The Rapid and Radical Evolution of Deer Hunting

The Rapid and Radical Evolution of Deer Hunting

When Greg Miller first hunted whitetails with his dad and fellow Millers in November 1964, they entered northern Wisconsin’s big woods each dawn with more hope than strategy and more motivation than planning.

Wearing a red coat and carrying a Model 94 in .32 Special, Miller shared his clan’s intense excitement for deer season. They considered that nine-day season the “big leagues” of Wisconsin hunting. Looking back, though, Miller concedes they didn't know much about their quarry and the forest beyond what they'd gleaned from previous November gun seasons.

“There was no preseason scouting or offseason shed hunting back then,” said Miller, a longtime deer-hunting writer, author, and TV host. “It was just deer hunting. You showed up the night or day before the opener, walked in before daylight, planted your ass where you could see a ways, and hoped a buck came by. If none did, maybe you moved at midday. I loved it. I was 12 during my first deer hunt, and I’ll never forget my dad putting me in my spot and walking away. It was so much more exciting than chasing rabbits.”

Miller said deer hunters in the mid-1960s paid attention to fresh rubs, tracks, scrapes, and droppings. None, however, categorized scrapes, unraveled rub lines, or tried matching bucks to their “core areas” through shed antlers found in spring. When gun season opened each November, most hunters relied on three ground-based tactics: drives, trail-watching, and still-hunting—a slow, patient, watchful sneak.

Fellow Wisconsinite Keith McCaffery said deer hunting changed little from his first hunt in the late 1940s all the way through the 1970s. He said most deer hunters were trail-watchers. The McCafferys sat faithfully atop stumps or stools until forced to thaw frozen feet, and then blindly bumped deer past friends, family, or neighbors who had more grit, warmer boots, or better circulation.

After gathering for lunch, the McCafferys and their friends organized into “two, facing skirmish lines” just off dirt roads and logging trails. Once aligned, they drove all deer caught in between, sometimes shooting toward each other in the process. Debates over deer drive tactics were fairly simple: Should the drivers stay mum or mimic “snow turkeys” by hooting and hollering like spring gobblers while advancing in evenly spaced ranks?

The Perfect Storm Miller, McCaffery, and eight other veteran deer hunters interviewed for this article think deer hunting across whitetail country matched the above descriptions for much of the mid-1900s. Matt Knox, Virginia’s statewide deer project coordinator, said about the only thing different in the Deep South was that most people hunted deer with hounds. He grew up assuming everyone hunted in groups and fired 00 buckshot from 12-gauge shotguns with splintered stocks held together with tape.

But deer hunting changed rapidly from the late 1970s through the 1980s. Booming deer herds spurred offseasons in which hunters packed seminars, watched whitetail hunting videos, subscribed to three or more deer hunting magazines, scouted farms and forests winter through spring, and fantasized about barrel-chested bucks in far-off Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

The continent’s bountiful whitetails seemingly synchronized their populations to outpace technological marvels like compound bows, aluminum arrows, glare-free riflescopes, replaceable-blade broadheads, head-to-toe warm clothing, and aircraft-grade aluminum treestands that held tree hunters securely. Hunters in the early 1990s stood mesmerized at deer shows, watching college girls in clinging camo go up and down 16-foot telephone poles at the Loggy Bayou booth, their petite boots strapped into sit-and-stand climbing treestands.

Surveys by Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources documented substantial shifts in hunting tactics from 1983 to 2015. Ground-based stand-sitting declined from 40% to 26% of hunting activity in those years, while treestand-sitters increased from 18% to 52%. Solo still-hunting declined from 18% to 12%, and group drives declined from 24% to 10%.

How could that be? During the early 1970s, legendary bowhunter Fred Bear scoffed when asked if climbing a tree or clacking together antlers would help hunters kill more deer. But by the early 1990s, deer hunters had endless varieties of calls, grunt tubes, scents, scent-drippers, rattle bags, tree umbrellas, string-trackers, and clock-connected threads to reveal when deer (or a squirrel?) walked game trails. And just when technology seemed exhausted, carbon arrows, laser rangefinders, pop-up blinds, deer decoys, brick-sized GPS units, and motion-activated trail cameras soon followed in the mid-1990s.

Meanwhile, deer superabundance in many regions coaxed hunters by the early 1990s to start passing up yearling bucks. These enlightened hunters encouraged neighbors to do likewise, hoping those basket-racked deer would live longer so their antlers could prosper. Hunters also bought more property, hired hunting and habitat consultants, established deer sanctuaries, followed forestry-management prescriptions, and planted seasonal and perennial food plots. Still other hunters supplied supplemental foods and minerals year-round, spreading it by hand, trough, or timer-activated applicators.

They agreed that if they gave deer quality food, water, and cover that whitetails would not just come; they’d stay. And to capitalize on “their deer” and sustain numbers and quality, hunters learned everything they could about them.

Rather than just showing up with the gang on opening day, serious hunters worked year-round to engineer consistent results. They scouted relentlessly and planned strategically. They catalogued trail-cam photos, named every big buck they photographed, and kept everything secret from potential competitors.

Landowners also drove tractors and wielded chainsaws to reroute deer trails, cleared paths for stealthy entries and exits to treestands, and landscaped killer food plots or bait sites to better ensure the first crack at the biggest bucks come fall.

Revealing the Secrets Looking back from 2021, it seems obvious that those three factors—booming deer herds, high-tech gear, and grassroots deer management—inadvertently combined forces to squelch small-game hunting while making whitetailed deer the dominant force in modern hunting. But there to document the surge and fire its booster rockets were trail cameras, says Mike Tonkovich, deer program administrator at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

“Before trail cameras, a dark woods kept its secrets,” Tonkovich said. “If you could use a spotlight, you saw what stepped out at night, but you still knew little about when and what deer did inside the woods during shooting hours. Trail cameras watch the woods from many angles 24-7, year-round. They not only reveal the presence of giant bucks, but when and where they eat, bed, and travel. Once people discovered those secrets, even novice hunters knew there’s only one way to get them: Get there first and go in alone.”

In other words, go bowhunting. “Archery season is the first deer season to open each fall, so it has a big flashing neon sign above it,” Tonkovich said. “Compound bows and crossbows made bowhunting more accessible, but if we opened a cannon season before archery season this fall, everyone would be out there with cannons first.

“But trail cameras and bowhunting capitalize on a cascade of recent changes, like shrinking property size and access restrictions,” Tonkovich continued. “You can’t hunt some small properties with firearms, but you can hunt them more strategically with a bow by improving the habit and monitoring deer activity.”

Al Hofacker is uncertain he’s unlocked many deer hunting secrets on his 400 acres of forest in northeastern Wisconsin. In fact, Hofacker’s trail cam photos mostly verify what his deer activity graphs were long showing: steady declines in daytime deer activity from September through November’s gun-season opener.

“By the time gun season opens, 96% of my deer photos are getting taken at night,” Hofacker said. “That’s a big problem for deer hunters who grew up hunting overabundant herds in the 1980s and ’90s. They got spoiled. They sat in one place year after year, shot their one deer, and kept making their stand increasingly comfortable. Their elevated shooting houses are so nice and warm that they can practically stay up there all nine days of the gun season, eating and sleeping, and never come down.”

Hofacker said sitting immobile dawn to dusk worked fine until nearly every hunter occupied similar luxury boxes, or bought high-tech clothes, and air-activated hand-, toe-, and body-warmers. As hunters abandoned drives, ceased still-hunting, and terminated routine body-warming walkabouts, deer activity plummeted during gun season, no matter how large the herd.

“The biggest complaint we hear at public forums is that they’re not seeing deer,” Hofacker said. “But that doesn’t mean deer aren’t there. It might just mean they’re hunkered down, waiting for everyone to go home, which doesn’t take long anymore. A big change I’ve seen in recent years is that most gun hunters try hard opening day, but head home after lunch on Sunday and never come back till next year.”

Neil Dougherty, president of North Country Whitetails in northwestern New York, consults with landowners to improve their properties for deer and deer hunting. Dougherty estimates he’s put 400,000 acres under his boots the past 20-plus years and tries to keep his clients afield throughout deer season. He also estimates his clients spend 95% of their hunting time in treestands, and that 60% of those stands overlook food plots. Further, he figures 30% to 40% of their success depends on entering and departing their stands unseen and unscented.

Even so, Dougherty said a factor he can’t control usually hurts his once-favorite time to hunt. “It’s gotten tough to kill a big deer outside of the rut,” he said. “Sitting over a food plot around Christmas used to be a good bet. But it’s been so warm in recent years that bucks don’t burn off enough body fat. They go into late December in good shape and aren’t forced to risk eating in daylight. When they have very little kidney fat and the temperatures stay below zero for days, I’d happily give up the rut for late-season hunts.”

Land & Lifestyles About 500 miles to the west, Doug Duren sees different challenges on his family’s 400 acres of woodlots and farm fields in Wisconsin’s Richland County. “This is complex stuff,” he said. “I notice a possessiveness I don’t remember from my early days. It’s more competitive. If you get a nice buck, it’s like you took it from your neighbor.”

Duren said hunting today is the primary purpose of many privately owned woodlands. In contrast, hunting used to be secondary, “something else farmers did with their land.” The difference is the growing dominance of absentee landowners.

“About 60% of Richland County’s landowners don’t live here,” Duren said. “They live in Madison, Milwaukee, or Illinois and they come here just to hunt. They paid $4,500 an acre for their recreational land, they want to see deer, and they seldom shoot more than one. I get all that, but it creates challenges for farmers who are still raising crops, feeding livestock, or milking dairy cows.”

Duren said browsing deer didn’t damage many crops or much habitat in the early 1970s because they were less abundant. Back then, four hunters had to buy individual buck licenses and then apply jointly for a “party tag” to shoot one doe.

“Now it’s just the opposite,” Duren said. “Each hunter in Richland County gets four antlerless tags for each buck-only license—gun or bow—they buy. That sounds like a lot, but we still won’t control the herd. When the land holds too many deer, hunters get choosy. They wait 'til they see a buck they like and then shoot it and go home. No matter how many tags you give them, most people never fill more than one.”

Even so, Duren doesn’t view absentee landowners as the root of his region’s challenges. “We all have different backgrounds and perspectives, but many of us share some common goals and concerns,” he said. “If deer hunting were a yardstick, some landowners would see 30 inches for hunting and 6 inches for conservation. I see it as 6 inches for hunting and 30 inches for conservation. We both know our land isn’t just about hunting deer and cutting firewood. That gives us a place to start talking. We need to find ways to manage our resources to meet bigger conservation-based goals.”

Matt Ross, director of conservation for the National Deer Association, sees potential for narrowing such gaps. He thinks deer hunters, as a group, are better informed than ever thanks to social media, traditional media outlets, and new media like podcasts, digital publishing, and YouTube shows.

“It might seem like we’re all the Jetsons and living in the future, but we all like being outdoors, getting away from the noise in life, and connecting with friends and families,” Ross said. “One great way to do those things is to work together on the land, improve its habitat, and share your success with friends, family, and neighbors. Deer hunting still gives purpose to all those things year-round; not just during gun season.”

Creating Community Miller, too, enjoys deer hunting as much as ever as he nears 70, especially when it involves friends, family, and new deer hunting challenges.

“I sound like a grumpy old guy, but I’m not sure many people today are truly expert deer hunters,” Miller said. “What you often see are people who expertly create situations for killing big deer, without really understanding deer. The bigger the herd, the more 150-class bucks in the herd, and the more they move past your stands, the more 150-class bucks you’ll kill. All those steps require work, but they won’t make you an expert hunter. Situations you create alone don’t travel well, especially on do-it-yourself out-of-state hunts.”

Dr. Grant Woods, owner and creator of “Growing Deer-TV” and The Proving Grounds in southwestern Missouri, said he strives to make deer hunting a social activity, even if the hunt itself is usually solitary.

“The best part of deer hunting has always been the planning, the conversations afterward, and helping the critter and the species thrive,” Woods said. “For me, it all boils down to a sense of belonging. You can’t buy property where generations of people have run hounds for deer and expect them to quit running hounds. We don’t need to create tension between bowhunters, crossbow hunters, or big-buck hunters.

“We have to keep track of our identity. We should all be good citizens, good parents, and good spouses,” Woods continued. “If killing a big buck defines your identity, you’ll probably have issues no matter when or where you hunt.”

Feature image via Greg Miller in 1964.

Sign In or Create a Free Account

Access the newest seasons of MeatEater, save content, and join in discussions with the Crew and others in the MeatEater community.
Save this article