We all have heard it before; “he’s no trophy” or “you can’t eat the horns”. For some reason, the hunting public feels the need to justify themselves when a small or young buck is taken. Whether it be because of declining herd numbers, bad timing, or even just pure old fashioned laziness. Most times we end up filling our tag with an animal that won’t make the cover of Eastman’s, or Field & Stream. Why do we do it? I’m as guilty as anyone else on the subject, so in this piece, I’d like to address it directly.
I got what some might call a delayed start in big game hunting, sure I went hunting as a child with my Father and Grandfathers, but my own engagement with big game took place many years later. I had always had a passion for hunting, and like most I had dreams of stalking a big buck or bull using only my skills and tackle. I still remember vividly the first time I went hunting with a tag in my pocket, it was an OTC doe tag due to my not being in-country at the time of our states draw period. A doe tag was my only option, and I was so excited to go I jumped at the chance. Green as can be, and completely unprepared I went with my younger brother and some friends. I was the only one to draw blood that trip, probably more due to my doe tag than any hunting prowess. But I can still remember the rush of the chase, sneaking through the brush, getting into a shooting position and making a shot as my young heart pounded. The excitement and participation in this millennia-old practice touched me so deeply that it sparked a passion that at times seems to overshadow almost everything else in my life.
I hunt for many reasons, to eat, to enjoy time afield with family and friends, and to take my place as an active participant in the circle of life. The size of our quarry holds no bearing on those aspects of hunting.
Of course, we all want to shoot the biggest buck, we all want to lay hands on a monster bull. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t matter to me. But why do we somehow find shame, or at least a lack of pride when the animal we tag is not as big as we had hoped? It’s a complicated question I suppose, I think it is partially because of our perception; all we see on hunting shows and in the magazines are pictures of huge bucks and bulls. We naturally aspire for the same thing, we all want to be the guy with a monster bull rack affixed to our pack. Surely there is nothing wrong with a goal like that, but a large set of antlers is not the only way to judge a trophy. For those of us who hunt to eat, a full cooler of meat can be a trophy. I haven’t had to buy meat for years, and I’m not about to start, that too is a prize I take pride in.
I have been lucky to take a mule deer buck almost every year since I started, as well as several does, cows, and other animals. For the longest time, we have had a joke in my family about a five-gallon bucket, a joke at my expense. The first decade or so of my hunting career, not only could you fit all my buck antlers in a five-gallon bucket, you could fit them all in there together, at the same time. I wasn’t particularly proud of it, because I wanted bigger, but I didn’t feel bad about it either. I go deer hunting because I enjoy it, as mentioned above. I like hunting, and I like getting what I’m after, the act of taking an animal is the climax of the hunt and I don’t like to give that up. Others in my hunting party are far pickier, their sights are set for bigger and more mature bucks, which is fine. But they haven’t gotten to feel that rush of engagement or the satisfaction as often, nor have they eaten as well as I have
There are many reasons put forth to not shoot young bucks, many people say let them get older and more mature. That’s fine I guess, nothing wrong with it. As I’ve matured I have come to understand and come closer to that perspective, and I too have let plenty a young buck walk. But is doing the opposite actually a bad thing? As much distrust as I have in state-run wildlife agencies, I have to assume they are mildly competent in their regulations regarding wildlife populations. If shooting two points was actually detrimental to the population, then my state of Utah would be barren. A trigger happy pumpkin patch is standard for any general season here, and anything with antlers is almost sure to be gunned down by anyone who might catch a glimpse of him.
There are also many reasons put forth to shoot small bucks, though I don’t subscribe to or even know them all. But I do know this; if you have a child or other first-time hunter, one of these small and inexperienced animals can be the difference between a heartbroken aspiring hunter, and a future addicted sportsman or conservationist.
It also can make a huge difference for a seasoned hunter. Imagine packing out the last animal ever with a loved one like your Father, cousin, or Grandparent, imagine savoring that last memory together in the forest. I remember the last hunt with my Grandfather before he passed, it would have been such a great memory to share success that last hunt with him. The size of the animal you hauled out together is likely not the part you will tell your own Grandchildren about. It would more likely be about the story of the adventure and experience you shared together, many times its the journey that matters, not the destination.
If chasing and taking mature animals is your thing that’s great, I wish you luck. And if you are hunting just to hunt, and to get something you can take home to share with your loved ones, I wish you luck as well. I don’t think we need to make excuses for shooting small or immature animals though. If you show up to a game check station, be as proud as you want of your animal. Don’t make excuses like “he’ll taste better” or some other qualifying justification. Don’t dishonor the sacrifice of an animal’s life by consigning him to just a tag filled. We never know which hunt will be our last, so take pride in what you do, savor every moment you are given. Eat what you kill with pride and honor the sacrifice that it took to get it there.