The Hunt for Big Bucks

I hunkered down behind the thin wall of bundled reed grass and listened as mallard pinions whistled overhead in the pre-dawn sky. The ducks were still just shadowy blobs as they set their wings and splashed into the decoys. My heart beat a mile a minute and my hand tightly gripped the forearm of my shotgun. As the ducks swam about among the decoys, I peered through gaps in the blind waiting for enough daylight to properly identify drake from hen and to shoot safety. As daylight grew, the ducks became more and more nervous about the non-moving, plastic likenesses around them. My dad whispered from the other end of the blind “Get ready Pete”. Just as the ducks decided they’d seen enough Dad said “Okay take ’em”! We stood in unison and fired a volley of deadly 12 gauge shot as the ducks jumped from the water and attempted to gain altitude and speed. Some made it but others stayed behind floating among the decoys. The scent of nitro mixed with the sweet scent of reed grass and filled the blind.

Lou and I with a nice mixed bag of ducks.

It was a crisp, clear November morning. The early flight of ducks was the only real action. We hunted a bit longer and, aside from the cautious occasional single and high-flyers, saw no more ducks that morning. Were it a heavy, windy day we could have easily filled our bag limit. No matter. As it was Dad and I talked about duck hunting, life, death, and a variety of things one only talks about while watching the sunrise over a marsh.

Back at the house, the ducks got hung in the garage to be plucked the next day. Dad brewed a pot of coffee while I changed from olive drab duck hunting attire to blaze orange upland hunting gear. I donned heavy vinyl-clad brush pants and a wool flannel shirt. Heat from the wood stove permeated the house as I descended the steps and heard a familiar voice chatting with Dad. My friend Lou had arrived. Actually, he was my Dad’s friend and co-worker but Lou and I would become lifelong hunting buddies. Lou was sipping coffee with Dad and was ready to join me looking for rabbits, pheasants, and other small game.

We were not land-rich. In addition to the marsh, we had about 25-30 acres of upland woods to hunt. We also had free reign of the neighbor’s 30 acres. The neighbor was an old beagle man and completely understood the lure of the rabbit covert and the excitement of a cottontail bursting from the brush at your feet. Before the day was over, nary a bush would remain unstomped as Lou and I pursued our furred or feathered quarry. Along the way, we’d spot hawks, lots of song birds, and a wide variety of non-game species and white tailed deer. The deer would flush singly or in small herds and go crashing off through the brush, often stopping to look back at us.

This vintage photo of a boy, his dogs, and their bag shows the way hunting once was.

Our small game adventure would last through the morning and into the afternoon. There would be just enough time to clean, skin, or pluck any quarry we successfully nabbed, grab some lunch and a quick nap, and pull on some camouflage before heading to the woods for an evening sit in the deer stand.

When I was young, deer hunting in South Jersey was still somewhat of a novelty. There was a time when deer sightings were news worthy events. I still remember the first wild deer I ever saw. We were in our canoe out for a morning paddle and came across the 6 point buck bedded along the waterway. The buck lingered for a moment, startled and wide-eyed before, leaping from its bed and tearing off through the undergrowth. To suburbanites who see deer daily wandering through backyards this memory probably seems trivial. But once upon a time deer numbers were not what they were today.

While there are more white-tailed deer in the US today than ever, in the early 1900s they almost became extinct.

As the deer population grew, so too did the popularity of deer hunting. By the time I got to high-school it was normal for all the country kids to be absent the second Monday in December which was typically the buck season shotgun opener. Likewise around the country, many rural school districts closed altogether on their respective opening days.

But deer hunting was different then. People enjoyed getting out in the woods with friends and family and simply hunting deer. Deer were divided into only two categories. Bucks and does. Everyone, including the biologists that set the seasons remembered what it was like when there were barely any deer and herd numbers were still climbing. Hunters considered themselves lucky if they were able to hang their tag on a buck. The gun season opener was a festive event that hunters everywhere looked forward to. In fact, when I first moved to Pennsylvania I was lucky enough to be invited to a traditional Pennsylvania deer camp. We would arrive the day after Thanksgiving. The season didn’t open until Monday. Saturday and Sunday were spent catching up with friends, doing camp chores, scouting, giving the rifles one last sight-in session, and getting gear ready for Monday’s hunt. We would set out on the town on Saturday night. The local bars, restaurants and clubs, would be jammed with hunters from all over the country, everyone brimming with excitement for the Monday opener. We soaked it all in enjoying the vibe and being among like-minded people.

Come Monday morning, hunters would descend on the Pennsylvania woodlands in droves. I used to sit in my hiding spot on the mountain and watch countless pairs of headlights navigate the back road beyond the next ridge. I’d anticipate those hunters moving deer my way at first light whether they knew it or not. And at first light the shooting would start and continue much of the day. Shots rang out all over the mountain as hunters bagged their bucks. It was all buck hunting back then and there was plenty of shooting. Antlerless deer hunting was very restricted and didn’t open until two weeks later. There were over 2 million deer in Pennsylvania at that time. The vast majority in the rural woods and mountains. Many happy hunters went home with a buck in the truck bed. Some of those bucks had big antlers. Some were just spikes or 4 points and nobody really cared. Occasionally, someone was lucky enough to bag a mountain giant. There were plenty of big bucks to be had even back then.

Deer hunting and hunting in general has changed in 2021. Nowadays, when one speaks of hunting most people think only of deer hunting. Gone are the days of hunting ducks in the morning, small game at noon, and deer in the evening. Gone are the days of sitting in the October woods, .22 rimfire in hand, waiting for the telltale bark of a grey squirrel. Gone are the days of easy permission on rural land to go run the beagles after cottontail rabbits. As a reader, you might ask why?

Kids aren’t so welcome in the woodlot anymore unless they are willing to hunt deer.

The answer is BIG BUCKS! And I don’t mean the green kind you buy groceries with. These days, most hunters are obsessed with one thing and one thing only and that is inches of antler. Hunting publications, and outdoor media inundate us with the “importance” of only bagging deer with big antlers often referred to as a “shooter buck”.

The antler obsession began back in the late 1980s and early 1990s with hunters like Roger Rothhaar and Noel Feather beginning to publish books focused on shooting big deer. Soon, camouflage companies like “Realtree” and “Mossy Oak” came along and began creating videos with titles like “Monster Bucks” to further fuel big buck fever. Their lifestyle brands followed featuring logos of big antlers. As video-based media became more prevalent, so did “horn porn”.

As the obsession with antlers grew, hunting began to take an ugly turn for the worse. This change in direction was so subtle, a lot of long-time hunters missed it entirely and younger hunters think the big buck obsession is normal. There is a gentleman in Iowa named Lee Lakosky who is renowned these days in the hunting community for his ability to kill big bucks. Each year they seem to get bigger and bigger. How does he do it? Well, it seems as a young man Lee was a chemical engineer living in the suburban midwest. He hated it and couldn’t see going through the rest of his life being miserable. (For this, I applaud him.) He took a gamble, cashed out his 401K and bought a farm in Iowa. He and his young bride moved there and began hunting and building their “brand” as trophy buck hunters.

The Lakosky model has become synonymous with deer hunting and it goes something like this:

  • Buy or lease a big chunk of land
  • Throw everyone else off
  • Do everything you can to keep the neighbors from shooting “your” deer
  • Create ideal habitat for deer (food, water, shelter, safety)
  • Don’t shoot any buck until they are at least 5 years old
  • Create funding through videos/lifestyle brand
  • Obtain more land and repeat
Lee Lakosky with one of his biggest bucks ever. A grotesque, unnatural example of an artificially farmed white tail named “Dagger”. I’ll leave the reader to find the story of how Dagger came into Lee’s possession after the shot. If you do, you can judge for yourself if it was an ethical outcome.

Now before anybody goes getting their shorts in a knot, I’m not knocking the Lakoskys. It’s their money and their land. They can do what they want with both and they can hunt how and what they want within the bounds of the law. But the precedent set for new hunters is an ugly one. Let’s explore a little further before we get into specifics.

The idea of hunting for money is not new. Texas has long since been the story of the have and have nots when it comes to hunting. Those with money either own or have access to a deer laden ranch. Those without money are relegated to fairly unproductive bits of public land here and there. The deer ranches are equipped with water sources and deer are fed regularly and allowed to age. It is, essentially, deer farming. Each hunter is given a list of deer they are “allowed” to shoot to the point that, in some cases, they must snap a picture of the animal and send it to the ranch manager for permission prior to shooting. Sounds like a good time.

But hunting has gotten a lot uglier than that. There is a popular brand of hunting products based out of Louisiana run by a local family. Well, at least they are related by blood. They certainly don’t seem to treat each other like family on their videos. All too often, the two brothers and their father get in an argument because “You sat in ma stand, and keeled ma deer!”. (Say this with a thick southern/cajun accent.) They’ve nearly come to fist fights because one or the other shot a buck in someone else’s deer stand. These are all members of the same family! I can’t imagine ever being mad a family member, friend, or even a stranger for having success in the field.

Another disturbing trend is hunters shaming other hunters because of the deer they choose to shoot. Here in Pennsylvania the rules for what constitutes a legal buck vary according to location. “Back in the day” when we had those festive mountain weeks and everyone seemed to have a good time, a legal buck was one that had antlers of 3″ or more in length. Nowadays, for most of the state the requirement is 3 points or more on one side. But as a hunter, if you choose to shoot a barely legal 6 pointer, you’d better stuff it in the back of your truck and not let your fellow hunters see it. Instead of getting a hearty “Congratulations” you are instead likely to hear “You should have let him grow. You’ll never shoot a big buck if you keep shooting little ones.”Because shooting big bucks is all that is really important. Just watch the Outdoor Channel or open a magazine and they’ll tell you how vital it is to shoot a big buck.

The friendship and camaraderie of the hunt has been replaced today by buck shaming and the notion that “You should have let him go”.

Some hunters would have you believe the health of the herd depends on having oversized-antlered bucks running around. As evidenced by a multitude of research, antlers and antler grow certainly do act as an indicator of herd and environmental health. Growing antlers is an expensive luxury for bucks requiring a lot of nutrition and expenditure. When habitat and nutrition are poor, or stress on the herd is high, antlers don’t grow.

Deer like those featured on “The Outdoor Channel” are raised with artificially high levels of nutrition, and protected to an unnaturally mature age. Such animals aren’t really contributing anything more to the health of a herd than a good solid, public land 8 pointer. In a well balanced herd, the largest bucks with the largest antlers do most of the breeding.

This little guy will have plenty of chances to pass his genes along in urban and suburban deer populations.

All of this goes out the window in suburban and urban areas. In such places, deer numbers are usually ridiculously high and there is an abundance of food in suburban back yards. There are too few places hunters are allowed to hunt. Mating season is a free-for all with far more does than the dominant bucks can possibly breed so even the smallest bucks wind up passing along their genes. Regardless, there are plenty of giant bucks and healthy deer in the suburbs and cities.

That was a pretty boring and wordy path to travel down but I went there for a reason. The hunters that say “You should have let him grow” do so for one reason and one reason only. They want the chance to shoot a big buck! So by shaming others, they hope to increase their own chances of getting a giant buck later on. I know they often mean well, and glom on to statements by certain “official” organizations who insist that somehow giant antlers create a healthier deer herd. They also improperly quote deer biologists past and presence who support having more mature bucks around to breed mature does. While scientists do use antler growth as an indicator of herd and habitat health, they never said anything about a requirement for giant antlers. There is a big audience that wants to hear something sciencey saying big antlers are better.

Again I’m not knocking anyone else’s choice. If you want to focus on getting a big buck by all means, feel free. But if I (or anyone else) take their legal buck by legal means, just try to be happy for them. In fact, I’d suggest that a hunter scratching down a 6 pointer on Pennsylvania public land is a bit more of an accomplishment than a mid-westerner killing an artificially created giant while hunting alone in the middle of a 300 acre reserve. My suspicion is that hunters who spend their time hunting their private deer reserves couldn’t begin to find even a single deer on most public land.

Modern technology lets the camera do the for the hunter by instantly sending pictures of passing deer right to their phone.

I hope I don’t sprain an ankle jumping off my high horse. I did want to point out one more trend I’ve noticed lately. There was an article in the Pennsylvania Game News recently about how to get that trophy buck. The gist of it was to stay out of the woods. You read that right. The advice from an article in the Pennsylvania Game News produced by the organization funded by sportsmen’s dollars was to stay out of the woods. The article suggested relying on technology, placing cellular game cameras in the woods and stay home.

Similarly, I caught a show on the Outdoor Channel where a couple guys were squirrel hunting. They only got one or two squirrels because they weren’t actually allowed to walk through the woods. Now, as a lifelong hunter, I can tell you that if I wanted to kill some squirrels I’d either hunt my suburban front yard (which my neighbors would probably frown on) or go into the woods. In the case of the hunting show, “the woods” was one of the gentleman’s deer woods. He refused to let anyone go into his woods within 40 days of deer season for fear of “blowing out” his “target buck”. This means, scaring it away from the property never to be seen again. I can point to a half-dozen other shows I’ve watched recently where hunters decide “not to hunt until November”. I see the affect on social media when my fellow hunters have one or two days a week to hunt but don’t because “the wind wasn’t perfect and I don’t want to blow out my target buck”.

Let’s go back to that childhood story I relayed at the beginning of this rather lengthy and probably boring blog. Did you see the part where I sat and watched cartoons or played video games all day? No. You didn’t. Because we were outside in the woods all day. I can’t tell you how many times we’d see the same deer during the evening bow hunt we saw during the midday pheasant hunt but we certainly did. We didn’t have target bucks, and we didn’t worry about antler size. That said, we got our share of nice bucks. I have a slew of big-antlered deer I’ve collected over the years in among a bunch of smaller bucks. Ten point or two point, I’m happy and proud to have been fortunate enough to have harvested all of them cleanly and legally. Mostly, I’m happy I got to share those harvests with some of my best friends. Likewise, I’m glad to have been there to help them when they were successful. Furthermore, as one who now spends five long days a week at the grind, staring at computers, updating supposedly important documents, and dealing with manufactured corporate crises, come Saturday, weather permitting, I’ll be in the woods. I look forward to listening to the woods come to life and don’t really give a rat’s rear end if the wind is exactly right. But then, I don’t have a “target buck” and couldn’t care less how other’s measure my success or failure.

I’m not advocating that we necessarily turn the clocks back to the 1980s and everyone go out and start shooting 3″ spike bucks again. There is certainly merit to letting deer mature and have an older average age of the herd. What I am suggesting is that we reduce our laser focus on deer and deer hunting and the pursuit of antlers and get back to enjoying a wider variety of outdoor pursuits in the fall. Let’s get back to spending more time in the woods!

Again, the reader could suggest “Pete, why don’t you just go hunt whatever you want to hunt and leave everyone else to their choices?”. And that is a fair question and more ore less what I do and I am fortunate to have places both public and private that I can do that. But here’s the catch. Deer season in most states now runs from Mid September clean through until the end of January. Once upon a time, archery season ran for a few weeks in early fall and then deer season didn’t return until December. There was a month or more of time for people to pursue other things. (Rabbits, pheasants, waterfowl, etc.) But with deer season now running for nearly half the year nobody wants those pesky small game or waterfowl hunters stomping about their woods and scaring away their deer. When I was young it was easy to find a farm to hunt rabbits or squirrels after school. Now, so much land is either hunted privately or locked up in leases to those that “have”, small game hunters are mostly relegated to over-crowded public lands. A young high-school aged hunter probably isn’t able to travel to such places unless they are extremely lucky to live nearby. A newcomer to hunting is most likely going to be on the outside looking in.

Hunting license sales have been on a downward trend nationwide for years. Many former hunters give up because of a lack of places to hunt.

There are more opportunities to deer hunt now then there ever have been since hunting first became regulated. Equipped with various bows and guns, a hunter can hunt deer for 5 solid months or more in most states. Yet hunter numbers are declining precipitously. Left unchecked, hunting will become a non-factor in wildlife management, and conservation. I’m sure there are those out there that can’t wait for hunting to be gone. Hopefully those same people are willing to step up and provide the level of funding for conservation that hunters currently do, but I doubt it. Apparently, having generous deer seasons and a non-stop barrage of media raving about giant antlers is not enough to keep hunting viable.

Considering the rapid decline in hunter numbers, let’s consider the now-popular “Lakosky Model” where each hunter acquires a few hundred acres, locks others off, and farms that land exclusively for giant bucks, how many hunters would you guess that model can sustain? How many hunters are willing to dump their life savings into nothing but deer hunting and the possibility of hanging a big buck on the wall? If this is the future of hunting than it will definitely become a sport of the wealthy and truly a non-factor in science-based wildlife management. This is especially true when property owners managing their herd for big bucks typically don’t jive with state biologist recommendations.

Deer farming aside, successful deer hunting requires a lot of time, money, and patience. While a new hunter does not need all the gimmicks and garbage advertised as necessities by celebrity hunters, the minimum equipment is still expensive. Once acquired, the novice needs to learn to scout for deer, then learn to sit quietly and patiently in the woods for a long time (maybe years worth of sitting) before being successful. For those of you with teenagers how are they with sitting quietly and waiting patiently? Is it their strong suit?

The successful deer hunter must be able to sit still quietly for hours on end, day after day.

Other types of hunting don’t require the patience that deer hunting takes. For example, a young hunter typically wouldn’t have to wait long in the right wood lot for a bushy-tailed grey squirrel to show itself. The tactics used for squirrel hunting are very similar to deer hunting but, like the easy levels of a video game, reward usually comes along much sooner. But these days the outdoor media don’t promote squirrel hunting. I suppose it’s hard to sell a lot of products to bag trophy squirrels.

I suppose if squirrels had antlers there would be more encouragement of

I grew up reading magazines like “Sports Afield” and “Outdoor Life”. Both magazines covered a broad array of outdoor topics throughout the year. Fishing, waterfowl hunting, the fine art of rabbit hunting with a good pack of beagles, trapping, pheasant hunting, grouse hunting, etc. The last issue of a hunting magazine I perused left me wondering if I had picked up a mis-covered “Farmer’s Digest” or similar publication. It was a summer edition of the magazine and the whole thing was dedicated to how to grow your food plots. For the unfamiliar, a “food plot” is when you dedicate a few acres of your extensive private deer reserve to raising a crop specifically for deer to eat. Ideally something high in nutrition so they can grow big antlers. It used to be that farmers let me hunt so I could keep deer from eating their crops.

I am not the least bit interested in becoming a farmer but I had purchased the magazine so I read on. There were several different articles about food plots and strategy. One article described how to properly collect a soil sample and send it off for analysis. Apparently this is done so the gentleman farmer cum deer hunter can choose the right antler-growing crop variety. There were several advertisements for farm equipment throughout the periodical as well. I remember when things like hunting and fishing equipment were advertised. Naturally, the advertised equipment was shown in use along with instructions on how to plant a successful food plot. There were big tractors, plows, disc cutters, seeders, fertilizer sprayers and all manner of other recommended farm equipment. All this to go relax and do some hunting in the fall.

No self-respecting whitetail hunter would be without their tractor and other expensive “deer hunting” equipment.

I don’t know how deer hunting has gotten so far from its roots. It went from a relaxing and fun past time to, and I quote a popular hunting show here, “a 24x7x365 obsession with big antlers”. I also don’t know how other forms of hunting have fallen so far out of favor. I feel sorry for today’s young people that they likely won’t know the joy of sharing an early morning duck blind with a parent. They are equally unlikely to hear the bay of beagles as the pack rounds up a cottontail and steers it inexorably back toward the waiting hunters.

My advice to my fellow hunters or wannabe hunters is to stop worrying about your “target buck” and go enjoy spending time in the woods.

* Booner – A trophy buck with antlers big enough to qualify for the Boone and Crockett record books.

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