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How To Take Monster Bucks

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For most of us, those big buck mounts on display at deer shows and in trophy rooms are like fleeting daydreams. They seem as far removed from reality as winning the lottery.

But are huge bucks truly rare across North America? I'm not talking about proven trophy-producing ranches, untapped river-bottoms or remote wilderness forests. I mean the big bucks in your home state or my home state of Alabama. Are big bucks just not there? If they are, why are these magnificent animals seldom seen or shot?

In some areas, trophy bucks exist in minuscule numbers. But from what I've seen, every state produces several big bucks each year. Some hunters and researchers believe many of the greatest trophy bucks that ever have lived -- or are living today --have died or will die of old age, not from a hunter's bullet or broadhead.

Although such bucks probably have had many near-death encounters, their senses, instinct, adaptability and resourcefulness have enabled them to dodge danger successfully. Sometimes these bucks appear to be too tough to be killed.

Orrin J. Rongstad - Research in Wisconsin

Orrin J. Rongstad, professor emeritus in wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is convinced many old bucks die of natural causes each year throughout the United States. Rongstad did not always hold that opinion. In fact, as recently as the mid-1980s, Rongstad scoffed when Wisconsin biologists speculated that many bucks died of old age in the state's Northern Forest. There was little physical evidence or eyewitness testimony to support the claim.

"I used to chuckle when they said we had all these old bucks dying up north in our state," Rongstad said. "I didn't believe it. Now I do. Those older bucks just aren't being killed by hunters."

What made Rongstad change his mind? The answer is found in his ongoing research using radio telemetry. The research started in 1986 when Rongstad and his group of graduate students began trapping and radio-tagging deer in the forests of northwestern Wisconsin. The number of tagged deer had grown to 266 by 1993.

Originally, the tagging program was designed to determine the effects of artificial feeding on deer, to learn their movement patterns and to assess their ability to survive. But for the past three to four years, Rongstad also has been watching for some clues about the long-term survival of deer tagged early in the study.

"I believe our research shows many of the older bucks are not being harvested," Rongstad explained. "The percentage of radio-tagged bucks getting killed by hunters is so low that there has to be a bunch of them up there.

"We found one buck last year that was at least 9.5 years old that had died from natural causes. The buck had a severe infection on the top of his head around the base of his antlers, which could have been caused from a buck fight or some other injury. But in general, he wasn't showing his age. His teeth weren't worn badly, and his body was in good shape."

But Rongstad is quick to say he does not know the actual causes of death for older bucks, mainly because their bodies are seldom found. (In many cases, the radio transmitters stop functioning, or the deer vanish from the area in which they have been trapped, making tracking them impossible).

Rongstad reported 40 bucks from the research's early years still unaccounted for as he commented, "Some of those bucks were 3.5 years old in 1986. If they were taken by hunters, I think most hunters would have reported the incidents and turned in the tags or collars. But we haven't heard anything about those bucks since we tagged them. If they are still alive, they will be 9 or 10 years old. I believe many of them have died from old age by now."

If old bucks are dying of natural causes, why don't we find them or their skeletons? Rongstad offers two possibilities:

"If these bucks eluded hunters for many years by remaining in heavy cover, then we can reason that when they're hurt or injured, they'll return to their sanctuaries to die," Rongstad said. "Since hunters never has discovered that sanctuary when the buck is alive, we can assume they won't find him after he dies.

"Another possibility is that predators and scavengers such as dogs, bobcats, raccoons, foxes and coyotes feed on the carcasses and chew and scatter the bones. Also rodents like rats, squirrels and porcupines probably eat the bones and antlers."

If Rongstad is right about older bucks dying of natural causes, one possible effect is that harvest data collected by hunters and state wildlife agencies may not provide a totally accurate picture of a herd's age structure. Biologists usually assume that when the percentage of older animals in the hunters' harvest is low, it represents a low number of older animals in the herd.

James Kroll & Ben Koerth - Deer Biologists

Two researchers who question that assumption are Professor James C. Kroll and Ben Koerth, a research associate, at the College of Forestry at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Kroll and Koerth are in the second year of a five-year study that compares the university's age-structure data on white-tailed does with data compiled separately by hunting clubs and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Kroll and Koerth found there was no significant difference between data collected by hunters and data collected by the department. That means these data provide an accurate picture of the age structure of harvested deer. However, Kroll and Koerth believe harvest data do not necessarily reflect the actual age structure of the herd.

"We are seeing some definite hunter bias in harvest data," Kroll said. "Apparently, does in the mature prime-age classes (4 to 5 years of age) are significantly underrepresented in the hunters' harvest; and we continue to see significantly fewer 2-year-olds in our own samples than reported by hunters and the department."

Koerth believes the university's data is most accurate because the does in this sample are shot randomly at night under a special research permit.

"That's why we see a lot more older deer in our sample than what hunters see in theirs," Koerth reported.

Even though Kroll and Koerth are comparing data about doe harvests, the same trends surface with bucks. Kroll says these differences are caused by a tendency for hunters to kill less experienced animals. He says this is especially true for bucks.

"The older bucks out there aren't going to show up as much in the hunters' harvests," Koerth mentioned. "We see this same pattern with the older does. The older bucks and does aren't the first ones to walk out in broad daylight and get shot. That means the age structure of bucks in the herd is different from the bucks that are harvested. More older bucks are out there than what is represented in the harvest."

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