Is seeing believing? How sure are you of your target?
Good optics are usually the best solution for making absolutely certain you're seeing what you think you're seeing. In open country, generally, the more magnification the better. However, in close cover too much magnification may make average-size antlers and horns seem larger than they really are.
You've been on your stand for hours, alert and watchful. You haven't seen anything--nothing at all--and you're fighting boredom and drowsiness. Then, there it is: movement, over there in the brush. You freeze, rotating only your eyes toward the spot. Again, just a flicker. Then a tan shape separates from the gray branches as the buck steps out. Your breath catches as you see the fine rack. Slowly, you bring up the rifle, steady the shaking crosshairs just behind the shoulder and squeeze the trigger.
At the shot, the buck is off into the brush, but you know the shot was good. You wait a few minutes, then climb out of your stand and walk to the last spot you saw him. You know you got him, and your imagination runs wild: He was huge, surely the buck of a lifetime! You enter the woods, scanning the ground carefully for blood, and then you see your buck, lying still a few yards ahead. You rush to him and then stop, confused. It's a buck, all right, but his antlers are small and spindly, nothing like you'd envisioned. What happened to the monster you saw?
We call it "ground shrinkage," and it happens all the time, even to the most experienced hunters among us. The human mind is a wonderful tool, but it isn't perfect. As any magician can tell you, we tend to see what we want most to see, regardless of what is actually there. An error as described probably doesn't help herd management, and if the shrinkage is extreme, your ego may take a beating when you get back to camp. But provided you at least got the sex right and you haven't breached any size restrictions, there isn't much harm done if you bring in a buck smaller than what you thought you were shooting.
It can be worse than that. I live in an area where our reintroduced tule elk herd is growing rapidly. Every fall somebody shoots an elk, thinking it's a very big deer. In the Rockies they've had the same problem with introductions of Shiras moose.
Are there really hunters so unaware that they can't tell the difference among deer, elk and moose? I think the more likely answer is that their minds played tricks on them. They wanted to see the game they were seeking so badly that, in fact, they did--but what they saw wasn't reality. As we know, it can be even worse. Hunters have shot horses and cows, mistaking them for game. Thanks to hunter education and blaze-orange sartorial requirements, human tragedies are very rare today but, sadly, not altogether erased.
We all know that it's a commandment of firearms safety to "Be sure of your target and everything behind your target." That always applies, but what I'm talking about isn't exactly the same: You are sure of your target, but your target isn't exactly what your eyes and your mind tell you it is.
Self-knowledge is important. Experience counts, although some folks will always be more excitable than others. There is no shortcut to experience, so if you're lacking in that area, you need to acknowledge that and make yourself slow down and make absolutely sure. Ditto (maybe double ditto!) if you know you're subject to buck fever.
To my thinking there is no excuse--ever--for taking the wrong sex or species of game, let alone for a hunting accident, but I'm sure that, sometimes, the person making the inexcusable error really believed he saw something different from what was really there. This is what ground shrinkage really is. The scary part is that we're all subject to these mental mistakes, and it's only a matter of degree between a few inches of antler, a game violation and a tragedy.
Just last week I was whitetail hunting in Georgia, watching a long cutline through a stand of pines. I had seen enough deer to know that if a good buck stepped out, I would have very little time to judge him, get on him and make the shot. I also knew there were a couple of good bucks in the area because my host, Zack Aultman, had videotaped them from that very stand. Over the course of a couple of days I passed a half-dozen young bucks, including a couple of impressive young eight-pointers. The full moon was up, and it was unseasonably warm; I doubted that a good buck would show in daylight.
Sound like the imaginary scenario I started with? Pretty close. It was 9:45 and getting very warm when I saw movement far up along the right-hand edge of the cutline. I raised the binoculars just once. The buck was still in the brush, quartering to me, head down, and I saw his long right beam and a picket fence of antler points. I knew I hadn't seen this buck before, and my mind saw him as one of the good ones. I moved to the .300 Jarrett, already set in position. This late in the day the buck was almost certainly traveling to his bedding ground; I'd be lucky if he stopped at all when he crossed that narrow opening.
This is a pretty Georgia buck; if I'd been after "any buck" I'd be delighted. Unfortunately, I saw him -- incorrectly -- as a larger, mature buck rather than the promising youngster he is. I didn't have time to judge him correctly, so I should have passed the shot. Instead I took the quick shot I has and wound up with a whole lot of "ground shrinkage."
I had committed at least two mistakes. I hadn't looked nearly long enough to be sure of what I was seeing, and I believed what my mind was telling me. I was ready when he came out, and I had been right about one thing: He wasn't going to stand around. Other than to be sure it was present, I didn't take another look at the rack, nor did I study his body shape. Instead I tracked him across the opening, getting the shot off when he hesitated for a moment on the left-hand edge. Even at that he almost walked out of my shot; I hit him a bit far back, but I was certain I'd heard the bullet thump. We recovered him with little difficulty. He was an 11-pointer--a pretty buck--but he was exactly what I didn't want to shoot, a promising young buck who should have been allowed to reach his potential.
I felt terrible, and it didn't make me feel any better when one of my hunting partners, a far more experienced southeastern whitetail hunter than I, made a similar mistake. He was watching a huge second-growth clearing where a big buck was known to cross. He picked up the flash of an antler and saw a buck feeding, head down. The buck picked up its head, and from the angle he had, the antlers looked good. He saw
what he wanted to see, and he shot as soon as he had some shoulder visible. The deer was a buck, sure enough, but he wasn't the big one, or even any big one. Actually, it was a very medium-size, spindly antlered eight-pointer.
As I said, this guy is a very experienced whitetail hunter. I'm not a great whitetail hunter, but I'm hardly inexperienced. Between us I'm sure we've taken several hundred deer, and we've both taken some good ones. If we can make stupid mistakes like these, what chance do less experienced hunters have? Truthfully, not much--especially if, like we did, they place too much faith in first impressions. You must constantly be wary of the tricks your mind is likely to play. Sometimes you'll get it right, and sometimes, although you clearly must take time to make absolutely certain of sex and species, there isn't time to properly judge antler size and age. Too, much of the time it just doesn't matter; the goal is to shoot a buck (sometimes any deer), so there is less to try to be certain of. But sometimes, in a good area or at a certain time of the season, it does matter because you know there's good stuff out there.
It's always better to not shoot than to make even a minor mistake, so take as much time as you can to be certain you're looking at what you think you're looking at. At a distance with binoculars, I like to put them down, then raise them and look again. Sometimes that second look is a whole lot different. Up close, I like to look away for a second, sometimes just by blinking slowly if head movement is risky. If there just isn't time for close study--and there often isn't--either pass on the shot or be prepared for ground shrinkage.
I can honestly say that most of the game animals I've taken have been exactly what I thought they were in antler or horn. On the other hand, I admit to several that weren't quite what I thought I had seen, although I think this Georgia buck is one of my biggest boo-boos. Sunlight often exaggerates horns and antlers. Poor light and brush are risky and require extra scrutiny even if you don't have time for it.
Unfortunately, your mind rarely plays reverse tricks; in my experience, "ground expansion" is very rare. The only game animal I can think of that turned out to be significantly larger than I thought also happened to be a whitetail deer. I knew he was a good buck, but getting a shot was so difficult that I didn't take time to ponder what he really was. He dropped to the shot, and the closer I got, the bigger he looked. That was a wonderful feeling, but it's too rare to count on. Jack O'Connor said, "The big ones look big," which is absolutely true and applies to all game. Unfortunately, animals that aren't big can also look huge if you let your imagination hold sway. So take the best and longest look you can. If you aren't absolutely sure, it's far better to pass the shot.