“I finally shot the big one, Zeke. I’m on my way over to show you!”
Earl is 67 years old and has been been deer hunting for more than 20 years. He’s a farmer, so it’s been hard for him to hunt hard and spend long hours in the field.
By Rev. Zeke Pipher
It takes an army of farmers to plant, grow, and harvest the food our nation needs, and Earl is doing his share of the work. Earl plans to take off two days a year to put venison in his freezer, so he doesn’t have the luxury of being picky. He reads Deer & Deer Hunting, so he knows what a big buck looks like. He just hasn’t had the chance to shoot one yet. He’s shot several basket bucks and does, but the giants have always managed to avoid the reticle of his scope.
Until that morning, apparently.
Ten minutes later, Earl’s pickup crested the hill as it headed in my direction. I could see his smile from a block away. He pulled into the driveway, hopped from the cab, and shot me an even bigger grin as he waved me over. We walked to the side of his truck bed and leaned over to look inside. Resting on the spare tire was a 2 1/2-year old 5×5 that would have scored about 115 inches.
Earl hit me in the arm, and then stated with enthusiasm, “He’s a nice one, huh?”
Five hours later, one of my close friends, Scott, called me to tell me that he’d shot a mature buck that afternoon. He’d been hunting a small patch of timber by his dad’s house. Nobody had hunted that plot in the last five years, so Scott had no idea what he’d see as he toted his muzzleloader into the woods.
He was almost hyperventilating when he called from the field to tell me the story. That windy, November day had been slow until that buck chased a doe through the woods in Scott’s direc- tion. Scott pulled up and made a quick, close shot, dropping the buck in his tracks.
Scott finished the story by saying, “I’ll text you a photo, Zeke … he’s a nice one!”
Two minutes after we finished the call, my phone chimed, and I pulled up a picture of Scott holding a 4 1⁄2-year- old-buck in his hands. His smile reminded me of Earl’s smile from a few hours earlier. Later that evening, Scott put the measuring tape on the antlers and totaled a gross score of 176 inches.
It’s All Relative
I live in a rural Nebraska surrounded by sportsmen. Our church has more hunter orange and camouflage sitting in the pews in the middle of November than we do any other color. Everyone knows I love deer and deer hunting, so I receive dozens of calls, texts, and visits from friends during archery and rifle season.
Each year I joke with my buddies that the Game & Parks should make our farm a checkpoint for deer season—sportsmen often come to me before they check their bucks at the service station in town. I love it! I get to see several nice bucks each season, and listen to a handful of men, women, and children express their passion as they recount their stories.
I’ve been at this deer hunting thing long enough to have drawn one conclusion: “He’s a nice one!” means something different to every single deer hunter. Sure, we’d all call a 200-inch buck a great deer. But pragmatically, when it comes to what we have the chance to hunt, shoot, and take home with us, we each have a personal working definition of what constitutes a “trophy.”
This is a good thing, and it helps keep us excited about our success.
However, all good things can come to an end if we’re not careful. The great threat to our love of deer hunting often comes in the form of what I call the “3 C’s”—comparison, contrast, and competitiveness. These 3 C’s rarely help our sport, and hold the power to spoil it altogether. When we start to care too much about how our buck compares with other hunters’ bucks, or we adjust our definition of a “trophy” to fit someone else’s definition, we’ve started down the path of losing our enthusiasm that once made the hunt exciting.
I saw this recently while I was setting up a bow at an archery shop. While I was standing at the counter, an accomplished bowhunter came in to purchase some broadheads. We started sharing stories, and it didn’t take long before we had our cell phones out and we were walking one another through our photo albums filled with deer and other game.
I was disappointed by what I heard. This skilled bowhunter would flip to a picture of a mature, majestic buck, and then make a comment about how he should have held out for a bigger one. He’d move on to a new picture of an amazing animal, while making another apologetic comment. I must have viewed a dozen noteworthy whitetails on the screen of his smart phone—each one likely gross-scoring more than 140 inches—and this man wasn’t excited about any of them.
There were three young hunters under the age of 13 standing by the counter listening to us. I could see confusion in their eyes. This seasoned bowhunter, in his self-deprecating commentary of his not-so-nice bucks, had scrambled these young hunters’ expectations. They saw monster bucks on his phone, but yet the hunter was not happy.
When he left, I turned to the three young hunters and said, “Promise me that you’ll never view your deer that way. You should be proud of every decent buck you shoot in an ethical manner.”
They nodded, but still looked confused.
Retraining My Thinking
I’m trying to catch myself when I see the ol’ “3 C” thinking creep into my mind. I’m guilty of it just like the next guy. I like to shoot mature bucks, and I try to hold out for a deer that’s at least 3 1⁄2-years old or older.
But for the sake of my enjoyment of hunting, I’m trying to catch myself when I question the quality of my previous deer. I’m trying to learn how to watch the big bucks on the videos, or peruse them in the pages, and not let it lessen my excitement for my deer. And I’m also trying to judge the qual- ity of another sportsman’s buck, not by inches alone, but based on his story, excitement, and love for the sport.
I’m trying to retrain my thinking so that some day, when I’m 67 years old, I’ll have the same excitement for deer hunting Earl had that morning. I want my hunting buddies to see my smile coming from a block away.
Longtime D&DH contributor Zeke Pipher is an evangelical pastor from Nebraska. He is an avid whitetail hunter.