Some people may wonder why anyone would want to hunt, especially medium game like deer. Our society is virtually pre-occupied with providing entertainment–film, golf, Netflix, professional sports, etc. Why do thousands of folks head out into the woods in November and December to freeze their butts and fingers off? Our ancestors had a clear and compelling reason to hunt–to make it through the winter. We don’t.
I am confining myself to discussion of hunting Whitetail Deer–overwhelmingly the most important game species on this continent. Though I do hunt rabbits, squirrels, and doves, I consider this a different kind of hunting, one I will address at another time.
I’ve alway been fascinated by firearms, and I am pretty open minded when it comes to the kind, though I have a strongly nostalgic heart. If it’s made of steel and wood and uses combustion to propel a projectile, I like it. But change is what keeps something interesting, and after all, firearms are non-living. They are remarkable, in fact, for their durability and longevity. Any well-made firearm, if kept clean and oiled, will last almost indefinitely, easily outliving their makers and generations of owners. I have more than few firearms made in the nineteenth century which are still in fine-working condition, and they are some of my favorites. This constancy invites boredom, though. This is why most people that are fascinated with firearms are constantly messing with them, modifying them, hand-loading ammunition for them. It’s all rooted in the fact that we are alive while firearms are not. But deer…they are alive, too, well, at least until we make them dead.
Some people become quite obsessed with extracting every last bit of accuracy out of a given rifle, in a vain (in my opinion) attempt to give paper some thrill. “Only Accurate rifles are interesting” Townsend Whelen was reputed to say. But for me accuracy became boring, too. I am just not so impressed by achieving tight little groups on paper. I like it for sure, but the larger reality is that this sort of thing is very artificial. It really doesn’t take much skill to get an inherently accurate rifle, put some glass on it, prepare very exacting ammunition, and then shoot off a heavy, bagged bench into a stationary target. This sort of contest is really a matter of who is willing to commit the greatest amount of time and resources to the endeavor. I think it far more interesting and challenging to be able to hit a living, reacting, sensory target under adverse conditions. Our brain goes up against their superior senses; our weapon goes up against their superior speed, concealment, and agility in a forest-wide drama that plays out every year.
Deer are fascinating animals, like most large mammals. As fascinating as I find cattle and all the other domestic animals, I have nearly boundless admiration for deer, which make their livings on the margins, without the direct assistance of man. In fact, they are among the few animals that get on in spite of our best efforts to eat them. The Native Americans, with all their intelligence and skill, never managed to bring deer populations down using bows and arrows. It took white man, with our firearms, to get the upper hand.
Around WWII in most of the United States Whitetail Deer populations became very low; uncontrolled hunting brought them nearly to extinction like the buffalo. So state governments began to regulate hunting to limit the destruction we could bring to deer, and with changes that came to agriculture post-war, deer populations not only rebounded, they exploded. My grandfather, father, and I were all born in Chicago. When my father was was a child in the early 1950s his father took the family to Wisconsin on a summertime mission “to see a deer” almost certainly prompted by the movie Bambi. They were unsuccessful despite much driving around in woods of Southern Wisconsin. By the time I was a child in the late 1980s, deer were overpopulating the Chicago Forest Preserves, and we watched groups of them from my high school’s grandstand.
Ironically, the decline in the use of pastures and hayfields that I routinely decry was a tremendous boon to deer, much like dumpsters and trashcans have been a great boon to coon and squirrel kind. It’s almost as if deer began to exploit the spaces vacated by sheep and cattle. As the fences were ripped out, and the beans and corn planted, tremendous food resources were created for deer. Marginal lands that were too rugged for tillage were abandoned and reverted to woodlands, a land use pattern initiated by the Conservation Reserve Program, providing ideal early succession woodland deer habitat. Deer are not truly wild anymore. They are semi-domesticated to my thinking. Their populations would be a fraction of what they are without us, but we don’t fence them in, and they flee from us.
Nowadays Whitetails positively require control, and there are a few ways to accomplish this. I am confident in asserting that re-introuduction of predators like Cougars and Wolves will not be popular, so that leaves State governments hiring professional hunters to bag thousands of them or recruiting a legion of amateur hunters to bag a few, charging each of them a small fee for the privilege of doing so (hunting licenses, deer tags, etc.). Economically speaking, the latter method is greatly preferable. Deer hunting keeps balance, while also providing the hunter with a very high-quality red meat.
So, to summarize, I deer hunt for a few reasons:
- To provide a non-boring and challenging thing to do with firearms, to appreciate time in the woods
- To contribute to deer population control efforts, supporting state wildlife programs
- To furnish alternative red meat for the table.