column By: Lee Hoots | January, 19
Who among big-game hunters would pass up an opportunity to shoot the largest-antlered elk or deer that walks freely on public and/or private land unencumbered by high fencing? The answer to that question should be obvious: Nobody. However, in my experience a giant set of antlers (or horns for that matter) is not usually the ultimate goal of most hunters – this in spite of many contrary portrayals seen on television.
Nevertheless, if a wide-antlered and tall-tined mule deer or whitetail is found browsing along beside a younger buck, it consumes a hunter’s thoughts, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. This, I believe, is quite natural. For a hunter, regardless of its antlers, such a deer represents the smartest, wariest example of its kind. A sage, old buck has spent its life out-whitting predators of all types, from coyotes to man-the-hunter. As such, old bucks, especially whitetails, get nicknames that often get brought up in unimaginable, legendary tales of near escapes and missed shots.
While most such banter proves to be quite silly, I find the dedication of hunters who are willing to pursue just one particular buck quite fascinating. Hunting one individual deer is becoming increasingly common in the West for people who have a lot of time, but our country’s hunting history truly began with the pursuit of whitetails along the East Coast. Even today, there are far more deer shot annually east of the Mississippi River than there are in the western half of the U.S. However, it would be a mistake to believe whitetails are “new” to the West, but certainly their numbers have expanded in some regions, resulting in more interest.
It seems plausible then, on the whole, that whitetail antlers (as indicators of a savvy, crafty buck worth pursuing) get a great deal of increasing focus among the general hunting public. Other than to someone with great experience, assessing whitetail antlers in the field can prove a little difficult, for old bucks rarely stand still long enough for a hunter to get a good look – much less add up “inches.” As such, in this issue Jack Ballard has penned a primer of sorts on field-judging whitetail racks for trophy-minded hunters who continue to see increasing numbers of deer – East or West.
As for me, I’ll continue on believing that most hunters can recognize a “good whitetail” when they see it, regardless of score. As an example, the Wyoming buck in the accompanying photo required my uncle to make a snap decision. It’s no record-book candidate, but it’s a dandy nonetheless, and I believe most readers of this magazine would come to the same conclusion.