The deer hunter flips up the collar of his fleece jacket to better protect his neck from the chilly, late-afternoon breeze, remaining alert, hoping that an unsuspecting doe will meander by before dark. Success would be two-pronged, as he needs venison for his freezer, and his camp needs a few more does harvested to reach the year’s quota.

 Within minutes, he hears footsteps approaching in the dry leaf litter to his right front. At a distance of about 50 yards, his eyes settle on a deer’s legs and torso as it slowly eases along the edge of a grown-up woods lane down which he has a fairly good view. He slowly raises his rifle and settles into the stock as the doe turns slightly and enters the oak bottom to feed. Placing the crosshairs of his scope right behind the front shoulder, he exhales as his trigger finger slowly begins to “take up the slack.” The echo from the shot reverberates through the cold, evening air, announcing to all at the camp within hearing distance, that someone just had “some luck.” The hunter’s shot is true, and the deer drops in its tracks.

After gathering up and securing his gear, the hunter climbs down from his stand and begins the short walk to his “prize.” The slight, satisfied, smile on his face suddenly reverses as the hunter’s lower jaw drops in bewilderment and confusion. His “doe” has a 3-inch spike on one side and a slightly longer spike on the opposite side. He thinks, “How in the world did this happen? I was certain it was a doe.” 

There was a time in Mississippi when a buck was defined as any male deer that had hard antler of any length, as long as it broke the hairline. That is no longer the case, and we as deer hunters are, in my opinion, way better off for it.

This is, of course, a fictitious story, only told to illustrate an important point. The result is troubling on multiple levels, but what happened was also totally preventable. Various versions of this story play out every season. I have no actual statistics to point to, but I have personally witnessed and heard of this sort of thing happening many times over my several decades in the woods. As safe and responsible hunters, we should always know and positively identify a potential target before even pointing our weapon downrange. Achieving that goal can be difficult at times, due to a litany of factors, including poor hunter judgement, lack of experience, poor light, screening brush, distance, and on and on. 

There is one great equalizer that can greatly stack the deck in your favor when it comes to deer identification. I’m talking about optics, and I don’t mean the scope on your rifle. My point is to recommend the use of binoculars whenever you hunt. I know a lot of hunters use binoculars, but from my personal experience and observations, it’s shocking how many hunters don’t. 

The excuses I have heard range widely. “I don’t own a pair,” “They’re too heavy or too bulky,” “My Daddy never used them, and he killed plenty of deer,” “I don’t have the money,” or “I don’t want to spend the money,” “Using binoculars won’t leave me enough time to take a shot,” and so forth and so on.

Personally, I consider a good pair of binoculars to be indispensable when I’m deer hunting. I always keep a pair around my neck from the moment I pick up my rifle until I put it away when the hunt is over. A popular misconception is that binoculars are intended only for long-distance viewing. That notion couldn’t be farther from the truth. A scope is in no way a substitute for a decent pair of binoculars. No. 1, you should never point the barrel of a gun at anything that is not already identified and verified as a shootable target. Scope sights were designed to aim through and absolutely nothing more. No. 2, the twin-eye picture of binoculars gather light and gives the viewer depth perception and a wide field of view; a buck standing back in the shadows or easing along through brush will stand out to a hunter’s eye. This is invaluable from the standpoint of not only hunter success, but also hunter safety.