It’s fitting that this column will be posted on September 11, a day in which hunter or not is firmly stuck in our minds as one of great tragedy. Yet, as the dust settled on that day, I think many of us opened our eyes a little wider, saw the grass a little greener, and the sky a little bluer. Life is short and unpredictable so we must make the most of it while we are here. For deer hunters, that’s often being in the outdoors, and more importantly enjoying our passion with others.
Deer hunting is probably one of the most passionate lifestyles in America. That’s likely why it always seems to be a greatly debated topic, whether it is the middle of hunting season, or the middle of April. For most of us, we will only ever hunt in our own state. If you look at deer hunting across the country it is an amazingly diverse culture. From using man-drives in the North to running dogs in the South, the culture of deer hunting is very different. Jump on any national hunting forum, and you will often see this.
Unfortunately, most of the deer hunting culture and tradition discussions are negative. In fact, I would classify them as near arguments.
Like many things, deer hunting has evolved over time. From simply a way to survive, to the hunt for trophy deer. Even if you consider yourself a “meat hunter,” it is undeniable that you would be pretty darn excited if a giant-racked buck walked into your shooting lane. The hunting community has exploded. Though hunter numbers in some areas may be declining, and we constantly talk about retention and recruitment, the fact is deer hunting has likely outgrown the title “hobby” which many called it 50 years ago. But one thing that seems to have been fading over time is our deer hunting traditions.
I grew up in the very deer hunting-rich state of Pennsylvania. It was, and still is, in most cases, customary to have schools closed on the opening day of deer gun season, which is the first Monday after Thanksgiving. I can remember as a young kid the almost Christmas-like excitement of heading to our deer camp the day after Thanksgiving knowing for the next four to five days I would be in an atmosphere that was almost indescribable. Yes, that’s what deer camp meant to me, and many who hunted Pennsylvania whitetails. In fact, as I grew older, it became much more about being in camp with everyone and reminiscing about years past, than it did about the opening day and killing a deer. Sounds crazy, right? But for anyone who has a tradition like this, it’s the memories of campfire talks that last a lifetime, not the buck bagged.
To some it may look like a rafter of small antlers, some might even be “angry” they were shot. To the author and his family, this rafter represents memories of deer camps past that will last generations. Stories that will not only generate laughter at next year’s deer camp, but be told to the next generation of hunters.
In many states in the South, running deer dogs is something families have done for decades. I still know many groups that get together generations later to do their deer drives. For them, it’s the sound of the hound hitting a fresh scent trail. Though many have departed from this method of hunting, and even oppose it, the tradition still means something. Sure, it may not be the way most want to manage deer herds, and it may even frustrate many surrounding neighbors who want to simply hunt naturally moving deer from fixed stands. But the fact is, deer hunting traditions have been the glue that has created the lifestyle we now call deer hunting.
Where I grew up putting out corn or supplemental feed was “cheating.” No one did it, and if you did you were simply a “poacher!” But many wouldn’t hunt without it. In Kansas, where some of the biggest bucks are produced every year, it is nothing to see hunters with truckloads of shelled corn in front of their stand … it’s their deer hunting culture. Hunters in Pennsylvania may call it “cheating,” but then again they can legally spotlight in Pennsylvania for “scouting purposes.” Some states you can’t even purposely point your headlights at a deer! It’s the culture you were raised in that signals a feeling of right or wrong. Just because you don’t do it, does not mean that it is wrong. In the end, the diverse hunting styles across America is what makes it unique, and it’s what makes us a strong, united force for the future ahead.So this season, think about your past hunting traditions. Maybe it’s going to a deer camp in the “Big Woods,” or joining up with a bunch of friends to run deer dogs. These are the memories that will last much longer than the vision of a split-second trigger pull to harvest a deer. It’s time for the next generation to embrace the local hunting heritage, not what is perceived nationally as the acceptable manner to pursue white-tailed deer. In the end, it’s the deer hunting traditions that will keep our lifestyle alive.