As I collected my thoughts for this month’s installment of Happy Trails, the deer season had transitioned into its final phase.
For a variety of reasons I wasn’t been able to ramble around this season in the whitetail woods as often as I have in recent years or would have liked to.
But,during my limited time afield and while sitting on deer stand, I have had ample time to think about and reflect on different aspects of this much-loved passion of ours.
Now I can only speak for myself, but a deer stand can be one of my very best places for deep thinking and reflection. In fact, I have actually had business ideas and solutions to problems come to me while on deer stand enjoying the serenity of nature.
The peace and beauty of fall and winter woodlands appears to clear away the clutter in my mind and make me more creative.
Having spent the past 45 years pursuing whitetail deer, I have gained a pretty good insight into the sport of deer hunting. To say that I can be opinionated on the subject of deer hunting in general just might be an understatement, but we all have our personal opinions and biases on just about everything.
In this case, my opinions are rooted in tons of experience and many mistakes made over these many years.
Let’s look at some of the ways deer hunting has evolved over the past 45 years.
When I took my first dose of deer hunting elixir in 1970, it involved the use of a borrowed lever-action .35 Remington, including a box of borrowed bullets.
My outdoor attire consisted mostly of military surplus cotton OD pants, jacket, hat and a pair of leather non-insulated combat boots. My socks were cotton and, as I recall, only my gloves were wool.
Back in those days there was absolutely no hunting-apparel industry to speak of. There were no hunting shows to watch, and even books on the subject were few and far between.
As one might imagine, I froze my ever-loving tail off during that first outing, but afterward declared that I would definitely be back. The excitement and adventure of it all was just too captivating; I absolutely loved it, and was totally smitten.
You see, I didn’t come from a hunting family and was a little late to the party.
My first couple of deer seasons occurred while I was studying engineering at Mississippi State University and were centered on the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge just a few miles south of Starkville.
My hunting buddies and I would use just about any method to get to the woods when we had some free time, which wasn’t often. One of my classmates had a motorcycle as his primary transportation, but don’t think for a second that this slowed us down: After afternoon class, on occasions when home work was light, Austin would run by my apartment to pick me up and we would go speeding off across town and down Highway 25 on his motorcycle with rifles slung across each of our backs.
Now, as you may surmise, we had no clue how we were going to transport a deer back to town if one unwittingly stumbled into our sights, but for a couple of 22-year-old college guys that was a problem best left for later.
Can you imagine the law enforcement uproar that would occur if you tried something like that today?
As I recall, any buck with visible antler breaking the hairline was legal back then, and does could only be taken on designated days and in certain locales. A lot of the old timers would not shoot a doe if their life depended on it. This was rooted in the overall scarcity of deer in the Southeast that was only remedied across several decades by letting the females walk.
Captured whitetails were even trucked in, primarily from states up north, and released in areas of the state that had decent habitat but few resident deer.
As I have said before, back in the early days, few of us really knew anything about buck behavior, primarily due to what I call the three-step hunting process we used: “There’s a deer. It’s a buck. Boom!”
We seldom observed a buck on the hoof following step 3.
Looking back, it’s pretty sad to me. But that was the norm back then. If it was brown and had a “horn,” it was down.
One thing that was prevalent back in those days was that very little land was posted, and even if it was you could usually ask and get permission to hunt. Hunting back then was a passion that was pursued by a cadre of dedicated individuals, but it was not the huge commercial industry it has become today.
Over the years, as the commercial aspect of the sport grew and as more and more people joined the ranks, the pressure for good places to hunt and the money that followed caused more and more land to be bought or leased for hunting, and posted signs became the norm rather than the exception.
The unfortunate side of this fact of life is that to deer hunt in today’s world, one must own or lease land, be a friend or relative of someone who owns or leases land, join a hunting club, get permission to hunt posted land or hunt on one of the very nice wildlife management areas scattered around the state.
In other words, an aspiring deer hunter either has to have money or connections or both, unless you hunt a management area. And as good as the management areas are, they can only hold so many hunters safely, and one might not be easily accessible where you live.
Now let’s fast forward to 2016. Through the efforts of many dedicated professionals over the past 10 or 15 years, our overall deer population is as robust as ever, with healthy populations in most areas of the state.
And the relative mean age of our overall buck population has increased noticeably statewide. Just about every deer hunter is consistently seeing more bucks, and with larger racks than ever before.
Disturbingly though, from what I have heard, actual deer hunter numbers (as reflected by annual license sales) are slowly trending down from year-to-year. There are just so many gidgets and gadgets and activities that now compete for our free time.
This is especially true of the younger generation, and without newcomers moving up to take over for us old timers, deer hunting will slowly atrophy.
It takes mentors to introduce people to this sport that we love so much, so become a mentor. Take a son or daughter, a young friend or relative — really anyone showing interest — to the woods and teach them the ways of the whitetail and how to be safe and responsible hunters.