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When to Bail on a Buck

Is it ever the right time to switch gears and leave a mature buck behind? I say yes.

When to Bail on a Buck

Knowing when to cut your losses can be a powerful tool for success. (Photo courtesy of Greg Miller)

I firmly believe it’s long been the question many deer hunters have asked themselves more than any other. And it goes something along the lines of, “I wonder if it’s possible that I’ve been putting too much pressure on this big buck I’m trying to kill?”

After many hundreds of conversations with fellow deer hunters over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that darn few hunters are willing to admit that they may have been their own worst enemy when it comes to putting too much pressure on a big deer. Oh, and just so we’re clear on something here, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve also been guilty of the crime . . . and on multiple occasions! 

A Change in Hunting Strategies

For starters, it’s never easy to bail on a buck — especially really nice bucks that you want very badly to kill. We hunters invest a lot of time and energy into finding, scouting and hunting mature whitetails, and as such a connection sometimes occurs. We develop an “all or nothing” mindset around that particular deer, deciding we’ll devote the entire season to hunting the animal. 

Unfortunately, that strategy can often end without punching a tag. And hey, if that’s fine with you (and if the buck you’re after is worth the wait) then have at it! However, if you’re more interested in maximizing your chances and adapting to changing hunting conditions throughout the season, I feel strongly that it’s important to know when to change gears and hunt another animal. If you’re a traveling whitetail hunter, this decision might be much easier to make. 

Admittedly, I take far more chances on short, out-of-state hunts than I do with the big bucks that reside on my home state hunting property. But as I learned when I first started broadening my deer hunting horizons with out-of-state hunts many years ago, there definitely are times to be careful. But there also are times when a person needs to be more aggressive. And I’m definitely more aggressive on out-of-state hunts!

This isn’t to say, however, that I haven’t bailed on big bucks when I’m hunting out of state. Fortunately for me, I learned long ago that it was definitely in my best interest to always have a backup plan when I’m hunting foreign turf. 

When to Bail on a Buck
The author admits he hunts far more aggressively on out-of-state hunts. He says he always has a backup plan while traveling, in case he needs to bail on a buck on shorter notice. (Photo courtesy of Greg Miller)

Sure, it is tough to turn your back on a big buck when you’ve got only five or six days to put that deer on the ground. But it’s even worse to not have a backup plan when you’ve got only five or six days of hunting time to get the job done. A late-season Illinois muzzleloader hunt of mine from some years back is a perfect illustration of the importance of having a backup plan on standby.

Cameraman Mark Wimpe and I had spent four days chasing a particular big buck with our mutual friend Tom Ware without much success — despite Tom’s best attempts to help us close the deal. Finally, on the morning of day five (which was the last day of our hunt) Tom asked me if I’d like to try something different. I readily agreed that it was time for a change in our game plan.

“You’ll be sitting on tree stands I placed in a giant oak tree that’s located on a high ridgetop, and I need to get you in there well before daylight,” he explained. “And just so you know, I doubt you’ll see much in the way of deer movement until sometime after daylight. There’s a stretch of cropland well below where you’ll be sitting, and it takes the deer a while to make their way up to your position. So, I ask that you please be patient.” 

When to Bail on a Buck
After spending the first few days of his hunt chasing a big Illinois 10-pointer, the author made the call to bail on the buck and hunt a different area. This ancient and massive whitetail showed up shortly after daylight and walked to within 10 yards. The buck remains one of the author’s more special trophies, as it was aged at 7 1/2 years old. (Photo courtesy of Greg Miller)

Now, as an addendum to this story, I need to add that local weather forecasters had predicted that wind speeds could exceed 40-plus miles per hour sometime shortly after daylight on that morning. With this information in mind, I whispered to Mark he needed to get the camera rolling because I was going to blow on my grunt call a few times before the wind cranked up.

Though I can’t recall exactly how much time had passed, a bit later I looked down a sparsely covered wooded ridge top and spotted a big buck vigorously rubbing a stunted cedar tree. I waited until the buck had finished his rubbing ritual, then let loose with a couple subtle grunts. The big whitetail immediately turned his head in our direction before heading toward us in a stiff-legged walk.


The massive antlered deer eventually closed the distance to a mere 15 yards before I dropped the hammer on him. That old whitetail not only ranks as one of my more treasured muzzleloader kills, but also as one of my favorite bucks of all time, as Tom knew the deer and figured he was at least 7 1/2 years old.

Making the Call to Bail on a Buck

As mentioned, it can be tough to decide exactly when to bail on a big buck. But if plenty of past personal experiences are of any value here, then allow me to make some suggestions. And the first of those suggestions is to be completely honest about your decision to continue to pursue a buck you’ve pretty much deemed “unkillable”. 

Of course, this brings up another very important point. And that point is something I mentioned earlier. We hunters should always have a secondary game plan we can fall back on at the drop of a hat. Because as I’ve learned, while one big buck might suddenly refuse to play the game, there’s almost always another one that will be more cooperative.

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