An Open Letter to the Guy Who Can’t Eat Horns

can't eat antlersI know you. You can’t help yourself. You’re that person who retorts on pretty much every message board or social media post about big bucks, quality bucks or just bucks in general with that predictable, five-word phrase: “You can’t eat the horns.” In as few words as possible, you shout volumes about where you stand on this whole “big buck” thing. It’s your go-to message, and you’ll be damned if the world is going to tell you what to shoot come deer season.

Though I’m still relatively young (I tell that to myself anyway), I’ve worked in the deer hunting and land management industry long enough to have run into you countless times. You’re everywhere! Since we’re basically lifelong friends at this point, I figured I’d come to your defense to help you shape and sell your message, because I think the point isn’t getting across the way you hoped.

Thus, I offer you five alternative comebacks the next time you feel the need to spout off. Indeed, there are lots of reasons you can’t eat the horns. You’re welcome in advance.

Something’s Missing up Top

This one is simple. You can’t eat the horns because white-tailed deer don’t have horns. Antlers grow from the tip and are shed and re-grown annually, while horns grow from the base and do so for the life of the animal. Whitetails, mule deer, moose, caribou and elk all carry antlers. Sheep and goats grow horns. If you’re interested in reading more about those deciduous boney appendages everyone seems to be obsessed over, here is a great article that covers the facts about antlers.

Message Tweak 1: You can’t eat the antlers.

You like Big (Steak) Butts

Let’s face it: you like venison. It’s important enough to you that you feel the need to voice your opinion about it. And actually there is an absolute ton of survey data out there right now that supports the fact that obtaining meat – the original “prize” in hunting – is an increasingly important motivation among hunters to go afield, while hunting for a “trophy” consistently ranks very low. At the same time, the non-hunting American public generally supports hunting for meat over hunting for a “trophy” by three-fold. Both of these trends are widespread and irrefutable. So, you’re correct in making sure that we as an industry don’t put too much focus on antlers.

The author, Matt Ross, with a doe that went in his freezer.

However, what you may not know is that this is all incredibly cohesive with the Quality Deer Management (QDM) philosophy. Many of the folks who are letting young bucks walk are also filling their freezers. They like meat, too. So much so that given the broad acceptance of QDM across North America, I’d wager QDM’ers pack more freezers with venison every year than self-designated “meat hunters.” How, you may ask? Well, the same people who pass yearling bucks typically also attempt to balance the local deer herd with the habitat by shooting an appropriate number of does in their location. As a result, deer body weights – and thus the venison they carry – increases on average per age class. Hence, more meat. So, before you condemn someone for passing yearling bucks, try and cook your message down to why antlers are unimportant to you.

Message Tweak 2: Eating meat from the game I kill is the most important thing to me.

The Good Ol’ Days

I’m guessing you remember a time when hunting meant more than the lifestyle of today’s “flashy” deer hunter, right? Gadgets galore, what’s yours versus what’s mine, and less focus on the tradition of hunting and more on giant antlers. It seems superficial sometimes, doesn’t it? What you’re experiencing is a little thing experts call “nostalgia” – a positive feeling tied to a personal association. Those were your good ol’ days, and something as simple as the smell of wood smoke or the visual of red plaid will evoke such deep feelings. The difference between you and me, and for that matter most of today’s modern deer hunters, is that many of us will be nostalgic about the hunting we’re experiencing right now. And, not because there is lots of game to pursue or because there’s a Boone-and-Crockett-class buck behind every tree. It’s because people value what they know. Because the philosophy of QDM is becoming more common every year, more and more hunters are reaping the benefits. This change is primarily due to the formation of the QDMA in 1988, and since then my hunting has increasingly become more fun.

I have more fun because I get to see a healthier deer herd and more rut sign than in the past. I enjoy deer hunting today because through the QDMA I get to work with my hands, shape the land, and see deer and other wildlife respond. I’m getting more pleasure today from deer hunting compared to the past because of the community aspect of practicing QDM; getting kids involved in the outdoors and watching them learn alongside their parents and mentors; neighbors working together; communities becoming stronger through QDM Cooperatives. Fact is, this is my heyday, and I’m soaking up every season. And truth be told, I am old enough (Ugh, I just turned 40 this year) to remember a time when things weren’t quite the same.

Change is scary, but it can be a very good thing. Unfortunately, some people leap past QDM and put a lot of energy and focus on the size of a buck’s antlers as a gauge of their success, and that’s a shame because, as you know, the pure joy found in deer hunting is so much more than that.

Message Tweak 3: When I hear someone talking about deer hunting, it reminds me of the good ol’ days.

Old Bucks are Special

I get it. I’m not an envious person, but scrolling through pictures of countless gargantuan bucks hitting the dirt every fall can really fracture your jealous bone. And then, when a photo of an above average – but realistic – buck you’d be proud to kill is posted, and careless phrases pop up below it such as “should’ve given him another year” or “cull deer for sure,” well that can really put sand in your britches. It’s one thing to talk about killing an older buck, but let’s face it: It can be very difficult to connect with one on even a somewhat regular basis, especially in an area that gets a lot of hunting pressure. Mature bucks are rare, that’s one of the things that make them special.

My best advice is to ignore those types of comments altogether and just focus on how to improve your chances at killing one as consistently as possible; because, although it’s hard to admit, that thought is on the minds of most deer hunters when they go afield. Thankfully, QDMA specializes in educating hunters all about that, from describing how older bucks behave differently, to how best play the wind, to when rattling or calling is most successful and many other strategies. And, when it doesn’t happen, there’s more to life (and deer hunting) than killing a big ‘un. The Four Cornerstones of QDM have taught me that.

Message Tweak 4: Talking about antlers makes me reflect on my own shortcomings, but I’d like to learn more about how to improve my odds.


QDM is not about growing big antlers. In fact, it’s not even really just about deer hunting. It is about relationships, balance and being a good steward. QDM is about doing the right thing. When you mistakenly confuse a photo of a giant buck on the Internet as a “QDM success story,” well, you’re missing a big part of the picture.

We’re not that far apart, you and me. We’re both deer hunters. We both like eating venison and are proud to be able to provide that experience and the sustenance from it to our friends and family. We both value the traditions that deer hunting affords. We both enjoy the practical and life lessons that the deer woods have taught us.

So, the next time you decide to tap the words “you can’t eat the horns” out on your cell phone screen or computer keyboard, do a friend a favor and hit the backspace button a few times and consider one of the alternatives I’ve offered here. I think your message will come across a lot stronger.

Message Tweak 5: I measure success in memories, not inches of antler. Just like the QDMA does.

About Matt Ross

Matt Ross of Saratoga Springs, New York, is a certified wildlife biologist and licensed forester and NDA's Director of Conservation. He received his bachelor's in wildlife conservation from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and his master's in wildlife management from the University of New Hampshire. Before joining the NDA staff, Matt worked for a natural resource consulting firm in southern New Hampshire, and he was an NDA volunteer and Branch officer. He and his wife Sadie have two daughters, Josephine and Sabrina.