Buckmasters Magazine

Know When to Hold ’Em

Know When to Hold ’Em

By Bob Humphrey

How to tell when it’s time to go all-in while hunting out of state.

It’s the first sit on the first day of a five-day hunt in a place you’ve never been. The sun has yet to rise above the treetops, but the surrounding forest is coming alive. Woodpeckers bark their scratchy calls, and the first squirrel stirs from its slumber and scampers down a nearby tree trunk. The sound of heavy footfalls on the crisp leaves catches your attention and you turn to see a handsome buck step into a shooting lane.

But is he good enough to shoot, especially in the first hour of the first day of a week-long hunt? What about midweek? Shoot him now, and you might regret it when everyone else returns to camp with stories of the giants they saw. Pass him up, and you might not get a chance at a deer of equal or greater stature.

It’s a dilemma faced by traveling hunters every year.

Deer hunting is a gamble, and deciding when to pass and when to shoot is among the riskiest decisions.

Like Kenny Rogers sings, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.” And like the best gamblers, the best hunters are students of the game.

KNOW THE COMPETITION

Good poker players look for a “tell” — a twitch or a gesture that hints at whether the competition is bluffing or holding a good hand. Deer hunters can do somewhat the same by learning more about their destination.

Check the record books to see if the area you’ll be hunting consistently produces big bucks. Talk to state biologists, your outfitter and others who have hunted the area. Keep in mind, the outfitter is a bit biased. Reputable outfitters won’t mislead you, but they’ll paint the most positive picture possible.

Sometimes it’s easy. I went to Saskatchewan several years ago knowing the province’s potential for producing big bucks. For better or worse, I drew a pat hand in the first deal. Barely three hours into the first morning of a six-day hunt, a giant 10-pointer materialized out of the poplars. My first thought was, “Shooter!”

I raised my rifle, then hesitated. This outfitter had a 150-inch minimum. Would this buck meet it? “Yes,” I quickly surmised. “But this is only the first day. Was this the best the area had to offer, or merely a solid representative specimen?”

The possibility for something bigger, perhaps much bigger, loomed. It was soon erased with the rationalization that really big bucks are rare everywhere. I played the hand I was dealt and pulled the trigger on what would ultimately be the second best buck taken that week.

Since things change, keep up to date. Just last year I returned to Saskatchewan under what I soon discovered were very different circumstances. Winter kills had thinned deer numbers in many areas. I saw two does the first day and no deer the second. Trail camera photos indicated there were some very nice bucks out there, but the sheer scarcity of deer sightings suggested the odds of seeing one were slim.

Late on day four, I barely hesitated when a decent buck, the first male deer I’d seen, presented a shot.

More often, though, you have to resort to counting cards. With each passing hour and day, you get a better idea of local circumstance, including the number and caliber of bucks available. It’s still a gamble, as I learned on a recent Texas hunt.

Again I got a good hand on the first deal when a handsome buck showed up the first afternoon. I’d done my homework, drilling the outfitter the previous evening about what to expect and what to hold out for. The first buck I saw was a stud 8-pointer. I reasoned, “If that’s the first, I can’t wait to see what else shows up.”

Three days later, I was ruing that decision after not seeing anything even close to the deer from day one. Salt was added to the wound when another hunter graciously offered to swap stands with me and ended up taking the deer on the hunt’s last afternoon.

Quite the opposite occurred on a recent Alabama hunt. I was in the neighborhood, so my friend Steve Scott from Whitetail Institute invited me over for an afternoon hunt. Steve has suggested minimums, but it was the last day of the season, so he instructed me to shoot any deer I wanted.

I passed on a few smaller bucks and was rewarded when a nice 8-pointer stepped into the food plot in the waning moments of daylight. Back at camp I was feeling pretty darned proud of myself, until Scott Bestul showed up with his buck. “Wow!” I said. “I had no idea you had bucks of this caliber on the property.”

MIS-DEAL

In some ways, poker players have it easier than deer hunters. Every deck has the same 52 cards, regardless of where you play. Whitetail body and antler size, meanwhile, vary considerably based on geography.

I was fooled while hunting on Croton Creek Ranch in western Oklahoma. Outfitter Scott Sanderford put me in a stand and advised me to keep an eye out for a big 10-pointer with a split P2. A day of deviant winds and a string-jumping miss on the second day conspired to increase my sense of urgency — which prompted me to lower my standards. The next good buck that comes along ... I decided.

Sure enough, a buck with tall tines, decent mass and a spread beyond his ears walked in. When it looked like I might get just one quick chance to shoot, it sealed the deal. I was pretty excited about the play until we walked up on the fallen deer. In all my years of hunting, that was the first time I’d experienced a legitimate case of ground shrinkage.

How did I make that mistake? Where I come from, a yearling buck will dress out at 125 pounds. That makes him about the same size as a mature buck from Oklahoma or west Texas. Put a good set of antlers on a small-bodied deer and he’ll look like a giant. In hindsight, that buck turned out to be a pretty good specimen for the region. He just seemed small compared to the Midwestern and Northeastern deer I’m more familiar with.

Quite the opposite can happen if you’re going from south to north. A mature Saskatchewan buck can weigh well over 300 pounds on the hoof — twice the size of an Alabama deer. Put a 140-inch rack on him and he might not look all that impressive to someone used to seeing smaller deer.

HEDGE YOUR BETS

There are ways to hedge your bets, one being trail cameras. I once hunted with a Kansas outfitter who really had his deer dialed in. Brad Roether and the other guys at Grandpa Boone’s Cabin were able to show us pictures of specific deer to watch for at each one of their stands. They did their part. Unfortunately, I botched two tremendous opportunities.

I made up for it while hunting with Jeff Neal of Heartland Wildlife Institute in Ohio, however.

My resolve was tested when a 130-inch 8-pointer — the biggest buck I’d seen all day — walked into the food plot I’d been watching for 11 hours. I’d seen pictures of better bucks and quelled the urge to cash in my chips. Moments later, one of the picture bucks sauntered into the plot. There was no need to calculate inches; I’d already done that. I picked up his chest in the scope and sent a crossbow bolt through his vitals.

STUDY THE CARDS

Another way to avoid making mistakes is by learning to recognize a good hand when you see it. That means honing your skills at field-judging and field-aging. I won’t go into too much detail on either since there’s plenty of information available on the Buckmasters website and other online sources.

It gets more difficult the farther you get from familiar ground, but you become more proficient with practice.

RISK VS. REWARD

It is sometimes said the best gamblers have ice water in their veins. If you want to win big, you sometimes have to risk big. You have to be willing to lose a few hands to get the big money. That runs contrary to the old deer camp saying that you should never pass up a deer on the first day that you would shoot on the last day. But if you don’t pass on some, you’ll never know what might have been.

PLAYING CAT AND MOUSE

Sometimes you have to overcome instinct. Have you ever watched a cat play with a live mouse? As long as the mouse stays relatively calm (or can’t move quickly due to an injury) the cat will chase it and bat it about playfully, almost thoughtfully. The instant that mouse makes a legitimate attempt at escape, instinct takes over and the cat acts with lethal and lightning-fast speed.

We’re hunters and are subject to the same instinct. If a buck casually steps into a food plot, giving me ample time to look him over, he has a much better chance of living through the encounter (unless he’s a no-doubt shooter). But if he’s slipping through the brush, offering a split-second opportunity through a narrow window, instinct takes over. I become the cat, an instinctive killing machine. It’s resulted in more than a few bucks dying before their time. It’s a tough urge to resist, but if you want to be certain before you pull the trigger, you have to learn greater self control.

CALL

In the end, it all boils down to how much you’re willing to gamble. As a writer, I’m blessed by the locations I get to hunt, but there’s also added pressure to produce results. I have to put a deer on the ground or there’s no story. Hunters without that urgency might be more willing to gamble big and accept tag soup while holding out for a real monster.

Speaking of monsters, antlers aren’t everything. Any mature buck is a trophy in my book. Remember the old saw that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Your goals and expectations can be quite different from mine.

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This article was published in the July 2015 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

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Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd