After having recently posted an article about when to shoot does, it seemed only fitting to follow-up with a post about shooting bucks. But unlike the earlier writing that discussed primarily the time of year in which to take down the female members of the herd, this article will focus on the criteria I use to determine which buck gets a pass and which one gets the shaft, literally.
Before we begin, I voluntarily admit that I am NOT a steadfast purest who shoots bucks solely if they are a fully mature 5 1/2 yr old plus monarch, nor am I going to pass a 130″ 2-year-old. Hell, if its late season and the freezer is empty, I may resort to shooting any deer (other than a button buck) that wanders into range. Afterall, I have a family to feed. Although I try my best to fill the freezer with does and usually don’t have to resort to such drastic measures.
So take what I am about to say as my ideological approach with which I start each season but not necessarily the mindset with which I end it.
That being said, as I walk through the darkness and climb into my stand on opening morning, my selection criteria for determining what buck I am willing to settle my pin on has many facets that have been weighed over the past few months. Below are the factors that I consider in order of their importance to me for determining the bucks I hope to target.
- Will I be proud/happy with the hunt. By far, the most important aspect of hunting should be the enjoyment of the sport. The pursuit of deer, quest for a specific buck, preseason scouting, preparations, practice, habitat enhancements, you name it, ALL of these things we do that drive our spouses crazy at times are because we have a passion and love for the sport of hunting and the animals we hunt. I have been deer hunting for over 20 years and in that time I have accumulated a shelf at home full of racks from bucks that are “too small” to mount and some would say were too small/young to shoot. I also preserved several nice bucks in European mounts that I brag on to this day. Although I determined that none of these bucks warranted the taxidermy fees associated with shoulder mounting a deer, I can assure you that I was just as excited to pull the trigger, I was still grinning when I told the story to my friends and family, and we all enjoyed the backstraps on the grill. To this day, I can recount every hunt as if it were yesterday. Yes, there are a few that I am disappointed in myself for being “fooled” on, and part of me wishes those deer survived one more year, but ultimately the experiences are something of which I am and always will be proud.
- The wishes of the land owner are a consideration that is extremely important to adhere to if you wish to continue having the privilege to hunt on his/her land. I do not own any of the land on which I hunt. I rely on the National Forests within Virginia and the generosity of land owners. Most farmers who let you hunt do not have a preference as to what deer you take. They just want the crop damaging deer numbers reduced. Who can blame them? Its money out of their pockets which threatens their livelihoods. But others can be fairly strict with age class, antler restrictions etc. I actually hunt a tree farm whose owners would prefer me to shoot any buck, regardless of size or age, as their rubs damage their specific crop. In any case, always respect the wishes of the land owner over your own.
- Location plays a major role as well. Whether you look at it from nationwide, across the state, or even farm to farm, each area does not produce the same quality and age classes as the next. For example, my long time friend and DEER30 Outdoors teammate, Adam Keffer, takes a trip to Illinois each November for their famous Midwest giants. I have seen the video of bucks he has passed out there and had the same buck walk by in Virginia or Maryland, it would be riding down Main Street in the back of the truck with the tailgate down. In 2012 I killed a brute of whitetail in Maryland that weighed over 250lbs on the hoof but broke 1/2 of his 10 point rack off. The buck was estimated to be 6 1/2-71/2 years old and in a place where the average buck killed is 1 1/2 years old. I consider him a tremendous trophy, despite the fact that he has an undersized broken up rack, because of how long he had outwitted all of us hunters in the area. The point is you must keep a reasonable expectation for what a “trophy” buck is in your area. Poor soils, bad nutrition, unbalanced age structure, etc. can make shooting a 150″ monster a pipe dream when realistically the best you can hope for is a 115″ buck. That does not make the smaller buck any less of a trophy.
- Access to and from your hunting area can be a consideration especially when hunting in the mountains or rugged terrain. Long hikes away from the road up and down steep terrain can get you away from other hunters, hunting pressure and back in to where the big boys are. However, if you kill a deer, say 3 miles from the truck, in amongst the deep hollows and steep ridges, can you get him out? By yourself? The physical limitations of your body and the subsequent terrain in which your hunting may make shooting a small young buck not worth the effort that will be required to get him back to the truck.
- What are your goals for the property? Are you looking to balance the herds numbers, sex ratios, improve age class, improve antler quality, shoot the biggest buck, shoot a buck, your first buck, etc? My goals were to take only a buck larger than my previous best taken in that state with that specific weapon. Today, if I held strictly to this without considering the other factors listed here, I may never kill another buck in my life time. Not that I have taken giant deer, but for the areas I hunt, I have taken some very respectable bucks with my bow, rifle, and muzzleloader.
- Age is the consideration that most wildlife biologists are promoting these days and not just for the trophy aspect of it. Matching wits with a buck that has seen more than three winters is a challenge that makes the reward that much sweeter if it ever happens. But when it comes to this category, I am thinking big bucks. You can’t get an opportunity at a big mature whitetailif you kill them all before they get to be big and mature. That’s a
fact! Letting a buck reach maturity allows you to see exactly what the genetic potential is in that herd. With the popularity of food plots, high nutrition supplemental feeding, soil conservation, and land management skyrocketing, even non-traditional agricultural areas are able to provide better habitat and food sources to push a buck towards his maximum potential in both body size and antler growth. But its not easy to pass up good “up-n-comers” in hopes of a 5 1/2 yr old stud, especially in areas where deer of that age class are extremely rare. I had a giant buck show up on one of my trail cameras in Virginia last year. I passed two young bucks (a 2 1/2 yr old and a 3 1/2 yr old) at 20 yards in hopes of a chance at the boss. Well, as luck would have it, the big buck was killed by a neighbor and so was the 2 1/2 year old; who by the way was a solid 125″ 8pt. With my biggest buck, with any weapon, being a 130+” 9pt from Maryland, that’s a hard pill to swallow. Now, if a 3 1/2 yr old buck crosses my path, I’m reaching for whatever weapon I have resting on my EZ Hanger.
- The weapon/season in which I am hunting can also play a role. Some bucks that I would be tickled to death to shoot with my bow, may not “make the cut” during rifle season.
- Size of antlers is a no brainer. Whether you are a meat hunter or trophy, we all dream to some extent of wrapping our hands around a big, heavy set of antlers after downing a “wall-hanger.” But notice that this consideration is farther down the list. That is because of several factors already discussed. Usually mature deer have had the opportunity to grow a big set of antlers. However, nutrition may have been low that year, hard winter theyear before, poor genetics, past his prime and on the downhill slope, etc. could all be reasons a mature buck has undersized head gear. Again, any mature whitetail should be considered a trophy. Also, because of the presence of better food and habitat, younger deer may be sporting bigger racks. As a teenager hunting in Maryland, it was unusual to see a 1 1/2 year old buck with anything more than 6 points on pretty small frames. Today, we are seeing 1 1/2 year olds with wider and taller 6pt frames and even 8pts almost routinely. It takes a lot of discipline to let these deer go. If you are hunting in a state with low bag limits, say 1 buck total for the season, holding out for the biggest buck possible can be easier than when hunting in states that put extra tags in your pocket.
- Opportunity goes without saying, but I did anyway. Technically it should be higher than #9 because without opportunity, the other factors are moot, but it also needs to be an opportunity at a buck that meets your criteria so around and around we go. Anyways, you can’t kill them if you don’t see them during shooting times. So if you happen to catch a buck on his feet during daylight hours, you had better make the most of it. This is where “chance favors the prepared mind.” All your hard work and summer time scouting etc. we just talked about has culminated in this fleeting moment.
- The last consideration I have are my neighbors and other hunters. I do not have exclusive hunting rights to any of the places I hunt. So dealing with other hunters and hunting pressure is a consideration as far as how they affect deer movement, added pressure, and opportunities to shoot my target bucks. I am also a pessimist, even though I try not to be, and in the back of my mind I always feel like “well the other guy will shoot anything, so if I don’t kill him, he will.” I don’t usually even know who this “other guy” is. This mentality, especially early in my hunting career, has led to a lot of the racks on that shelf at home. But as I have grown older, or wiser, probably just the older part, I have struggled more and more with this. I do not have an issue with passing up young 1 1/2 yr old bucks. It’s those pesky 2 1/2 yr olds that are starting to develop nice “basket” racks that make it harder. The best thing you can do to combat this is to talk to the “other guy(s) or gals” hunting in your area. See what their thoughts are on what bucks they are willing to shoot. You may find out that they have the same misconception about you and together you can each have more confidence in letting younger bucks walk knowing that the other won’t shoot him when he crosses the fence.
This was a long article full of a lot of opinions on a matter that only the individual hunter can determine what works for him or her. Ultimately, its your decision to shoot or pass.
Good luck and happy hunting!