Targeting Mature Bucks Can Be a Lonely Road

April 17, 2024 By: Nick Pinizzotto

I looked at my watch and saw it was 10 a.m. and time to start climbing down from my saddle setup and meet up with my friend and hunting partner, Ron Haas. It was December 29, and the second my bow touched the ground my quest for a mature buck in Delaware was done for the year. I knew the only thing I’d be taking home was an unpunched tag. It was over, and deep down I knew it. 

I never got close to the buck I was pursuing in Pennsylvania, and I had two close encounters with mature bucks in Delaware inside of 15 yards that didn’t result in shots. I did have a shot at a good looking 3½-year-old 9-pointer during the Pennsylvania firearms season, but I opted to pass, remembering my personal goal of only taking fully mature animals. I was able to harvest three antlerless deer and fill the freezer.

Despite that success, I felt defeated when I put away my gear for a final time. While I still had a couple weeks to keep trying during the late archery season in my home state of Pennsylvania, my busy work schedule and challenging weather conditions would combine to limit my opportunities. I was physically and mentally worn down. There would be no buck for me this year.

When I stepped out of the woods on that last day, I saw a lonely road through the woods, a metaphor for a tough season. I took the photo you see above, and I decided to write this article. Hunting only mature bucks comes at a cost. It’s important that deer hunters set their own goals and make harvest decisions based on what makes them happy.

Deer-Hunting Success Has Many Definitions

Nick with his first archery buck, one of many young bucks he took when happiness meant the first legal deer he could tag.

When I was a kid, shooting anything with a legal set of antlers made me happy, and I have a pile of small racks in my basement to prove it – like my first archery buck, seen above. When it came to hunting antlerless deer, I was going to shoot the first legal deer I saw. Simply filling a tag was the goal. Things were a lot different in those days, and as a young hunter I wasn’t nearly as educated as I would eventually become.

By the time I reached my early 20s I learned of the recently formed Quality Deer Management Association, and that was the start of changing my outlook on deer hunting. I can vividly recall when I decided I was going to pass young bucks and hold off on shooting at anything smaller than I had shot to that point. Because I didn’t shoot the first buck I saw that year, I was still pursuing a deer in late October. On Halloween evening I laid eyes on the first truly mature buck I had ever seen while hunting. While I didn’t get a shot that evening, the encounter taught me that mature and immature bucks are very different animals. At that moment, I swore off shooting yearling bucks for good.

Seeing his first mature buck in the woods compelled Nick to start passing young bucks. He eventually killed that same mature buck later the same season in Pennsylvania.

I eventually got my opportunity on that buck and made good on it late in the morning on the very last day of the Pennsylvania archery season, further strengthening my resolve. That was almost 25 years ago, and my love for pursuing mature whitetail bucks hasn’t wavered. I make sure to fill as many antlerless tags as I can to fill my freezer and share with others who enjoy venison, but when it comes to hunting bucks, I’m looking for the ultimate challenge.

Realities of the Lonely Road

In full disclosure, there are times when hunting mature bucks is just not as much fun as the days when I didn’t have self-imposed restrictions. Here are a few realities to consider if you’re going to start down what can be a lonely road. 

Mature bucks are typically the savviest deer in the woods, and they have just about seen it all. Simply laying eyes on one is a privilege let alone getting close enough for a shot. If you don’t catch one off guard in the first few days of the season before they feel hunting pressure, your next best opportunity likely won’t come for several weeks until the rut kicks in or during the firearms season when deer are sometimes forced to be on the move. That means putting in a lot of hours. On the surface, that sounds great, but it is mentally and physically taxing. Most of us must navigate busy schedules just to get out. 

Nick had this Delaware buck within 8 yards but couldn’t get the shot he needed. Mature bucks rarely give you multiple opportunities like this, so a few seconds can define an entire season.

You have to be okay with letting younger bucks pass while accepting that not seeing a mature buck all season is a possibility. If you didn’t get it done early in the season, you have to be willing to push yourself to keep at it late in the year. When fatigue combined with deteriorating weather conditions kick in, it becomes easier to come up with reasons why you should stay home rather than push forward. It doesn’t help that by late in the season you’ve seen countless photos of successful hunters on social media, or they were shared with you by a buddy. All this makes you feel like you’re the only one who hasn’t punched a tag.

A Few Seconds Can Define an Entire Season

While being physically fit certainly helps you endure the rigors of a potentially long deer season, I believe mental toughness is even more important. In addition to the physical toll hunting takes on the body, the long stretch of early wake-up calls and late evening walks out of the woods has a cumulative effect. When you combine this with the day-to-day responsibilities most of us have, getting a bit run down is inevitable. Eventually you’re not thinking as clearly as you were during opening week. Optimism can quickly turn into pessimism and even dread.

When you start to notice you’re hitting the snooze button a couple of extra times, or you’re not slipping into your stand until a couple hours before sunset, you’re prone to missing the opportunity you’ve been waiting for. Despite the long road you’ve already traveled, it’s now time to find another gear and sharpen your focus. The last thing you want to do is put in a herculean effort all season long only to miss your opportunity because you became lazy and made a mental or physical mistake.

I’ve seen some hunters get so obsessed with antlers it caused them to disregard more important things in their lives. I’ve even seen friendships and family relationships suffer or end. Keeping perspective is important.

Despite more than 35 years of deer hunting experience, I still sometimes learn this lesson the hard way. Last season on November 12, I had a plan to hunt a stand overlooking a small interior food plot knowing from past experience that a cruising mature buck was likely to visit it looking for does. My plan the night before was for an all-day sit, which is something I rarely do these days. The weather forecast was perfect with morning temperatures in the upper 20s, light winds and a daytime high predicted to reach 45°. I went to bed with a solid game plan.

When my alarm woke me, the enthusiasm I had the night before had waned. I suddenly started thinking about how cold it was outside and how getting to my stand was going to be challenging due to the noise of my footsteps in frozen leaves. By the time I drove to my hunting land, I had talked myself into a setup that was easier to get to, and I no longer planned to sit all day. I basically threw my entire plan out the window, and the price I paid for it was steep.

I saw a few antlerless deer but no bucks, and it ended up being a short and mostly uneventful hunt. When I eventually got to a spot where I regained cell coverage, my worst fear was realized. My trail-camera captured a photo of my target buck (see below), a thick-racked mature 10-pointer, walking through the food plot at 8:16 a.m. within 15 yards of the stand I had planned to be in. 

Trail-camera photo of Nick’s target Pennsylvania buck, on the morning Nick decided to hunt an easier-to-reach stand than this food plot.

Deer like that don’t give you many chances, and there’s no worse feeling than blowing the one opportunity you might have had. I was devasted then, and it still haunts me as I’m writing about it now. I got lazy and lost my focus at a critical moment and paid for it dearly.

The morale of the story is it only takes a few magical seconds to change the fortunes of a hunting season when pursuing mature bucks. You have to be willing to control what you can control and put yourself in the best position to take advantage of your opportunity no matter how long and difficult the journey has been.

Focusing on Mature Bucks Isn’t for Everyone

When you target mature bucks, accept that not every season ends successfully. But that doesn’t mean no rewards at all.

I’m a driven and highly competitive person, which is a big reason why I torture myself each deer season by only pursuing mature bucks. Although difficult, this approach has allowed me to gain a ton of valuable experience as I’ve racked up countless hours observing deer, which makes every hunt successful in its own way. I’m also perfectly fine with not filling my buck tag as long as I’m putting a few antlerless deer in the freezer. Still, that doesn’t mean I would recommend it for everyone, especially new hunters.

I’ve seen some hunters get so obsessed with antlers it caused them to disregard more important things in their lives. I’ve even seen friendships and family relationships suffer or end. Keeping perspective is important. 

I encourage deer hunters to set a personal goal that makes sense for them and try not to be influenced by what others are doing or saying. If you’re someone who would love to shoot a mature buck if one happens to come by but are otherwise perfectly happy to shoot the first legal buck you see, that plan is as good as any as long as you’re enjoying the sport. 

Keep the Fun in Hunting

Focusing on mature bucks is not hopeless. More seasons than not, I punch a buck tag. However, it requires time, determination, and mental toughness if you hope to find consistent success. It also requires a sense of humor, or you risk losing perspective on what the pursuit is all about and ultimately become focused on just the outcome. It truly can feel like you’re on a lonely road, so appreciating the process and enjoying the journey is important. 

Whatever your approach, make sure you’re having fun in the way you enjoy the outdoors. That will keep you coming back, and that’s what it’s all about.

Nick’s selfie at the end of his last hunt of the 2023-24 deer season. Despite ending it without a buck, he was still smiling.

About Nick Pinizzotto:

Nick Pinizzotto is NDA’s President and CEO. He has been a member of the NDA team for eight years starting with the former National Deer Alliance. He is a Level II Deer Steward and active wildlife habitat manager on his Pennsylvania property. His more than 25 year professional career has been dedicated to fish and wildlife conservation. He earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental geography and a master’s degree in psychology.