The Payoff of Passing Young Bucks


As the buck edged along the creek, I tried to get a better glimpse of him. I had yet to see his body well enough to put an age on him. He turned toward me, thrashing a small sapling. I decided to call him over for a better look. Five or six years ago, I have little doubt he would have died as soon as I laid eyes on him. However, since I began adhering to Quality Deer Management (QDM) principles, all of that changed. In fact, it is likely the first connection most hunters have to QDM is allowing young bucks to grow.

I try to keep track of different deer on our family farm in North Carolina, and it is interesting to see deer blossom if you allow them to reach maturity. Long term, we hope the deer will grow and we will be able to harvest them when they are older and likely have larger antlers. However, being the impatient type, I also desire to see more immediate benefits when I let a nice young buck walk away. On a recent hunt, I was able to see those benefits unfold in mere minutes.

Passing_Bucks_SidebarThe morning of November 6, I was posted high in a poplar tree with my muzzleloader, overlooking a classic funnel. Two blocks of timber were connected by an 80-yard-wide strip of woods with a creek in the center of it. Nearly any deer that walked through the funnel would be within 30 yards of me the way things were laid out, and thick brush meant deer would feel comfortable moving later into the morning. The only downside to the setup, however, was that it required walking through a hayfield to enter the stand. I waited until first light then slowly stalked through the field, glassing carefully as I went. Coming around a corner, my cameraman, Moriah, whispered to stop. Looking up, I saw a 2½-year-old that we knew well on this property glance up at us. He moved along, and we continued to the tree.

Two hours after daylight, my hopes were dwindling. I personally struggle on morning hunts to remain confident in a set where I am not seeing deer, especially when I am wearing only base layers in November due to the heat. With that being said, it was still the rut, and anything could happen. As I was whispering back and forth with Moriah, I glanced up and saw a nice deer on the other side of the creek. We both got on him but could not decide what to do. I grunted to stop him, and we went back and forth on age. We were still unsure as he started to walk off. I pulled out my rattling antlers, hit them together, and he quickly trotted back to within 20 yards of our tree, looking for the source of the fight. As soon as he crossed the creek and came into clear view, we both agreed that he was 2½. He soon disappeared, and we were left with the slight disappointment that comes from realizing a deer is not a shooter. About ten minutes later, a spike repeated the routine, and it seemed buck movement might still be good despite the weather. A few minutes after that, Moriah whispered with a quivering voice that he saw a big buck.

Deciding when to shoot and when to pass can be one of the biggest struggles in Quality Deer Management. Obviously the first step is deciding on an age class for which to manage. QDMA teaches hunters to begin with realistic expectations and gradually move up, with a reasonable starting point being the protecting of most or all yearling bucks. On our farm, we currently feel that 3½ years old is a realistic expectation, so knowing the difference between a 2½- and 3½-year-old buck is crucial. After a certain period of time, however, I feel an instinct is developed by each hunter. When in doubt, I don’t pull the trigger, but when I start shaking like a leaf, there is no doubt in my mind the deer is “mature.” While different for each hunter, for myself this is simply because I have gradually moved up in experience and no longer desire to shoot a yearling or 2½-year-old buck. It is important not to let emotions cloud decision-making, but at times they can be a guide as well. Whether a deer is a shooter or not can generally be decided within the first few seconds of seeing him.

I began frantically looking, searching for the deer to try and decide whether to shoot. I tried to locate the buck through whispering with Moriah, but in his excitement he failed to explain that the deer was standing a mere 20 yards away! The damp leaves had masked his approach, but I was finally able to lean out far enough around the tree to catch a glimpse of the buck. A shot of adrenaline rushed through my body as soon as I laid eyes on him. He was a mature 7-point, not the largest antlered deer in the woods but definitely meeting our age minimum. He walked down the creek bank and shook a blackberry cane off his rack. I could not have imagined a more peaceful scene, minus the pounding of my heart. When he gave me enough of an angle, I cocked the muzzleloader and made sure Moriah was on him. After the smoke cleared, we saw that he was down only 40 yards away.

QDMA teaches hunters to begin with realistic expectations and gradually move up, with a reasonable starting point being the protecting of most or all yearling bucks. On our farm, we currently feel that 3½ years old is a realistic expectation, so knowing the difference between a 2½- and 3½-year-old buck is crucial.

As I approached the buck, I had instant confirmation that I had made the right decision. He had the large, boxy frame of a mature deer, and he had the antler mass to go with it. The first camera interview was rough, as I was short on words from excitement.

By jawbone age, my buck was 3½, and he weighed 165 pounds. While skinning him a few hours later, a thought entered my mind: What if I had shot the first deer I had seen? I would not have been happy with the deer, and I would have missed out on an awesome opportunity less than a half hour away.

On top of that, I think about the things I would have missed on other hunts earlier this year. Events such as young bucks grunting and rubbing trees and a turkey flying up to roost. Shooting the first deer that comes into sight certainly does not allow for full enjoyment of Creation, and my hunts are now memorable for more reasons than blood on the ground. Patience to wait for a mature buck simply makes one more knowledgeable about the woods.

Although it may be tough, I urge everyone to ask this critical question before you pull the trigger: Is this really a deer I will be proud to take? By doing so, your chances of seeing and harvesting more bucks that meet your age goal will likely increase, both now and into the future, and your hunting experience will be all the richer for it.

  • minelabbob

    yes its easy to say pass on this one, wen you have many years under your belt. but how about the new
    hunter can he or she do that or better yet will he or she do that! we all like to get a big buck but its hard to ask a new
    hunter to do that wen he or she has never shot or has ever seen a buck. my rule here in NE.PA. 8pt. or better
    but not every one will do this. but for me its the challenge to rattle or call one in that makes it a HUNT !
    good luck and play the rut

    • Lindsay Thomas Jr.

      Bob, this is why QDMA suggests all hunters pursue QDM by protecting “most or all yearling bucks,” as Mark explained in this article. We believe new or young hunters should be able to take any deer they choose, including a yearling buck if that’s what they want. Many of us on the QDMA staff, including me, killed a yearling buck for our first deer, and we are currently running several outreach programs for youth and new hunters in which our trainees are sometimes taking yearling bucks. We believe QDM is a stair-step process that every hunter should work their way into, just as many of us on staff did. You do not have to jump into the deep end from the very beginning.
      Thanks for reading, and good luck this season.

      • minelabbob

        its called POINT & COUNTER POINT I agree with some but not all. most of us have no control on how many does to harvest or how do I know what buck to shoot. maybe if your a land owner and can play deer-manager with your property you can get things done. but
        good topic to think about. have at it one and all.

    • Randy Lyons

      Just a thought 8 point or better doesn’t always mean a particular age. I have a deer on my land that I know for sure is 1.5 years old and he sports a small basket 8 point rack. Some mature deer may never have 8 points. My goal is to kill a more mature deer with larger antlers each year. At some point that will be impossible. For new hunters I think they should shoot any deer they want and the work their way up from there.

      • Michael Stanley

        I understand and certainly get where you are coming from here. But (there’s always a but lol) 1.5 yr old 8 points are a rarity for sure. Of course as most of us know, that all depends on where you hunt too. Some regions of the country produce better bucks than others on average, and also whether or not the person is hunting on private or public land. I think as a whole, most hunters do a better job in today’s world of letting them grow, but some areas still do not. This is where greeting and talking to the other hunters where you hunt can come in handy. Maybe you can help influence their viewpoints and get them on board.

        Also, we all have to start changing the philosophy somewhere in our area. 13 years ago when we made the change on our WV farm we started with an 8 point or better rule. Anyone that shot a buck less than 8 points had to contribute $10 a point shy of 8 towards food plot implementation. That first 3 or 4 years saw a few contributions, one guy even shot a spike at the end of the first week. Does were always free to shoot though. If you just wanted deer meat, shoot a doe. We used this to start building food plots, and as a way to start balancing the ratio in the herd, as well as letting the young bucks grow up. I feel this plan is a good starting point for many people, as it takes a little adjustment to change your hunting mentality.

        The really good thing though, it only took that amount of time for us to go from 8 or better, to an understanding of mature bucks only. We didn’t even have to impose a penalty lol. People just got used to letting younger bucks walk, and the more you see walk, the easier it gets. We shared our philosophy with our neighboring land owners, and they were eager to get on board. For nearly 10 years now we have multiple farms involved, and over 750 acres of land that all hunt mostly by this rule. We routinely see 8 to 10 130″ to 150″ deer, and have a few bigger than that each year typically, and that is just on our 300+ acres. It doesn’t take long to get there, you just have to let them grow. Just a dozen years ago we were lucky to see 1 or 2 130″ to 140″ bucks. So change your views however you need to get started, and it won’t take long to get your switch flipped all the way over. Talk to neighbors and fellow hunters to share the plan, and hope they will get on board.

About Mark Turner

Mark Turner is a QDMA member and Level II Deer Steward from Matthews, North Carolina. He is currently studying fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology at North Carolina State University, and he serves as President of QDMA’s N.C. State Branch.