BRAINERD - On Saturday, pre-dawn, roughly a half-million Minnesota deer hunters will don blaze orange and head to woods and fields in hopes that a whitetail will waltz into shooting range.
Although most hunters will be satisfied to shoot any deer -- including a doe or fawn -- a growing number will hold out for a mature buck: a hefty specimen sporting thick multi-tined antlers and a bulky neck and body.
In fact, some hunters would rather eat "tag soup" at season's end than shoot an immature buck or doe. Often these "trophy hunters" are looked down upon by other deer hunters.
They shouldn't be. Each hunter satisfies himself or herself, according to individual standards. Many are happy just to get a chance to be outdoors with perhaps an opportunity to shoot a deer, big or little. No one should be shunned for that. All hunters should remain open-minded to the ethical hunting philosophies of others.
A natural progression, though, for many people is to continually raise the bar in their undertakings.
Who among deer hunters doesn't want to shoot a buck bigger than the one already on the wall? What angler is completely and forever satisfied with an average catch?
For that matter, what bowler doesn't want to roll 300?
So, how do deer hunters who want to bag a mature buck find one? It might seem obvious, but they have to hunt where bucks can grow old.
In Minnesota, a huge majority of bucks are killed when they are 1 1/2 years of age. So in large parts of the state, it's difficult to find a big buck.
But the DNR is experimenting in Zone 3 (the southeast) with antler point restrictions, hoping to increase the average age of harvested bucks. So that's an area to watch, and perhaps to hunt. In fact, the experiment appears to be working.
But even in areas where big bucks are cultivated, hunters must seek out remote subregions where hunting pressure is limited, thus increasing the chance at least a few bucks will survive to maturity.
Suburban areas can be "remote'' in that they are home, often, to mature bucks. In these areas, where hunters often are restricted to archery, a greater percentage of bucks will be mature.
The best way I know to determine if an area is holding a mature buck is to look for big rubs. Saplings 4 to 6 inches or larger in diameter with the bark torn to shreds are likely the work of mature bucks. I have on many occasions seen big bucks rub on small saplings, but I've never seen a small buck rub on a big tree.
Trail cameras also can reveal the presence, or lack of, big bucks. It's fun to check cameras and "discover" heavy-duty bucks. Knowing they are present, generally, makes it easier for hunters to pass up younger bucks -- an obvious prerequisite to bagging a brute.
More and more deer hunters, especially archers, are seeking the challenge of hunting mature bucks. Lots of money follows these hunters -- including some from Minnesota -- to such states as Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Ohio and Missouri. I also know of Minnesota deer hunters who have purchased land in Canada because they want to see more big bucks.
The peak of the whitetail rut is between Nov. 8 and 12.
The urge to breed can cause even the wariest of mature bucks to make mistakes at this time.
May a brute walk into your sights this season.