By Bill Winke

The journey, not the antler size, is what really defines the trophy A friend of mine once told me that without the journey, there could be no trophy. It was very wise advice and that statement really crystalizes what this article is all about. After all these years of hunting nearly every day of the deer season, I have learned a few things. The most humbling thing I have learned is that I rarely shoot big deer despite my best intentions. But I shoot mature bucks fairly often, many of which I have a long history with.

 Interestingly, I feel just as good, if not better, about taking these old bucks with the long history as I do from taking bucks with bigger antlers. It truly is all about the journey. In this feature, I am going to focus on the journey and how you can rid yourself of antler mania and get back to what really matters — the joy of the hunt. You will never enjoy a deer season more than you will when you adopt the attitude that the journey is its own reward. Let’s face reality. As hard as we try, most of us aren’t going to grow giant bucks every year, but we can probably grow mature bucks consistently — with a real story behind them. Going after bucks like this produces a very satisfying hunting experience.


 I get much more satisfaction out of hunting a specific buck than I get from just going deer hunting. Making it personal is one key to increasing the level of enjoyment we gain from deer hunting. There are several ways to do this, but the two most obvious ones I have found are video and trail cameras. I started videotaping my hunts in 2005 when I invited a TV show to send a cameraman to my farm to capture my hunting season. I was hunting a particular big buck, and I decided that even if I didn’t get him, I really wanted to have professional video footage of the deer that I could keep and watch forever. Think of the most memorable encounters you have had in the field; I bet you wish you could go back and relive them a thousand times. You invest so much time for those 10 seconds of thrill and adrenaline. But then they are gone way too quickly, and all you have is memories. It would sure be nice to have something more permanent than a mental image. No matter how well you burn that moment into your memory, it will never be as brilliant or as beautiful as it will be when you watch it back in HD video. The 2005 season started me down a road that I am still traveling. I still have a cameraman in the tree with me every time I go deer hunting. I also do this for business reasons now, but it has the side benefit of giving me the ability to go back and watch video footage of hunts years later. I can identify bucks I have passed up that I am hunting now. It is fun to see how they have changed and grown. While they might not have meant much at the time we filmed them, now they mean much more. That kind of history helps me to form a better idea of the range and movement patterns of the bucks, but it also makes the hunt more personal. Video has made it much easier for me to identify specific bucks, to organize them (even to name a few of them) and to go back later and start to form a timeline of development for those bucks. I love watching them get larger and change their behavior as they grow older. They are like a part of the farm. Not only are these individual buck stories the basis for my continued education in deer behavior, they are what make it so interesting and satisfying when I finally kill one of the bucks. The story (more correctly, the history) really makes the harvest much more satisfying regardless of the buck’s size. It isn’t all that hard to self-film bucks as they move past your stands. Sometimes, you can even get lucky and actually film a buck as you shoot it. Self-filming hunts is a very fast growing aspect of deer hunting. All you need is a decent camera, a camera arm that attaches to the tree and some patience to learn. This article really isn’t about how to film — it's about how get to know bucks — so I am going to leave that part of the discussion for another day. It is enough for now to leave you with this thought: Filming bucks from your stand is not as hard or expensive as you might think. And it is a lot of fun.


 Let me give you two polar opposite examples of how the journey becomes the reward so you can see why I love deer hunting more now than I ever have. This past season, I shot one of my biggest bucks to date. But in keeping with this theme, we must first go back a few years to establish the story. This buck was an average looking 3-1/2-year-old in 2009. I paid him very little mind that season, even though he seemed to be everywhere my cameraman and I went. He came within bow range at least five or six times. Once, he actually bedded down only 20 yards from the stand and stayed there while Chad and I snuck out of the tree at midday. He never knew we were there. We still laugh about it. We filmed the buck often doing all kinds of things, like walking through the fog of an early morning sunrise, chasing does and eating acorns. You could already see in his personality at that age that he was a buck that liked to cover ground and wasn’t overly worried about moving during day. He seemed almost dumb compared to other bucks on the farm. Fortunately, he made it through the season, and in 2010 he grew into a very good-looking 11- pointer. He still had the same basic rack structure and home range and that made it easy to identify him. He was still covering tons of ground during the daylight. Only now, he was 4- 1/2 years old and had become a target buck on my hit list. I called him the G5 Buck because he had grown a crab-claw G5 on his right beam. During the 2010 season, G5 came within bow range four times. Twice, he came by right at last light, and once he heard me move on the stand and left without offering a shot. Once, I hit him high and he got away. He recovered easily from the high hit and made it through the winter in fine shape. During Summer 2011, we found him back again, eating soybeans on one of the commercial crop fields on the farm. He had really blown up into a dandy. Because of the history I had with the G5 Buck, I was excited to hunt him again. You can imagine my satisfaction when I was able to kill him Nov. 9 as he cold-trailed a doe right past my stand. That is one example. Now, let’s go back a year to the 2010 season again. That season, after the G5 Buck got away, I ended up shooting a very old buck that I had only seen four times during daylight during the previous four hunting seasons. In 2008, I filmed a friend miss the buck. After that, the deer became known as Jamie — in honor of my friend’s ill-fated evening. Jamie the deer was apparent on trail cameras at night, but never showed himself in daylight during the remainder of the 2008 season, nor did he show up during the day during the 2009 season. He was like a ghost — a legend, maybe a myth. To me he had become like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. Jamie even made it most of the way through the 2010 season without yet offering daylight photo or sighting. Finally, toward the end of November that year, I saw a heavy-horned old buck one evening. The next morning, I was back in the same stand when the buck came in to my grunt call. He had a familiar look to him. When I recognized the deer as Jamie, I was overwhelmed with satisfaction at finally besting that old buck. Whereas the G5 Buck was pushing 190 inches, Jamie was pushing 135 inches. Yet, both bucks brought out the same sense of satisfaction in me. What I appreciated about both of these deer was the hunt they led me on — the years of getting to know them and the hours spent trying to see them. When it finally came together, I felt a great sense of joy that had nothing to do with antler size.


 OK, so video is one way you can get to know the bucks you hunt better, but there is also a much easier and less expensive method: trail cameras. You can learn tons about the bucks you are hunting from trail camera photos. However, just as importantly, you can also gain a history with the deer. You can select certain bucks to hunt and form a strategy for going after them. In other words, you can make it personal. Finally, you have a way to gain that personal feel that was lacking in the past. You can realistically start to hunt individual bucks with some hope of actually seeing and shooting them. Without trail cameras, it takes tons of scouting time and tons of luck to pull that off. Even with the trail camera photos it is still not easy by any stretch, but at least you are in the game. It gives you a tool to increase the joy of the hunt even if you can’t afford the hundreds of hours of scouting and glassing that otherwise accompany patterning specific deer.


 Making it personal — hunting a specific buck — is just one part of the journey to me. Almost as important to me is the ability to learn more about the animals. Every year I learn something new, if only that what I thought was true in the past actually wasn’t. Even when I am failing, I am learning. I might be figuring out that one of my strategies doesn’t work or I may be learning how deer relate to a certain terrain feature near my stand or I may be learning something about the different personalities of mature bucks. Whatever it is, this quest for information and knowledge about deer makes the season more enjoyable. I now enter the season with some fresh ideas, untested strategies and new theories on what deer do, and then I try my best to prove or disprove them as I spend days in the tree. When you combine that with what I learn from my video and trail camera photos, my understanding really moves forward each season. If you really start to embrace the quest for knowledge, it becomes its own reward. While filling tags is always a lot of fun, it becomes less important when you enter the season with other goals that are just as important. It is all part of the journey.


 Bringing this full circle, we aren’t going to be hunting giant bucks very often, but that shouldn’t detract from the pure joy of matching wits with mature whitetails. Forget the antlers and focus on the age of the bucks. Focus on the hunt, on the history you have with the deer and what you have learned about that buck through years of failing to kill him, and soon you will come to the same conclusion I did: Antler size is overrated. I will always try to shoot the bucks on the farm with the biggest antlers, but that is not going to detract from the joy and satisfaction I feel when I shoot a mature smaller-antlered buck with which I have a long history. Any mature buck is a trophy and when you set out to hunt a specific buck on his terms, the hunt turns into a journey. That is when things really start to get interesting.