Monday, November 30, 2009

Deer hunting

Rifle deer season opened this morning in Pennsylvania, a really big deal around here. For me, it means the dogs don’t get a walk in the morning for the next few days and I will be living with wild animals in the cabin until it’s safe for us all to take an early morning walk again. Rifle deer season lasts two weeks but usually the woods are much depleted of hunters after three days. Deer season also means I will be putting up with hunters driving up the lane at 5:30 a.m. and listening to the dogs howl in outrage about that. That’s the part I can do without. The part I look forward to is the hope that at least one of the hunters in my family will get a deer and then give me a bit of the venison.

In Pennsylvania, there’s a whole hunting culture geared around going to "deer camp," or "beer camp" as I’ve heard more than a few deer widows grouse about it. The season frequently involves hunters banding together to purchase land and build a shack, excuse me, a "hunting cabin," up in the mountains somewhere. They go up there and may or may not kill deer, depending on the camp. Some camps hunt hard; others really are more like beer camp. Oftentimes hunters ignore the deer trophies wandering around in the nearby cornfields, their heads weighted down with large racks. They wouldn’t have to leave home for a week to hunt one of those, you see.

Why is that, I’ve always wondered? Why the whole deer camp extravaganza when there’s plenty of deer getting fat in the fields? Apparently, the answer today is mostly one of perception from the past. Fifty years ago and more, deer in PA were rather confined to the mountains. The deer were over-hunted until early in the 20th Century when states took over management of wildlife. Before that, many states allowed hunters to take as many deer wildlife as they wanted. I’ve read articles where before licensed hunting, at least some hunters bagged more than 100 deer in a season. After around 1916 or so, hunting was licensed and the numbers of deer any one person could kill became regulated.

Deer were uncommon before hunting was regulated. I’ve read stories that you could walk all day and never see a track, let alone a deer. Even my father remembers rarely seeing deer in fields, and he’s lived on the same farm all his life. Hunters pretty much had to go to the mountains to find deer at all. And hunters back then came home with the usual hunting stories. Kids, mostly boys, could hardly wait until they were old enough to join their elders at deer camp for the hunting and festivities. That hasn’t changed, though restricting the number of deer killed has vastly increased the number of them.

Today, deer seem to prefer life around fields where they can browse on corn or apples. Apparently surviving on forest undergrowth and acorns is a tougher go. With the greater numbers of deer that are around today, deer congregate where the living is easier, and that seems to be more around fields than in the mountains. But of course, going to the neighbor’s field to hunt deer isn’t as exciting as a week up at deer camp. That part sure hasn’t changed.


Woodswalker said...

I'm sure that the allure of the hunting camp is that it's a place where the boys can be boys and revisit their primordial essence, where nobody tries to put curtains on the windows and everyone gets to pee in the woods.

I don't disapprove of responsible deer-hunting, but I'm eager for the season to be over, since most of my favorite hikes are through hunting country.

Pablo said...

That's pretty much the story where I am too, though my woods are next to a hundred acre field, so there are lots of deer stands in the trees around it, and I'm sure someone sets up something in my forest too.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Deer camp isn't so much about hunting as tradition—I hesitate to call it a "rite of passage" but that's what it is if you're a young man attending your first deer camp. It says you've passed some milestone in maturity and responsibility; you're not a full-fledged member, but you're being considered as a possible candidate.

Deer have always been more "edge" creatures than "deep woods" animals. In truth, a mature forest will never be as good a hunting locale as cornfield bordering a woodlot. But at deer camp you hunt worth and connection; you join something greater than yourself, which takes part within a ceremony older than recorded time.

There are, indeed, "deer camps" and "beer camps" and in spite of surface similarities, they're about as far apart as two things can be.

Cathy said...

Lol on the beer camp part. I heard a few people say that some these hunters are somewhat or drunk when they go out to hunt.

One my patron owns a store that sells beer. he told me last year he does make a good profit when hunting season comes.

But as always, I'll be glad when it's over. it easy creepy to travel rt 739 and seeing hunters walking about in the woods.

Carolyn H said...

Woodswalker: So true that few deer camps have curtains on the windows. At least I can still hike on Sundays over the next two weeks. So far, hunting still isn't permitted then.

Carolyn H.

Carolyn H said...

Griz: Deer seem as though they should be "edge" creatures, and I have every reason to believe that is true. What I can't quite reconcile, though, are the old stories, even immortalized in books (PA Deer and their Horns, originally published in 1915), not just in my father's memories, that talk about how uncommonly deer used to be seen in fields in PA. You had to go to mountains to find them. That apparent fact (or perception) helped create the whole mountain deer camp tradition in PA. Today, the deer prefer the fields, and those are the really big deer.

Carolyn H.

Carolyn H said...

Cathy: i'm not surprised to hear that beer camp hunters are not always entirely sober. Down here, where hunters usually are in the fields and not staying at a camp, I very rarely see that. It's just the added activity around the cabin and the barking dogs that I have to put up with.

Carolyn H.

Carolyn H said...

Pablo: More and more hunters are getting the message that big deer come out of cornfields and apple orchards. Big, fat deer. So I'm seeing more tree stands along hedge rows. I think they miss going to deer camp, though.

Carolyn H.