A tough choice: Young buck or empty freezer?
KENYON — In the murky dawn Nov. 8, a deer wandered across the picked field, its head down.
It turned away at 200 yards. Two light grunts turned it back and it headed right for me. I shouldered my gun, then saw forked antlers.
I planned to take a doe around Kenyon on opening weekend, then spend the rest of my hunt in a favorite place along the Whitewater River where I could only hunt bucks. If I took that forkhorn, my Whitewater hunt wouldn’t happen.
The young buck came closer. I lowered my shotgun. At 20 feet it looked up, saw me and bolted.
I was sure I’d done the right thing.
There was another reason I’d passed on that buck. A week earlier in Frontenac State Park, a large buck walked in front of me. I was stunned and thrilled. After seeing mostly fawns and does, here was a magnificent buck, powerful, dark gray-brown, its antlers a glossy brown.
I decided I want to see more such bucks in the woods. I’m happy to shoot does and leave the trophies for the hard-core guys. But it’s becoming important to me to know there are big deer out there, to have a better chance of seeing them. In a similar way, it’s important to know my favorite trout and smallmouth streams are flowing, and that the Mississippi River sandbar where I’ve camped many times is ready for me to spend another night in my green tent. Just knowing those things are out there is comforting.
The only way to get big deer is to pass on the young ones, so I did my part and didn’t shoot. Besides, I had a lot of hunting days ahead, and based on how that young buck behaved, I concluded that deer were dumb and plentiful around Kenyon. I was sure I’d get more opportunities.
By mid-week, after many long, cold hours in the woods near Kenyon and along the Whitewater with no deer in sight, that forkhorn got bigger. I began to have doubts about my decision to lower my shotgun.
I’m not alone.
Nearly all gun hunters I’ve talked with said I goofed. For them, shooting a trophy buck is not why they head out in the pre-dawn cold. They’d like to see more big bucks, but being out in the woods with buddies, enjoying nature and getting some venison are much more important.
I hunted a few days along the Whitewater during the week, even in the slush/rain, but only came back with rust on my shotgun.
Last weekend, the final days around Kenyon, several of us hunted hard. We would first sit in stands then get together around 9 a.m., eat doughnuts, talk and go out and do some drives.
On Saturday, with light snow falling, I faced the Zumbro River but would look behind me now and then in case a deer tried to sneak behind me. There were scrapes and rubs all over and plenty of tracks but no deer.
When I headed back to join a drive, I encountered fresh tracks 100 feet behind me. Had I turned at the right time, I would have had my deer. I would have shot any deer with four legs and a white tail.
We pushed hard all weekend, and ended up bedraggled and tired. We talked, pondered and talked some more, but the question always came back to this: Where are the deer?
Each time we’d come to a new section of woods, Paul Humke of Northfield, Dave Anderson of Rochester or Jim Vaco of Kenyon would talk about all the deer they once shot there. They were always confident, but that confidence was misplaced. . Despite a lot of walking, we never saw a deer.
For the nine-day season, in a place where hunters usually take eight or nine deer, our group took two does. We spent about 250 man-hours on stands or making drives.
Maybe there was too much standing corn, some said. Maybe deer already had gone nocturnal, because we saw a lot of tracks, scrapes and rubs but few animals.
As I drove off in the dark Sunday evening, that forkhorn had become a trophy in my imagination. I now fully understood why it’s not easy to pass on small bucks. I enjoy meeting new people, sharing stories and doughnuts, but I want venison — and my wife does, too.
Next year, I won’t lower my shotgun if a young buck comes calling on opening morning.
John Weiss is the Post-Bulletin’s outdoors writer. If you have comments or story ideas, call him at 285-7749.