Deer Hunting photo

My new rule for deer season: Take ’em if you’ve got ’em.

A couple of years ago, the deer-management bug bit me—hard. I hung trail cameras. I planted food plots. And I dreamed big about the giant bucks that I’d kill on my land along Montana’s Milk River.

For a few years I made a job of not killing beautiful deer. Not old enough, I’d tell myself. Not big enough. Oh, how much better those bucks in my bow sight and riflescope would look on my wall next year.

Then epizootic hemorrhagic disease hit the Milk River area, and I made a job of dragging putrid deer carcasses out of alfalfa fields. During pheasant season that year, I carried a short-stroke saw in my bird vest, and I filled my shop with the stinking racks of EHD-killed bucks I found in the cattails and hay fields all along the valley.

When the mortality was quantified, biologists reckoned we lost about 90 percent of the whitetails along the Milk. To me, it seemed like all of them were those gorgeous bucks that I hadn’t killed.

That year reset my priorities. It made me realize that what I value about deer is their unpredictability. The way they can suddenly appear. Or disappear. The way they resist being owned or managed. But the wildness that I cherish also makes them a perishable commodity. They can get hit by a car, killed by a neighbor, or die of disease.

In our April 2015 print issue, a number of contributors write about several new “rules” for whitetail management. The piece details how our collective relationship with deer is changing as herd dynamics ebb and flow—but mostly ebb—across whitetail country. My favorite of these rules is that we hunters need to revise our expectations of what constitutes a great buck, or a great season.

That’s what EHD did for me. My personal rule is that I no longer “bank” bucks for next year, because it’s such a long shot that I’ll ever encounter them again. I would much rather have killed one of those next-year bucks to adorn my wall and feed my family than have it rot in a field.

Sure, I’d prefer to hold out for a whopper. But not if that means I can’t enjoy the unexpected gift of a fine deer in the right place, at the right time.

Intensive management of whitetails has turned deer hunting into a sort of job for many of us, and we’ve turned what should be an enjoyable experience into a series of situational dilemmas: Is he old enough? Is he big enough?

I don’t wish the catastrophe of EHD on any other hunter, but what my experience has taught me is that it’s far more satisfying to take the deer that you have rather than wait for the deer that may never come.

This column ran as the Editor’s Journal letter in the April 2015 issue of Outdoor Life. Pick up a copy to read the New Rules of Whitetail Management feature, or stay tuned to read it here on the website.