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Bowhunter - Lowering the Bar

The question is not, how big of a buck did you kill. The real question is, are you having fun?

EVER LOOK AT A deer hunting magazine and wonder what planet some of those bowhunters are on?

What solar system is it where they find whitetail bucks with beams as thick as your wrist and tines as long as your forearm? In which universe are they shooting bucks with antlers resembling a gnarly oak tree growing in downtown Chernobyl?

Do you ask yourself, "What am I doing wrong?"


I do.

It can be depressing to peruse the pages of hunting magazines and see the monster bucks taken by other hunters. They're mostly normal hunters like us, who somehow, either on purpose or by accident, ended up in the right place at the right time.

The other 99.99 percent of the time, the rest of us are back here on Earth, daydreaming about tagging a 200-inch buck. But we're also smart enough to realize there probably isn't such an animal within a hundred miles of where we hunt.

Then again, maybe he's out there, somewhere. Maybe he transported down from that other planet and will sneak under our tree this fall. Just maybe.

It's that possibility, however remote, that scripts our fantasies. It drives some of us to hunt as hard as we can, as smart as we can, and to pass up all but the biggest buck in the woods. We scoff at the runts, turn an indifferent glance at mere 10-point bucks, and barely consider bucks that would have driven us crazy with desire only a few years ago.

We become trophy hunters. The question is: Is that a planet we really want to visit?

Becoming a Trophy Hunter
Oh, do I hate that word, "trophy." And sometimes I hate trophy hunting.

Most of us go through the typical stages of hunter development. As we become more proficient, we raise the bar. Instead of hunting deer, we hunt bucks. Then we hunt "book" bucks. Then we raise the bar even higher.

I reached that point several years ago, after discovering a 140-class buck in the area where I hunt in Minnesota. I wanted him very badly. He wasn't a monster, but he was the biggest buck I'd seen in that area. I hunted every minute possible, and when not hunting, I was scouting for that buck.

I finally got a shot the Saturday after Thanksgiving, after convincing my wife I shouldn't have to go to the in-laws for the holiday. I gave plenty of thanks for that buck (and my wife's tolerance) and never before experienced such a feeling of satisfaction for accomplishing a goal in hunting. It was an unforgettable, even addictive, moment.

Since that time, things have not gone my way. Nothing bad happened on my hunts because nothing much happened at all. No matter what I did, or how hard I hunted, things did not work out. Hunting trips to Kentucky and Illinois produced no shot opportunities at worthy bucks. Hunting excursions in states surrounding my home failed to provide any shots at decent bucks. For three years I could barely find a respectable buck, much less kill one.

Now, go back and re-read that last paragraph. Pick out these three words: worthy, decent, and respectable. Do you see the problem?

What kind of attitude is that? What makes a buck unworthy? What determines whether a buck is decent? What buck out there doesn't deserve respect? Ask yourself those questions, and then ask one more: Do you really want to be a trophy hunter?

Only you can answer that question.

Measuring Potential

I asked those questions of myself late last fall. I had three tags in my pocket, one each for Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. I'd been hunting hard, skipping from one state to the other, depending on wind and weather conditions. Finding a buck that met my inflated standards was, once again, proving difficult.

The long-term effects of a devastating winter in 1997 were painfully evident. We lost a lot of fawns (and fetuses) in our region that winter, and there was a decided lack of 3 1/2-year-old bucks. That's my personal problem, I know, but it brings up the question of realistic potential.

Let's face it, not all regions of this continent produce whitetail bucks that would rate the cover of a magazine. There are places where such bucks can be found easily, but those places are managed strictly for trophy bucks, and you'd better have deep pockets if you plan to hunt there. There are other unique areas that produce big bucks, and some of the hunters who consistently kill huge bucks are merely fortunate enough to live near, and hunt in, that "right place." Good for them.

That's not to say a bruiser buck can't be found in a neighborhood near you. But you have to ask yourself: What is the realistic potential of my area? A 150-class buck? A 170? A 200? Or is a 125-inch buck the most you can reasonably hope for?

Only you can answer that question.

Having Fun
The next question I asked myself last fall, while sitting in a tree for the umpteenth hour was, "Am I having fun?"

I wasn't sure of the answer. That is the idea isn't it? To have fun? I enjoy every minute in the outdoors, but enjoying yourself and having fun are not the same.

If all you do is sit in a tree and feel disappointment because nothing "decent" walks your way, that's not fun. If you never shoot a buck because you're waiting for something "respectable" to come by, what are you missing?

Well, you're missing the thrill of a pounding heart once you decide to take an animal. You're missing the experience of drawing your bow under intense pressure, concentrating on the spot, and making a good shot. You're missing those post-shot shaky legs you used to get back when you were having fun.

And what about those anxious moments after the shot, when you're focused on the fleeing animal, taking mental notes to be used when you take up the blood trail? I love that part of bowhunting as much as those moments before I release an arrow.

If you're so serious in your quest for the biggest buck in the woods that you lose sight of the goal of having fun, then what's the point?

Are you having fun?

Only you can answer that question.

Practicing QDM

h, I can hear the Quality Deer Management advocates getting fidgety. They'll say you can't shoot the big ones if you're always shooting the little ones. That's true. The logic is indisputable. I believe in improving the quality of a deer herd and ensuring there are mature bucks in the population. But it depends on the situation. In my home state of North Dakota, passing up a buck will not ensure his living to maturity. The liberal firearm season even makes it doubtful. In some areas you can let a buck walk and expect to see him next year. In other areas, that's unrealistic. If I owned a large parcel of land, I would be practicing QDM there. But for most of my bowhunting, saving a buck isn't practical.

You have to ask yourself if "saving" a buck is feasible in your area?

Only you can answer that question.

Enjoying the Practical Side

So, what's the practical side of all this? Well, success breeds success. The more animals you take with a bow, the more proficient you become. I know bowhunters who never kill anything because they're waiting for something "worthy." I wonder if, due to a lack of real experience, they'll be able to make it happen when, or if, that buck shows up.

Also, if you're like me, you dearly love to eat venison. You won't find beef steaks in my freezer. Serious trophy hunters can get very hungry. Some may shoot a doe late in the year, which is logical. Take a doe for the freezer and leave the bucks to grow up. Can't argue with that. But one way or the other, I prefer to have venison on the menu.

Lastly, what about all the work we put into this game? The conditioning, the scouting, the travel, the expense, the early mornings, the late evenings, and the frustrating wind and weather? Somewhere along the line, we want to pluck the fruits of our labor. We have "the plan," and we want to know if it works.

Does your plan work?

Only you can answer that question.

Lowering the Bar

On that November morning last fall, in Minnesota, I decided to "lower the bar." I wanted to have some fun again. I wanted to feel that excitement. I wanted to experience that pressure-packed moment of the shot, that intensity, and then the thrill of recovery.

I'd weighed my situation carefully. It was early November, the day before the Minnesota slug season, and a week before the North Dakota firearm season. Those three tags were burning a hole in my pocket and time was a-wasting. I'd been hunting hard and vacation time was running short, only a week left.

Now, I want to shoot a 200-inch whitetail as bad as anyone, but it's probably not going to happen. In fact, the main reason I'm often a "selective" bowhunter (sounds much better than trophy hunter, don't you think?) is, if I shot the first buck that came along, my season would be over far too quickly. Last fall, that was no longer a problem.

Some might call this self-convincing logic just a pack of excuses to shoot a deer, and they're right. I was coercing myself to have fun. Be a bowhunter.

Kill a deer.

Some might also assume that, as an outdoor writer, I worry about impressing editors and readers by killing only magazine-caliber bucks. Nope. Don't care about that. I'm just a bowhunter. I hunt public land, and private land where I have obtained permission, just like most of you. I don't have unlimited time to hunt, and won't until I retire. I make no apologies for not having killed three dozen bucks scoring higher than my IQ (maybe that wouldn't be too difficult, come to think of it).

So, based on the aforementioned logic, my heart rate accelerated at the next sound of deer running. I knew I was about to get a shot. The buck that showed up, right behind a doe, was an average 4x4, sleek and swollen from the effects of the rut. Both deer slowed to a walk below my stand. With the kind of focus only a bowhunter knows, I drew carefully, aimed, and watched my pink-fletched arrow slip through fur. The buck rocketed into the woods as I began to tremble.

Good. That excitement was still there.

The tracking job was not as easy as I'd expected, considering the shot placement, but after some backtracking I recovered the buck.

Four days later I was in a treestand in North Dakota, overlooking a large slough rimmed in Russian olive trees. Just after sunrise, my doe decoy lured a young 3x3 to her side. The buck bolted when his right antler clinked off the decoy's plastic nose. Only 10 minutes later a larger 4x4 came to the edge of the trees. It took some coaxing with a bleat call, but I was able to convince the buck to check out the decoy.

It was fun to call and decoy him in, prepare for the shot, make the shot, and watch him go down at the edge of the Russian olives only 75 yards away. It was a job well done, regardless of the size of the buck's antlers.

The very next day I was in a ground blind in a South Dakota hayfield. I had one tag left and a snowstorm was bearing down on the area (there goes that logic again). Another 4x4 walked over to my buck decoy and smashed into it just as my arrow struck. A short blood trail through some cattails finished the job.

Three bucks, three states, one week. I'm proud of all three. They are all worthy, decent, and respectable in my mind. Any one of them could have been a 150-class buck, and I'd like to think the result would have been the same. But I make no excuses. If I cared what people thought about my prowess as a bowhunter, or my harvest of three average-size bucks, I wouldn't be telling this story and showing you pictures of my deer.

I lowered the bar and put the fun back into my bowhunting. I might raise it again in the future and travel to that other planet for a while, but that's my decision. Mine alone.

Do you need to lower your bar?

Only you can answer that question.

A native of North Dakota, Curt Wells lowers and raises the bar for whitetails throughout the northern Prairie States.

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