Is It Big Enough? The “right size” is a very personal matter

 By Brad Herndon

After dropping over a steep hillside and walking to the bottom where a narrow thicket connected two adjacent hillsides, my wife, Carol, and I snuggled into an old hollow stump that was open on one side. With the wind pulsating against our faces, it was a perfect setup. One hour after daylight, we heard a deer coming from the opposite hillside. It entered the thicket and we could hear it jump back and forth across a barbwire fence. Evidently it was trying to straighten out a doe trail. Shortly, though, we could see it coming our way.
Carol had the 20-gauge shotgun on her knee, and when the buck was right in front of us at only 18 yards, it noticed something wasn’t quite right about the stump and looked straight at us. I whispered to Carol, “Aim right in the middle of its chest and pull the trigger.” Boom! The impact from the shot blew the buck over backwards. It never kicked.  “You got it! You got it!” I screamed. Carol, who was almost sick from hyperventilating, jumped up and took one look at the buck and said, “Mount it up!”

The Fun Was Just Beginning

After dragging the buck 35 yards to the field’s edge, we bolted back up the hill to our old Baja Bug. It would go anywhere, so we drove to the bottom of the hill and bounced across the rows of the cornfield right to Carol’s prize.     

I looked at the buck, and then to the metal rack on top of the Bug.    

“I’ll never get this buck up there by myself,” I mumbled.     

Turning around, I looked square in the eyes of 105 pounds of pure dynamite. With a smile on her face, Carol softly said, “Oh, you’ll get it on top all right.” I did.     

Elated, we drove to the farmer’s house, and he and his wife admired Carol’s great buck. Then it was on to my parent’s house, where my mother went crazy when she saw Carol’s deer. Once at home, Carol called all of her friends. For two days, they came to see her buck.

As you might have guessed by now, that was Carol’s first deer. The detailed notes in my deer diary reveal the date was Nov. 25, 1983, and that Carol was 39 years old. Her deer hunting career was just beginning.     

Oh, I forgot to mention the size of her trophy buck. It carried 5-points on a body that field-dressed 132 pounds. At the time, Carol and I agreed it was the homeliest buck we had ever seen.    

But in answer to the question, “Is it big enough?” Absolutely. Did we have fun? Absolutely. Would we have had more fun if the deer had made the Boone & Crockett record bucks? I don’t think so. In fact, that hunt is so meaningful that I still get misty-eyed when I read over the notes I recorded that day.  

26 Years Of Hunting

In 1984, Carol purchased her first bow for $79.95; a Darton she set at 37 pounds. Although we had few deer in Indiana at the time, by mastering the doe bleat with her natural voice, Carol called in several bucks and killed them. Most were yearling bucks, but she did tag a few 2½-year-old bucks and one decent 3½-year-old buck. She was having a blast hunting and was elated with each deer she killed. Then came a tough year.  It was firearm season, and Carol had not yet connected on a buck. I told her I knew an inside corner deer would pass through when hunting pressure was high, so that evening we erected two stands in the corner. Within 10 minutes, a 1½-year-old 4-pointer came slipping through the corner, and Carol laid it to rest. As she looked at it, I could tell she was disappointed. To her, at that time and place, it wasn’t big enough.  The next year she tagged a 137-inch net 8-pointer. Then, for several years, she killed mature bucks of all sizes, including one 14-pointer with a 21½-inch inside spread. As time passed, we went from seeing 25 to 35 deer per year to that many deer in a single hunt at times. Eventually, we leased land in a beautiful hilly region that had too many deer, resulting in bucks that had somewhat lower-scoring racks.  Carol was still selective in what she shot, but if a buck came along that she thought was one of the better deer in our area, she killed it. Some of these bucks scored 130 to 140 inches. She was a happy gal. Then, during one late muzzleloading season when she picked me up after my hunt, she told me she had killed a buck. I could tell she wasn’t elated about it. 
Once we got to where she had killed the deer, I noted it was indeed a fine buck. Granted, it was smaller than what she had been tagging — perhaps 118 inches gross — but nevertheless a fine muzzleloader kill. She perked up when I said it was a nice deer, and I realized at that time that her lack of excitement wasn’t caused because she was unhappy with the buck. Instead, her lack of enthusiasm was caused because she thought I wouldn’t think it was a good deer. 

You Do Influence Other Hunters

When Carol killed her first buck, the 5-pointer, I had been into trophy hunting for five years. Despite that, I was so excited when she shot that small buck that I noted in my diary I was breathing so fast I had to stop and take a deep breath.     

I mention this because I didn’t take my higher standards for a deer and place them on her. She shot the deer she wanted to shoot. I think we have had such a great hunting career together because we have maintained our own standards, making our own decisions about pulling the trigger.    

We each progressed on to higher standards on our own, but there is no doubt that talk of killing bigger deer each year went a little too far on my part. That is why Carol was concerned that I might not be happy with that buck she tagged during black-powder season. I learned a lesson that day. We influence whether someone is happy with their deer.   

That's why it is so important to let a new hunter, especially a youngster, decide what they want to shoot. And whatever they shoot, you should be just as excited about it as they are. They will, by the way, be able to tell whether you are sincerely happy for them or just covering disappointment.

Hunting Conditions Are Different

What I have just said won’t be too hard for most parents. This is true because although most of these whitetail enthusiasts have places to hunt, they aren’t great places that are crawling with huge bucks. The first deer along is usually big enough because they hunt public ground or by permission from a landowner. At this point, I want to point out that doe are fair game too and can produce some exciting and memorable hunting for a youngster — even if they aren’t the shooter. For example, when my granddaughter, Jessica "The Rascal Girl," went on her first hunting trip with me, I was the shooter, and we decided immediately to shoot a doe. And that meant a doe fawn, as well. As it happened, the only whitetail to come out that night was a doe fawn, and Jessica was so excited when we recovered the deer she had to have her dad guard it while we went to get the deer cart. She even helped me field-dress and butcher the deer. She was 8 years old at the time.

I think families with average hunting places have great hunts because it’s truly an accomplishment for a child to kill a doe or small buck. If the youngster wants to kick his goals up a notch later on, even that can be done in many areas today because quality deer management on a state level is fairly common.   

For many — if not most of you — reading this article, your hunting situation might be different than what I have just described. You most likely own or lease land, and probably have food plots and some type of management plan. In your case, it’s tempting to tell a youngster they shouldn’t shoot anything less than a mature buck — possibly a 130- or 140-inch buck. This can be a mistake, so be careful.   

An adult that has put their tags on deer for many years might have an entirely different perspective on what they want to shoot than a first-time hunter does. For instance, a friend of mine has put a ton of money into his deer hunting. He has purchased several hundred acres and managed the land perfectly. Bucks gross scoring 140 to 170 inches are relatively common.   

This past fall he took his young son out hunting in a food plot he knew trophy deer frequented almost every evening.   

“What size buck do you want to shoot?” he asked his son.    “Dad,” the son replied, “I just want to shoot a deer.”

His son was elated when a 2½-year-old 8-pointer came out before dark.
Obviously this boy will want to shoot bigger bucks sometime in the future on this ideal setup, but for the time being, he was thrilled with the smaller buck. It was big enough for him. And, I might note, it was also big enough for his dad.

Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

Four years ago, Carol and I were driving past one of our local mini-marts when I noticed a dandy buck in the back of a truck. We wheeled in to look at it. The deer turned out to be a 10-point trophy that would net up in the 140s. The three guys at the truck were teen-agers, and they almost looked like they had lost their best friend.     “Great buck, guys!” I said, “Who killed it?”    They proceeded to tell me who shot the deer, and the story that went along with it. Amazingly, two of them were in a tree videoing and had actually let the buck walk past them early in the morning. Later, it came back, and they decided it wasn’t too bad of a buck and perhaps they should shoot it. Now, even though it was a bow kill, they were questioning whether they had done the right thing because it wasn’t as big as the bucks on the hunting DVDs and TV shows they watched.   

I proceeded to tell these young hunters what a great feat they had pulled off and that they should be doing cartwheels across the parking lot. They made the mistake of thinking they should be able to kill deer matching the bucks shot by the so called pro hunters, although they had marginal places to hunt. As these young hunters revealed, this type of comparison can take the fun out of hunting.       

A friend of mine in northern Indiana is a brilliant businessman. By working hard and investing wisely, he has accumulated hundreds of acres of choice deer ground. He has the equipment and intelligence to carry out a fantastic quality deer management plan. The best buck they shot last year was more than 176 inches. He recently told me he spent $25,000 on his deer management plan last year.   

If I compare myself to him, I’m setting myself up for failure and unhappiness. No matter how hard and smart I hunt, I’m not going to consistently kill great deer in my region that would compare to his. I know this, and I’m happy tapping out the best trophies for my area and style of managing.

Be Fair

Be fair to your hunting buddies and family. Don’t look at their deer and tell them they shouldn’t have shot it. Let them enjoy the moment. And if it is smaller than they thought it was, they will know that.  Be especially careful when a son or daughter gets old enough to hunt alone in their own stand. At this time they have to make their own decision without talking it over with you or another adult. They might shoot a relatively small buck or make a mistake and shoot a button buck they thought was a doe. Be complimentary to them at this time. After all, they thought it was big enough.
Always remember that you can help them learn how to evaluate a deer’s rack in the field and also assist them in telling the difference between a doe and a button buck. Don’t criticize them, for they might sit in the stand worrying about whether they can make the right decision when the next deer comes along. Be patient with them, and they will have a far greater opportunity of getting hooked on the great outdoors and will experience a lifetime of enjoyment because of your actions.

And the Final Decision Is ...

Finally, we come to the question: Is he big enough? There is no one answer to this question for all hunters. This past fall, in the heat of the moment when the adrenaline was coursing through his veins in bucketfuls, my friend arrowed a monster buck. As he has done before, upon finding the deer he said to himself, “I’ve found someone else’s buck!”   

We are still laughing about that ground-shrinkage buck, because his 12-year old daughter was with him, and in an attempt to make him feel better she said, “Dad, it’s a nice deer. I think I would have shot it.” My friend recovered nicely, by the way, for he had harvested a mature deer, just not a monster. And better yet, he kept the fun in deer hunting by making light of the situation.   

Today, even on public land, the opportunity exists in most states to pursue the deer of our choice, from a doe to a yearling buck to a mature buck. The same goes for the land we manage. Each of us must decide what is big enough in our own mind to shoot.     In my family, this might be Jessica The Rascal Girl’s year for trying to get a deer. She’s killed a couple of turkeys already. I’ll let her decide what she wants to shoot, and we’ll have a blast.

And if she just wants to go with me and not shoot a deer, that’s fine, too. I’ve already made up my mind that if a marginal buck walks in front of us and she whispers, “Grandad Brad, that’s a huge deer. Is it big enough?” I’m going push the safety off and reply, “You bet it is, Rascal Girl!”

Let Less Experienced Hunters Decide Their "Trophy"..........

If you’re hunting with a new hunter — wife, son, daughter, friend — be sure to try to determine what caliber of deer they would be happy with. If they would be tickled with a doe, let them shoot one when it presents a good shot. Don’t make them wait, just in case a buck might show up. They might end up with nothing and be disappointed about their lost opportunity. Remember that they haven’t killed a deer. Our good friends Hannah and Spencer Williams went hunting one evening last year, and she killed her first deer, a doe. They were flat-out excited about her kill, and we had fun celebrating with them.  If hunting big bucks is wearing you down, and you’re losing some enjoyment of the hunt, take some time off or shoot some does. Shooting does is fun, and can provide some great eating for your family or other families. Plus, it helps keep your whitetail herd in check.  Be realistic in your goals. During the late 1980s, I decided I was going to kill a giant buck or nothing. I was hunting public land, and there were some dandy bucks roaming the area. I went four years without shooting an antlered deer. The fifth year, I decided to shoot one of the marginal deer I had been passing. It turned out to be an 11-point buck that grossed 154 inches and netted more than 144 inches.  As I knelt and admired the whitetail, I knew my goals had been unrealistic for my hunting area. As I read some of my notes from those years I saw statements such as, “I’m getting grumpy,” and “I’m discouraged today; I have to work on my attitude.” Obviously I was losing some of the enjoyment of the hunt with my hard hunting and unrealistic goals. Since then, I have still had rather high standards regarding antler size, but I have kept my hunting expectations within my realm of achievability. Needless to say, I have enjoyed many happy years of deer hunting since then.  Be ready to share. Losing one of your small bucks or a few does won’t be the end of the world. We have some younger friends, a husband and wife team, who love to deer hunt, yet they lost most of the deer on the land they own to EHD two years ago. This past year, we were glad to share one of our leases with them so they could have venison to eat. We also told them to shoot a buck of any size if they wanted to. They didn’t end up shooting a buck, but they had fun knowing they had the option of shooting one if they desired.  Watch the deer hunting progress of your family and friends. My sister started hunting five years ago when she was in her 50s. She shot a small buck and a doe in two hunts the first year and was elated. She did the same thing the next year. The third year, she upped her standards and ended up harvesting several does and missing one mature buck. She was still happy. The past two years, she has killed does but no mature bucks yet. Although she still seems happy with her hunting, I’m letting her know that if she wants to shoot a smaller buck again, it’s perfectly all right with me. I’ll continue to monitor her progress and try to make sure she continues to enjoy her days afield to the fullest.

Throughout this article, I’ve noted how important it is for a deer hunter, beginning or veteran, to shoot the deer of their choice. That’s why I have been a proponent of quality deer management for almost 30 years, well before it was popular. At one time, we could kill four antlered bucks in Indiana, which meant we didn’t have many top-end trophies.

Today, we are only allowed one antlered buck per year in Indiana. This means we now have a more balanced age structure of bucks within our herd. If a yearling buck is your goal, and it’s a worthy goal, this shouldn’t be too hard to do. Likewise, there are ample opportunities to tag 2½- and 3½-year-old bucks, and you might even get a crack occasionally at a 4½-year-old or older buck. There is, indeed, something for everyone at this point in time.