The Long Game

Posted on March 2, 2021



“For us who are hunters, the need to engage nature firsthand is as powerful and as elemental as the need for food and comfort and sex. For us, engaging nature is to engage life itself. I do not roust myself out of a warm bed in freezing darkness and struggle through mud, water and cold to watch the sunrise over a duck marsh simply because I like the idea of it… men don’t climb mountains, wander forests or tundra or grassland for the chance to train a rifle on a bighorn sheep or a whitetail or a caribou or a pronghorn merely because it’s an intriguing thought.

We do it because of how it makes us feel. In the sting or solace of weather, in the fine agony of pitting leg muscles against elevation or distance, in the sweet misery of crouching in mud and water that’s bare degrees from solid ice, in spending comfort against the stuff that nourishes our souls – in these we find ourselves at last profoundly, exquisitely alive.”

–           Michael McIntosh, Why We Hunt



There are those that have reached a plateau in their deer hunting career where numbers no longer matter. Antler score, weights or even filling a tag annually has lost its luster. Not just any buck will do, it must be a certain animal that has aged, has attained specific characteristics that makes him a definitive challenge, and most importantly, a marked specimen that you’ve determined to take above all other opportunities.


How does one get to this place in their deer hunting? Let me most emphatically assure you that this comes not as the result of becoming soft. There are any number of reasons why only one will now do, and that attitude can only come as a result of time – lots and lots of time – afield. It will come following a vast number of bucks that have fallen victim to one’s prowess or good fortune. This personal avowal rolls in like fog off the water, slowly at first until it eventually shrouds you. The hunt now takes on a significant role where killing is not the primary target.



Purity of the hunt, where preparation meets opportunity. That chance may take a mere few days, or it could take seasons before materializing. The question is, can you hold out? Will your self-imposed standards bear up under the pressure of unfilled tags, expectations, real or perceived from others, time, energy, and dollars expended and the reality of possibly failing?


I’m often reminded of a sonnet penned by my dear friend, the Silverback, who wrote in his poem, Reflections,

I’ve coursed many miles and worked too hard to be at this hollowed place.

Still I know there is no guarantee, when entwined in the whitetail chase.

Success can be measured in many ways, a fallen buck you’ll not always find.

The true blessing is being Mother Nature’s guest, the solitude and peace of mind.



As of late, I have oft been found to remind many that there is more to life than chasing a whitetail, especially one that you may not be able to catch. After all, we give ourselves far too much credit when all falls into place, and likewise grow inwardly sullen when it doesn’t. Yes, I am quite aware that the chief end of every hunt is the bag, as ‘ole Flintlock Rutledge points out,


“Each deer hunt should make sporting history, not create mystery with hunters giving refined dissertations on how the buck successfully escaped into the eternal, inviolate sanctuary. We want to see the old boy fall to the forest floor with his last race run as if he had been struck by lightning.”


With the advent of social media this has never been truer. For some, as the buck has just been shot, regardless of its size, and perhaps has yet to expire, the phone comes out to type these now familiar syllables, “BBD!”



It’s as if one is hunting for the notoriety, and all those socially connected to that individual are sitting with bated breath to learn news of the latest hunt. While I can understand the excitement, and even the genuine desire to share in an accomplishment that we all know is not so easy to do, have we considered how egocentric this actually looks?


Despite the ease by which some would have us to believe it takes to routinely shoot a mature buck, truth be told, it is never easy or guaranteed. Even Rutledge knew that he had absolutely no say or part in putting a buck before his gun as he writes,


“To tell the truth, the behavior of big game is unpredictable, and no man ought to make any promises to his pals about the certainty of getting a shot. However, our hopes and plans are occasionally realized. Sometimes the thing does happen just as we hope and pray it will…If we could figure every chance out with mathematical exactness, there would be neither any game nor any sport for anyone. The element of chance is essential to all sport.”


“There’s a very small legion of whitetail hunters who have taken the sport to such an extreme level that most folks can’t comprehend it” writes Don Higgins in a recent article titled, The Loneliest Game. Again, we are not talking about personal conquests or deer kill statistics, it’s all about selectivity, the chase and the hunt.


In his book, The Mission, The Men, and Me, Pete Blaber points out that as a youngster amongst eight siblings, “I never failed in a finding mission-ever! Helping my brothers and sisters find their stuff (taken by their parents and hidden) was cool, but it wasn’t what jazzed me; I thrived on the thrill of the hunt.” Later in life he would go on to define, “the warrior’s cocktail” to be, “The thrill of the hunt mixed with the thrill of the chase.” And Pete wasn’t even a deer hunter.



We all have personal goals regarding any endeavor we put our hand to, some are relatively simple to conquer while others seem to elude us far more often than not. When it became expected to shoot a deer, and then not just any deer, but a buck, and then not just any buck but a big buck, the process lost its charm. It became more of a given than an adventurous experience. Let’s face it, as humans we are easily bored.


And then with the aging process, we begin to rationalize that a dead pile of deer flesh needs to count for something more than another notch in the belt, another statistic, another set of antlers on the wall – to kill for those motivations seems almost barbaric. Yes, I’m well aware that many of my fellow huntsmen take deer primarily for the benefit of succulent wild game, and most that fall into that category typically are not discriminate with what they choose to harvest. And that’s great, we are all at different places as hunters.


However, for those of us that cannot be satisfied with anything less than the best the land we hunt has to offer, we must never lose sight of what Higgins writes, “Another unfilled tag wouldn’t make him less of a hunter any more than killing one of those bucks would have. He knew where he stood, and his satisfaction came from within.”


When you meet such a hunter, and they are indeed a rare breed, the self-imposed restrictions they have placed upon themselves seems, well, almost torturous. But is it? Here is how Don explains it,

“There’s a very small legion of whitetail hunters who have taken the sport to such an extreme level that even most successful and accomplished trophy hunters cannot comprehend it. Such rare individuals don’t just kill trophy bucks that would make most other hunters drool. They also let true monster bucks walk as they seek only real giants — the biggest of the big. I’m not talking about guys who let 150-inch bucks walk. I’m talking about folks who give a free pass to much bigger bucks as they wait for something even larger. I’ve had the good fortune to meet thousands of deer hunters, yet I can think of only three or four who have reached that level. What makes a whitetail hunter pass bucks that would make most hunters jump for joy? I believe these guys embrace and accept the true challenges deer hunting offers. When they conquer one challenge, they raise the bar and strive for the next level.”



As I have matured as both a man and a hunter, realizing that I am competing with only one, myself, and given the fact that the act of killing whitetails is not nearly as appealing as it once was, the bucks that now fall victim to my gun must be something very special. Higgins reiterates this in his article,

“Reaching that level requires someone driven to succeed by something within them that won’t accept excuses or compromised goals. When a deer hunter is on that path, they won’t accept a 140-inch buck if their goal is a 150-incher, even if it’s the last day of the season. Compromise means failure, and they would rather go three years without tagging a buck than to go back on their goal. That’s what keeps most really good trophy hunters from reaching the level I’m talking about. If a hunter can’t handle at least three or more consecutive years of not tagging a buck, they have no hope of reaching this elite level as a deer hunter. Unfilled tags fuel elite hunters, and compromise constitutes failure.”


Rest assured dear reader, when that buck finally appears, be it one or ten seasons apart, you have more than earned that moment. Magical moments that will be treasured not as a result of the animal itself, but what it took to get there.


Rutledge leaves us with this wonderful overview when he scribes,



“At my age, however, I grieve less about missing (or not getting a buck) than I use to. There are reasons for that too. A noble buck invests the forest with a certain mystery and primeval charm. If you kill him, something is gone from those particular woods. If you miss him, he’s still there, and you may have a chance at the old rascal again.”


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Posted in: Whitetail Deer