CHIDISTER, Ark. - They call it the orange army: Droves of hunters inundating the woods, wearing hunter orange, all of them hoping for a chance at a deer of a lifetime or protein on the ground.
State highways are lined with pickup trucks, ATVs in the bed. Some are pulling campers, others toting equipment; almost all of them with a driver wearing an orange hat and vest.
The orange army is present throughout parts of the U.S. every November and December. In some places, like the gulf coastal plain of Arkansas, it's especially pronounced.
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“Opening weekend is really a holiday for us,” said Jayce Jones, a lifetime member of the White Oak Lake Hunting Club near Camden, Ark. “We bring our families down, sit around the fire, eat and joke and have a wonderful time.”
The White Oak Hunting Club is one of the older camps in Arkansas. It was established in 1952 and every year since, the scene around the camp has been similar.
A concrete blockhouse sits at the heart of the compound, where a camp cook serves lunch and dinner on a daily business. Scattered around it are a variety of structures, ranging from an old railroad boxcar to fifth-wheel campers, small house trailers and the occasional cabin.
A road course circles the blockhouse where kids spend time driving their fathers’ ATVs in an abbreviated racetrack. A skinning rack sets to the side.
“And then there’s the pavilion with a fire pit,” Jones said. “This is where all the BS and story-telling takes place, where we all gather and just enjoy each other.”
Take deer camp out of the mix and it could easily be a summer camp compound. But this is deer camp and things have pretty much played out the same way for more than 50 years.
While much of the deer hunting world has gone through transformations in the past half century, this club is steeped in tradition.
Here, change comes slow.
Traditional deer camps like these survive by a standard put in place by patriarchs. Sons hunt the way fathers and grandfathers hunted, simply because that was the standard put in place. Biology or science be damned.
The thing that has kept clubs like this alive are the restrictions they place on themselves within the camp; hunting is secondary.
Camps are clean. Families, including wives and children, are more common than just men. There is no gambling. Drinking is prohibited, although a cold beer in the vicinity of your own cabin is accepted as long as it doesn't get out of hand.
It's all very old school. Antler restrictions or age-class restrictions or any kind of quality management or trophy management are new school.
The elder statesmen still remember the old days when there were few deer. Doe were sacred animals, providing new and young deer every year.
For the patriarchs, the idea of shooting a doe remains sacrilege. The eldest is 91. Joe Wilson had his birthday this year at the camp, where he has hunted every season since 1961.
“We let kids and children shoot a doe but as far as adults are concerned, we don’t kill them,’’ Wilson said in a wavering voice while sitting on a bench outside of the camp house. “If you kill a doe, you’ve killed about three or four deer. A doe will have two or three babies, so that depletes the population.
“It was that way when I joined this club: No doe killing.”
Today’s conventional knowledge had long ago done away with that way of thinking. But Wilson’s old-school nature breeds respect among the camp.
The elders, and everyone else who calls this camp theirs, knows there are values that have come with doing it the old way. Not the least of which is showing respect for those who built the camp.
While things are changing around them, that one single tenant of respect among these hunters can't be replaced by the movement of the day.
The doe debate is rarely discussed out in the open. It's just frowned upon, although the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers do occasionally talk about quality management and the things that come with it on the periphery.
“This is the way it’s been done for as long as any of us remember,’’ said Jones, who’s hunted here his whole life as his grandfather was an original member. “We talk about it some, but really we get more out of this camp than just deer.”
Changes in management style may be wished for, but not at the expense of upsetting the patriarchs.
The younger crowd has seen the difference that Arkansas' three-point rule has made. Racked bucks that hit the cleaning pole are bigger than the ones of their youth. Taking it a step further though will just have to come in time.
Many of them have seen some of the changes erode. On the edge of the camp is a large pen structure where a brace of deer dogs were once housed. Today, it’s overgrown with brush.
“Back in the mid 60s, we’d run dogs all the time and we’d kill maybe 15 or 20 good deer the first day,’’ Wilson said. “The most we’d kill in a season would be around 40 or 45.
“We’d run dogs and I believe we had more deer then than we have now. The game and fish says we have more, but not here. If they are there, they are more nocturnal and move at night.
“But I enjoyed hearing the dogs and watching them, but they are expensive to keep.”
All of the deer hunting takes place from stands these days. There is the occasional hold-out camp nearby that will run dogs, but for the most part that tradition has slowly died.
Our morning on the deer stand here is not the war-like barrage one expects for opening day.
A steady, rhythmic, dripping rain fell through the morning. Not enough to keep most from their stands, but enough to provide an audio overload for those who did.
Dripping rain hitting dry leaves sounded like the patter of deer steps. That was followed by the occasional current of wind that shook cascades of droplets through thickets, creating what sounded like herds of deer pushing through.
It kept hunters on edge. It had to be the same for the deer. Few shots rang out. The deer on the hoof that were seen seemed to have been rushing to where they were going instead of the usual slow, milling about.
There would be no deer on the skinning rack by the end of the morning’s hunt.
This is why they call it hunting. Despite the deer-rich land, even the animals take a day off. Having a camp nearby makes it a less desperate situation. A solid roof, a bed and company of friends makes every day more special.
“I never killed big deer,’’ Wilson said in his paced and wavering voice, “but that hasn’t really been important to me. Getting together with all my neighbors and friends is more important.”
That thought is what drives a big part of the orange army.
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