What are the big milestones that mark serious accomplishments for whitetail deer hunters?
As deer hunters, there are dozens of milestones that we hope to achieve throughout our time. Every one of the milestones in our hunting lives are unique experiences, and not everyone can say they have reached all of these benchmarks. To people who do not hunt, it may not sound very difficult to go into the woods and kill an animal, but it definitely is. Not only do you have to be able to make a harvest happen when the moment comes, but you also have to be skilled enough to even get a shot at a whitetail.
Hunting is harder than many people give it credit for, so every one of these milestones is something to be proud of. This list is by no means exhaustive, but most hunters will go through many of these milestones in their life.
Your First Deer
Your first deer is arguably the most important. Whether you are 5 years old or 45 years old, your first deer is going to be something to remember. If you are a child, then it is also an achievement for the adult who was there to teach you. Nonetheless, you were there and made it happen.
For adults that have never hunted, the first deer is a super important achievement. Many people try deer hunting, struggle for the first few years, and then give up after not being able to find success. I think this is mainly because they are worried about shooting a large buck for their first deer.
I think everyone should be proud of what they achieve when they first start hunting, and eliminate any notion of embarrassment or disappointment at the size, sex, or age of the deer. This way they can really understand the process and learn how hunting works. I am not afraid to say that I shot my first and second deer a few days apart. The first one was a doe yearling, and the second was a button buck. Those may not be what longtime hunters are after, but they're special to me, and always will be.
Cleaning Your Own Deer
When you first start hunting, you may have someone with you that cleans and skins your deer for you. It might be a father, uncle, or friend. This is totally fine because cleaning a deer can be quite the process. There are plenty of ways to mess it up and even ruin the meat.
It is also a little gross. I have never had a problem with it, but I know people that will puke when trying to skin deer. Nonetheless, cleaning your own deer totally on your own is a huge accomplishment that anyone should be proud of. It also marks a big step in your hunting journey. If you can extract the meat from a deer in the right way, you're graduating to a higher level of hunter.
Passing a Buck
For many years as a kid, I shot every single deer that I saw. Eventually, you learn that patience can provide a bigger thrill and a bigger accomplishment.
I can still remember the first buck I ever passed. It was the first time that I really got to hunt the rut, and a little four-pointer came running past me chasing a doe. They chased each other, playing like a couple dogs right in front of me, yet I decided to let that buck live.
Passing a deer, in general, is a big benchmark. It is an odd feeling to know that you held that animal's life in your hands and could have taken it easily, and they were none the wiser.
This is a sign of you maturing as a deer hunter. Now you can really observe a lot of deer, and that will allow you to learn even more about how they behave. Eventually, you can use that to your advantage and harvest a big, mature buck.
First Successful Solo Hunt
Your next step is to successfully harvest a deer on your own. Personally, I enjoy hunting with my father, and about 80% of my hunts have been with him. I definitely prefer to hunt with him whenever I get the chance, because hunting is so much more fun when you do it with loved ones.
However, it is also a significant experience to go out on your own and harvest and clean your own deer. Not because you have anything to prove to anyone, but because this really shows that you understand the process of deer hunting and how to provide for yourself. From beginning to end, a solo deer hunt is an invaluable skill and a huge accomplishment.
First Truly Mature Deer
Killing a mature deer is definitely an accomplishment. It seems easy to an experienced hunter, but telling the difference between a mature deer and 2- to 3-year old deer is not that easy for new hunters.
When you shoot your first mature buck, it's often the sheer body size that stands out. The antlers are less relevant at that point. Of course, most seasoned hunters (myself included) want to shoot a buck with giant antlers, but I would be extremely happy shooting a buck with an average-sized rack as long as it was over 6 years old.
Plus, it takes a lot to fool deer like this. Mature does are also impressive. Old nanny does can be some of the hardest deer in the woods to fool. It takes a lot of work and know-how to fool all of these deers' senses.
First Out of State Hunt
Hunting out of state is a whole other animal. It takes a ton of planning and maturity to pull off. The first time I went out of state alone, I was 21 years old and drove 12 hours from Georgia to Michigan to hunt with a guy I met on the internet. Was it sketchy? Maybe a little, but it was fun as could be and I will never forget it.
Nonetheless, hunting out of state makes it a whole lot harder to scout a property, and requires you to be a better hunter. If you have less time, you need more skill to be successful. Hunting out of state is hard but rewarding. You should be very proud of putting all of that together and driving a deer home across state lines.
First Public Land Buck
Public land is another challenging milestone for deer hunters. It is hard enough to hunt your own property or lease and kill a deer. You can find the best spots and really get to know the property's deer.
With public land, those best spots are often taken by about a dozen other people. There are thousands of stories from hunters about how they got to their stands early in the morning on public land, only to find five other hunters within 100 yards when the sun comes up.
You really have to be diligent on public land, and strive to go beyond the status quo. Sometimes that requires a lot of work, but other times it simply comes down to luck. I would rather be lucky any day, but if you can harvest a mature buck on public land, it is definitely something to be proud of.
Properly Aging Deer
This milestone is similar to shooting a mature deer, but if you are able to properly age a deer, you can call yourself a good hunter. After learning the basics of aging a deer on the hoof, many hunters like to guess how old they are and then ground-check them after harvest. You can get a much better estimate of how old a deer is by examining its teeth, and can even send them off to a lab for extremely accurate results.
Nonetheless, if you are able to look at a deer that is older than 3 years old and still be able to give an accurate estimate of how old it is, you are a good hunter and should be proud of that skill.
NEXT: ANTLERLESS DEER TAGS: BENEFITS OF SPECIAL PERMITS, SEASONS, AND HARVESTS