Missouri's top deer biologist says hunters can expect to find more mature bucks when archery deer season opens Sept. 15.
Archers enjoy a long season, Sept. 15 through Nov. 13 and Nov. 25 through Jan. 15. Furthermore, resident hunters can buy and fill as many archery antlerless deer permits ($7 each) as they want in all but 13 southeast Missouri counties.
For many archers, however, filling the freezer is not the point. The challenge of matching wits with a mature buck is what keeps these die-hards in tree stands for hundreds of hours each fall. A set of large antlers is not so much a trophy as an affirmation of their woodscraft.
Resource Scientist Lonnie Hansen says these hunters have more chances to pursue mature bucks in much of the state, thanks to a regulation that went into effect in 2004. That is when the Missouri Department of Conservation implemented the "four-point rule."
Under the regulation, hunters in 29 counties in northwest and central Missouri have not been allowed to take antlered deer unless they have at least four points measuring 1 inch or larger on one side of their antlers. Few deer achieve this degree of antler development before they are 2.5 years old. In effect, the antler-point restriction is a minimum age limit, giving bucks time to mature and grow larger antlers. They also gain experience, making them more wary and challenging to hunt.
Long-term studies show that white-tailed deer bucks' antlers attain only 25 to 35 percent of their maximum size when they are 1.5 years old. The figure increases to 60 percent for 2.5-year-olds. Three and one-half-year-old bucks' antlers are 75 to 80 percent of maximum size, while those 4.5 years old grow antlers that are 90 to 95 percent as large as they ever will grow.
"Our primary goal with the antler-point restriction was to shift harvest pressure onto does," says Hansen. "Shooting bucks doesn't contribute much to controlling deer numbers, and we were looking for a way to get hunters to shoot more antlerless deer."
The idea, said Hansen, was that if hunters had to pass up shots at young bucks, there was a good chance the next deer to come along would be a doe, and they would shoot it. Letting more bucks survive was only an incidental effect, but it is one that many hunters are happy about.
Hansen points to the ages of deer taken by hunters in counties with the antler-point restriction four years after the rule went into effect. The number of 2.5-year-old deer was up 20 percent compared to counties without the restriction. The number of 3.5-year-old deer was 62 percent greater in antler-point restriction counties, and the number of 4.5-year-old deer was up an astonishing 202 percent.
"You have to be a bit cautious about the big differences in 3.5- and 4.5-year-olds," said Hansen. "The number of deer that hunters take in those age classes is small, so even a modest difference in the absolute number of deer shot translates into a big percentage difference. Nevertheless, a significant difference is attributable to the antler-point restriction."
Not surprisingly, hunters who focus on mature bucks have been enthusiastic promoters of the four-point rule. This popular support has encouraged the Conservation Department to expand the regulation to 65 counties and parts of three more.
Hansen said archers need to know that the antler-point restriction has been extended to Ste. Genevieve County and portions of Cass and Jefferson counties. The portion of Franklin County in the St. Louis urban deer zone no longer is under the antler-point restriction.