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Eights Are Great

By Alan Brewer

photoPhoto: The author’s Montgomery Ranch management buck was an exceptional trophy. This heavy-beamed “great eight” scores in the mid-140s.

During the 1997 hunting season I had the good fortune of being invited to Texas for two whitetail hunts. Although each was in a different location and offered unique terrain, both were for management bucks. These hunts are designed to remove bucks from the herd because of some undesirable trait the ranch game manager has determined to be counterproductive to his whitetail management criteria.

My first hunt was with Don Montgomery at his ranch north of Fort Worth. Don owns and manages approximately 3,200 acres under high fence. After eight years of intensive management, he has developed a high percentage of trophy animals. A few lucky trophy hunters were allowed to hunt Don’s ranch in 1997, and the harvested trophy bucks averaged 162 points. My hunt offered the opportunity to take a mature buck with a basic 8-point rack. I was told that if there was a ninth point on the rack of a mature buck, but it did not grow from the main beam where ninth and 10th points typically do, it would also be acceptable to harvest. I asked Don about the maximum size management buck allowed to be taken. He said, “Shoot the biggest buck you can find that fits into this criteria.” This excited me, but I couldn’t understand how a mega 8-point was considered to be a management buck.

Don said his management philosophy is not like reading a crystal ball. He listens to respected experts in the field and applies practices that are applicable to his ranch. He said 8-point bucks always represent a high percentage of his total herd. Ideally, Don would like to see bucks of 10 or more points breeding and passing on genes. “Some deer with inferior antler qualities need to be removed from the herd,” Don said. He and his staff take as many of these deer as they can. Don has applied the philosophy since Day One of his management program.

He implements an extensive year-round supplemental feeding program designed to enhance antler development. It appears to be working well. All the bucks I saw had above-average racks.

photoPhoto: According to Don Montgomery’s management criteria, the buck on the right would be considered a management buck—a tremendous trophy for any whitetail hunter. Photo by: Mike Searles

According to Don, harvesting mature 8-pointers should not be considered second-rate hunting. He has several 8-point bucks mounted that are just as impressive as his higher-scoring deer with more than eight points. To manage for bucks with 10 or more points, mature bucks with fewer than 10 points must be kept from breeding. That is the primary goal of management buck hunts.

With my new understanding of Don’s philosophy, I was eager to get into the field. One benefit of hunting lower-level deer is that it allows a hunter to observe dominant bucks in their natural habitat. Since I could not shoot the 10s or 12s, I was able to watch them react with the other deer in their environment. In any other situation, seeing a big 10- or 12-point buck would result in a quick shot.

One very important aspect of management hunting is being able to study deer thoroughly with good optics. Tower blinds offer an excellent opportunity to view an undisturbed buck and size it up. I saw many impressive deer that, after closer scrutiny, did not fit my criteria because they were either immature or had too many points. Although many times I was disappointed to find a ninth typical point, I knew that sooner or later a big 8-pointer would appear.

After several days of watching some great deer, my buck finally showed. It was heavy-beamed with a 3-inch sticker point protruding from the base of its left antler. This management buck was a true trophy to me, and I was thrilled to take it. Had it not been for Don’s management buck program, this buck likely would have been passed up by trophy hunters and died of old age.

My second hunt took me to south Texas and the ranch of my good friend Bob Zaiglin. I have hunted management bucks with Bob for several years and really appreciate the opportunity to be exposed to such great deer. Bob manages several thousand acres of private ranch land and uses management hunts as one of his tools for producing trophy whitetails. Bob’s education includes a bachelor’s degree in wildlife science and a master’s degree in range and wildlife management. His many years of “in-the-brush” training also provide interesting insight into the science of whitetail management. Bob has a simple and natural approach to producing big deer: allow the bucks in a herd to mature, and the quality bucks will follow. He also believes that genetics, nutrition and controlled harvesting are important, but he says maturity is the key.

The deer herds Bob manages are allowed to exist primarily on natural forage combined with scattered oat food plots. No other supplemental feeding is introduced. A range management technique called “roller chopping” is used to provide new and succulent vegetation for the deer. A bulldozer pulls a large drum with blades and cuts up the brush, breaking it down. This allows new vegetation to grow and produces superior food sources for deer. The results of roller chopping are similar to a new clear cut. Deer prefer the resulting new plant growth.

Bob believes that by harvesting management bucks he is able to take some pressure off the upper-tier trophy deer. He says that typical ranges will only produce a limited number of superior, high-scoring bucks. By allowing hunters to harvest mature bucks that are a step down on the antler score ladder, the deer-per-acre pressure is reduced on the upper-level bucks, allowing more forage for the animals with the highest trophy potential.

Wildlife managers sometimes differ in their respective definitions of what constitutes a management buck. Unlike Don Montgomery’s definition, Bob restricts the harvesting of 8-point bucks if they have any non-typical sticker points. He wants to preserve these non-typical antler characteristics in the gene pool, so he insists that only mature “slick eights” be taken. 

If an immature 8-point buck is harvested, it serves no management purpose because it might have become a 10- or 12-point buck at maturity. Thus, it is critical that a hunter be able to judge a buck’s age and antler characteristics. Bob is diligent in harvesting only true management bucks. In Bob’s program, he will occasionally harvest bucks with more than eight typical points that are past breeding prime. Such bucks only consume valuable forage that would better serve the rest of the herd. These “over-the-hill” bucks are noticeably older in appearance and have a lack of brow tines and short, stubby points. By removing these deer, more and better nutrition is available for younger and less-dominant bucks.

Over the past several years, I have watched this south Texas herd develop into one of the best trophy antler-producing herds in the country. A by-product of good antler development is a superior, healthy deer. Not only is this herd producing great antlers, but the overall herd (does, fawns and bucks) seems to be thriving because of Bob’s management procedures. I tip my hat to those ranch owners whose total commitment to providing excellent environments for whitetails seems to have no bounds.

I have hunted with Bob in each of the last few years during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. During the week, vigorous rutting activity is still in progress because of the unbred does again coming into their estrus cycle. With the primary rut on its downward slide, the bucks seem to be hitting the food plots hard in order to restore their weight lost during the rut. Again, this offers a great opportunity to observe dominant bucks doing their thing. Each day’s hunt is full of excitement, not only with the opportunity to bag a great buck but also with the opportunity to watch even greater bucks.

The first couple of days were uneventful as far as locating a buck that fit into my management hunt criteria, but I saw many other great trophy bucks that were off limits. On the third afternoon, my guide Kenny and I decided to go to our elevated blind early. In the previous few days, while riding back to camp from our morning hunt, we had noticed several deer moving in the midday hours. When we walked up to the gate at the food plot entrance, deer were already feeding in the oats. Across the food plot, Kenny noticed a really good buck looking straight at us. The wind was blowing in our face at 25-30 miles per hour, so he couldn’t smell us. He saw our movement, however, when we eased up to the gate. We both glassed him, but because he was looking straight at us we couldn’t determine how many points he had. In a trophy hunt situation I would have taken this buck immediately because he had such a heavy, wide-framed rack, but under the management hunt rules I needed to study him thoroughly. After what seemed hours (actually only minutes), he turned his head and I counted points. He passed a quick “two up” test, which means he had two tines up, a main beam and a brow—equaling four points per side. I also had to look for sticker points or crab claws on the end of the beam. We both looked hard but could find none. The buck seemed to settle down a bit, and we took a few moments to be sure he was what I wanted. We finally concluded that he was a slick 8-pointer.

My next job was to establish a suitable rest for the 200-yard shot in a 25-30 mph wind. I tried the top of the fence post—too wobbly. I tried the barbed wire fence—too much movement. Then, I dropped to my knee and finally went prone. I was ready. This position offered me the best chance, but I was still a little shaky. Kenny suggested that I rest the rifle on my binoculars. That did it. With a rock-solid rest, I took aim at the buck and dropped it with one clean shot.

On any management buck hunt there is always a nervous moment or two until it is verified that the buck is indeed as it appeared before the shot. We cautiously walked into the oat patch, and I lifted the buck’s head and counted eight slick, long, dark and extremely impressive points on a wide frame. This was, by far, my greatest 8-point and a treasured trophy. If not for this trophy 8-point management buck opportunity, this buck eventually would have been prized by only a few hungry coyotes under a lonely mesquite bush.

I offer my special thanks to Don and Bob for the opportunities to see some great deer and, most of all, harvest my own special brand of trophy. A trophy is in the eyes of the beholder; mine has eight points.

– Alan Brewer

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