The rut is here, and the hopes of notching your tag on a heavy-horned buck have never been higher. And while you might have a Pope & Young cruise by your setup in spitting distance, those odds remain low, even with big bucks letting their guards down.
Of course, if you have weeks to hunt or access to private or leased ground where you can mitigate the pressure, holding out for a booner might not be a bad idea. But for workaday hunters and weekend warriors, waiting for something better is a great way to eat your tag(s) or lead to a years-long drought. I’m not saying you shouldn’t challenge yourself to kill a big buck (whatever that means to you), but you should be honest about your situation.
If you primarily hunt public land and only have weekends to do so, you might want to temper your expectations. I’m not sure what the statistics are for hunter encounters with mature bucks, but I know they’re pretty sobering.
If you’re faintly aware of the whitetail industry, then you know big bucks sell. Big bucks are cool. They’re an incredible expression of nature, and I’d be lying if I said my goal wasn’t to shoot a big buck every year. While parts of the hunting industry or media have made slight course corrections with the big buck fever, it’s still the underlying current of hunting media. And we’re kind of all part of the problem. I bet if you had to choose between watching a YouTube reel of someone arrowing a big buck and someone shooting a small buck, you’d probably opt for the former. I know I would. And no matter how many times we say there’s nothing wrong with shooting small bucks or forkies, the insincerity in this statement reeks like a rutting buck.
For these reasons, it can be easy to convince ourselves that we should hold out for “better” deer. But unlike the bus route, there’s no promise that another deer will come by your stand just because the one in shooting distance doesn’t meet standards—standards that might be arbitrary, self-imposed, or dictated by hunting shows where the deer are pampered like toddlers.
Unless you’re Andy May, you probably aren’t going to kill multiple giant bucks in just a handful of sits. You might not have the drive or bandwidth to do so, and that’s okay. Just make sure you understand this when a buck that you’d be happy to shoot walks in range.
It can be easy to think that there’s a mature buck around every ridge top on public land, especially with the endless stream of hunting content on YouTube. While those content creators might drop multiple big bucks in a single season, you don’t see the dozens of empty sits that didn’t make the cut. They probably have more uneventful sits than you do days to hunt. Understanding just how little time you have in the woods might make you think before passing that buck.
If you don’t mind holding out for multiple seasons, this doesn’t apply to you. If you enjoy eating venison and shooting deer every season, keep reading. I have a buddy who went eight years between his last two buck kills. Both deer scored over 150, and he passed on dozens of deer in those eight years. But his goal was to kill a bigger buck than his previous one, even if it meant passing deer that most hunters would sell an organ to shoot. So while my buddy’s situation isn’t a typical rut, he went almost a decade without killing a deer. He also hunts a large, highly managed private property in arguably his state’s best region. It’s not a cakewalk by any means, and he has other hunters to compete with, but it’s not highly pressured or public ground either.
This isn’t most hunters’ situation, and if your hunting time is limited to Saturdays on the national forest, you could easily pass a decade waiting for that big buck on public land. If you’re okay with this reality, keep holding out. But if you pass on deer that you’d be happy to shoot and then regret it, you’re robbing yourself of joy. Shooting a big buck is fun, but shooting a little buck is more fun than not shooting one at all. I don’t know about you, but not shooting a deer or filling the freezer for just one season, much less ten, sounds like purgatory.
Shooting does and small bucks isn’t just a great way to stockpile venison, it’s great experience for shooting bigger bucks. Even if you target shoot several days per week, if you go a couple seasons without arrowing a deer, you’re going to be rusty. You don’t want the first big buck you’ve seen in several seasons to send you into a shaking fit just before he ducks your arrow. If you can rack up the does and younger bucks, it’ll be routine work when a big boy steps out.
You don’t have to blow up your best spots to shoot more deer either. Scout new areas where you can target does. It might sound like a walk in the park, but arrowing a cagey doe or encountering a young buck on public ground isn’t a guarantee. This sounds obvious, but shooting deer, no matter the size or age, will make you better at shooting deer.
Some people are okay with not shooting deer every season. If that’s you, that’s perfectly okay. But if you love eating venison and you’re not shooting deer at the expense of your own enjoyment, you’re wasting your time. Because outside of your closest hunting buddies, no one cares what you shoot—big or little.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.