October 10, 2023
I enjoy living like a hermit for about the first 10 days of November. Rifle season opens the second Saturday of the month, and I plan to be in a bow stand every possible minute during the week and a half ahead of it. Last fall was no different, and the action in early November was good. Bucks were cruising and acting foolish, and I passed up a couple nice ones in the days immediately following Halloween. But since I had some bigger deer on my trail cameras and plenty of time, I wasn’t in a hurry to fill my tag.
But then the slump began, putting the wheels in motion for the tale I’m about to share. I barely saw a deer at all during the final three days before rifle season, and so early bow season sputtered to a halt with a certain itch left unscratched.
The gun opener dawned cold and clear and perfect, but the deer didn’t seem to care at all. My 7-year-old son Anse and I sat in a box blind that morning in a favorite spot without seeing a thing, and the evening hunt was even slower. We would’ve pooled good money to see a possum waddle across the field, just to have had something to watch.
Then, in the waning legal light, as Anse was whittling a stick, he looked out the blind window and said, “There’s a deer!” A nose-down buck had appeared 200 yards away, gliding across the field at a loose gait. I threw my binoculars up, saw the frame of a rack, and a thought drifted through my mind like the final curl of smoke from a snuffed match. “He’s too small.” Meanwhile, Anse was chanting, “Shoot him, Deeds! It’s a giant!” At any moment, I thought, the kid might break into singing Eye of the Tiger. The entire encounter, from seeing the buck to resting my rifle on the Trigger Sticks, to yelling a bleat to watching the 90-inch 7-pointer crumple and fall dead from a perfect heart shot, might’ve lasted 25 seconds.
Walking up to the deer, I knew beyond a doubt that I’d passed three much bigger ones within chip-shot bow range the week before, when I was hunting alone with a bow and arrow, and when things were quiet and calm and full of promise. Still, I wanted to set a good example to my son, and so I smiled and gave Anse a high-five for spotting the buck. He looked me square in the eye and asked: “Deeds, did you know he was that little when you shot him?”
Yes, every ethical harvest is a trophy, the freezer is filled, and you can’t eat the antlers. He got me excited, so I shot him. All of those catchphrases were coined to assuage the “buyer’s re- morse” that comes from shooting a buck that seems to have shrunken a bit upon hitting the ground. Truth is if you hunt enough, you’ll someday kill a buck that’s smaller than you thought he was when you pulled the trigger. It’s happened to every serious deer hunter I know. All of them. In fact, some of the day-in-and-out deadliest deer killers I’ve met have a pretty notorious “big eye” in the moment of truth.
When your day comes, and you find yourself standing over a trophy of tomorrow that’s dead as hell today, there’s nothing to do but own it, notch your tag and move on. Killing one young buck doesn’t amount to much of anything in the grand scheme of deer management. And if you’re worried about being judged by other hunters on social media, there’s an easy solution: Don’t share it. The world will go on just fine without you updating your status: “Well he’s not the biggest one out there, but he’ll eat good.”
Still, if you want to keep it from becoming an annual habit, remember the warning signs—coming from a guy who’s as likely as anyone to make the same mistake again this fall.
THE RUT MAKES IT WORSE
It’s much easier to carefully look over a buck while he’s pick- ing in a bean field in September than when he’s barreling through a blackberry thicket after a doe in November. Erratic behavior is what makes hunting the rut so much fun, but it also often makes the opportunities more fleeting. Rutty bucks might do about anything at any time, and when you’re caught off guard, sometimes it can feel as though you have time to look a deer over or shoot him, but not both. Besides that, rut hunting is notoriously feast or famine, and the anxious urge to shoot only gets worse when a buck suddenly appears after a few days of slow hunting.
Those deadly deer hunters I mentioned above are all a touch impulsive. Once the decision is made to shoot, they don’t dally with binoculars or inner turmoil. In fact, be it a doe or a Boone & Crockett buck, when the decision to shoot is made, they’re only focused on how to make good on the first lethal opportunity they get. It’s actually a good way to be, if it is indeed a Booner slipping through the thicket. But sometimes it gets little bucks killed, too.
Many of those hunters have lots of big deer on the wall, but they got them by attrition and shooting lots of smaller ones, too. For a deer hunter, that tunnel vision can be a blessing and a curse, but I guess I’d rather struggle to control it than not have it at all.
TRUST YOUR GUT
When I’ve messed up and shot a little buck, I’ve almost always known exactly what I was doing, even if only in the deep recesses of the mind. If shooting a big deer is important to you—and you wouldn’t be reading this if it wasn’t—then you must remember that there are very few top-end whitetails in any given area, and so when you do see one on the hoof, it’ll look so big as to be out of place; almost startling. If that’s what you’re resolved to shoot, you might go all season without seeing such a deer but when you do, you won’t have to talk yourself into anything.
When I convince myself to let a borderline buck walk, it stings, but only for a few minutes. Long-term, I’ve almost never regretted passing a deer.
Over and again, I’ve seen dedicated trophy hunters turn deer season into an exercise of second-guessing, misery and buying beef. I left that behind years ago, and am a happier hunter for it, though I do admire their restraint. Me? I’ll go into this fall same as any other, hoping to kill a big, mature buck, but knowing, too, we all have our struggles: And one of mine is an itchy trigger finger.
It could be a lot worse.