By Nick Simonson
While election night and its aftermath continue to underscore the deep divide that runs through the middle of this country’s populace, one tradition exists and is growing and improving in a manner that unites all hunters from the west coast to the great plains to the southeast. According to Kip Adams, Director of Conservation for the Quality Deer Management Association, deer hunting in the United States is at an apex, and more and more Americans are taking to the field. From those late-onset hunters just starting out in their twenties and thirties, to those looking to make sure they’ve got some meat in the freezer, to those 100-year old sportsmen with 80 years in the stand under their belts, deer hunting is taking off and unifying those of different backgrounds.
“We are poised for an incredible deer season across the whitetail’s range this fall,” Adams predicts.
As deer hunting seasons open across the upper Midwest and roll out into the southern states, Adams expects to see the continued increase in hunter participation which has been anecdotally reported by agencies and organizations since the onset of the Covid-19 health crisis. He is of the opinion that this is driven by three factors: the pandemic and people’s rediscovered need to be outside, the increase in deer hunting opportunities available to hunters around the nation, and the increasing quality of deer herds throughout the nation.
In an observation that has echoed the increase in spring turkey tags being issued throughout the country, and the uptick in anglers over the summer, QDMA has been observing a surge of hunters of all stripes – young, older than average novices, veterans, inactive and locavores – taking to the field this fall. Adams notes the headline-grabbing shortages of beef and pork in the spring of 2020 may also be spurring many to find a way to source protein for themselves, and venison is a healthy and interactive choice. In many states’ archery seasons, the data is already showing more time afield for deer hunters and more success.
“Many states’ early harvest numbers already are showing an increased harvest and we have very strong deer herds across the U.S.,” Adams relates, “partly because of Covid and partly because of a resurgence of interest, we have a record number of deer hunters out there this fall, so I think there’s going to be some great seasons, and a lot of venison is going to hit the freezer this year,” he continues.
A relatively mild winter for much of the country, increased public involvement in agency deer management, and good management practices have helped increase deer herds throughout the U.S. That in turn is providing a deeper base for hunters to participate in the pastime of deer hunting in those states that offer over-the-counter tags, and in places like North Dakota which operate on a lottery system, with the latter adding nearly 15,000 tags for its firearms deer season since 2017.
“We’re seeing increases across the board, there’s no real state or region of the country that has exceptionally high numbers compared to the past, but what we have been seeing is an increase in deer numbers in many places,” Adams explains of the nationwide upward trend.
In addition to healthier, larger herds providing more opportunities, the quality of deer is increasing too. Nationwide, hunters are united in their observation of bigger mature bucks and does in the field, a trend spurred through grassroots efforts of hunters like those who are members of QDMA and other local and national conservation groups. While 20 states have antler point restrictions in place to protect younger bucks, Adams suggests that those – and a general trend to pass on younger deer – come through the efforts of hunters interacting with their agencies to spur change in deer management, and by living that mantra in the field and being selective about the deer they harvest. Through data collected in the 2020 QDMA Whitetail Report from seasons running from 2001 to the fall and winter of 2018-2019, the organization has tracked a 16 percent increase in the number of mature bucks (deemed 3.5 years or older) in the total national harvest, while yearling bucks in the tally have dropped by about 18 percent.
“What we’re seeing now is just unbelievable advances in the age structure, today there are more bucks killed that are at least three-and-a-half years old than those that are just one-and-a-half,” “hunters today are shooting way more bucks that are three or four or five, that are fully mature deer that are able to express their genetic potential from both a body growth and an antler growth standpoint, so it’s a pretty good day to be hunting,” he finishes.
So, while politically the people of the country are divided and taking sides in what will likely be a long-contested election, deer hunting is bringing more constituents under its tent. Through the provision of opportunities to get outdoors and connect with the hunting experience and the increase in herd sizes and that of the animals themselves, hunters of all stripes are finding themselves united regardless of background and coming together under the season’s blaze orange banner from coast to coast.