By P.J. Reilly
Passing up small bucks is great, if there are bigger bucks in the area.
My outfitter buddy loves to tell the same story at camp every year. It’s about a group of guys who signed up to hunt with him during Illinois’ late muzzleloader season.
My buddy had e-mailed the guys to tell them what to expect, what gear they should bring, etc. He asked them what their expectations were as far as the bucks they hoped to shoot. Their reply now hangs on the camp wall.
One guy said he’d take any buck over 170 inches and preferred the buck had at least one drop tine, although two would be better. Another guy said he was after a nontypical that scored at least 180 inches. The third guy said he wanted a 180-inch typical, but he’d settle for any buck that scored over 160, as long as the smaller buck had a drop tine.
Did I mention my buddy offers only free-range hunts?
“It’s not that those deer aren’t out there,” he says with a laugh, “but to go into a four-day hunt with those expectations is absurd. I mean, be realistic.”
That’s great advice whether hunting with an outfitter or in your backyard.
Everyone wants to shoot a Buckmasters Trophy Records qualifier. According to a search of the BTR record book, most places in North America have them. Every state except eight — Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah — and every Canadian province except Newfoundland & Labrador, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon, has produced at least one BTR whitetail. But that doesn’t mean it’s realistic to expect to shoot one. Vermont, for instance, has coughed up just two BTR bucks ever.
While you’ll never shoot a giant if you always shoot something smaller, what constitutes a giant differs from location to location. The question is, will you be satisfied if you don’t tag a buck this year? Trophy hunters eat a lot of tags.
In fact, trophy hunters are much more likely to end the season with an unfilled tag than a taxidermy bill. If you’re not prepared for that, you’re not ready to hunt trophies only.
Hunting is supposed to be fun, easing the stress and anxiety generated by our everyday lives. It shouldn’t add to them. Public land hunters in Pennsylvania have tagged record-class bucks, but they certainly shouldn’t head into the woods expecting to tag a BTR qualifier. In most states, a public land hunter holding out for a record-book buck could go a lifetime and never fill a tag. It’s just not a realistic expectation.
SETTING THE BAR
So what is realistic?
That’s a question with nearly as many answers as there are deer hunters.
For example, an Iowa hunter who is the only person to hunt a 1,000-acre farm that’s highly managed for mature deer and who can hunt every day of the season is probably being realistic in saying he’ll take nothing less than a 160-inch buck.
On the other hand, a busy husband and father of four from Charleston, S.C., who works 40 hours a week and spends weekends at his kids’ sports events, might want to set a goal of taking a nice doe from the public land near his home. Anything more is icing on the cake.
When setting your goals, start with the trophy potential in your area. Also consider the amount of time you have to scout and hunt, and whether you want venison in the freezer by the end of the season.
To get a handle on trophy potential, study the BTR record book to determine if trophy bucks are being tagged in your neck of the woods. A completely searchable version of the entire BTR record book is available in the Big Buck Central section of buckmasters.com, or you can buy the book in the buckmasters.com store. You can order it by calling customer service, too.
Just because a certain county produces a number of trophies doesn’t mean you’ll find them in the places where you hang your stands. Mature deer will react negatively to humans. If you hunt a property that gets a lot of pressure, odds are the mature deer that live there will move to quieter places after about a week of being bumped by hunters.
Use your observations as well as those of your buddies to help determine what’s realistic in your area.
I’ve been hunting the same county in Pennsylvania for 20 years. I hunt in all seasons, with every weapon the state allows, and I’m fortunate to be able to hunt three or four days a week. The biggest buck I’ve ever shot in that county was an 8-pointer with a composite score of 129 inches. And that buck’s bigger than any my buddies have killed.
I know of a few bucks in the 130- to 140-inch range that were shot in the area, but that’s it. I’d love to shoot a 150-incher, but that’s not a realistic expectation. No doubt there’s a buck or two that occasionally reach that size. Based on 20 years of hunting, however, it would be irrational to hold out for one that big and then be disappointed when I ended the season with an unfilled tag.
My goal in Pennsylvania is first to shoot a buck that’s bigger than any I’ve gotten around home. That vow carries me through the first four weeks of our archery season. If I don’t meet that goal, which happens often, then I lower the bar a bit for the last two weeks of the fall season in November.
During those 14 days of bowhunting, I’m gunning for a buck that has at least 8 points, a 15-inch spread, and is not an obvious 1.5 or 2.5-year-old. I’m not the best judge of age, but sometimes I can tell right away when a buck is young. This self-imposed standard applies to our two-week firearms season at the end of the month as well.
Bucks that meet my requirements aren’t behind every tree, and I don’t get one every year. That’s okay. That’s hunting. But a shooter buck as I define one isn’t a white whale, either.
In some hunting circles, lowering the bar on bucks at the end of the season is a sin. “If he’s not worth shooting the first week, then he’s not worth shooting the last week,” they say. I like shooting deer, especially bucks. For me, releasing an arrow or squeezing the trigger on a deer carrying bone on its head is an integral part of the hunt. It’s not a necessity, but it is important. I enjoy the venison. I enjoy the antlers.
I’ve been through the “Let ’em go so they can grow” phase, and I let a few bucks walk each year. I don’t have exclusive access to any of the properties I hunt, however. Every year, I pass up bucks that wind up in the backs of other hunters’ trucks. One year, I had five legal bucks in bow range that I let walk. By the time our firearms season closed, I saw every one of those bucks with a tag in its ear.
I held no ill will toward the hunters who shot them. They had every right to shoot any legal buck they wanted. But it’s just one example of what to expect in a pressured area. Where I hunt, few bucks, if any, survive beyond 3.5 years.
You might think I should hunt somewhere else. That’s not realistic, either.
Public land options near my home are minimal, and those tracts get pounded. Access to huntable private property only gets tougher with each passing year. Generally speaking, if it can be hunted, it already is being hunted by someone else. I’m lucky to have the private land spots I have, and I’m not about to give them up in hope of finding greener pastures.
GET OUT OF TOWN
One of the thrills of hunting is going somewhere new. Not all of us live in big buck states like Illinois, Ohio or Iowa, so we travel to chase whitetails. Such a trip could merit a change in expectations.
When I hunt in Illinois, my standards for a shooter buck are higher than they are in Pennsylvania, but my expectations remain realistic. Illinois is bigger than Pennsylvania, and the number of deer hunters who prowl the woods of the Land of Lincoln is a fraction of the Keystone State’s orange army. Do the math: More country plus less pressure equals bigger bucks.
To set realistic expectations for an out-of-state hunt, study the BTR record book and talk to your outfitter. If you’re hunting on your own, try to find some local hunters and/or contact the state wildlife office. Use the information to create a vision of what’s reasonable.
Many outfitters set a minimum for the size buck they want you to kill. That takes some of the guesswork out of the equation, and a majority of hunters are happy to shoot any buck meeting that minimum.
If you’re on a do-it-yourself hunt, factor in how often you plan to hunt this destination. If you’re on a once-in-a-lifetime trip and don’t expect to return, you might lower your expectations. This doesn’t mean you should shoot the first spike that walks by. If you paid the stiff nonresident fee for an Illinois deer license, presumably you didn’t do it to shoot a spike. But you also might not want to pass a perfect shot opportunity at a beautiful 140-inch buck.
When you see a buck that meets your standards, don’t be afraid to pull the trigger or loose an arrow, even if you’re only 15 minutes into the hunt. Be realistic. This is the buck you hoped to get, and now it’s offering a shot. Take it. You might not see another deer, let alone a big buck.
In 2008, I drew a lottery tag for a white-tailed buck during North Dakota’s firearms season. It took me five years to draw that tag. I booked an eight-day hunt with an outfitter to try to fill that permit, but 30 minutes into the hunt on the first day, a big 11-pointer chased a doe through a coulee right in front of us.
My guide took about two seconds to size up the animal before giving me the wide-eyed command, “Shoot that buck!”
I hesitated, thinking about all the time left in the hunt and how I might see something better if I waited. Then I came to my senses and pulled the trigger. The 157-inch buck is still the biggest I’ve ever shot. Realistically, I couldn’t count on anything better showing up.
It’s completely unrealistic to think that, because you’re paying, you will get a shot at the buck of your dreams. Unless you’re hunting a high-fence preserve, you can’t expect an outfitter to produce a big buck.
Not every hunter in camp will fill a tag, and some might not even see a buck. That’s free-range hunting no matter how much you pay.
There also are factors like weather beyond an outfitter’s control. Your outfitter can’t snap his fingers and magically send a big buck past your stand. Rest assured, he wants you to shoot a big buck as much as you do.
Dreaming about a giant buck walking down a trail with his nose to the ground is as much a part of deer hunting as sitting in a treestand freezing your behind off. If that particular buck doesn’t show up during the season, don’t let fantasy ruin your time in the woods.
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