and mineral-rich mixed cropland and hardwood forest habitats where deer find it easy to obtain high-quality forage the year 'round.

No scientific studies have been done in Missouri to compare the genetic makeup of the deer herd in the state's various regions. But it really doesn't take a biologist to observe that northeastern Missouri's whitetails are robust animals. Cruiserweight does and bucks are not uncommon, and, given the chance to do so, the some of the bucks grow antlers in keeping with their body size.

To add to the natural benefits of the area, northeastern Missouri's deer hunters are, as a group, exceptionally passionate about their sport. Naturally, such passion translates into deer hunting knowledge and skill. More important, however, it's moved the region's deer hunters to the forefront in voluntary quality deer management. These men and women don't consider themselves too good to shoot an antlerless deer, and they're far more willing than is the typical hunter to pass up a small buck.

Be that as it may, the most intriguing question regarding the Northeast Region, given its relatively heavy hunting pressure region-wide, is: How do bucks live long enough to grow trophy racks? Lonnie Hansen, Missouri's best-known deer biologist, believes that if the necessary nutrition and genes are in play, sheer luck plays a significant role in whether any buck will survive long enough to become a trophy no matter where in Missouri it's born.

"Some bucks spend the first two years of their lives in places where there's little or no hunting pressure," Hansen observed. "Others survive their first few negative encounters with humans for one reason or another. It's these bucks that are most likely to live to be more than 5 years old, by which time they've become very hard to kill."

THE NORTHWEST REGION

Despite its larger geographic size and smaller human population, the Northwest Region accounted for 20.7 percent of the statewide trophy buck total. Of these, 30 were typicals and 16 non-typicals. Eighteen of the region's 21 counties have yielded at least one B&C trophy buck since 1996. Gentry and Livingston have both produced five. Nodaway and Linn had four each. Holt, Worth, DeKalb, Harrison, Daviess, and Ray each yielded three. Atchison, Mercer, Grundy, Platte, and Chariton all had two. Caldwell, Clay, and Carroll contributed one apiece.

The region's biggest non-typical taken during the study period scored 235 0/8 and was killed in Daviess County in 1997. The top typical scored 180 6/8; it came from Livingston County in 2004.

The Northwest Region is bounded on two sides by the Missouri River, which undoubtedly helped produce B&C bucks in every county it touched, except Andrew and Buchannan. But most of the region's best counties lie in the mixed cropland and hardwood forest habitat of the region's interior.

This region has a number of large and small Missouri Department of Conservation conservation areas that are either open only to archery or are limited to archers and muzzleloader hunters (see

the deer regulations booklet for details). As a result, they feel far less pressure than do other public properties -- and that, my friends, is a word to the wise.

THE CENTRAL REGION

Although it ranks last among Missouri's "Big Three" trophy buck producers, the Central Region has earned its right to membership in that elite group. Between 1996 and 2005, 18 percent of the state's B&C bucks (27 typicals and 13 non-typicals) were killed in this region.

The top non-typical taken in the region during the study period, killed in Callaway County in 2000, scored 223 0/8. The best typical scored 181 4/8 and was taken in Cole County in 2000.

Twelve of the Central Region's 15 counties yielded B&C bucks. Callaway led the region -- and the state -- with nine. Saline, Cooper, Morgan, and Montgomery had four each. Boone and Audrain had three apiece. Howard, Moniteau, Cole, and Osage all contributed two. Miller supplied one.

Firearms hunting pressure across this region varies from maximal to minimal. That Callaway is a good example of a county with intense hunting pressure and Cooper is an example of a county with relatively light hunting pressure proves that no trophy hunter should let the level of competition from other hunters psych him up or out -- positively or negatively. The key is to remember Hansen's words, and to search out a tiny pocket of habitat where a buck might have been overlooked for years.

THE KANSAS CITY REGION

When the MDC redrew the boundaries of the Kansas City Region several years ago, it ceased to be a true urban region. Nowadays the region, which does still include the Kansas City metro area, extends east to Pettis County and south to Vernon County. The resulting urban, suburban, and rural habitat mix produced 12.2 percent of the state's B&C bucks (15 typicals and 12 non-typicals) between 1996 and 2005.

Eleven of the region's 12 counties contributed to its cause led by Pettis' four. Jackson, Cass, Johnson, Henry, and Benton produced three each. Platte, Bates, and Barton weighed in with two apiece. Clay and Lafayette each had one. St. Clair's absence from the list seems strange, considering the county's elevated rank as an overall deer producer.

The region's biggest non-typical in the past 10 years was tagged in Vernon County in 2004; it scored 234 3/8. The best typical, which was killed in Cass County in 2001, scored 191 0/8.

The Central Region is rich in public areas, and though few of those go unexploited by the region's deer hunters, the region continues to be capable of producing B&C bucks. Look for microhabitats that other hunters pass by, and don't forget that monster bucks are often less aggressive than other mature bucks.

THE ST. LOUIS REGION

The eight-county St. Louis Region is by far the state's most urban. Despite, or perhaps because of, this fact, the region's B&C trophy production over the past 10 years has contributed 9.9 percent of the state's total harvest.

Warren County yielded seven B&C bucks, a number equaled only by Macon and Adair Counties and surpassed only by Pike and Callaway counties. Lincoln and St. Louis produced four each. St. Charles, Franklin, and Jefferson all had two. Washington added one to the region's total. Crawford failed to produce an entry during the study period, but that just means that its biggest buck is still alive.

The biggest non-typical taken from the region in the past ten years scored 223 5/8 and was killed in Jefferson County in 2004. The largest typical scored 187 5/8 and came from Franklin County in 2001.

Access is a tough nut to crack in this region. The MDC's Special Management Hunts may be the best bet for trophy seekers who don't "know someone." Admittedly, the draw odds for the antlered deer hunts are long, but beating the odds once just might be enough.

SOUTHERN MISSOURI

The southern third of Missouri is divided into the 16-county Southeast Region, the 12-county Ozark Region, and the 17-county Southwest Region. This huge block of land has habitat types including prairie, horizon-to-horizon cropland laced with natural and artificial waterways, mixed cropland and woodland, and multi-thousand-acre tracts of unbroken hardwood forest.

It's not impossible to find a B&C buck here. In fact, the past 10 years have seen the Southeast Region produce four typical and four non-typical B&C trophies. The Ozark Region has yielded eight typicals and three non-typicals. The Southwest Region, which struggles in every deer-hunting category, added three typicals and one non-typical to the state's total. In other words, these three regions taken together produced one less trophy buck than the geographically challenged St. Louis Region.

For the record, the Southeast's biggest trophy bucks were a 1998 Bollinger County non-typical scoring 205 2/8 and a 1997 Butler County typical scoring 173 2/8. A 1998 Pulaski County non-typical scoring 198 5/8 and a 2004 Texas County typical scoring 177 2/8 led the Ozark Region. The Southwest's only non-typical was a 2002 McDonald County buck that scored 190 7/8. The region's most impressive typical was a 2002 Jasper County beauty that scored 184 5/8.

As part of the 2005 edition of this annual report, I used the most recent MSMBBC data available to determine that, between 1992 and 2001, 19 Missouri counties had recorded 40 or more bucks large enough to meet minimum MSMBBC standards. I compared those figures with the ones reported in this article in hopes of finding a direct correlation. Alas, there doesn't appear to be one.

On one hand, every county yielding 40 or more MSMBBC bucks between 1992 and 2001 produced two or more B&C bucks between 1996 and 2005. Conversely, the top two MSMBBC counties, Saline with 91 entries and Chariton with 76, tallied four and two B&C bucks respectively. Meanwhile, Pike County, with eight B&C bucks to its credit produced "only" 40 MSMBBC bucks. However, Pike fared better than did Warren, Knox, Lewis, Gentry, Randolph, and Livingston counties, none of which made the MSMBBC list at all.

Lest you conclude that an inverse correlation exists between 140-class bucks and 170-class bucks, Putnam, Callaway, Adair, and Macon counties all ranked high on both lists.

Prior to the 2004 hunting season, deer management in Missouri was based on controlling the overall number and distribution of deer by manipulating the number of antlerless permits issued on a county-by-county (formerly unit-by-unit) basis. That method will no doubt continue to be the MDC's primary tool.

That said, beginning in 2004 and continuing at least through the 2006 season, bucks in 29 counties in northwest and central Missouri must carry at least 4 points on one side of their racks in order to be legal. Only time will tell what, if any, impact this regulation will have on the number of bucks that survive long enough to grow trophy racks.

Author's Note: Data for this article is from the Boone and Crockett Club's records database and is summarized in this article with the express written per

mission of the Boone and Crockett Club, 250 Station Drive, Missoula, MT 59801. To learn more about the club and the many activities it is involved in, please visit its Web site at www.booneandcrockettclub.com, or call (406) 542-1888.

Find more about Missouri fishing and hunting at: MissouriGameandFish.com

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