Back around the turn of the 20th century, with American whitetail populations at an all-time low, many game departments enacted laws prohibiting the shooting of does. Buck-only laws became standard, and an entire generation of hunters grew up treating female whitetails with a reverence usually reserved for deities.
Later, when deer populations had bounced back and antlerless deer were once again fair game, many of those hunters still could not bring themselves to shoot a doe. A man who would do that was regarded as a widow-cheating low-life.
The management of any wildlife population, from whitetails to bison, is an intricate process. In my opinion, it should be left mostly to professional game keepers, who are out on the land every day and see what is going on, unlike biologists in offices with computers, charts, and theories. Even so, there has to be management of some sort — in one instance bringing a species back, in another, reining it in.
In the part of Missouri where I live, the “big buck” cult has gone so far that many deer hunters refuse to shoot a doe under any circumstances, insisting they only shoot big bucks. Some farmers, overrun with deer and fearing chronic wasting disease, allow a guest hunter on their land only if he agrees to take a doe or two before shooting an antlered deer.
In Kansas, where I hunted last year, some whitetail outfitters insist their hunters shoot only bucks of a particular minimum size, and impose a fine (pre-paid by deposit) if you shoot anything smaller. Others, believing this is not really deer hunting, leave it up to the client to shoot whatever he wants, provided he has the necessary tags.
Some of the guys in our camp were loud in their determination to shoot a big buck, although the outfitter left the decision to us. I wanted a buck and a doe, and naturally, the bigger the buck the better, but my primary purpose was a supply of venison. Along about day three, one of the big-buck loud-mouths shot a middling buck that our outfitter confided, privately, could have been a top trophy if he’d been given two or three more years to grow. Still, it was an okay head.
By the morning of the last day, having not seen a buck of any description, I was ready to take two does. Instead, along came a mature buck with one single spike — what the Argentines call an “asesino” in the case of red stag. An asesino is a stag whose one rapier-like antler can be used to assassinate a bigger bull, and they want them out of the gene pool. There is usually a free pass to shoot such an animal on sight.
Remembering this, and figuring One-Horn looked like about 200 pounds of prime venison, I decided to sacrifice my antler tag and do my bit for the gene pool. Later, my outfitter told me the buck had been watched by bow hunters earlier that year, but none of them tried for it because they all wanted a real trophy. He was grateful, however, to have him gone and not spreading his undesirable genetics. I was feeling pretty good about my public service when along came the guy who shot the middling buck, saw One-Horn hanging up, and sneered that it was really “scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
That set me to wondering, and I continued pondering it through the next week, while I was hunting in Germany. There, game management is a joint effort of the government, professional gamekeepers, the hunters themselves, and the public in the surrounding area. Everyone seems to regard their participation as both a privilege and an obligation, with the welfare of the game animals the primary consideration.
Virtually from birth, German big-game hunters are educated to think in those terms, not in terms of how big a head they can put on the wall. Had I shot One-Horn in Germany, I would have received the highest congratulations, not the sneers of the big-buck crowd. All of which doesn’t make me feel bad. And by the way, One-Horn is one of the best-eating bucks I’ve ever shot, and the doe I took later that afternoon tastes good, too.–Terry Wieland