The buck you didn’t mean to harvest – at least, not yet…

Jay NehrkornI ran into a friend in my hometown grocery store a short time ago, and as such meetings always go in late fall or early winter, the conversation quickly turned to deer. As he described the events of his season thus far, he lamented that he had mistakenly shot a button buck, believing it to be a doe.

The county where I live and hunt still has a high deer density, and many (but not all) of us here enter the season with the philosophy that we want to pass on young bucks to let them grow, take a few does for table fare and herd control, and hopefully get a chance to pattern and pursue a mature buck along the way. The problem is that sometimes young antlerless bucks are easy to mistake for does, so hunters with this frame of mind have to be careful to avoid harvesting the young bucks they intended to nurture to maturity. If you share this philosophy, here are a few quick thoughts on the bucks you don’t intend to shoot.

Early season: Doe and fawn family groups in October and early November can include immature bucks that were fawns in the spring of the year. Known as button bucks because they wear knobs on their heads instead of antlers, these small-bodied youngsters require a close look to be able to distinguish them from does of the same age. Bow hunting is a reasonably close range affair, so visual confirmation is often a simple matter of waiting for the deer to get into spitting distance for a good look. But if the group is on the outer fringe of your shooting range and you just can’t tell, ignoring the smaller deer in the herd and targeting only larger, mature deer is the best way to be sure that your arrow finds a doe and not a male.

The rut: The first response I got to my rattling sessions this November was a single antlerless deer, which wandered into the area with its eyes roaming in search of what it thought to be other deer. It was obvious from a distance that this deer was alone and I bet myself a crisp ten dollar bill that it was a button buck. I don’t know how to determine whether you win or lose a bet with yourself, but the deer wandered through directly below me and it was, indeed, a buck from this year’s litter.

Around the beginning of the rut, button bucks are ostracized by the does in their family groups. Older bucks, having their own interests in mind during the breeding season, also aren’t terribly tolerant of these youngsters, so button bucks often end up wandering around by themselves looking for new buddies and acting somewhat bewildered by their new situation. With this in mind, if you want to spare young bucks, hold your fire on antlerless deer which seem to be alone during the rut. It may be a button buck, and if it turns out to be a doe, you probably want to wait to see what’s on her back trail before taking a shot, anyway.

Late December and January: Back when the January antlerless only gun seasons first began in Illinois, they were exclusively for hunters who used handguns. My first success as a handgun hunter came during one of these early “pistol seasons,” as we called them back then. Shots were fired on the property west of the spot I was hunting and I suddenly had about eight or nine antlerless deer fleeing from west to east right past my position. Some ran through without breaking stride, but a few of them stopped in the brush near my tree stand. Only one offered an open shot and I had to be quick because these deer looked ready to bolt again, so I took aim and dropped it with my .44 magnum. It turned out to be a button buck, but I was too happy about my first successful experience with the revolver to worry too much about the deer’s gender.

Late season is the toughest time of year to avoid mistakenly harvesting a buck while trying to harvest a doe, and that applies for bow or gun hunters. Deer tend to bunch up around remaining food sources, so button bucks blend back in with doe groups. Add to that the complication of any slender young bucks which happen to shed their antlers in early winter, and there are plenty of opportunities to make a mistake in the heat of the moment or in fading light, even when targeting the larger deer in the herd.

I once had to apologize to a landowner for making one of the best shots of my life just minutes before bow season ended. I made a quick decision that turned out to be a mistake, and out of the dozen or so deer that trotted past me as a group, the one I got a shot at ended up being a button buck. The landowner had really wanted me to kill a doe, but he’s a good friend and was gracious. On another occasion, a guest at my hunting spot offered me the same apology for stopping what he thought to be a running doe and making a terrific shot, only to find that he had killed a young buck which had shed its antlers. Of course, I told him not to worry about it because, “I’ve been there.”

Come January, an antlerless deer standing peacefully among a group of antlered bachelors has a strong chance of being a buck, but other than that, there’s really no rock-solid rule of thumb I know of to help you determine antlerless bucks from does at a distance. For the most part, you just have to get close or use a really good pair of binoculars to be sure of anything. If you enter those final days of the season with more space left in the freezer than you’d like, then it might be worth it to you to just take your best guess and pull the trigger. But if quality deer management is your highest priority, pass up anything that doesn’t offer positive visual confirmation.

Finally, if you harvest a young buck by mistake, be thankful that you got a deer and don’t beat yourself up about it. Take what you learned from the experience and apply it to your decision making process next time. And don’t expect to get any flack from me about it. I’ve been there.

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