Buckmasters Magazine

Shades of Gray

Shades of Gray

By David Hart

Sometimes doing the right thing isn’t as easy as it should be.

Game laws are pretty straightforward. You can’t shoot a deer at night. It’s illegal to use a firearm during archery season, and you can’t take more deer than the legal limit. It’s all there in black and white. Sometimes, however, we face a dilemma that isn’t so clear — one that dances at the edge of legal and illegal, and right and wrong.

It might be an honest mistake or a simple misunderstanding of the rules, or it could be something that has nothing to do with written regulations. If you spend enough time in the deer woods, you’ll face an ethical situation that tests your character and your ability to do the right thing for yourself and our natural resources. Sometimes, you can’t do both.

For instance, what would you do if you were in your in your favorite block of hardwoods with a scoped .22 in your hands when a crippled deer comes walking past? Deer season ended a few days ago, and it’s obvious the buck is suffering from an errant shot to the paunch. It’s unlikely it will survive much longer. It stands broadside at 20 yards, offering an easy shot.

Do you:
• Let nature take its course?
• Shoot it and call a game warden?
• Shoot it and not tell anyone?
• Call a game warden to let him put it down?

No one likes to see an animal suffer, and the sight of a wounded deer hobbling through the woods is as troubling to a hunter as it is the most rabid anti-hunter. Shooting it, however, puts you smack in the middle of a major dilemma: You’ve violated the law. If you inform a game warden of your actions, he has to make a tough decision of his own. He can believe your story and let you go, or write you a costly ticket.

“I think a number of ethical hunters would put it down, and I can’t say that would be the wrong thing to do,” says Kansas Department of Parks and Wildlife hunter education coordinator Wayne Doyle. “However, I’m not a game warden, and you would clearly be putting yourself at risk for a citation.”

The best course of action would be to call a game warden who might either give you permission to put it down or come to the woods and put the deer down himself — if he can find it. For many hunters, the notion of shooting the deer and possibly paying a hefty fine is better than allowing a wounded deer to suffer when it doesn’t have to.

“Sometimes you have to do what you think is morally right, even if the law isn’t on your side,” says Eric Nuse, executive director of Orion — the Hunter’s Institute.


It’s early bow season and you’re about to climb down from your treestand when you spot a deer walking your way. It’s a 4-pointer, and he’s on a line that will take him right past your stand. When the time is right, you loose an arrow and make a perfect double-lung shot, watching the buck carefully as it runs out of sight.

After a brief wait, you get down and immediately follow the blood trail. Unfortunately, it takes you to the property boundary. The deer crossed onto the neighbor’s land. The landowner is an anti-hunter who has made it clear he doesn’t like you or what you do. It’s getting warm, and if you don’t recover the deer soon, it’s likely to spoil.

Do you:
• Continue tracking the deer and hope your neighbor doesn’t see?
• Knock on the neighbor’s door and plead your case?
• Leave it? After all, it was just a fork-horn, and the scavengers have to eat, too.
• Call a game warden and hope he can talk some sense into the landowner?

Laws concerning the retrieval of game vary from state to state, but in most cases, it is illegal to trespass without landowner permission for any purpose, even to recover a deer.

“I would at least go talk to the landowner and tell him the situation,” says Michigan Department of Natural Resources hunter education program supervisor Sgt. Jon Wood. “If he says no, call a game warden.”

Wood says a game warden can sometimes convince a landowner to allow a hunter to retrieve game. If not, chock it up to bad luck and try to make a better shot next time.

“Remember, you represent the hunting community. If the neighboring landowner is undecided about hunting and hunters, you certainly don’t want to give him a reason to dislike hunters by trespassing,” adds Wood.

Shades of GrayTOO LATE

You get down after a quiet evening in the treestand and start to walk back to the truck when a shot rings out from where your buddy is hunting. It’s 10 minutes past legal shooting time. You head that direction and find your friend standing over a giant buck he admits he shot after legal shooting hours. It was, he insists, simply irresistible.

Do you:
• Help your friend dress the deer and drag it out while lecturing him about following the game laws next time?
• Leave him to deal with the deer on his own?
• Call the game warden and spill the beans?
• Pat him on the back for taking a trophy buck?

Wood says there is no law in Michigan requiring a hunter to report a violation, but ethics dictate you should. Of course, it’s a rare friend who would turn in his buddy for fudging the legal shooting time. But then, what kind of friend would put someone in that ethical situation?

“I certainly wouldn’t hunt with someone who does that, at least never again,” Wood says. “Remember, if you do help him, you could be cited for aiding and abetting a crime.”


You see a group of deer walking through thick brush 80 yards from your box blind. One of them is a small buck you decide to take. It’s difficult to separate the buck from the does in the thick brush, but you finally have a bead on him in your scope and squeeze the trigger. When you find the fallen whitetail, you’re shocked to see that it’s actually a doe. Somewhere, somehow, you lost track of the buck and pulled the trigger on the wrong deer. The kicker? Doe season starts tomorrow.

Do you:
• Call a game warden and tell him exactly what happened and hope for the best?
• Field-dress the doe, drag it out and hope you don’t get caught?
• Field-dress it, leave and claim it the next day?
• Leave it? Heck, scavengers gotta eat, too.

The answer should be easy, shouldn’t it? Everyone makes an honest mistake now and then, and by calling a game warden and explaining the situation immediately, you might avoid a ticket.

He might confiscate the deer or write you a ticket, but it’s better than trying to sneak it out and then getting caught. If you field-dress it and drag it out with the intention of calling a conservation officer, he has no way of telling what happened and will likely ticket you.

Leaving it is an equally bad idea. If it doesn’t spoil overnight, there’s a good chance scavengers will descend upon it, leaving you with a pile of skin and bones.


It’s opening day of deer season and you’ve drawn a coveted tag for a region full of giant bucks. As daylight breaks, you hear shots near and far and finally see the first deer of the morning. It’s a buck, a small 6-pointer. Just after you decide to let him walk, you notice he’s badly injured. In fact, there’s a gaping wound in his paunch.

With just one buck tag in your wallet, you have a choice: Put the deer down and put your tag on it, or let it walk and wait for a buck that meets your standards.

Another option would be to finish the buck and hope the hunter that first shot it comes looking for his deer.

“That’s what I would do,” says Nuse. “The other hunter might hear your shot and come walking over the hill to claim his deer. As a hunter, I have a moral obligation to end that animal’s suffering, even if it means the end of my hunt.”

If no hunter shows up, Nuse, a former Vermont game warden, would leave it and go call a game warden and explain the situation.

He could take the deer to a donation center and allow you to keep hunting. Or he might tell you to put your tag on it. There’s no way to know ahead of time which action a game warden might take.

“Legally, you have to tag that deer because you were responsible for its death during hunting season. As a former game warden, however, I always took the circumstances into consideration,” Nuse said.

That doesn’t mean you get a free pass if you do what you think is ethical. You still might get a ticket, but you can always plead your case before a judge, who often has the discretion of reducing charges or fines based on his intuition. Even game wardens can be lenient.

“Whatever you do, don’t lie. Game wardens and judges are pretty good at figuring out when someone is trying to get away with something,” says Nuse. “We are much more likely to be lenient when you are completely honest.”

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This article was published in the November 2010 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

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