Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

A Big Buck and Some Thoughts on Ethics

Rubbing my fingers together inside my mittens provided very little heat, and I laughed quietly at the irony that my hands were cold from removing my mittens to pour hot tea from my thermos to warm myself. Hot on the inside, a Stanley Aladdin is frigid to the touch when it is 24 degrees and windy out!

The big green thermos was almost empty after two hours in the tree. Having transferred its contents to my bladder, I was in need of a break but stubbornly refusing to climb out of my stand. The site of my movement and the smell of urine would surely ruin any chance of a deer on this cold fall morning. I would hold it in.

It was 8:30 when I looked over my right shoulder. My morning had been spent scanning the woods in all directions. A steady 10 mile per hour wind kept the leaves in motion, rendering my ears useless. If I were to detect a deer, it would be only with my eyes.

From the moment I first saw him to the time he was on the ground couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds. He was wary—keeping his head high, scanning the woods in much the same manner as me. The wind was blowing directly from me to him. Perhaps I was high enough in the tree that my scent passed over his head.

He dropped his head to nibble an acorn as he passed behind a pair of oak trees. I swung around with my rifle. He reemerged, and I froze. He seemed to be looking straight at me, but showed no alarm. A couple more steps and a dense holly provided screen. I lowered my head, eye to the scope. He stepped into view…

I hunt for meat… and for time in the woods. Killing, I do not enjoy. There was a moment when I considered not taking this shot. He was a huge deer with broad, thick antlers. A coyote would never take this one. Even a red wolf pack would opt for smaller, weaker deer. This big buck had DNA worth passing on. He also carried a lot of meat, and his little sister wasn’t with him. My options were to kill him or kill nothing.

The debate lasted less than a second. My stomach won out. I would ponder the ethics later.


I snaked the truck through the woods to about 150 yards from him—not close enough. Moving him that far would be a chore. I guessed him to weigh about the same as me, and the ground was uneven, littered with downed trees, and rich with blackberry and bramble. I could have field dressed him in the woods, but a short drive back to the house and a spigot seemed worthwhile. With the truck in place, I approached him for the first time since he went down.

Before moving him, I thanked him. Deer do not give themselves to us. We take them. I do not fool myself. The old buck with the thick, broken antlers gets nothing out of this exchange. I know he doesn’t hear my thanks, but the gesture is no less important. Giving thanks is about sincerely offering, not receiving. I sat with him for a moment, before getting to business.

Drag ten yards. Remove a scarf. Drag ten more. Off with the down parka. Plan the next stretch, drag a little more. Tea break… Eventually I was at the truck, but then what? Fortunately, my dad finds even more pleasure in my harvests then me. He was on his way. It took a repositioning of the truck to bring the tailgate low enough for the two of us to heft him in.

That was yesterday.

Today, Lisa enjoyed her first venison heart breakfast, and she is excited about having more for supper. On the back porch, the skull and antlers challenge the crockpot. (Yes, I got permission first.)  We will have venison meatloaf for Thanksgiving.

Now, back at my desk, it is time to ponder the ethics. Leopold taught us to hunt does, to respect predators. He implored ranchers to think like mountains as they forged their relationships with herds both wild and domestic. He also hunted, and in writing about his hunting he glorified the big buck. He did not write about passing up the big buck and his genes in favor of the younger or weaker.

But I am not Aldo Leopold, and I can no more pretend to be him than I can base my decisions on his thoughts, his conclusions. I have to make my own. Yesterday, I chose to kill the big buck. Tomorrow, having him in the freezer already, I might pass on a similar deer in favor of a smaller one. Or, I might not. My ethics, like Leopold’s, like everyone’s, are always evolving. What I find right today, I might find tomorrow to be wrong. According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, that change is to be lauded. But, then, those are his thoughts.

As for my ethics… this weekend marks the end of either sex deer season. Perhaps I will return to the woods now haunted by the ghost of the big buck. If I do, perhaps I will be granted a choice. If a buck and a doe are side-by-side and in range, I will almost certainly choose the doe, this time. But, if another big buck comes along solo… well, I suppose I will make that decision then and there.


What do you think?