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The Practice of Buck Sorting

Deciding which buck to tag depends on the hunter and circumstances.

The Practice of Buck Sorting
A healthy Hoosier buck that would be a trophy for many, despite the inches of antler on his head. (Don Mulligan photo)

While there are unquestionably more deer in the Midwest today than there were 50 years ago, there are certainly fewer deer here now than there were 10 years ago. Even still, lots of hunters in America’s midsection choose to let buck after buck pass by, waiting for something special.

The practice is called buck sorting, and it is becoming more prevalent every year.

The days when deer were seen as nothing more than a bag of meat are gone. Today’s hunters want a freezer full of venison and a big rack for the wall, and some are prepared to wait for a deer that gives them both.

For dedicated sorters the decision is a difficult one and varies dramatically from one hunter to the next. A deer that would be considered the trophy of a lifetime by some might barely get a glance by others.

Click image to see photos of The Practice of Buck Sorting
The Practice of Buck Sorting

Choosing which buck to shoot and which one to let pass is often a split-second decision and should be influenced by several variables.

The first consideration is time available to hunt.

Most deer hunters are gun hunters and will only make it to the woods a few days a year. They want to shoot a big buck and might pass a yearling or two, but more often than not, shoot the first antlered deer they see and regret it.

The dilemma of when to shoot or pass doesn’t affect them as much since they are usually pressed for time or patience.

The length of their local deer season also factors into how many bucks these guys pass on before taking a shot. Excessively long firearms seasons, like those in Indiana, encourage more hunters to wait for the perfect deer.

In places like Indiana, hunters figure they have more than 40 days of gun season and will be back. But they often don’t make it back into the field, and if they do, the deer are so spooked they are not as visible or easy to kill.

The result is often an unfilled buck tag, which is a nightmare for biologists who rely on gun hunters to thin the herd and buy lots of tags.


A Numbers Game

It is a smaller subset of deer hunters who struggle most with how to define a shooter. These dedicated outdoorsmen and women hunt for months and are patient.

For them, it usually has to do with numbers. All antlered animals are scored based on the number of inches of antler they grow, and that number is a big deal to many.

Organizations such as Pope and Young, Boone and Crockett, The Safari Club and various state groups set minimum numerical standards for animals to be entered into their record books. Boone and Crockett is the most popular of the clubs and it sets the minimum entry score for a typical whitetail deer at 170 inches.

To put that into perspective, the vast majority of deer hunters, even in the big buck factories of the Midwest, will never even see a 170-class buck while hunting in their lifetime. Even in the best trophy states and their best counties, Booner deer are rare.

Because making the book with the national organizations is so difficult, most hunters set their personal minimum score much lower.

For some, the number is based on past kills and not wanting to tag anything smaller than their previous biggest deer. For others, it is a stagnant number and any deer that eclipses a preset goal is fair game.

Where to set the number should not only depend on the state and county hunted, but also the parcel and its surrounding hunters.

There are places in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Iowa where a deer over 140 inches has not been harvested in a decade. Those places are over hunted or simply hunted by too many meat hunters who argue there isn’t any nutritional value in antlers.

They aren’t wrong; they just hunt for a different reason than people who want to see mature deer and big antlers. There is a place in management for both types of hunters.

In places where the “if it’s brown it’s down” hunters rule, allowing every two-year-old buck to walk by probably means never killing a buck. After a few years of that, most big deer hunters start to question why they hunt, and either move or quit the sport altogether.

There are places in the Midwest, however, where it is well worth letting even 160-inch bucks go. The circumstances have to be perfect for a farm to make this cut.

If an area is big enough to allow deer a place to escape hunters, or all the hunters in the area feel the same way about what constitutes a shooter, it may be worth letting a trophy go.

For a place to predictably produce several old bucks every year it must also consist of more than several hundred contiguous acres with at least 50 percent cover, and provide a place for deer to eat and drink without being constantly bumped or shot at.

Nutrition and genetics are a factor, but don’t be fooled. Big deer occur in the Midwest where they are allowed to live more than four years. The truth is, the other stuff barely matters here when deer are allowed to live beyond adolescence.

But even in the big buck states there are times when an old buck may not make the magical cutoff number a deer hunter requires.

Sometimes a buck gets lucky, lives past his antler-growing prime and actually has declining antler growth.

This is a rare occurrence these days and usually only happens on huge, well-managed farms. It also happens on occasion when a buck is injured less than critically but enough that it impedes his movement during the rut.

And though nearly any buck that makes it to the age of five in the Midwest would be considered a shooter by anyone’s standards, there are always a few bucks that will just never grow big antlers, regardless of age.

Letting these bucks go won’t translate into bigger bucks in the future, but are hard for even seasoned hunters to identify.

Midwest states limit the number of bucks a hunter can tag as strictly as any other part of the country. Whether a hunter uses those one or two tags on the first or 10th deer he or she sees is becoming more of a gamble as deer populations continue to decline.

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