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Generations ago, hunters hoped of killing 1 deer; today, the species is plentiful

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TUPELO, Mississippi — To say that whitetail deer hunting in Mississippi has changed over the past couple of generations is akin to saying a hurricane is a bit breezy and damp.

Time was when a deer was a rare sight in much of the state.

"I can remember my grandfather, when I was little, got a phone call. Somebody had seen a deer track at deer camp," said Chad Dacus, wildlife bureau director at the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

Every available member of the hunting club was summoned to help find the animal. After much effort it was shot and ceremoniously butchered.

"When he came home, he had a little plastic bag of deer meat. Everybody at the camp got a little bit," Dacus said. "That was really special."

Ronnie Cannon, a bow hunter and owner of Hole in the Wall Outfitters in Oxford, remembers a related account.

"I've heard that one time in the National Forest between here and Thaxton, somebody actually saw a deer run across the road, and when he told about it, somebody called him a liar," he said. "They all got in their trucks and went out there, and he said, 'Here's the tracks.' They were amazed."

Gerald Bogue, a Union County hunting club manager and guide, said he remembers seeing the containers left in the Little Tallahatchie River bottom after deer had been imported to the area.

"My dad's generation, back before my time, there wasn't even a deer season," he said. "It was a shocking discovery to see a deer when I was kid."

Generations ago, hunters bought a deer tag each season in hopes of killing one deer. Today, the species is so plentiful that hunters in Mississippi kill some 280,000 deer per year, according to MDWFP, from the state's herd of 1.75 million.

As a result of the high population, between bow, primitive weapon and regular gun seasons, Mississippi hunters can pursue deer from Oct. 1 to Jan. 31, with bag limits of eight deer per license year.

"Here we are now, trying to kill 150 deer in the city limits of Oxford," Cannon said. "That's all management."

The difference is intentional. MDWFP's White-tailed Deer Program aims "to provide a quality white-tailed deer population statewide and offer maximum outdoor recreational opportunity to the public without negatively affecting the resource."

Its Deer Management Assistance Program helps some 600 private landowners from individuals to global paper and timber companies with data collection, harvest recommendations and other aids to maintain healthy numbers on some 2.5 million acres of land, with similar services provided on a variety of public lands.

It's more than just the number of deer that makes deer hunting today not your grandfather's sport.

"It's the equipment of now versus then," said Bogue, 53. "When I was a kid, you put on oversized rubber boots, three pairs of socks and extra pants. Now the sky's the limit on what you can spend to stay warm and dry.

"My cousins and friends and I would pile up with the older folks in one old four-wheel-drive and go down into the river bottom and sleep in a canvas tent for a week," he said. "Even for squirrel hunting, we'd camp out for a week. At the end of the week, everybody would divide up whatever meat there was.

"Now, it's easier to get to where you want to hunt - four-wheelers, side-by-sides," Bogue said. "When kids get their (driver's) license, most of them get a four-wheel-drive, and they can go hunting by themselves."

Firearms and archery equipment are drastically different as well. In the 1940s, Bogue's grandfather hunted every kind of available game with the same shotgun, and his father followed suit until the early 1980s, when he bought his first deer rifle.

"Now it's nothing for folks to go out and buy a new deer rifle every year or two," he said. "In the last 20 years it's amazing the difference — guns, ammo, scopes, stands."

Cannon said similar advances are true in bow hunting technology as well.

"It's all changing to the good," he said. "The equipment we have now compared to what we had in the 1970s and '80s is two different things, although there are still some traditional archery hunters."

The biggest new development in Mississippi bow hunting is the legalization of crossbows, which are used to harvest both deer and turkeys.

"Crossbows have been controversial in Mississippi, but I think they've been good," Cannon said. "Crossbows have put a lot more people into the woods. Hunter numbers are dwindling, so to introduce more people to hunting in any sense is a good thing."

Information technologies are other major changes from a couple of generations ago.

"I think about the way we learned to hunt compared to the modern kids now that go hunting," Cannon said. "Kids today have seen so many more how-tos than we ever did. A 9-year-old kid was in here yesterday, and he already understood how important the wind was in hunting. It took me two or three seasons to figure out those animals really can smell you."

On the other hand, MDWFP's Dacus is concerned that too many in what he calls "the iPad generation" assume deer hunting has always consisted of sitting in a shoot house alongside a food plot, waiting for a hungry deer to come into the crosshairs of one's rifle scope.

"We as hunters in general have gotten somewhat lazy in the way we hunt," Dacus said. "I'm afraid we're losing what my generation and older generations had in terms of woods knowledge."

Bogue agreed that while technology enables people to hunt where they couldn't have in the past, it has made it possible to do so without learning the land.

"A generation ago there wasn't a handful of people who could go down in the (Tallahatchie) river bottom and know where they were, much less how to get out of there after dark," he said. "GPS systems took the woodsman-ship out of it. You see kids nowadays with a GPS in their hand."

Bogue and Dacus also concurred on the need for more young hunters, and not just for deer.

"I think there's a lot fewer young people coming up hunting," Bogue said. "Kids have so much more to do now than they did then. And we're guilty, too: We as parents, we're busier than ever."

Dacus said, "Hunting, whether it's deer or turkey or small-game hunting, is not a spectator sport." He added that he'd love to see more kids being introduced to the sport by way of other game.

"Start dove hunting. Of course, squirrel is a great way to get kids involved in hunting. They get to move around, they'll almost certainly see some game, and they probably will get to shoot a gun."


Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, http://djournal.com

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