Are the Good ‘Ol Days of Whitetail Hunting Over?

I knew exactly where I would be hunting this fall. It was set in stone and the prospects were exciting. I would start the season in Kansas in September with a muzzleloader in hand. I love bowhunting, but the idea of ​​starting the year with a little yardage advantage sounded pretty good. Then I would focus a bit on my home state of Michigan (assuming I’d found a dollar to aim for). Knowing this doesn’t come naturally, the backup plan was to revisit a few Ohio locations in case the backyard hunt didn’t seem worth the time.

And then… well, boy, boy, then things would be fine. Really good. I’d be spending the last week or so of October in Iowa, with a week’s vacation on the bank for November if I had to revisit this land of giants.

And then came the emailed reality: Denied. denied. denied.

In hindsight, none of this should have come as a surprise. In fact, it should have been expected. But first let’s back up a bit.

public pressure

I’ve spent about three decades hunting deer, with about half of that time being spent in what I call “serious mode.” I’ve hunted in at least three states every fall for the past 15 years, with trailcams and various scouting efforts done in about twice as many. Once I found an interesting large deer, I made my plans for the fall and hunted it. Most of my endeavors took place on public lands, and this was long before hunting became public the thing make. It was not some mission born of nobility or bravery. It was just a state of reality; I had no choice.

I own no land worth chasing. I have no family ties to areas filled with bucks. I didn’t have the financial backing to lease large acreage in the whitetail meccas. What I had was a naivety about the whole public country act. When I first started traveling to famous whitetail states, I did so “knowing” that hunting public lands was the last resort for anyone with common sense. Public land was anything but revered. It was actually seen as a place to go when you literally have no alternative, a form of punishment.

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But I saw that the reality was far from the prevailing opinion. In fact, there was excellent whitetail potential on public lands in some areas, and the size of the bucks I hunted exceeded anything I ever expected.

Those were the days. (And yes, I do feel really old even as I write these words.)

These are not those days. My application in Kansas was unsuccessful. My application in Iowa, also unsuccessful. I didn’t score in the Kansas draw because I recently drew a tag, but since I’ve never had trouble drawing a tag I wasn’t overly concerned. Iowa? Well, I had four points in it. Without a doubt I would draw. But I didn’t.

I was surprised. I probably shouldn’t have been. The numbers don’t lie, and the writing has been on the wall for about five years. But this writing seemed to get much darker and bolder around the time COVID began to infiltrate every facet of our daily lives. Even without a global pandemic pouring gas on the fire, the flames were already treetop high.

I want to stop here and make one thing clear: This is in no way a diatribe against the public land movement. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that I made a living creating public land content. If there’s guilt, some of it goes right at my feet. But there’s no denying the increase in readily available content that focuses very specifically on public land hunting (and provides more than enough clues and state names to provide everything needed to hunt in these areas ), had a major impact on the quality of the public land experience. And it’s not just public land that’s affected.

Private print

Competition for access to private land has long been fierce. It’s more competitive now than it’s ever been in my hunting career. The days of “per permission” access are not over. But the quality of the hunting experience available on permit grounds has continued to decline, and the cost of getting into the lease game is constantly increasing.

The numbers are increasing

The economics of whitetail hunting have changed almost as much as the access landscape. The Iowa tag I wanted to draw? Should I decide to reapply, a successful application would cost me almost $1,000 (four years points at $60.50 each plus $130 hunting license plus $498 deer tag). In Kansas, the deer license would cost nearly $600. And there’s constant talk of further restricting license sales due to overwhelming demand and of course increasing fees in just about every state that’s popular with whitetail hunters (and which states aren’t these days).

I spend time hunting turkeys every spring and I always hunt feeders in the areas where I hope to hunt buck in the fall. This spring I focused on Ohio and Iowa.

Ohio is pretty close to home to me, and I’ve seen quite a few dandy bucks there over the years. Typically in turkey hunting I see about a third of the hunting pressure on public land as in deer hunting. In fact, one of my primary ways of determining if an area is one I would focus on for deer is by observing hunting pressure during turkey season. When I see a few people during turkey season, I usually multiply that number by four to predict deer hunting pressure.

I move a lot of terrain when hunting. It’s not at all uncommon for me to start somewhere outside of the roost and end the day 150 miles or more from that spot.

This was repeated during the spring turkey season in Iowa and it was really maddening to me. In the previous spring seasons, I went several days in the part of Iowa where I hunted turkeys without encountering more than a handful of other hunters. I hunted for three days last spring and never found an area free of other hunters.

An uncertain future

I don’t want this to come across as whining or a serious doom and gloom. I sincerely hope that it will not be taken that way.

i love to hunt And I think it’s really good that so many others are doing it too. Outdoor life is a good life. But with every advantage comes disadvantages, and the simple fact is, the hunting game has changed. Access quality has decreased. Competition on public land has increased exponentially. The costs have increased. The regulations have become more restrictive and complex. In my opinion, this is not a trend line that will reverse.

All of these things have been simmering for the past decade or so, but the rate of change has been at an accelerated pace for the past five years or so. At least for me, a bow hunter who focuses almost exclusively on public areas and is interested in hunting adult deer.

So what’s my plan? It’s early September. I didn’t draw a single tag. The over-the-counter options available have shown that they will experience extremely high hunting pressure on public land, and of course fuel costs and inflation don’t make things any easier on the financial side.

I think the smart option is to just sit out this season, lick my wounds and accept the new reality: the good old days are over.

nope I go hunting anyway. Maybe we’ll look back in a few decades and realize the good ole days were right now.

Featured image via Captured Creative.

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