As the sun creaks over the horizon Saturday morning, scattered gun reports will echo through the hills and valleys of rural Missouri, trumpeting the opening of firearms deer season.
Quest for the buck
The morning light will find thousands of orange-clad hunters stationed in tree stands and lonely forest hollows, patient and shivering with rifles cold as ice. Many will be in the pursuit of giant bucks.
With the dawn of the firearms deer season in Boone and 28 other counties across Missouri, however, comes a new rule hunters will be required to observe that encourages them to take more does. But the question remains whether the regulation will sway buck-centric hunters, even with the promise of more big bucks in the long run.
The pursuit of the buck with a majestic antler rack is central to deer-hunting culture. Joe Toepel, a Montgomery County hunter who was browsing the selection of rifles Thursday at Columbia’s Powder Horn Guns & Sporting Goods in Columbia, said many hunters share that goal.
“A lot of hunters want a big rack to put on their wall,” Toepel said.
Images of trophy bucks adorn all sorts of hunting gear and crowd the pages of hunting magazines. In the latest issues of Deer Hunter, Whitetail and Missouri Game & Fish, photographs of bucks outnumbered those of does 35 to one.
Columbia taxidermist David Megahan said he generally mounts 100 bucks for every doe a hunter brings.
“If a guy has a really nice buck on the wall already, he might want to get a doe mounted because they make a nice pair,” Megahan said.
Taking a large buck is about more than the kill and the food it provides; it’s a story, a trophy and a bragging right.
But the desire to kill big bucks also dates back to humans’ earliest ancestors, who hunted and gathered their food and scrawled images of bison and antlered deer and elk on rock surfaces.
“With a buck it’s almost a mystical, evolutionary thing,” said Lonnie Hansen, a research scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation in Columbia. “Even our early ancestors were fascinated with the antlered animals.”
Still, the practice of favoring bucks over does has caused Missouri’s deer population to shift. Right now, does make upabout 60 percent of Missouri’s deer herd.
“You put a buck and a doe in front of a hunter, and he or she is more likely to shoot the antlered deer,” Hansen said.
Gunning for the does
In an attempt to even out the population, the department this year will restrict hunters to killing only those bucks with at least four points on one side of their racks. Hunters are limited to one such buck apiece. They can also buy bonus antlerless-only permits that allow them to kill does or young button bucks, deer with indistinguishable antlers that might not be visible to the hunter.
The goal is to balance the numbers of bucks and does. But the allure of the big buck can make shooting does a tough sell.
And some older hunters remain wary of killing does because they remember decades ago when female deer were protected so Missouri’s small herd could grow, Powderhorn owner Lee Brandkamp said.
To help the cause, the Conservation Department in most areas of the state has offered unlimited numbers of licenses for does for a few years. It has also begun special youth hunting seasons and, this year, it held a four-day urban deer-hunting season in October.
Last winter, the Conservation Department invited hunters to a series of public meetings to help develop new strategies for thinning the herd. Of the 2,900 hunters who attended, 51 percent favored the antler-point restriction.
Hansen said hunters who kill does can feel good about controlling the herd. Plus, after a few years of sparing younger bucks, they’ll notice an increase in the number of trophy bucks.
Doe hunters also end up with better-tasting venison, said Tim Schwennesen of Tune’s Locker Plant in Centralia. “A doe is more tender and has a little better flavor,” he said
Schwennesen said bucks have harder, more muscular meat, and does have a layer of fat that enhances flavor.
Columbian Doug Wallace, shopping at Powder Horn on Thursday, said expanding the youth season, which now lasts only two days, would help cut the doe population because younger hunters are less picky about what they shoot.
“I’ve got a son who’d shoot 50 does if they’d let him,” Wallace said.