In the late 1990s, the burgeoning whitetail-management movement got highjacked by a loud and obnoxious group of people (I hesitate to call them real hunters) thoroughly obsessed with giant antlers. The noble effort of planting food plots and making other land improvements was not enough. You had to grow and then kill 170-inch plus whitetails, or nothing at all. If you grew or, the horror, shot too small of a buck, you were shamed relentlessly.
The big outdoor magazines of the day hopped on board. I know because I worked for two of them. One day an editor told me, “If you don’t put a 180- to 200-incher on the cover, this rag won’t sell jack on the newsstand.” We put more pictures of 200-inch deer on magazine covers back then than actually existed in the wild.
Television shows drank the Kool-Aid, too. If a TV host didn’t kill a ginormous buck every week, he was no good. This pressure led some guys to bow shoot, and even gun hunt, huge, protein-swollen mega-bucks in small pens. These canned hunts went over like a lead balloon with real hunters, and many a TV host’s career went kaput.
Back then, I was just starting to hunt on TV. On one episode of a major show, during a hard but fun 6-day hunt, I happily shot a 120-inch buck that might have been 3 years old, but maybe just two. I got 300 nasty letters from whackos spewing things like, “What’s wrong with you, numbskull. That buck needed another year, probably two or three more.” The “horn-porn” crowd was out of control.
Sometime around 2005, things began to change for the better. Hunting organizations began to change their focus, and they educated a new class of people to the many benefits of deer hunting, little of which has to do with rack size or score. But more than that, I think the antler maniacs found out that it is a hell of a lot easier said than done to grow and kill 170-inch-plus wild deer with any consistency. Doesn’t matter if you’re from Iowa or Indiana or any other hotspot, world-class bucks are few and far between.
The trend line has held and today hunters as a whole have gone back to embracing the true benefits of our passion, rather than obsessing only over the size of a rack. Sure, everybody hopes to shoot a big buck once in a while, but the days afield with friends and loved ones, the pink as salmon sunrises, the bird calls and sweet-and-sour smells of the woods, the bounty of venison on the few days when we are successful… That is what matters.
Not long ago I shot a 3-year-old, 130-inch (maybe) buck on my TV show and savored the moment. It was not a big deer, but it had been a tough hunt, and that buck made me happy. I got 100 emails of atta-boy support for doing it right.
The antler obsession of old is gone for now and forever I hope, good riddance.