I heard the shot just before dark. The sound was so far off in the distance, I wasn't even sure it was one of our guys until I received the text confirming "buck down." I was elated. After three very cold and unproductive days of hunting Illinois' second gun season--in the famed Pike County, epicenter of big-buck hype, no less--not a man or woman among the 16 hunters in camp had fired a shot. A doe had slipped in behind me on that final evening of the hunt and busted me shifting in the stand, effectively ending my hunt with her alarmed blowing. As a result, I was left to the vicarious celebrations of another hunter's success.
The second text, received before I had even made it back to camp, was less reassuring. "Not sur buk is goin 2 B 140," it read. With a 140-inch minimum imposed upon the hunters by the outfitter, the apologies had already begun. I wondered how much my friend had possibly misjudged the buck that he shot and hoped he was wrong. Besides the typical ribbing--and sometimes truly critical judgment from other hunters--shooting something undersized here also came with a potential financial penalty.
Back in camp, it was easy to find the truck with the deer in it, as everyone was gathered around the bed. The truth is, it was a darn nice buck. But it wasn't quite 140. Nevertheless, it was the largest deer the hunter from the Southeast had ever killed, still a reason for celebration. But as he accepted the congratulations from the weather-weary hunters, the look in his eyes betrayed the uncertainty he was feeling. Away from the rest of the group, he admitted disappointment in himself and his buck, saying maybe he shouldn't have pulled the trigger. It was the fourth hunt I had been on that fall where I had heard hunters apologizing for bucks they had shot.
RELATED CONTENT: Judging A Buck On The Hoof
The interesting thing about all of these "apology bucks" is that just 10 years ago, most of them would have been driven around the county on a tailgate to show them off, the lucky hunters telling their story again and again to anyone who cared to listen. I have to wonder if maybe the success of the quality deer management faithful and our own modern obsession with hunting giant bucks are beginning to warp our perspective. At the very least, maybe it is taking a little fun out of our sport. Don't get me wrong, I agree wholeheartedly with the principles of letting little bucks walk so they grow older and bigger. But I want to shoot sometimes, too! In the past few years, I probably haven't stood among a group of hunters gawking over a 140-inch or better bruiser on the meat pole where no matter how impressive the buck was, someone didn't say, "Imagine how big he would've been next year." So how big is big enough?
Keeping It Real
Obviously, the answer to that is that it depends. If hunting with an outfitter, it depends on the rules he has set to keep attracting clients and maintain a viable operation for years to come. Few hunters pay thousands of dollars for the chance to hunt does or little bucks. If hunting on privately owned or leased property, it depends on the owner or people in charge to decide what potential the land and herd hold in order to determine what a realistic minimum for the area is. I stress "realistic," because I think some older, more experienced or more determined hunters today are satisfied to hold out for years waiting on that monster buck to appear, while many others truthfully still want to pull the trigger or let arrows fly each season. Of course, if the owner says this is the minimum, regardless of what you think, you better follow the rules if you hope to get invited back. Many hunters will hold out for a while on their own land, but at some point, it's time to shoot. Then there remains the "if it's brown, it's down" faithful, a diminishing lot in today's world, which is an evolution most modern sportsmen will agree is a good thing.
To get a better perspective, I went to the head of the Quality Deer Management Association himself, Brian Murphy.
"We've talked about this very thing here at QDMA," he says. "The proliferation of magazines and television shows that focus on hunting big whitetails makes it look like if hunters don't shoot a super-big buck, they are somehow less of a hunter. But if you hunt fair chase on land that you manage and the buck is nice for where you hunt, you should be proud."
That is particularly true when comparing bucks--or hunters, for that matter--in different parts of the country.
"You can't compare a buck killed in South Carolina to one shot in Illinois," Murphy says. "If a hunter kills a 105-inch buck in Florida, it is a heck of an accomplishment."
Rather than focusing on antlers, Murphy suggests that the true mark of a trophy deer and the effort it takes to successfully hunt it is based on age.
"That's the real measure of a trophy. If you are killing bucks in the top 10 percent of the age bracket for your area, you are doing great," says the QDMA leader. "Killing a five-year-old in Alabama when compared to killing a three-year-old in Illinois can be much more impressive even though that three-year-old's rack will likely be larger than the buck from Alabama.
"I hope the benchmark will ultimately become buck age rather than antlers."
What's In a Trophy?
There are, of course, other factors that can play into the trophy aspect of a hunt that often get lost in the excitement over big antlers. It might be the strategy a hunter used, the novelty of the bow or gun he shot, even the circumstances of the hunt. It might be an unusually spectacular shot that was made, where the hunt took place or even the person with whom the hunt was shared.
Even where age is concerned, Murphy concedes that while today's hunters have become much more skilled at aging deer on the hoof and sizing up antlers in the field, there are still plenty of hunters who haven't and maybe don't even care to. Regardless, Murphy says, in the end, hunting should still always be a good time, not one that causes worry.
"Keep it fun. If you can shoot deer that are in the top 10 percent of your neighborhood, you are doing as good as anybody can expect," he says. "Every hunter is going to make a mistake at some point and shoot an antlered buck that is a little smaller than he meant to take or mistake a button buck for a doe. As long as he is genuinely trying to adhere to the management plan, he may still deserve a little ribbing in good fun, but nobody should be mad or angry about it.
"Accidentally killing a small buck or two or a few button bucks off of a property isn't going to set your management plan back. Deer are a renewable resource; there will be more of them. Now, if a hunter does it several times in a season or year after year, OK, then somebody needs to have a talk with him." Sounds sensible to me.
Be Honest With Yourself
It's one thing to make an honest mistake in judging deer size when hunting your own land or the land of a club or shared lease where you hunt. It can be quite another to make that mistake on a booked hunt where the outfitter may charge you anywhere from $500 to $1,500 extra for shooting an undersized animal. When booking a hunt or hunting as a guest where the herd is managed, ask up front what type of deer is permitted to be taken, and if necessary, ask for comparisons, such as a mounted deer on a wall, to make sure you are clear on what is big enough. When it comes to age, that gets a little trickier for some hunters, but QDMA sells resources on its Web site (qdma.com) that can help you out.
If you are not comfortable with your ability to judge and meet the minimum standards or are not willing to hold out for such a minimum, look elsewhere; this isn't the hunting spot for you. There are plenty of outfitters who will encourage you to take a certain size deer, but permit a guy to take one that he is happy with regardless of antler size. Whether you are paying money or simply hunting locally with friends, in the end, hunting should be fun. If you are going to have to worry with every deer you see whether or not to shoot, then educate yourself by getting out as often as possible or choose a hunt where a guide sits with you and can help be the decision maker on when to shoot.