Heads or Tails?

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Published on: Nov. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

Among deer hunters, the topic of trophy hunting versus meat hunting has long been a source of serious - and sometimes heated - debate.

It’s surprising that deer hunters, who have so much in common, perceive themselves on opposite sides of the coin when it comes to trophy hunting or meat hunting. After all, most deer taken end up as food on the table, and all are trophies to some extent. Maybe for some folks the trophy part matters a little more, or vice versa, but it’s all the same coin, whether it comes up heads or rump roast.

Last year I had the opportunity to take two deer within minutes of each other. The first was a young doe that passed my tree stand while traveling from a small prairie plot to her bedding area in a nearby cedar thicket. The second was a yearling buck. I saw him dash away at the report of my blackpowder rifle, so I quickly reloaded and coaxed him back with a doe bleat.

Deer season would run another seven days that November, and 11 more days in December, but I was done, having filled my limit in 10 minutes.

Some trophy hunters are mystified by such behavior. Why, they wonder, would anyone put a premature end to a season that already seems too short?

For starters, I’m not such an accomplished deer hunter that I feel I can pass up an easy shot at a legal deer, let alone two. It’s not unusual for me to go an entire season without a chance to shoot even one deer. The opportunity to kill two in less time than it took me to dress for the hunt was a rare blessing.

Second, my family and I love venison. For a hunter who values completely natural, high-protein red meat unaltered by steroids, antibiotics and other additives, those two deer were definitely trophies by my definition. My decision to harvest them was a practical and satisfying way to end the season.

Nick and Rick Hilkemeyer of Freeburg have a different philosophy. They aren’t members of Safari Club International, and they have never entered a deer for recognition by the Boone and Crockett Club or the Show-Me Big Bucks Club. Still, they wouldn’t dream of using their last deer tag to shoot anything but a big-antlered buck before the last day or two of firearms deer season.

Their approach to deer hunting is different than mine, but it makes perfect sense when you consider the evolution of their attitudes. Nick has taken more than two dozen deer with archery gear, and probably twice that many with modern rifles and muzzleloaders over the years. Rick has lost count of the deer he has taken.

When they were teenagers and new to deer hunting, they didn’t hesitate to shoot the first deer that came along. Gradually, they became more discriminating as they refined their standards of what constitutes a trophy.

Two years ago, for example, they both passed up opportunities to shoot does and average-sized bucks early in the season in hopes of bagging trophy bucks. They were tempted to settle for average deer, and they empathized with a family member who shot a doe early in the season who later recalled, "All I could see was tenderloins."

For the brothers, however, rewards other than venison steaks kept them from thumbing the hammers of their muzzleloaders. Their driving desire is to harvest a mature buck with antlers of exceptional quality.

"If I never get a shot during the season, I’m perfectly happy," Nick said. "Sometimes I pass on a shot at a nice buck because I can see that he will be a really good deer later on. Just knowing there are big deer out there is really important."

To him, harvesting a mature buck with big antlers is a challenge that pits his highly developed hunting skills against the advanced survival instincts of a wary and adaptable forest creature.

"It’s just the horns," he explained. "You don’t get a chance at a deer like that often. You see them through the summer, when they’re in velvet, and into the fall. Then on opening day, they disappear."

Knowing he wouldn’t be able to hunt the following day, Nick finally settled for a doe one day before the end of the 1998 muzzleloader season.

Like so many trophy hunters, Rick never fired a shot that year, but he enjoyed the season for other reasons.

"It’s a complete escape from work and your daily routine," Rick said. "There’s no timetable. It’s a whole different world when you’re out there."

Both men said the highlight of the season was helping their daughters bag their first deer. Rick’s 8-year-old daughter, Alyssa, shot a small doe. Nicole Hilkemeyer, then 9, harvested a button buck under Nick’s supervision. Both used muzzleloaders to bring home their venison.

For the Hilkemeyer brothers, however, the goals are much different. If forced to choose between killing two or three does and small bucks every year for the rest of their lives or killing a trophy buck once every 10 years, they didn’t hesitate to say they would opt for a big buck every 10 years. As far as deer hunting is concerned, that is what’s important to them.

Gordon Whittington, editor of North American Whitetail magazine and one of the nation’s leading authorities on trophy deer hunting, said that big bucks fascinate so many hunters for many different reasons. In common for all of them, however, is the visceral reaction they have to the presence of a big deer.

"I believe most hunters get a surge of adrenaline when they get around a really remarkable buck, even when they aren’t in a hunting situation," Whittington said. "There are very few who, when they come on a 10-point buck with a doe, will shoot the doe. Those that would choose the doe are true meat hunters, and I take my hat off to them. We need more of them to manage growing deer populations."

Whittington acknowledges the temptation among trophy hunters to measure hunting success in terms of points and inches.

"There’s no getting around the fact that some people are competitive," he says. "They like to keep score and brag about an achievement. Well, there’s all kinds of bragging rights, from having a muscle car to making a killing day-trading on the stock market. Wanting to kill a trophy deer is just another manifestation of innate human competitiveness."

Some hunters find social status in killing a big deer. Whittington said this is particularly true in rural communities, where material possessions are less important and people are more connected to the land.

Among many trophy hunters, both rural and urban, Whittington has noticed something that transcends a quest for status. They hunt trophy deer because the animals are rare and extraordinary, and because they are more difficult to hunt.

"Trophy hunters certainly are proud of taking big animals, but many of them also are humbled by it," Whittington said. "For them, registering a deer with the Boone and Crockett Club is as much about honoring the animal as it is about gaining recognition for themselves."

Both hunters and nonhunters should find it easy to understand why rare, exceptional animals are central to the hunting challenge, he added.

Even so, the desire to harvest a big deer is not the only reason a trophy hunter goes afield, any more than it is for a mushroom hunter to go afield merely to harvest huge morels. Whether you’re a deer hunter, an angler or a mushroom hunter, however, it does reinforce your confidence in your abilities to know you can consistently find and harvest the finest specimens of your desire, and doing so adds another element of excitement to your pursuit.

When a mushroom hunter does find an enormous morel (a trophy hunter’s dream), or when he stumbles on a patch that yields a bushelbasket of mushrooms (the meat hunter’s dream), what does he do? Naturally, he shows his friends. He may even go to the local newspaper to have his picture taken.

Those who see his big find may envy his skill and perseverance compared to the lesser fruits of their own efforts, but they probably won’t consider him an egomaniac or a despoiler of the forest. They are much more likely to share the mushroom hunter’s awe at nature’s bounty and his delight in his good fortune.

That’s a comparison that seems to apply to all our outdoor recreations. Whether you are hunting mushrooms, bass, deer, turkey or magnificent nature photos, it’s the value of the coin that’s most important, not whether it comes up heads or tails.

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