You Gotta Kill Something Now and Then

By Craig Dougherty

 My son and I have more than 30 years of quality deer management and big deer under our belt, and we’ve learned a thing or two about killing big bucks. One of the most important lessons we’ve learned is that everything you kill doesn’t have to be big.

There was a day when we would never think about taking a buck that was not fully developed. In our part of the world, that often means a 5-year-old or older deer. That’s no longer the case. We now will occasionally take a buck that has not realized its full potential. The reason? Sometimes, you just have to kill something.

New Hunters and Seniors Get the Green Light

We have always green-lighted beginning hunters at our camp. That means children and adults who have had very little deer hunting success. Research tells us that beginning hunters need to be successful if they are to stay in the sport for the long haul. We need every hunter we can get, and today’s new hunter is tomorrow’s rock picker or wood-box filler. Besides, there’s nothing more exciting than seeing a beginning hunter with his first deer. The joy is downright contagious. On occasion, our camp is graced by a senior hunter. These men and or women have earned their seat at the head of our hunting camp table. Their eyes might not be as sharp as they once were, and their reflexes might be a little slower, but they honor our camp with their presence. These hunters have the green light, too. Most of them have killed their share of big bucks, but many are happy to take just one more buck of any size. It’s in their DNA. You never know when your next buck might be your last one. We want our seniors to kill plenty of next bucks before their last buck honors our camp game pole. Holding senior hunters to the same standards they had when there was fire in their eyes and a spring in their step is foolish. And the fool can be the senior or the other members of the hunting group. Seniors need to give themselves permission to take a lesser buck now and again. You never know, do you? Younger hunters need to support their seniors along the way. Everybody will be the better for it. I’ve always found it somewhat condescending to automatically green-light a hunter with a disability. We let our disabled hunting friends find their own comfort levels when it comes to killing big bucks. If they want to wait on Mr. Big, it’s their choice. A nice young, fat buck is just fine. It matters not to us which way their decision plays out. We make sure they know that a young buck here or a young buck there won’t make a bit of difference in our management program. These green-light scenarios might seem like no-brainers, but some hunters are so hung up on killing only big bucks that they sometimes lose track of why we hunt. They have forgotten about the fun and fellowship that comes from hugging a 12-year-old child staring at his first buck or slapping an old hunter on the back with heartfelt congratulations. Not all new recruits are ready to take a lesser buck. Some have watched so much hunting TV and consumed so much big buck Kool- Aid they think they are committing a mortal sin if they even look at a young buck. A few years ago, we hosted a hunting industry guy who had never killed a bow buck. We green-lighted him for any deer that offered a good shot. But he passed sit after sit. It was killing him, but he was all hung up on not disappointing us because we were big-buck guys. On his final afternoon in camp, my son, Neil, took the hunter aside and explained that we had almost 20 yearling bucks using the place, 15 of which would be dead by next season, and one or two that would probably wind up under an 18-wheeler by the end of the weekend. In other words, one young buck with an arrow tucked in his rib cage would not wreck our management program. That night, we celebrated his first buck, a trophy 6-pointer. It was one of our fondest memories. He was thrilled, and so were we. And so was Katie with her first bow buck and Marie with her first rifle kill. The first-timer list goes on and on. There’s something special about that first deer.

Kill Something Already

Some hunters are so hung up on hunting (or trying to hunt) big bucks that they are making themselves miserable. Through the years, we have spent loads of time counseling hunters on how to get the most out of their properties. We tell them what to plant and how to plant it, and we tell them what to cut and what to let grow. But mostly, we tell them what to kill. They are generally fine on the doe side of the equation, but some hunters have set the big buck bar so high they can’t clear it with a hook-and-ladder truck. These gung-ho hunters pass up dozens of shootable bucks every year, as they are waiting for Mr. Big. But Mr. Big rarely, if ever, exists in northern New Jersey, central Pennsylvania, southern Alabama or most places we hunt. These guys are waiting for B&C bucks, which are few and far between. In fact, 160-inch bucks are the stuff of magazine covers and TV shows, and 200-inchers are almost non-existent. If you want to hold out for a big buck, set the bar at the top 10 percent of bucks in your area. A local taxidermist or meat cutter can fill you in on what kind of deer come out of your area. If 10 percent is not challenging enough, raise the bar to the top five percent. Believe it or not, we have clients who make themselves miserable by passing everything they see. There hasn’t been a happy dance around the game pole in years. Neil is quick to point out to clients that you cannot stockpile bucks, and a property can only accommodate so many mature old warriors. Half of the young bucks will be elsewhere by the time they are two. We worry about clients that have set the bar so high they haven’t killed anything in years. Planting plots and cutting brush only goes so far. We plead with them to kill something, as it’ll keep them in the game and coming back for more. We have some that have set unreasonable goals for themselves and haven’t a prayer of meeting them. They’ve lost the joy of hunting and are headed for a for-sale sign on the front gate. They are burning out quickly. We don’t want to lose them as clients or, for that matter, fellow hunters. They have set their sights so high they might never kill a buck — ever. They are on their way out and don’t even know it. A full game pole goes a long way toward keeping us in the hunt. Sometimes, you just have to kill something. It’s why we hunt. It’s a DNA thing.

Just Take a Buck Now and Then

Sometimes, something inside tells you to kill something. I’ve evolved (my word) to the point where it just happens. I don’t really set out to deliberately take a mid-aged buck. It just happens. My heart wins out over my head. Ten years ago, I would have beaten myself up if I took a “lesser” buck. Today, I do it without hesitation or remorse. Maybe the buck carried himself a certain way, or the way the sun lit up his antlers, or he looked like a shooter through the scope at 200 yards. Or maybe it’s the realization that this could be my last season — or his. It happens more often, and I’m OK with it. My heart overrules my head, and I like it that way. I listen to my heart, and when it comes to hunting, my heart seldom lies. I’ve been to the mountaintop of big bucks and seen the promised land — and that land is about more than big antlers. The world won’t end if you take a buck now and then that you just wanted to kill.