The numbers tell the tale: the 21st century has been a historically great time to be a big buck hunter.
The Boone and Crockett Club has tracked big game trophies since 1830. Its record book includes 14,042 whitetails.
It took 185 years, from 1830 to 1999, for hunters to take the first 6,883 of those. That’s 49 percent of the total. It’s taken them less than 15 years to add the remaining 7,159, or 51 percent.
“It’s 100 percent true, the years since 2000 or so have been the golden age of white-tailed deer,” said Justin Spring, assistant director of big game records for the Boone and Crockett Club.
That’s been the case all across the country.
The top five whitetail states, by record book entries — Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Kentucky, respectively — all have seen significant jumps in trophy numbers.
Sixty-four percent of Kentucky’s “Booners” have been harvested since 2000. It has been 59 percent in Wisconsin, 57 in Illinois, 48 in Iowa and 33 in Minnesota. Ohio, just outside the top five in total entries, put 70 percent of its bucks in over that time.
Similar things have occurred throughout the Northeast. Pennsylvania, for example, could only claim 86 Boone and Crockett bucks going into this season, but 66 percent of them were killed since 2000. Maryland put 50 percent of its bucks in the book since then, New York 48 percent and West Virginia 43 percent.
Credit for much of that here goes to antler restrictions, said Bob D’Angelo, big game records coordinator for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Before 2002, hunters could shoot any buck with at least one antler measuring 3 inches long.
Now a buck must have either three or four points on one antler to be legal.
That’s made a dramatic difference, D’Angelo said.
“Yeah, we’ve noticed that. Maybe the last 10 years or so for us, the record book numbers have really increased,” he said.
Brian Murphy, executive director of the Quality Deer Management Association, said hunters all over America are letting bucks live longer, whether required to by regulation or not. The days of shooting any deer with antlers “as tall as a pack of cigarettes” are largely gone, he said. That more than anything is behind the surge in record book entries, he said.
“The culture’s just changed. It’s a very different world,” Murphy said.
The rise in record book bucks also can be credited to the sheer number of deer available and, to a lesser extent, more awareness of the record book, he added.
If there’s any cautionary news, it’s that the number of record book entries Boone and Crockett received last year was way down.
“2013 was an epic tank. I mean, it was a total fail,” Spring said.
Some areas of the country, even some of the “bread and butter” states of the Upper Midwest, saw an 80 percent decline in the number of big bucks they produced compared to prior years, he said.
That continued a bit of a recent trend. Spring said the number of record book entries, while still running ahead of decades past, has plateaued since about 2010.
There are a lot of theories as to why.
Some blame predators, Spring said. Others point to loss of habitat or habitat degradation.
A couple of really nasty winters might also have played a role.
Disease is another possibility. Outbreaks of EHD, or epizootic hemorrhagic disease, in 2007 and 2012, either of which alone would have represented a once-in-50-years event, killed a lot of deer nationwide, Murphy said.
The result is deer numbers are down from a record high of 32 million a few years ago to about 26 million now.
Spring is “cautiously optimistic” the number of record book entries is climbing again, though, based on applications he’s received so far this fall.
He’s hopeful last year was “just a blip.”
“My gut is telling me that we’re going to have a better year in 2014, but we won’t know for sure until March or April, when most of the records we’ll get have come in,” he said.