Every now and again as a hunter you have to ask yourself: What am I really hunting for?
For me that question entered my mind one evening this week when a young, fork horned white-tailed buck stepped out in front of me and paused. I was sitting on a rise, watching a stand of dense brush and timber that bordered a grassy meadow. The meadow was crisscrossed with deer trails and the ground littered with deer droppings. I had already seen two does, and as the whitetail are coming into rut now, I knew chances were good there would be a buck in the neighborhood.
It was almost my last opportunity to hunt for the season and as I sat there wondering if I was going to fill my tag, my mind was replaying scenes from earlier in the hunting season: I kept seeing the bucks I'd let go.
There was the 4 point mule deer buck that I saw on the first morning of the season. "Beautiful buck" I had thought, "but too early to tag out now". Then there was the nice pair of white-tails we saw while retrieving Whitney's buck. I had stood there in the rain with my cross hairs on the larger of the pair. "No, one buck is enough to deal with today" I had thought to myself. Next there was another nice muley that I saw on a ridge after riding my mare seven miles behind a gate. The muley was a nice tall fork or maybe three point, but "not big enough for this far back" I had thought. And lastly there was the big white-tail I had seen, the one that I really wanted. I had gotten up extra early that day and driven an hour and a half to get to the gate I wanted to hunt behind. I hiked for two hours to get to the spot I wanted to hunt even though it was 15 degrees when I left the truck. I spent all morning working slowly through the bowl with no luck, and finally stopped for lunch. It was still only about 20 degrees out with a stiff wind and it didn't take long for me to get cold sitting down. I decided to hike up the ridge to warm up and see if there was anything up there. I took about a dozen slow stiff steps and then looked up. The buck rose out of his bed like a bird flushing out of the grass. As he lept I had time to watch him turn broadside before landing and taking one more leap. That was all I saw, but it was enough. He had a wide, tall rack: a big 4 point at least maybe 5. A big body, mature white-tail buck, one that any hunter would be proud of. I had only seen him for about a half a second, but I spent the next two full days searching for him. At the end of that second day I had hiked over ten miles and still only had the one glimpse of the buck. I decided to try a new place, but that buck still haunted me.
So now here I was, on my last hunting day with evening drawing near watching the does graze. The question entered my mind: Are you hunting for meat or a nice rack? This time I was hunting meat. Having eaten nearly all the venison in our freezer it was time for me to fill my tag. And as I sat there looking back on another great hunting season, the young white-tail stepped out of the timber and paused. I raised my rifle, steadied the cross hairs behind the shoulder, exhaled and squeezed the trigger.
To my dismay, the buck did not lay down in his tracks as is always my goal. My shot must have gone wide because instead, this one spun and ran back into the brush. I stood there watching sadly while night came on dark and fast. After marking the last spot I saw him with my orange hat, I walked back to the truck to get another flashlight and call for back up. I felt terrible, I've never lost a wounded deer yet, and I sure didn't want to now. Whitney came out and we spent the next two hours of the pitch black night searching in the thick brush with flashlights and head lamps. We finally, and thankfully located the dead buck, but not without some real doubts. After I thanked the buck for his sacrifice, I dressed and cleaned him, and as I dragged him back to the truck I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. I had filled my tag and we had recovered the buck and that's what really mattered. It didn't matter that this buck was only a fork, because after all you can't eat the antlers and I know the big bucks are still out there. Somewhere.