Deciding To Pass on a Buck

The Risks and Rewards of Letting Bucks Walk.

This handsome buck would tempt any archer. Whether to shoot or pass is an individual decision each hunter must make, based on personal preferences and the quality of deer in the area.

I don't know a single hunter who cannot recall, in vivid detail, all the circumstances leading up to the harvest of their first buck. For many, it is a milestone that ranks right up there with graduation and marriage. The story of a hunter's first buck is usually the most well-rehearsed tale they will ever tell, and for good reason, because it will probably be told a countless number of times throughout their life. No matter how accomplished a hunter becomes, when he speaks about his very first buck, he emits a certain enchantment that is unrivaled, even if his trophy room contains many larger, more impressive bucks.

To this day, I can't even think about the morning I felled my first buck without getting goose bumps. Yet, there is another first buck branded into all our memories that, to some, is almost as significant a landmark. This icon of achievement and self-control is the first buck you passed while holding a bow in your hand. Remember him? I know you do. Who could forget the first good deer they let walk in hopes of bringing something even larger back to camp? Maybe your resolution paid off. Maybe it didn't. Either way, it was surely an outing where you learned a whole lot about yourself and what it means to be a bowhunter. The after effects probably felt so good that you continued to place restrictions on yourself from that point on. Knowing when to begin passing bucks, and how to stick with it once you've made the decision, can be a confusing process. For those restless souls out there pondering the transition, here are some experiences, philosophies and tips aimed at helping any archer hone his ability to pass the buck:

The First Pass
The afternoon was better suited for pass shooting doves, but it was late September and the opening day of archery season. So, I wiped my brow for the tenth time and leaned my head back against the leafy sugar maple. My tiny metal hang-on was about 12 feet off the ground, and I sat thinking about how in July, when I had hung the stand, it sure looked higher than it did at the moment. Nonetheless, I was strapped in for the evening show, and it was far too hot to reposition myself.

I was a freshman in college at the time, and all my friends had opted to stay in town for an evening party. Yet I reasoned that if the prior month had been any example, there would be plenty more parties to come, but only one opening day for the entire year. Situated where a large cedar thicket abruptly dropped off to a wet-weather stream, the spot had caught my eye a couple of years prior. A well-worn trail followed the ridgeline almost straight up from the stream and then fingered off into half a dozen different trails that faded into the cedars. Several hundred yards distant was a large cornfield, and from past experiences I knew deer staged in the thick curtain of cedar trees before slipping into the cornstalks for supper after dark. Still a bit wet behind the ears in the whole stand placement arena, my chest swelled with pride when a doe followed by a spotted fawn came sauntering up the ridge trail and obliviously passed under me en route to the shaded safety of aromatic cedar. In an instant they were gone, and all I could think about was that if nothing else came of the evening it had been a terrific success because my long-planned strategy had unfolded flawlessly.

Repeating this scene never becomes old hat! Just because your standards have changed doesn't mean you won't still feel the rush from having a buck dead to rights. In fact, the only thing that will change is that you'll get that grand feeling more often.

Another warm hour passed before I noticed the straight line of a deer's back floating through the woods in front of me. Gripping the handle of my bow, I watched the deer slowly hook around until it ducked under some leaves and stepped out to calmly browse. Twice I counted his points softly aloud to myself. Fifteen short yards away, eating like one of the Angus cows across the hollow, was a beautiful 9-point buck as big as any deer I had ever harvested. He was so close I could hear his molars grinding the succulent honeysuckle leaves, and his tail flicked back and forth like the pendulum in my mind, which was deciding whether I should shoot. I could not help but think how cool it would be to pull up at the party and show my friends what they missed. Yet at the same time, I knew this deer was quite young and that the farm sheltered some resident whoppers.

When the buck put his head down to scratch his eye with a sharp hind hoof, instead of drawing back I rested the bow on my lap and let out a deep sigh. At that moment, I was overwhelmed with a flurry of emotions. I felt shaken and lightheaded as if I had killed the buck, but also deeply satisfied that he still stood in front of me for the taking if I wanted. Two more times that season, the 9-pointer showed up, and each time our paths crossed I appreciated my decision even more. In the end, his antlers still ended up in my home; both light-colored sheds sat atop my chest of drawers for years as a reminder of that special afternoon when I encountered my second first buck.

Rewards and Regrets
Like the majority of modern bowhunters, I pass on dozens of bucks each fall and winter. Some are easy to watch fade into the underbrush, while others leave me lying awake at night, asking myself, What were you thinking? Admittedly, if it weren't for a one-buck limit in my home state, far fewer deer would walk by me unscathed. But the same regulation also ensures that each time I enter the woods, there is the possibility of arrowing a world-class whitetail.

Most of us derive a whole lot of fulfillment from our selective tendencies with the stick and string. I mean, if we even have the opportunity to pass a good buck, then we have achieved our goal, haven't we? The only link missing from the chain of events is the final one concerning the actual release of an arrow. To pass a deer, you still must have many things fall into place, and very few of them can be credited to dumb luck. We must first recognize a good ambush site, erect a stand or blind, choose the correct time and conditions to hunt, slip in undetected and, finally, keep everything held together long enough for the deer to ease within spitting distance. In reality, passing any buck should be cause for celebration!

Taking time to handle and observe different sets of antlers up close is a great way to prepare for judging whitetails in the field. Study the way a rack looks from in front, behind, above, afar and in low light. This will make it easier to gauge the size of bucks when you encounter them in the field and need to make a quick decision.

Probably the most satisfying aspect of letting bucks walk, at least for me, is seeing those same deer after the season has closed. Discovering an old acquaintance's sheds in March -- knowing that he'll live to grow for another summer -- is quite rewarding.

However, just because you pass a blossoming buck does not mean everyone else will. A sobering fact is that the next time you see many of the bucks you allow to walk will be when you visit the local taxidermist and see their skull plates attached to a foam form with a neighbor's name written on the side. Accepting and understanding this aspect of being very selective is a necessary part of the transition for every hunter. If you live in an area where a 2-year-old 8-pointer is considered a trophy, then you almost certainly feel just as proud passing up a forkhorn as the guy who routinely scrutinizes 4-year-old 10-pointers from his stand deep in the heart of Texas. When dealing with an animal that has a range as broad as the whitetail deer, everything is relative.

A small camcorder can add a whole new dimension to your bowhunting endeavors. Besides accumulating a useful log of visual information, having a camera handy sure makes passing up the bucks that come into range much easier. During the off-season, the author enjoys reliving his hunts while editing each archery season and burning the finished product onto a DVD.

Standing By Your Standards
Never have I nocked an arrow when settling into the stand and thought to myself, I'm not going to shoot anything that scores less than such and such. My standards have nothing to do with arithmetic and everything to do with personal judgment and appeal. On any given morning, I might pass a buck with perfect symmetry that would score great only to arrow a mature 6-pointer the following afternoon that may teeter just below the Pope and Young minimum. That's how I operate, and most years, the buck that ends up in my freezer and on the wall is not the deer that would have had the largest number associated with his rack. Someday my philosophy may change, but at present, my heart skips a beat for bucks sporting abnormalities or unique traits that some other, bigger antlered deer may not possess.

Each hunter must decide when the time is right to become more discriminating when it comes to killing. I'm not talking about turning into a full-blown trophy hunter; just a guy or gal who wants to raise the bar in order to harvest what they deem to be a better than average deer for their neck of the woods. Most of us voluntarily take on the commitment after reaching a plateau in our hunting career. Some hunters may never reach that point, and that's OK too. You better believe that if I only got the chance to bowhunt two or three short weekends a year, my outlook on what constitutes a shooter would be totally different! And no matter how resolute you are about letting bucks walk when chatting with your buddies back at camp or hiking through the frost on the way to a stand, things can change quickly when something steps into your shooting lane with a swollen neck and head full of shiny bone. Conquering the urge to shoot a decent buck is not something that will ever completely go away. Nonetheless, strategies exist to keep you on track when faced with a tempting situation.

It sounds crazy, but for a couple of years after getting serious about letting young bucks walk, the limb of my bow had a photo I had torn out of a magazine and taped on the inside. Not spectacular in any way, the picture was of a mature deer with a realistic rack, and it was always right there in plain sight, reminding me that small, young deer grow into big, old deer. I suffered a bit of ribbing over the photo from friends and family when they would spot my bizarre piece of motivation, but it served a purpose and kept me from loosing the string on many juvenile bucks.

Sometimes, even when setting realistic standards for your hunting area, there will be seasons when you walk out of the woods on the last evening and still have an un-punched buck tag. Facing this fact and staying resolute all the way until the end will ultimately pay off, but you must be at a point in your hunting career to do so and still find enjoyment.

Passing bucks became even more enjoyable the first time I took my handheld video camera up into the treestand after receiving the gadget as a Christmas gift that same morning. Longwinded stories and looks of suspicion from buddies were no longer necessary; now I could show them what I had seen only hours earlier with the push of a button. The pint-sized camera soon became as important as any other piece of equipment in my pack. With the ability to capture both details of the hunt and almost all the bucks that came into range, having a camcorder along really made passing borderline bucks easier. Besides being a great visual ledger of the up-and-coming deer on the property, I began to enjoy the processes involved in capturing and editing this homemade hunting footage.

Finally, never underestimate the power the touch and feel of a mammoth buck can have. At times, when I find myself in need of some motivation, I look no further than a bruiser that has already met his end in the field. Simply touching the antlers of an extraordinary specimen can bring you back in focus. Head to the local sporting goods store, a friend's house or maybe even your own trophy room and take a moment to feel the bends, curves, pointed tines and burrs of a large set of antlers if you begin to feel as if you've lost your "mojo" for a mega buck. There have been instances when my morale had nearly bottomed out, and I questioned whether my practice of passing was going to pan out. All I needed for reassurance was to simply grasp the gnarly bases of an old buck and remind myself that the opportunity will eventually come.

One of the many beauties of bowhunting is that, for the most part, we are in control of the caliber of animal we kill. We do not have the power to set seasons or limits, but all of us make our own decisions when it comes time to touch the release. Becoming adept at passing deer is not like switching on a light; the skill is one that takes time to perfect. However, once a hunter discovers the satisfaction involved, he will begin to judge each season not based on the quality of bucks killed, but rather the quality of bucks passed.

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