Eating tags, is that a bad thing or a good thing? That is a question that gets thrown around in many hunting circles. Some hunters hate to eat a tag and feel like their entire hunt was a failure if they did not fill their tag. Other guys have no problem eating tags when they do not find the animal they want to harvest. Each of us is at a different place in our hunting career, and to eat a tag or not eat a tag is up to the tag holder.
I, like most hunters, have changed my thoughts on eating tags through the progression of my hunting career. When I first started hunting, my friends only cared about being successful, and the only way to be successful was to fill their tags. I remember listening to the other kids in middle school and high school talking about the kids who did not fill their tags. “They must have been poor hunters if they could not even fill a deer tag,” was what used to be said. Thirty years later, my kids are going through the same stuff in school, so it must be a timeless problem for most new youth hunters.
I grew up in a hunting family in Nevada where most of my relatives had a big mulie buck or two on the wall, so I made the decision to only shoot a big buck. Well, that decision helped me eat my first four deer tags. I was that 16-year-old kid in high school who had never killed a buck and was given a hard time by all the kids that were filling tags. Then I got lucky on a backpack hunt on Table Mountain in Central Nevada and took my first big buck. After putting that buck on the wall, I regressed from a big buck hunter and turned into a tag filler. During that time, my only mission was to fill every tag I had. This became even more work once I moved to Montana where the tags were over-the-counter. I called this my “killing phase” as the size of the animal was not as important as filling my tag. Sadly, this was the least enjoyable time I have had during my hunting career as I never took the time to enjoy anything. I was just concerned about getting my tags filled.
With not finding much joy with just filling tags, I decided I was only going to kill big scoring, record book type animals. This record book phase of my hunting career found me taking very few animals, and I was eating 90%+ of my tags. It was fun to challenge myself to hunt the biggest animals, but I always had a little feeling of being a failure eating so many tags. My problem was that I was setting my expectations way too high. A perfect example of this was hunting areas that did not have the genetics to produce the record book size of animal I was looking for. I remember multiple old, big-framed bucks and bulls that were giants, but due to poor genetics, they were not high scoring animals. I regret passing those up as I would love to have them on my wall today.
That takes me to the phase I am in now, which I call the trophy phase. In this phase of my hunting career, I am looking for the best animal I can find as the trophy is always in the eye of the beholder. A trophy animal is different to all of us. I am no longer driven by an animal’s score and care more about the experience of the hunt. I typically like to harvest older animals as they have lived through more hunting seasons. This typically makes them a more challenging animal to hunt, which adds to the overall hunting experience.
Before I set my trophy goal for any hunt, I like to look at each unit, and based on the animals’ genetics and that year’s horn growth, I will set my trophy goal. I could be on an elk hunt in one state where I am looking for a 350" bull and then next week be in another state hoping to find an old, mature bull. This allows me to enjoy every hunt I go on from the less than 1% draw tag to a general deer or elk tag. I like to go on as many hunts as possible every year, so to fill my schedule up, I will have over half of my hunts be on general tags.
No one likes to talk about how many tags they have eaten, but I guess I have eaten well over 100 in the 30+ years I have been hunting. I wish I could have kept all my unfilled tags to have a cool picture for this article, but I throw my unfilled tags away each year. I have eaten some great tags as well, and a few that stand out are New Mexico where I struggled to find the giant bull I was after and I ate tags in units 13, 15, and 16D. As for eating some pretty good deer tags, they were in Wyoming region G, Colorado unit 22, and Nevada units, 061, 071, and 131. On each of those deer hunts, I found big, mature 170"+ deer, but unfortunately, I was in my record book phase and let them all walk.
In this article, you will see some of the bucks and a bull I have harvested in the last few years. These are not record book quality animals, but I really enjoyed the hunts and they are all trophies to me. The two Colorado bucks were both really old. I would have passed on them back in my record book phase, but I am glad I brought these deer back home to Montana with me. The same can be said about the Nevada bucks as they would have got a pass back in the day as well. If I was still in my record book phase, I would have eaten all four of those deer tags. The Idaho bull was in an over-the-counter zone, and this hunt was great due to the friends I got to share camp with. The bull was just icing on the cake.
It’s OK to eat tags, and it’s OK to harvest any animal that is a trophy to you. That is what I am teaching my boys, and I hope to enjoy the rest of my years hunting following the same advice I gave them. I am always trying to harvest the best animal I can find on any hunt, but filling a tag no longer dictates if my hunt is successful or not. The enjoyment of being in the outdoors is how I gauge success on all of my hunt these days.