At last, the long anticipated time has arrived. It is 7 a.m. on the opening morning of deer season, and expectations are high. A brisk north breeze rustles the leaves in the trees and sends a shiver down your back. The breaking light begins to peek over the horizon. You slowly move your eyes from side to side, straining to see something that is not there. Then suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, there it is. Movement! A small shot of adrenaline courses through your body as you stare at the spot, but everything seems to blend into the shadows. You continue to stare and finally there it is again.
In the poor light, you can make out the outline of a single animal just inside the timber at the edge of the opening. It is a deer with a relatively large body. It's moving toward a small opening that would afford a shot, but you have not even identified the deer as a buck, much less a buck of the size that you want to harvest. You continue to peer at the deer through your binoculars as it makes its way toward the opening and finally you see them - antlers. It is difficult to tell just how big they are, but through the timber they look impressive.
You exchange the binoculars for your rifle as the buck continues toward the small opening. With your heart pounding, you follow him though your scope. Finally, he clears the timber. He stands broadside as he holds his nose high, testing the wind. The rising sunlight seems to bounce off his antlers as he turns his head to reveal a spread that protrudes past his ears. Three more steps and he will be back in the timber. It is now or never.
The safety makes an almost inaudible click as the crosshairs settle just behind the shoulder. You lose sight of your target as the recoil jolts your shoulder. Upon recovery, you see nothing running off and the tall grass in the vicinity of your target moves for several seconds and then stops. You feel good about your shot, but decide to wait 20 minutes before approaching the spot you last saw the deer. As you wait, you replay the sequence of events in your mind. You remember how he looked those last seconds, almost as if you had taken a photograph. His antlers were tall and wide, shining in the sunlight. He was a magnificent creature.
Twenty minutes later, you unload, lower your rifle and crawl out of your stand. You reload and cautiously approach the spot where you shot the deer. As you get close, you feel a sense of relief as you see a white belly gleaming in the tall grass. You got him! Getting still closer, you begin to look for those massive antlers. Slowly you begin to realize that the antlers are really not that massive. He is a nice buck, but his antlers are pretty average.
Most people who have hunted deer any length of time have probably experienced a similar situation. The phenomenon of "ground shrinkage" can be defined as when a harvested buck turns out to be smaller on the ground than he appeared in life. Following are some thoughts about ground shrinkage.
Deer really do seem to look larger in life. The way they carry themselves, the lighting, the hunter's adrenalin and other factors contribute. Careful observation of the potential target is the best way to avoid harvesting an animal with "undersized" antlers. Snap decisions often result in ground shrinkage. When in doubt, do not shoot.
If you have done everything by the book and still make a mistake, don't beat yourself up. Take responsibility and strive to be more vigilant next year.
If hunting on managed property with quality or trophy management goals, remember that harvesting the "right" sized animal is not nearly as important as setting conservative buck harvest limits (numbers) and staying within them. For example, if the buck limit is five for a property, buck season should be over when five bucks are harvested, regardless of size. This will help ensure quality hunting in the future.