Would You Use Your Tag on a Lost Buck?

The 2018-19 hunting season is one I won’t soon forget. It began with a bear hunting trip to Ontario and concluded while hunting whitetails in my home state of Pennsylvania with friends and family. Both experiences were wonderful, and each contained its own share of highlights, laughter, and memories. Sadly, however, neither is the focus of this article. Instead, I’d like to discuss something that occurred during the early archery deer season. It was the evening of September 29, and I was perched in my favorite ash tree. As often happens in the early season, it was warm and buggy. Time passed slowly, and I found myself daydreaming, reading e-mails on my phone, and texting friends rather than watching for deer. Shortly before dark I was in the midst of sending a message to a good friend when movement to my right snapped me back into focus. I quickly recognized the movement as a heavy-antlered buck that was headed my way. A couple minutes later, at 6:18 p.m., this buck presented a shot opportunity which I gladly accepted.

Despite a shot that appeared true, an arrow that was covered in blood, and the diligent efforts of myself and several friends, we were unable to locate the buck. I headed home disgusted in a way that only those who have experienced this situation can truly understand. Continued searching over the next several days was also fruitless.

As the season wore on, I returned to hunting. And while I saw several different bucks, the “one that got away” continued stirring in the back of my mind. Did I see the shot correctly? Could I somehow have missed the vitals? Did we bump the deer somehow when we were tracking it? Could he have survived? All sorts of questions rambled through my mind throughout October. Then, nearly a month after the initial encounter, I received a text message from my father.

“Found this carcass, could it be your buck?”

My gut knew the answer before I even finished reading. A quick glance at the accompanying photo left little doubt it was my buck, yet all that remained was bone, hide and antler. I was disappointed but also relieved. It took a month, but at least we found him.

This brought me to a dilemma. What should I do with this carcass? Though I found the buck, it was too late to recover the venison. Should I tag the buck and count it against my bag limit, or not? Could I take the antlers, or should I leave them? Should I call the local game warden for advice, or do something else? I did not know my legal obligation, and I had never thought about the ethical obligation of such a scenario. What would you do in this situation?

I shared my thoughts with Quality Whitetails editor Lindsay Thomas Jr., and after a discussion, we both agreed to do some research into the legal and ethical obligations as well as opinions among deer hunters.

Lindsay posted an opinion question on Twitter:

Of 1,475 respondents, 64 percent said they would tag the deer, and 36 percent chose not to tag. With Twitter polls, respondents cannot see how the vote results are going until after they have voted. While ethics differ from person to person, and neither answer was technically “wrong” in all locations, it was encouraging – at least to me – to hear that nearly two-thirds voted to tag the deer despite it being unfit for consumption. Lindsay agreed.

“Many folks needed a third option such as ‘I don’t know the law, so I’ll call the game warden and find out.’ But I wanted to see what people thought was right without checking,” said Lindsay. “I was pleased to see a majority would tag the buck.”

Meanwhile, I conducted my own informal and open-ended survey by simply asking friends and acquaintances, and anyone else with whom I happened to be discussing hunting, what they would have done in my situation. I did not provide any additional information, and I kept notes on the responses. I spoke to about 30 people, and here are my results:

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Tag the buck and keep the rack: 30%

Don’t tag and keep the rack: 26%

Depends on the rack size: 15%

Don’t know: 11%

Don’t tag and leave the rack: 7%

Seek advice: 7%

Depends on how many tags I have left: 4%

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In my case, I ultimately decided to tag the remains and keep the antlers. I received no usable meat from the animal, and cleaning the skull wasn’t exactly a highlight. However, it felt oddly satisfying because my archery season ended with closure. But my decision to tag the deer isn’t what’s important. What is important is for hunters to follow actions that are legal in their respective states. This begs the question, do you know whether your state’s game laws address this type of situation? As ethical hunters, we owe it to ourselves and the game we pursue to find out.

Dominic with the buck that he recovered nearly a month after he shot it. He ultimately decided to tag the deer and keep the skull for a European mount.

I started reviewing the game laws for a few different states, beginning with my home state of Pennsylvania, where I killed my buck. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s Title 34 Game and Wildlife code didn’t directly address the month-old carcass scenario. It did address meat unfit for human consumption and road-kill deer, but not game animals recovered long after their kill date. Therefore, I called the Pennsylvania Game Commission and was told that if a hunter wanted to take the antlers, they must tag the buck. Otherwise, if they left the entire buck where they found it, they did not have to tag.

Of the respondents to my survey, only 37 percent indicated they would select one of these options. While disappointing, it is not altogether surprising. The situation I presented is a gray area in game recovery. And while the majority of people did not propose one of the suggested solutions, they didn’t necessarily suggest something illegal either. Only keeping the rack and continuing to hunt without tagging it would technically be considered illegal in Pennsylvania. Of all responses, 26 percent of people I talked to suggested this action, and it is plausible they did so without knowing this choice was an illegal one. While this isn’t an excuse, it does highlight the need to better understand our responsibilities.

Though I found the buck, it was too late to recover the venison. Should I tag the buck and count it against my bag limit, or not? Could I take the antlers, or should I leave them? Should I call the local game warden for advice, or do something else?

This is only how the law was interpreted in Pennsylvania, and we have 50 states, each with its own game laws.

In response to Lindsay’s Twitter poll, hunters from Texas, Illinois and Ohio said their states require tagging if the deer is recovered in the same hunting season, regardless of how much time has elapsed before you recover it.

What might a state from the western United States have to say? I reached out to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and I was told that in Colorado, “nothing prohibits a person from recovering any dead animal – including antlers – they may encounter outside of an established hunting season.” This most often applies to winterkills and/or mountain lion kills. However, “if a wounded animal is discovered dead days later but still within any established big game hunting season, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) requests that a hunter in Colorado call a wildlife officer before they recover the animal, regardless of the state of the carcass.”

I interpret this to mean that if my buck remains were discovered in Colorado after the season had ended, I could have legally recovered the antlers without needing to notify an officer. Had it been in-season, I would have to notify an officer before recovering it but not necessarily have to tag it. This would have fallen to the officer’s discretion. That would help assure officials it was in fact “discovered” and actually spoiled, as opposed to being shot, left behind, and wasted.

This appears to represent a subtle yet important change from Pennsylvania law, where you had to tag the animal (in-season) before keeping the antlers. It also underscores the need to familiarize oneself with game laws in the state you are hunting. For example, could someone from Colorado visit Pennsylvania, pick up and keep a set of antlers, not tag them, and be considered illegal? While a Pennsylvania hunter might visit Colorado, do the same thing, and be considered legal? Based solely on discussions with representatives from both states, it appears this could be the case. And this is just one example of nuances in the interpretation of game laws.

Another example comes from Georgia, home of QDMA Headquarters. Here, the 2018-19 Hunting Seasons and Regulations booklet contains a passage that states “It is unlawful to remove the head of a deer until the deer is processed or surrendered to a storage facility for storage or processing,” but this refers to recovered deer that will be eaten. It seems highly unlikely that someone would deliver a rotting deer carcass to his or her favorite processing facility. If I did this, my processor probably wouldn’t be as friendly next time he saw my truck rolling up his driveway.

Lindsay, who lives in Georgia, contacted his state wildlife agency and learned that state law does not specifically cover the scenario of tagging when a deer is not recovered in time to use the meat. This gray area is left up to the discretion of law enforcement. Hunters who are uncertain what to do should either tag the buck before recovering the antlers or contact the local game warden for guidance.

Regardless of the state, it’s imperative for all of us to know the game laws and whom to contact when questionable situations arise that aren’t covered by those written regulations.

Faced with this situation, Lindsay said he would tag the buck.

“My personal view is bag limits are set based on what a state’s resources can provide to its hunters and still be sustainable,” he said. “If I killed the buck, then I removed that deer from the resource, regardless of when I found it.”

In Maine, the regulation booklet states, “a person may not keep an unregistered bear, deer, moose, or wild turkey at home or any place of storage for more than 18 hours.” And, “a person must present a bear, deer, moose or wild turkey for registration in its entirety, except that the viscera and rib cage of the animal may be removed in a manner that still allows the determination of the animal’s sex.”

So, does this mean you must register an entire rotting carcass in Maine? Obviously not. Game laws cannot cover every potential scenario, and my situation is not a common one, which is how regulations end up leaving a few gray areas. It’s also why regulations on this matter vary state to state.

In my situation, I recovered my deer during the same hunting season. But let’s say you only have one buck tag and you wound but never recover a buck. Should you continue hunting for another buck?

This discussion and these examples aren’t meant to answer all questions in the gray areas of game recovery. Instead, it’s simply meant to point out that regardless of the state, it’s imperative for all of us to know the written game laws and know whom to contact when questionable situations arise that aren’t covered by those written regulations. A brief sampling of regulations in a few states shows that the rules vary. Therefore it falls to us, as ethical hunters, to show the initiative necessary for understanding the legal responsibilities where we hunt.

What are your thoughts? How would you handle the “carcass discovery” situation? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below. It’s interesting to hear how different state regulations are written and whether everyone knows the laws unique to their neck of the woods.


About Dominic Corsini

Dominic Corsini holds a Masters degree in biology and is employed as a full-time high school biology teacher in Pennsylvania. Outside of the classroom, his time is spent reading, scouting, hunting, exercising, and exploring the outdoors with his wife and children. You can contact Dominic at dominiccorsini@hotmail.com.