For some hunters the opening day of deer gun season is more than just a hunt, it is a tradition, a time to spend with families and friends, an event that goes far beyond the mere act of hunting. It’s a time to see old friends, some you might only see during deer season; it is companionship and camaraderie, tradition and reaffirmation of outdoor values.
Not much may change from year-to-year, but when viewed as dozens of one-day events going back for decades, the changes are more evident. Things like the weather, recent logging, derechos or ice storms, and nearby construction, are pretty conspicuous, but changes in habitat through succession, sprawl and development, and gradual changes in hunting methods, tools and implements are more subtle.
For instance, how many people use smoothbore shotguns loaded with Foster-style slugs, using the front bead or ventilated rib as your sight? Not many, but 40-30 years ago that was the norm.
Old hunters pass away or give up the sport, and are replaced by newer generations with different values and ideas. Some old habits may persist – a favorite old hat, a vest or gun, or hunting location, but if you look at the big picture, not much really remains the same.
As I pondered this, I realized that there really isn’t much that I use now that dates from the “old days.” The old clothes, deer stands, and even the trees are gone, lost to time and wear. Remember check stations? However, some old things carry on: a vest, some old binoculars and a favorite knife. Everything else is relatively new.
For our group, opening morning was pretty abysmal this year. It was perhaps the first time in decades that we struck out as a group, that the meat pole went empty. The consensus was that local clear-cutting upset the deer travel patterns in our area, and that fewer hunters meant that the deer were not moving as much.
Personally I heard fewer shots. In years past, the opening morning of deer gun season sounded like a war zone. The shots I heard this year tended to be just single shots, not the boom, boom, boom of three shots in a row, or more, from several years ago.
Perhaps the sound of fewer shots is because hunters are using more accurate hunting implements – rifled shotgun barrels, straight-walled cartridge rifles, or in-line muzzle-loading rifles versus smooth-bore shotguns with traditional rifled slugs. Then again, at $3 to $4 per saboted slug versus $3 to $4 for a box of five traditional Foster-styled slugs, who can afford to blast away?
Then again, there are just fewer hunters in the woods, with more hunters passing on gun season in favor of bow hunting. The numbers bear this out: According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife in 1977, the deer gun kill accounted for just over 90 percent of the total deer harvest, and as recently as the mid-1990s, 75 percent of the deer harvest took place during the deer gun season. Last year the deer gun season accounted for a little less than 40 percent of the total kill. More deer are killed during bow season now.
The harvest is more spread out, and hunting styles have changed – there are fewer drives and not so many still hunters, more people are hunting strictly from stands and blinds or over feeders and corn piles.
More and more places are off limits except for exclusive leases, and sportsmen are possibly being more selective, passing on does, yearlings and smaller bucks. Plus the fact is you just can’t have a record harvest every year.
One thing for sure, it ain’t like it used to be, but as we discussed that afternoon, despite our lack of hunting success, there weren’t many places we would rather be than spending time together pursuing Ohio’s white-tailed deer.
Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org