History of Deer Hunting

The following information on the history of deer hunting in the United States comes from Chapter 1 of How to Hunt Deer by Edward A. Freeman. How to Hunt Deer is also available to purchase in print.

Deer are well distributed over the world, but the Virginia deer is a distinct species that is native to America. This fact, together with the American principle of freedom to own arms and the freedom to hunt, makes the hunting of these animals an American institution.

Previous to the discovery of this country, deer, as well as all other game, were the property of the landowning nobility and the right to hunt was denied the common man. This was all changed with the settling of America. Deer were plentiful in this new land and belonged to the man who could bag them. Here the hunting of deer ceased to be a sport and became a serious business, often of almost life-and-death importance to the early settlers.

In the struggle for existence, these animals played an important role and the development of this country would not have advanced as rapidly as it did without the aid of the meat and skins that they supplied.

As the country became more thickly settled and the practice of animal husbandry became general, the importance of venison as a food became less. This did little to ease the hunting pressure on the deer herds because there was still a demand for such a choice food and because an increasing number of people, hunting on a sport basis, were soon competing with the market hunters. This unrestricted hunting resulted in depleting the herds so that deer became practically nonexistent in the more heavily populated areas.

Foresighted men saw the need of protecting these deer for future generations and gradually the different states assumed control and undertook the management of the deer herds.

Restrictions were very liberal at first, but even so, there was opposition to them by many hunters. This opposition to restrictions is still held by many shortsighted people at the present time, but without these controls, deer hunting as we know it would not be available to the general public as it is today.

With the deer population in its present healthy condition, the hunter has an opportunity to enjoy this sport at its best at a cost that almost anyone can afford.

Some years ago, I saw statistics that showed that it cost, on an average, a little over a hundred dollars to bag a deer. These figures were based on the amount of money spent by hunters and on the number of deer killed. Probably these figures are considerably higher at the present time, due to inflated prices. This does not mean that every man that shoots a deer must spend this amount of money on the hunt. Those who hunt and fail to bag a deer outnumber those who are lucky enough, or who have sufficient hunting intelligence, to be successful in their hunting efforts, so that average costs do not mean much to those who kill their deer.

Travel expense is one item which determines the cost of a hunting trip. The man who lives in a state where the deer hunting territory is near his home does not need to pay as much as the man who must travel many miles in order to hunt. I have often shot deer at almost no cost except for my license. I have lived in a farming country where deer were plentiful and easy to find, after I had learned their habits. I have a rifle that I paid nine dollars for (with a box of cartridges thrown in) and I have often killed my deer in an afternoon of hunting. Others have traveled many miles from other states, have stayed at some of the better hunting camps at a cost of more than a hundred dollars a week, and have returned to their homes empty-handed or have paid some poacher up to seventy-five dollars for a deer. The cost of deer hunting can be almost any amount that a man wants to spend. The enjoyment is the same to a real sportsman, regardless of the cost.

In the days of the Indians, the white-tailed deer were found in practically all of what is now the United States east of the Mississippi River as well as in some sections of the west. According to available records, these deer were not concentrated in any one area, but were spread over the entire range. Their actual number was probably less than it is today. The forest conditions at that time were not favorable to large concentrations of deer. They are “edge” or “fringe” dwellers rather than virgin-forest animals. The food conditions are best where the forest and open areas meet, and food conditions determine the size of the local herd.

At one time I was able to spend some time in an area where the forest conditions were practically the same as they were in the days of the Indians. It was an area of virgin timber that had never seen an axe. The deer were around the natural clearings that were made by “burns” and wind storms and I could travel for miles through the untouched areas without seeing as much as a track of the animals.

The clearing of the forests of the United States has made some of the areas nearly ideal for the welfare of deer, while in others, clean cutting and thick settling by men have driven the deer out. Deer are very adaptable to different food and range conditions, but they must have food and shelter in order to survive. In most sections man has done more harm than good.

They have an amazing vitality and are apparently immune to many of the diseases and parasites that are detrimental to most domestic animals. Practically all of their natural enemies have been controlled and man is their most serious menace. With the control of man’s depredations and with their ability to adapt themselves to quite heavily populated agriculture areas, the deer herds have been able to increase to the point where, in some cases, they have become a nuisance because of the damage that they do to agriculture projects. This damage is largely offset by the revenue that their presence brings into such an area by the sportsmen.

The sport of deer hunting has been commercialized to a great extent. This is true of many sports. Deer hunters help support many of our industries and their dollars play an important part in the financial picture of our country. Clothing manufacturers have developed special clothing and shoe factories make special footwear for hunters. Arms and ammunition factories would need to curtail production drastically between wars if it were not for the sportsmen’s orders. The development of better hunting guns has aided in the development of better military guns. Sporting camps dot the hunting country and are largely supported by the deer hunter’s dollars. The states themselves have placed a price tag on deer in the form of a hunting license. This tax is supposed to defray the cost of game management.

On the whole the different states have done a good job in managing the deer herds and these herds are today in better condition than at any other time since the Indians. What the future holds is something that only time will tell.

At the present time we have an abundance of deer in the major hunting areas. The only serious threat to their well-being is that overpopulation might bring on some disease or that lack of food might cause a serious reduction of the herds. All things in nature must balance and if the deer population becomes too large, nature will call a halt in one way or another. It is up to the states to see that this natural balance is maintained and the herds are kept within their natural limits. The only way to do this, now that most of their natural enemies have been controlled, is to permit an annual kill that will equal the annual increase.

In their efforts to protect the deer herds, the different states have enacted different laws, but these laws are similar in that they all permit a short open season and they impose a definite bag limit. Some of these restrictions were adopted on an experimental basis and have never been revised. Some of these have proved sound while others are of doubtful value, due in part to the lack of definite biological knowledge of the animals. I have always been doubtful of the value of the so-called “buck law” that has been used by several states over the years. Here in Maine, we allow the taking of one deer of any size or sex and our herd has prospered. In at least one other state, the herd has increased, apparently at the expense of the individual deer’s size and vitality.

Most of these laws are in the interest of conservation and sportsmanship. The least sporting methods of deer hunting are usually banned by law, not entirely because they are not sporting, but because they are the most successful and therefore the most detrimental to the efforts of maintaining the deer population and to continued hunting.

Night hunting, probably the most successful method of taking deer, was one of the first to be banned. My first experience with this type of hunting occurred when I was sixteen. I was working on a small construction project in the deep woods of one of the more popular deer hunting regions. I do not know what the law was at that time, but it was the custom to supplement the commissary with deer meat whenever possible. We had no regular hunter as some of the camps had, but one of the men had made a salt lick a short distance from camp and, as he worked all day, the only time that he could visit the lick was at night. I went with him one night when he killed a deer. We were equipped with a miner’s acetylene lamp and a .45-90 rifle. We waited on a platform in a tree until a deer showed up and then he shot the animal. There was no pretense of sport in the killing. It was simply the killing of an animal for its meat in the surest and easiest way.

Since then I have seen many refinements added to this type of hunting. The acetylene lamp has been replaced by the electric spotlight. The tree platform has been replaced by the mobile, cushioned seat of a car and the old .45-90 is only a relic beside the guns of today. Only the poor bewildered deer is the same as it stands in the light, waiting to be butchered.

The use of dogs as an aid to deer hunting, while permitted in some areas, is forbidden in most states. Here in Maine, the use of dogs has been outlawed for a long time and as a result I have had little experience with this type of hunting. We have a few poachers who have deer dogs and who use them occasionally, but as the penalty is usually death to the dog and a fine to the owner, no man who values a dog will use him for this purpose.

I have watched a few of these dogs in action and I can see where there would be a certain amount of sport in this type of hunting, if it were legal and if the dogs were properly trained. Slow-trailing dogs that do not drive the deer out of the country would seem to be the best deer dogs. The deer circle ahead of these slow dogs and the sport would be similar to fox hunting. Most every one will admit that fox hunting is considered a good sport.

I knew of one poacher who owned two dogs that he had trained to hunt deer. They were very fast dogs and they were trained to drive deer to the man’s house where he waited to shoot them. This man’s boys would take the dogs by a circular route to a point some distance from the house and then turn them loose. If there was a deer between the dogs and the man’s house, that deer had very little chance of turning back past the dogs and it usually ended up hanging in the man’s shed. He didn’t consider this as sport, only an easy way to obtain meat for his family and to supplement his income during the deer season when he sold a few deer to unsuccessful sportsmen.

Another poacher of my acquaintance had a deer dog that was deerproof. So much so that the owner offered a suspicious warden one hundred dollars if he (the warden) could persuade the dog to chase a deer. The warden was satisfied and the dog’s owner was perfectly safe in making the offer, but that dog was about the best aid that a poacher could wish. Healthy deer were perfectly safe from him. I saw a deer run within a hundred feet of the dog and he never even looked at the deer. It was different when his master used his gun. The dog would be off at the sound of the shot and, if the deer had been wounded and not killed, he would chase, catch and hold the animal until the man could approach and make the kill.

Most of the legal deer hunting in which dogs are used is done in some of the Southern States—in areas where there are large private estates. It seems to be more a “gentleman’s sport” than one the common people can enjoy—more a holdover of the English nobility or southern aristocracy idea than a sport of American democracy.

The excuse is that the deer are in such inaccessible places that the use of dogs is necessary in order to have any success at all. I know that there are many places in the South which I would not want to enter and where it would be almost impossible to see a deer, let alone to shoot one, but we have a few places here in Maine that are nearly as bad. I know of one tract of several thousand acres where deer are plentiful, but hunters shun it. There is no visibility and I often have been forced to crawl on hands and knees in order to make any progress. Such places are better left as sanctuaries where deer will have a chance to live and increase. The overflow from these areas would soon provide good hunting in neighboring sections. I believe that it is better to do this than it is to use dogs to drive the last deer out of the refuge, to be shot by a favored few.

The shooting of deer from trains, airplanes and automobiles is illegal in most places, and rightly so. Aside from the sporting angle, the use of a loaded gun in a confined space can be dangerous to anyone who may be with the shooter. Accidents can happen and it is senseless to expose any one to any unnecessary risks. From a sporting standpoint, riding along a road with a gun stuck out of the window of an automobile and shooting any deer that might be seen, is about as sporting as shooting fish in a barrel. Deer have not acquired a fear of automobiles and will often feed in full view of a highway, to the delight of nature lovers. To take advantage of the deer’s lack of fear is, definitely, not sporting.

The method of locating deer with a car and then leaving the car to shoot the deer is still legal in this State (Maine), but it is little more sporting than shooting them from a moving vehicle. In time this method will be banned here as it is in some of the other deer hunting areas, because it will become a serious threat to the deer population and to the safety of the traveling public. Wardens know that many people do not bother to leave their cars before shooting, but, unless these people are caught in the act, there is little chance of convicting them. Little can be done to stop this practice except to ban shooting from a highway. If a workable law can be devised, this will probably be one of the next prohibitions that the hunter will find in the Maine game laws.

The driving of deer is another way to hunt the animals. This method is successful in areas where there are small patches of woods. Organized groups can cover quite a bit of territory and can bag a sizeable number of deer during a season, if their aim is good. While these groups kill a large number of deer, there is usually more or less dissatisfaction among the members about the division of the spoils and about who should assume the credit (or blame) for each kill. The Maine law prohibits a man from registering a deer that he has not personally killed. It also prohibits a man who has killed one deer from hunting during the remainder of the hunting season. These laws are evaded by members of many of these deer-driving groups.

The use of noisemaking devices in deer driving is forbidden, but no judge has yet ruled that the human vocal cords are in this category and some of these drives have been quite noisy affairs. This shouting, together with more or less indiscriminate shooting, has resulted in opposition to this practice among some land owners where these hunts have occurred. Hunting territory has been posted and lost to hunters because of these gang drives. As a result, the Maine Legislature has placed a limit on the number of men taking part in these drives.

There are other restrictions that regulate the deer hunter’s actions. Most of them are on the books for the protection of the deer herd or for the hunter’s own safety. Some of them may not please the hunter, but they should be observed in the interest of continued hunting. There are many legal methods of hunting to which the true sportsman should stick.

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The History of Deer Hunting in North America

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