The Decision to Shoot


Why does any given hunter choose to shoot or not shoot any given deer?

Certainly our motivations change as we mature, but what drives these decisions at any particular time? Sadly we have a few hunters who love to kill for killing’s sake, and they will shoot whatever, whenever. This is a very small percentage of hunters, and I’m more interested in understanding the average hunter’s mindset in this decision to shoot or not, and why. Because I’m in no position to really know what makes another hunter tick, I’ll try to answer for myself.

When I was a new and young hunter, I suspect my motivation was to prove to myself (and others maybe) that I could kill a deer and therefore provide food. Perhaps this is a primitive urge or instinct which at one time was an absolute necessity to survive. I know for me it was powerful and was not to be denied.

I can’t say for sure when it happened, but somewhere in my twenties I started challenging myself to hunt the best bucks my hunting areas had to offer. Before the days of Quality Deer Management, my choices were limited to the best of the 1½-year-old bucks, because that’s mostly all we had. An 8-point was better than a 6-point which was better than a fork or spike horn. After mastering that for a few years, I began to desire a greater challenge. At some point I remember deciding if the buck wasn’t larger than anything I’d shot before, I wouldn’t shoot. Obviously at this point food is not the motivator. The food is still greatly appreciated, just not the primary reason I hunt. The challenge to feed oneself has been replaced with desire of something more difficult. It was as powerful as the urge I felt as a young hunter to simply prove I could kill.

Somewhere in my thirties I started accomplishing these more difficult desires, and I started respecting deer more for their intelligence and survival skills. I began to care about them year round, not just to hunt and kill them, but to understand them. Now deer biology was becoming very important to me. Even before QDMA was known throughout North America, I was yearning to understand the whole picture. I saw firsthand what overpopulation of deer was doing to the ecosystem and understood the necessity of shooting does. I was a bit ashamed of having disrespected the female portion of the herd and its importance. Forgive me for I did not know. After understanding this and then hunting the does, I learned that a mature doe is every bit the master of survival as their male counterpart. Does are an annual part of my hunting now, and biology is a main motivator to shoot or not shoot.

Being a QDMA member has made biology even more relevant to my hunting these days. Understanding the importance of mature bucks to the natural functioning of a deer herd makes not shooting immature bucks more a biological choice than simply the greater challenge, as had been the case earlier in my hunting career. In fact, I fell in love with QDMA’s philosophy because the organization is about so much more than just killing big bucks.

The one exception to this question of why we choose to shoot or not, which can’t be explained by food, challenge, or biology, is this: Why do I pass a mature buck when I could kill him? The only answer I have for that is because, “I don’t need to.” At this point in my hunting life, it is enough to outsmart them. If they are within killing distance from me, unaware of me, and I aim, it is enough. I feel no desire to kill what could have been killed simply because it is mature. A wonderful benefit of this is that the bucks I don’t shoot are left for someone else, and seeing someone else harvest what they will cherish is my reward. So a spiritual aspect is also a motivator now in my decision to shoot or not. Hunting has become something greater than the kill.

These are my reasons for shooting or not shooting. They are mine alone. Each hunter should be true to themselves and no one else. As long as anyone hunts with sound biology, ethics and respect as the core reasons for shooting or not shooting, they should not be judged by anything else.

I have gone through several passages to arrive where I am today. At my age I doubt there will be many more changes except an aging body, which will one day lead to the realization that my skills are not adequate to shoot with the accuracy needed to kill respectfully. Then my joy will come from seeing the next generation love what I have loved while deer hunting.

When I die, if I make it into heaven, please, no wings and harps. Just let me go deer hunting.

The author, Bill Badgley, is the inventor of CyberDeer, QDMA’s shot-placement training program. QDMA urges all deer hunters – no matter which deer they choose to take – to make ethical shot choices. This includes practicing and being proficient with the archery equipment or firearm they plan to use before going hunting, and then taking only the shots that are within their range of proficiency. Support QDMA in our efforts to promote ethical deer hunting by becoming a member today!

  • Osceola

    I’m just getting acquainted with the new site myself, which is why I’m commenting on an older article. I appreciate Matthew’s honest comments below too. I really enjoyed this article because it closely reflects the evolution in my own hunting decisions over the years. Thanks for the thoughtful article, Bill.

  • somsai

    I pretty much shoot does. They taste better.

  • Matthew

    I know this article is a few years old, and given the lack of comments so far, I’m not sure how relevant mine will be. But speaking for myself, my motivation in deer hunting is the meat, plain and simple. Antlers are cool, but I can’t afford to have a head mounted, nor do I have anywhere to put it if I did. Also, while I enjoy my time in the woods, I do have a family (kids too young to hunt) and would prefer to spend my time in nature with them rather than alone in a deer stand.

    Therefore, all things considered, I buy my tag, pick my stand, and take the first clear shot I can get. My preference is for young bucks because the meat is more usable than older ones and there’s more of it than on a doe. But I’ll gladly take the doe if she comes along first. Not surprisingly, I’ve never had a chance at a big buck, but if I ever do, I might pass on him so someone else could have the opportunity.

    So, you might say my decision to shoot is based solely on whether or not I can kill the deer humanely. This outlook comes from my desire to just get out, provide for my family, and get back home to them. I’d never claim my motivation is the only “right” one, but it’s what gets me out there and motivates my decision to shoot.

    • Bill Badgley

      It was a joy reading your comments. You are being true to yourself and the beautiful animals you hunt. We need more hunters just like you. All the best in your future hunts. Thanks for taking the time to reply.

      • Matthew

        Wow, an author who replies within an hour to a comment on a three-year-old post! 🙂

        I appreciate your courtesy, all the more since after spending the last couple of hours browsing this site, I now realize that some aspects of my initial comment may have caused you to wince a bit. There turns out to be a lot more to “trophy hunting” than I ever realized before, and I see now that my preference for young bucks is not nearly as straight-forward as I thought.

        Thanks again for reading my comment in such a forbearing way. This site has given me a lot to think about, and although I think it’s too late to make any big changes in time for this season, rest assured that I’ll be giving deer management a lot more thought in the coming months. And you may consider this hunter’s “decision to shoot” as being in the process of maturing, at least. 🙂

        One quick question: Do you have, or know of, any really good resources to learn how to hunt does? I’ve tried looking around, but everything is so skewed toward bucks that it’s hard to find any information on how to reliably attract does. They really seem to be almost taken for granted, and although I *see* far more does than bucks, somehow the immature bucks are the ones that usually wind up within shooting range first. I’m still inclined to pass on mature bucks just on the basis of what my family likes to eat, but would be happy to take two does instead of a young buck if I could only figure out how to target them effectively.

        • Bill Badgley

          You’ll have to give the great people at QDMA credit for the prompt reply. The editor always lets me know when someone has written a comment. We all mature as we go forth, that is if we’re lucky. When a person “knows it all” they are dead though they breathe. My favorite resource is “experience”. What they are eating at the time you are hunting is key. Young does are about as easy as young bucks so I’m not sure why you would have a problem with them. It’s when either sex hits maturity that they become much harder targets. My favorite resource is the same as a deer’s I guess ! Honestly I think if you search the QDMA archives you will find what you are looking for. If not lets request they give us some articles. The best part of hunting deer is the never ending education they give us. Be patient and observant and you will prevail. Good luck.

        • Lindsay Thomas Jr.

          Matthew, thanks for visiting and learning from QDMA! This article used to have a lot more comments, but when we relaunched our website in August 2016 we lost the commenting history on pre-existing articles. Regarding your personal choices about deer harvest, you’ll find that QDMA as an organization believes every hunter should have the opportunity to grow into the idea of Quality Deer Management. QDM is not “trophy hunting” in our view. It’s about producing healthy deer populations that produce exciting and rewarding hunts. My first deer was a yearling buck, and that’s true for a lot of QDMA staff members. So, we believe every hunter should be able to start where they choose as a hunter and not have harvest-choices forced on them. Also, QDM is not a once-size-fits-all philosophy. You can take pieces of it and apply them if it helps in your situation. So, keep reading, and please comment any time you have questions. As you found with Bill, we’ll get back to you. Thanks!

About Bill Badgley

Bill Badgley is a QDMA member from Cambridge, New York. He created and teaches a Quality Deer Hunter course each year to help local hunters fine-tune their archery equipment and firearms, understand deer anatomy, and improve shot placement. Bill also created QDMA’s CyberDeer shot-placement training software.