When You Should Pass a Buck … and When You Shouldn’t

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You’ve got a perfect shot at that buck, but are you ready to punch your tag? Here’s how to make the decision in the moment of truth

One of the best things about trail cameras is already knowing if you'll pass or shoot a buck before ever seeing it in the field. Image by Tom Tietz

As a general rule I say to shoot whatever buck makes you happy, as long as you do it legally and ethically. Spike, forkie, 2-year-old 8-point … This is America, man, it’s your choice.

We ought never to shame anyone for shooting a youngish buck with an undersized rack, but there are some situations when you’ll want to think twice about pulling the trigger. Here are some thoughts on when to pass a buck, and when to go ahead and take him.

When to Pass

  • You’re a seasoned hunter and have killed 10 or more bucks, and even have a few shoulder mounts hanging on your wall. Why kill a fork-horn or spindly 8-point? At this point in your life as a hunter you ought to get satisfaction watching as small bucks walk away to live another day. If you want meat for the freezer shoot a big doe if you’ve got a tag.
  • Say your state offers two buck tags, and back in bow season you filled one with a 2-year-old 9-point. The goal for your second tag ought to be a buck older and bigger than the first one. If you end up eating the second tag, so what? Deer hunting is not a numbers game.
  • You’ve saved up and traveled to Iowa, Kansas, Saskatchewan, or a similar big-buck destination on a dream hunt. Your goal should be to hold out for a 4- to 6-year-old buck with a typical or gnarly rack that gross-scores at least 145 and hopefully more. If you’re in a good, low-pressure spot, you’ll see multiple bucks younger and smaller than that during the hunt; you’ll be tempted on a few borderline shooters, but pass. You can’t kill a giant if you shoot a buck below your goal early in the hunt. Be content to go home with a big rack or none at all.
  • If you’re strictly a meat hunter, the old saying, “You can’t eat antlers” applies to you. Get as many doe tags as you legally can, and stack them up. Let the spikes and forkies walk and grow.

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When to Shoot

  • It’s been a tough couple of years, with COVID and work disruptions, and now supply-chain shortages and raging inflation. Maybe you’ve had a personal problem, such as a death in the family or a divorce. You’re in a tough way, and you won’t get many days off to hunt this season. By all means shoot the first legal buck you see. Hopefully it’s a big 8- or 10-point, but if it’s a small 6 or even a spike that’s okay. Killing that deer will take your mind off things for a bit and make you happy.
  • You’re a new hunter of the COVID era, and this is your first or second deer season. Shoot the first legal buck you see. You need to kill at least three or four bucks of any size, along with a few does, and feel success. You need to get your hands bloody, drag out a few animals, cut up meat, and learn what this great game is all about.
  • You take a newbie out this season. Could be your kid or grandchild, or a 20- to 30-year-old who wants to hunt for the first time. Doesn’t matter, let him or her shoot any legal buck. Again, if they are to stick with it for the long term, new hunters need to feel the thrill of killing a buck, along with the work and effort that go with it.
  • Not every region in America produces 150-inch or larger whitetails. Far from it. Say you hunt a tough habitat, like the Adirondacks in New York, where just seeing a deer is an accomplishment some days. Or a rough pine patch in Alabama where a spindly 120-inch buck is considered a trophy. Know the deer density and genetics of the area you hunt and have reasonable expectations. Don’t think twice about shooting a spike when and where you need to, or a 115-inch 10-point if that is a top-end buck in the area. In a tough habitat, any buck you shoot will make you happy.

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