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It had been a rough couple of months. I’d battled writer’s block and struggled to meet my deadlines. I’d fought the homework wars with my kids at night. Three out-of-state hunts for a major TV show had been busts. I needed some time alone to chill and think, and I knew where to go.

I drove out to a woodlot near my Virginia home, walked a mile in the dark and sat down against a white oak. The sun rose and the mercury plunged another five degrees. It was cold, so cold it hurt. I shivered and thought for a couple of hours. When I added it all up, the good stuff still far outweighed the bad–I had my health, a beautiful wife and two strapping young sons. I stopped my mental whining and began to warm up. Then pop, pop, pop in the frosty leaves. The forkhorn tipped in, fat as a beef calf, its hide glowing in the new sunshine. I raised my .270 and gently squeezed the trigger.

I knifed him open and was struck by his smell and the hotness of his blood. I thought back to all the deer I had shot in these woods over the years and grinned. No wall-hangers, but some fine animals. I reached down, grasped a leg and began pulling him back toward the truck. The steaks and burgers we would eat for the next year would taste especially fine.

Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Yes, you’ll say, though you might have forgotten. We’ve moved from the days of a “good buck” to a “trophy” to a “monster” or “giant.” Whitetails with racks the size of a kid’s rocking chair adorn the covers of magazines and books. A cast of characters on TV and in videos whack brute after brute and talk about it afterward (sometimes not so eloquently). Having written hundreds of articles and three books on mega-buck strategies, I’ve contributed my share to the craze, and I offer no apologies for it. As whitetail columnist for this magazine, they pay me to know my stuff and report on the latest trends.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the big-deer mania that has swept America. In fact, it’s a natural evolution in the development of most hunters. The more we read about mystical 6-year-old monarchs that ghost through the woods, the more they get in our blood. The more film we watch of beasts with beams as thick as ax handles, the more we want to shoot one. That is not a bad thing. One thing troubles me, though. Has our obsession with antlers begun to diminish who we are?

Think about it. After watching a lineup of “experts” drop a slew of 150- and 160-class bucks on television one night, a hunter, particularly a new or young one, might think twice about shooting a four- or six-pointer that walks beneath his stand the next morning. He might even feel ashamed to do it, even though it might be his only chance at a legal buck all season. When we begin to make other hunters feel that way, when we take the joy out of simply hunting, we denigrate the sport we cherish.

All of us want a big rack for the den wall, but a little one we saw off and tack up in the garage is okay, too. In an article titled “Why We Hunt” [November 2002], Jim Zumbo wrote: “I believe I speak for most of us when I say a 10-point whitetail is a lofty objective, but a lesser buck will do. Not many of us are pure trophy hunters. The rest of us are interested in simply bringing home any legal deer.” I could not have said it better.

It’s time for all of us to step back and reassess why we hunt. Is it strictly for antlers? If so, that’s fine. Buy or lease some ground, plant feed and implement a management plan that stresses culling does and letting young bucks walk.

But if you go mostly to enjoy the woods, to have fun with your buddies and to bring home some backstrap every now and then, apologize to no one for killing any legal buck, particularly if you hunt on public land. You work hard all year to spend a week outdoors in November or December. The sky won’t fall if you bust a six-pointer or a thin-beamed eight. On the contrary, it’ll pump you up. From then on, as you hunt for an older buck or try to fill your last tag with a fat doe, the sunrises will be a little pinker, the pines will smell sweeter and the air you breathe will feel better in your lungs.

Quick Tip Let a kid shoot the first legal buck that he or she sees, even if you’re managing your land. Recruiting another hunter is more important than growing one more big deer.

To Shoot a Doe

Try these tips when you want to feed the family

1 To keep from mistaking a button buck for a doe, let a deer walk close to your tree stand and carefully glass its head before shooting.

2 Don’t just wait for “doe days” late in gun season. If it’s legal, shoot a doe in archery season. The more deer you kill with your bow, the better a hunter you’ll become.

3 Don’t bust a doe on a ridge blazed with fresh rubs and scrapes. Hunt for meat a half mile or more from where you hope to fill your buck tag.