Watch the first episode of Jeff Foxworthy: Inside & Out, and you'll see the competition to harvest more deer between the Kill Billys and Thump Monkeys is fierce. However, our will to beat our rivals doesn't mean we're shooting every deer that walks by our stand. We understand a land management decision is made every time a deer is shot on my property, whether it's a doe, cull buck or a mature whitetail. But I won’t lie to you: It can be hard to calm your trigger finger on the bow release when a dang good 3-year-old buck walks into range—especially if he looks like “Hammer.”
So, how do you go about letting a good buck walk to become a potentially great buck when you see him? And see him you will, because somehow a buck knows when he's not on the hit list, and he'll taunt you with perfect broadside shots over the course of the season. But as soon as you add his name to the “wanted” list, he'll become as elusive as a unicorn.
Still, if you want him to become a giant, you must let him walk.
The three requirements for big buck production are age, genetics and nutrition. Age is the most controllable element of the equation. You can hope a buck will eat all the healthy forage you've planted, and you can hope he mates with the right partners. But if you let him walk, you can expect that he'll be a year older next season. Even with the threat of droughts, coyotes, vehicle collisions and non-QDM neighbors, a 2- or 3-year-old is a survival wizard.
Not all bucks will mature into trophies. Some hit their peak at 3 years old and will never mature—kinda like Larry the Cable Guy. And some look better in their later years—kinda like my wife (cut me some slack guys, I'm trying to score some points here). Today, hunters want more technical information about whitetails, and we're lucky the more prominent scribes at NAHC attempt to inform the deer-hunting public about the latest, most relevant findings we can use to judge the potential of deer.
It's not guaranteed that a buck will grow to be a wall-hanger, or that you'll even see him again if you let him walk. This is a gamble that land managers have to take if the goal is to produce big bucks, because it's absolutely guaranteed that a buck won't reach full potential if he gets shot as a youngster. Remind yourself of that certainty next time you're tempted to shoot a buck that has a good rack, but could eventually grow an incredible one down the road.
Do you pass on immature bucks to let 'em grow?