To Shoot or Not, That is the Question

Posted on January 21, 2020


“They call me Deerslayer. I’ll own; and perhaps I deserve the name, in the way of understanding the creature’s habits, as well as for the certainty in the aim; but they can’t accuse me of killing an animal when there is no occasion for the meat or the skin. I may be a slayer, it’s true, but I’m no slaughterer…I never yet pulled a trigger on buck or doe, unless when food or clothes was wanting” – James Fenimore Cooper/The Deerslayer

We deer-hunt to kill, but do we kill to have actually hunted? I don’t think so. Yes, the chief end to any deer hunt is to secure a deer, but what if you don’t? Is the hunt diminished as a result of not bringing an animal to bag?

Pioneer deer slayer Philip Tome, from Pennsylvania’s Alleghenies maintained a strong ethical code with respect to his deer hunting, writing, “I never wantonly killed a deer, when I could gain nothing by its destruction. With a true hunter it is not the destruction of life which affords the pleasure of the chase; it is the excitement attendant upon the very uncertainty of it which induces men even to leave luxurious homes and expose themselves to the hardships and perils of the wilderness. Even when, after a weary chase, the game is brought down, he cannot, after the first thrill of triumph, look without a pang of remorse, upon the form which was so beautifully adapted to its situation, and which his hand has reduced to a mere lump of flesh.”



As a postscript to this, deer historian, Rob Wegner pens, “These words Tome wrote at the age of 72. Perhaps the flow of time soothed some of the fiery enthusiasm of youth; but nevertheless, the sentiment and ethic ring true, thus giving Tome a spiritual kinship across more than a century and a half with the 12 million American deer hunters today.”

There are numerous excuses for ending a deer season with an empty game pole, such as poor hunting conditions, low deer numbers, mistakes afield, no opportunities, and many more I’m sure. But how about eating a tag as a direct result of choosing not to kill a deer?


The Scene

I stared transfixed on an opening in the timber where I had hopes that a buck might appear, the very reason I stopped here to watch. I had only looked away for a second and when my focus returned, there stood an antlered buck.



It was late in the season, a time when pre-hunt standards on what size buck you would take usually shrinks… dramatically. With my Remington 760 shouldered I was looking through the scope at an eight pointer that I estimated would tip the scales at about 170 pounds.

Many thoughts go through your mind in a very short amount of time with the safety off, and finger on the trigger. Should I or shouldn’t I? Do I need the meat? Is this a buck I would be proud of? Do I really need to kill another buck?

His life now hung in the balance as the final round Jeopardy soundtrack played in my head. Let me assure you, if it takes that long to decide if you should end an animal’s life or not, put the safe back on, lower your rifle and enjoy the experience, which is exactly what I did.

Does that decision make me less of a hunter? A better hunter? Or no hunter at all?



Each hunter will, if they hunt long enough, go through a variety of stages in their career, including a shooter stage, limiting-out stage, trophy stage, method stage, and finally the sportsman stage.

As for me, after 51 seasons I’ve cumulatively made my way through each of these five stages and have reach a plateau best described by David Petzal in an online Field & Stream piece titled, When Is it Time to Stop Pulling the Trigger: “As hunters get older, and presumably wiser, a number of things become clear. The first of these was stated by a Greek philosopher who lived between 335 and 245 BCE. His name was Bion of Borysthenes, and he wrote: “Boys throw stones at frogs in fun, but the frogs do not die in fun, but in earnest.” To us, hunting may be excitement, adventure, a test of skill and character, the fulfillment of a compulsion that is hard-wired into our brains, and a source of food that you can’t get any other way.


And so, it is all that. But for the animal involved, it’s the end. It’s what they’ve struggled against every day of their short, hard lives. Watch the hooves of a dying creature frantically scrabbling to escape, trying to obey signals from its brain that its body can no longer exe¬cute. The lesson will hit home.”

There was a time in my life where I had to have a buck – a big buck each and every year. My world would be shattered if and when that did not transpire. Thankfully, that is not the case any longer. I matured past that long ago. There are far more important things in life than whether R.G. Bernier kills a buck. Sadly, there are those who never do get past this and live year-to-year just to kill something that they believe defines them.

Jim Posewitz in his book, “Beyond Fair Chase” writes:

“The ethics of pursuing a trophy animal are closely tied to why we seek such an animal. If you hunt these animals because they represent the survivors of many hunts, and you respect that achievement, then you have selected a high personal standard.

If, on the other hand, you pursue a trophy to establish that you, as an individual hunter, are superior to other hunters, then you have done it to enhance your personal status, and that crosses the ethical line. No animal should be killed for that reason.”



Money, greed, and ego corrupt hunting!



Don’t get me wrong, each morning when I set out with rifle in hand my mission is to go and hunt down a buck to kill. I am a competitor that loves to prepare and execute in order to win. If I only wanted to take a hike through the woods, I would not need to carry a rifle.

In Petzal’s article he uses a quote from Killers in ¬Africa, by Professional Hunter Alexander Lake about an American named Nicobar Jones, who for decades was one of Africa’s most expert hunters. Petzel writes, “I read the book in 1952, when it was published, and never forgot it:



“He saw beauty everywhere. I’ve seen him stand watching a flowing arc of leaping springbok, muttering, ‘Purty, purty,’ until the last of the herd disappeared, then plod back to camp, meatless and hungry. Everything in Africa was ‘purty’ to Jones—the sky, the veld, the forest, morning and night, noonday and sunset, rain and wind, a loping lion, a galloping giraffe—everything.”

According to Petzal, “Jones was not hunting for adventure or for character development, but because he was hungry. And still he could not pull the trigger.”



Thus, I must inquire, when I see hunters killing deer after deer during a season, when is one’s blood lust met? How many deer does one need to kill in a season? How much venison can one eat in a year’s time? How many dead deer does it take to convince friends, relatives or yourself that you are good at hunting whitetails? When does deer hunting cross over the divide from being a healthy recreational sport to a competitive, egocentric, statistical endeavor that only you are giving the account of? All self-reflective inquiries that I cannot answer for you; questions that each of us must settle ourselves.

Gene Wensel beautifully expressed why hunting for the right reasons is so much more than filling deer tags:
“It has minimal relevance concerning numbers, measuring tapes, or competition amongst ourselves. It does have a lot to do with challenge and personal satisfaction…It has to do with proficiency and the challenge of getting closer to our quarry, and to ourselves…It has to do with adventure, history, heritage, and primal dreams. Things like the excitement of a close encounter, the thrill of victory, or the agony of defeat…And knowing when to shoot or when to pass.”

So, the next time the grace of hunting luck smiles down upon you with a living breathing whitetail in your sights, the choice is and will forever be yours and yours alone as to squeezing off a shot or releasing an arrow…or not.


Photo courtesy/Charles J Alsheimer


“The longer I live” wrote the late Charles Alsheimer, “the more I realize the brevity of life’s journey…The most important thing for hunting is not whether record whitetails fall…I try every day to appreciate the journey because none of us knows how long it will last.”

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer