The Blueprint of a Bad Hunting Season

It’s December, and my freezer is empty. That’s a strange, frustrating feeling. As long as I’ve been deer hunting, I’ve never not had a deer down by December 1st.

How did this happen? Why haven’t I pulled the trigger?…Much less come to full-draw on an animal that I’ve wanted to kill? And why am I sharing all of this?

There’s plenty of reasons, really. Many of you have probably read about the difficult times that I faced on my Colorado elk hunt. On my Kentucky elk hunt I had a chance to kill a bull, but didn’t have a tag. I know we could have got an elk on both hunts if we had more time, but less than a week to hunt on new-to-me public land just wasn’t enough.

In terms of whitetail hunting, I’ve put my time in on the stand and in the blind, but I still haven’t hunted as much as normal. After going on two out-of-state elk hunts this fall, I don’t have any regrets about the times that I could have hunted, but chose to stay home with my wife and small kids instead. As the song says, it won’t be like this for long.

Lonely Shadow in the Woods

What stumps me though, are the times that I have hunted, and how few deer I’ve seen. I went through one stretch where I hunted well over 40 hours and saw only one deer – and that was in November, when the deer should be on their feet. One of those days was a prime, cold-front day with a perfect wind, and I still didn’t see a thing. Crazy.

I didn’t scout for deer this year as much as I have in years past, and also didn’t run trail cameras as much as I usually do. I thought I had my main property somewhat figured out. It isn’t a big property, and it’s over 90% timber, but in the few years I’ve hunted it, I’ve patterned some productive travel routes – or so I thought.

I’ve seen plenty of immature bucks, and have had chances to fill tags on them, but bucks older than 2.5 have been non-existent. And I haven’t even had a doe it bow-range. It’s crazy.

Just Me?

Apparently I’m not alone. I’ve been hearing murmurs from across the country that this year has been tough. Sure, there’s been plenty of deer killed, and of course there’s always be some hunters complaining every year – but overall I’m hearing of tougher hunting than normal. And in my home state of Missouri, the data backs this up.

The total harvest of this year’s Missouri firearms season was down 23% compared to last year, and the 2013 harvest was 24% lower than the 10-year average. It’ll be interesting to see how the data of the archery seasons stacks up, once those numbers are completed and released.

It’s easy to play the “should have” or “could have” game when you’re this far into the season and you haven’t killed yet, but I can honestly say that I wouldn’t do much differently. It’s not that I’ve blown opportunities; it’s just been one of those years when the time that I had to spend in the woods didn’t match up with prime deer movement.

The blueprint of a bad whitetail hunting season goes like this…

  • Rely on what worked in previous years
  • Don’t scout or run trail cameras like you should
  • Pass on smaller deer, even though you aren’t seeing much else
  • Stick to the few days that you have to hunt, even if the conditions are horrible
  • Keep your commitments to work and family, even if the hunting conditions are perfect
  • Have trespassers from a neighboring property setup stands and blinds on your property
  • Have another hunter (who has permission to hunt), setup right next to your spot (even though he knows you are there), and shoot a nice buck that’s only 80 yards from the ground blind that you’re sitting in
  • Hunt properties that are almost completely timber and have acorns everywhere, which means that deer hardly have to move to eat
  • Hunt said properties, even though predidation and EHD have taken a tool on the number of deer in the area

But There’s Still Time

It’s only December 2nd, and our season runs into mid-January, so there’s still time to hunt. Sort of. December is notoriously busy with Christmas, both of my kids have their birthday’s, and it’s a crazy time at work (especially this year, since I’m covering two positions). But I’m still hoping to carve some time to hunt the little bit of light that each day provides. Can I get it done? Time will tell!

The Author

Mark Huelsing is a regular guy with an irregular passion for bowhunting and the outdoors. Learn more about Sole Adventure or get in touch with Mark...

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  • James

    I have had a similar experience this year but the reasons why I have seen less deer than normal are easily defined. I went home to VA for two weeks to hunt like I do every year. I take the last week of Oct and first week of Nov off. Those two weeks are the last week of bow and the first week of muzzleloader. The chase period normally starts during the last week of Oct and the rut is usually full swing by the second week of Nov. This year the chase period didn’t even start until the third week in Nov. For the Chesterfield/Amelia/Brunswick area that is pretty odd. The rut also started late here in WNY and I took the wrong week off this year for here as well. I have still taken three deer (one doe and 2 cull bucks) but I have not seen the first buck that is over 100″. I have seen a lot of pics of hunters that have taken really nice deer in WNY this year but I have not even seen the “native” bucks that are on our property even on our trail cams. That is what is really weird to me.

    • SoleAdventure

      That sounds like tough hunting, James. I think we had a “trickle rut” in our area this year – there didn’t seem to be any sort of “peak” time of chasing, fighting, or otherwise “visible” activity. Congrats on bringing some venison home!

  • Allan K.

    Hang in there Mark. I also followed some of blueprint for a bad whitetail season, coupled with a non-existent acorn crop and very few alternative food sources on my property had me perplexed and seeing less than 1 deer every time out. I think I was averaging one deer every 5 times out and that is well below average. Just when I was about to throw in the towel, my father had an issue with his heart and had to get a pace maker. This of course took some time away from my hunting schedule, but as I helped my parents I watched my father work hard in rehab to slowly regain his strength and eventually get back to living a normal life. I thought about how my dad never gave up and figured I would give it a go in the tree a few more times – and it was nice. I hit the rut, which came in late for my area, and was able to see 10 different bucks in two days, some major rut activity, and take a decent eight point. You never know, just when the season has you
    down and you’ll about to give up is when you need to dig down deep, get out there and hunt hard.

    • SoleAdventure

      Way to stick with it, Allan! Congrats on the buck.

  • http://www.freshtraxoutdoors.com/ Tom Ryle

    The thing I love about bowhunting is simply this: it can seem like you’re an eternity from getting a shot opportunity, then all of a sudden you’re clinging to your tree with a massive dose of the “I can’t believe that just happened” shakes! It only takes one buck and it can happen at any time. Good luck, Mark!

    • SoleAdventure

      Thanks, Tom. A “bad day” can turn into a hunt of a lifetime at any moment; you just never know. (I love those “shakes”!)

  • Matt Mitchell

    I agree with your consensus about a bad season. Here in southern Illinois we are seeing maybe 50% off the deer we once were and few mature does and bucks at that. While I agree sometimes the conditions govern the hunting, I do not at all believe that to be the cause.

    The fact is ehd, liberal doe tags and qdma have decimated our deer population. Ehd killed a lot of deer from about 2008 on up. Couple that with the states telling you it’s ok to shoot as many does as you want and QDMA telling you to kill all the does you can to balance the herd for a “more competitive rut” and boom you’re in the position we are. Everytime you harvest a mature doe you are essentially killing 2 or even more deer. In my neck of the woods I would say all does are bred so that doe you killed could have dropped a fawn or two or even three. This is why our population is down and this is why the hunting is slow.

    As archery hunters we see more of the woods than your average gun hunter so were able to see the whole picture. We have to stop making excuses for why we aren’t seeing deer and start facing the facts. If we don’t stop harvesting so many does were going to be in a world of hurt in a few years. I read an article last week in heartland outdoors that stated if we limited each hunter to 2 deer a year the harvest would be cut by 21%!!! That just goes to show how many game hohs we have and how easily we’ve gotten into this predicament.

    I wish I could believe that the state will do something to fix it but as long as lobbyists for insurance companies are in our already corrupted state governments pockets nothing will happen. So as hunters we have to come to the realization of what is going on and try to fix it on our own which means stop liking does, period. I know that’s harsh for some but I myself enjoy quality hunting far more than venison. So spread the word.

    But I do want to point out I really appreciate your writing. I have always enjoyed your reviews, advice and perspective so keep up the good work!!

    • SoleAdventure

      You make some very valid points, Matt. I think it’s difficult – if not impossible – to come up with a sound management philosophy that works across a macro (state) level. In Missouri we have so many different areas (at the micro level) of terrain, hunting pressure, and deer population. What is “right” for one area of the state may not be right for another. In general I think that hunters are becoming more informed and interested in sound conservation, but it’s still a struggle to educate hunters in mass – and even more of a feat to get them to agree on self-regulation.

  • Barry L.

    It only takes one second for your luck to change. Be ready when it happens!!

    • SoleAdventure

      That’s right, Barry! Hopefully I can get out this weekend.

  • http://www.AverageHunter.com/ Matt Staser

    I am right there with you Mark. Luckily my kids are old enough to start adding to the freezer or mine would be empty as well. This has been the worst year I can remember. We just had our first 3 days of gun season a couple weeks ago and for the state, the harvest is down 20,000. Thats a heck of a drop. There are MANY rumors and a few truths as to why numbers are dropping from new types of corn to new unknown diseases that the DNRs can’t explain. Either way, numbers are way down and everyone will blame. Thats a given. We have our second gun weekend this week so we will see what happens.

    • SoleAdventure

      Kids putting meat in the freezer? Now that is cool!! That’s a crazy drop, and it certainly isn’t you – I heard similar reports from some friends in IL.

      • J Parkes

        This appears to be several months old, but here are my 2 cents from Pennsylvania and my specific location. I did not harvest a buck this year and I was in the woods a lot, our archery season is 6-weeks long, followed by a 2-week. rifle season, Followed by at least a 2-week late archery season after Christmas. I hunted nearly every day allowed when there was enough light to hunt after work, every Saturday (Sunday hunting is not permitted)

        There was no lack of does or young bucks, but the mature bucks never showed up. I have trail cameras out year round and toward the end of summer with not one mature buck on record, I was a little nervous about the upcoming season. Assuming some mature Bucks just had to show up with the approaching rut, I was persistent, however I had one mature buck show up for a couple of days in early November then disappear.(I never saw the buck before he disappeared.)
        the area I hunt is great habitat for deer, it is privately owned and posted, it is surrounded by agricultural crops of corn and soybeans, There are a handful of us that hunt it, The only buck harvested to my knowledge was a 2 1/2 year old 9 point. The season wasn’t a bust, I shot a doe and my son shot his first doe. so we have meat in the freezer

        Now that spring is starting to make an appearance, the deer herd has fared well on one recent evening I saw 40 deer in one 5-acre field that had the snow melted of it. all looked healthy except one that was recovering from what appeared to be a gunshot lower rear leg.
        Pennsylvania changed its herd quotas and antler restrictions over 10 years ago, and while the overall deer heard was really down about 5-6 years into it the new structures, a lot has changed in that time. there are more leases, there is more posted land, and less people hunting. The areas that are posted and sort of self managed by landowners or leases are recovering well, but the mature bucks we were promised never showed up. I think I saw more mature bucks before all the changes.

        • SoleAdventure

          That’s an interesting tale, J. Considering the changes that you’ve outlined, and the habitat that you hunt, I would expect to see more mature deer by this stage, too.