Hunters Need To Study Up ARE WE LOSING OUR WILDERNESS SKILLS?

We're getting smarter--but we're getting lazier, too. That's the impression of Southern deer hunters you're left with after talking to the biologists who manage state deer herds across Dixie. These are the professionals who spend their days taking the pulse of the whitetail resource--and the people who pursue them.

Actually, it's not all bad.

The good news is that Southern deer hunters have finally decided that killing does is not a sin but a very good thing to do in most situations.

If you're older than 30, this will be big news indeed. That's because those of us who learned to hunt before the age of food plots and feeders were raised on some simple "common sense science" that went like this: If you kill the mamas, there won't be as many babies. Consequently, most hunting clubs had strict prohibitions against shooting does, a sentiment that seeped into statewide regulations as well.

But beginning in the 1970s, biologists started explaining that leaving the does could result in too many deer, which would result in poorer overall quality. Bottom line: Kill more does if you want bigger bucks. That sounded so counter-intuitive that most of us resisted, to the deep frustration of the deer managers.

Well it seems time can not only heal most wounds, it can counter ignorance as well. Today most Southern states report doe harvests that are pushing 50 percent. Georgia hunters have actually averaged killing more does than bucks over the last 10 years.

"It's a result of education," says Scott McDonald, senior wildlife biologist in the Game Management Section of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. "The 'don't kill does' mentality has pretty much been erased around here. Hunters no longer have any hesitation in killing does."

McDonald says involving hunters in the hands-on management of their own property has been the key to the turnaround. "It was a struggle early, because the tradition was not to kill does. But when more hunters became involved in the actual day-to-day management for better quality deer, they began seeing the results"

The change in attitude is probably most noticeable in Mississippi. Ten years ago suggesting more does should be taken could result in a fistfight, the mentality of protecting the mother was so ingrained. But in 2001-2002, hunters killed 159,000 does compared with 161,000 bucks.

"It's the emphasis on quality bucks," says McDonald. "Hunters in the South are changing."

One change might not be so good--which brings us to the bad news.

LAZY HUNTERS, FEWER DEER

As drought gripped the region during the last five years, deer managers began hearing a growing chorus of complaints about "poor seasons." The harvests didn't really go down, but the number of days hunters spent in the field to take a deer had risen. Some hunters began to wonder if the deer herd was declining.

"It wasn't the herd, it was the hunters," says Dave Moreland, deer study leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "The drought played heck with a lot of food plots. Guys were planting but not getting much of a crop, and the deer just weren't coming to their food plots.

"I think what the drought showed us was that a lot of deer hunters have forgotten how to hunt, or they never learned. They don't know how to get out of their stands and find deer."

Chuck Cook, deer study leader at the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, agrees. Even in his deer-rich state, hunters were having a hard time filling their tags in the drought.

"A lot of people have become green-field or food-plot hunters over the last few years," he says. "People have got to where they don't really hunt anymore. They stay on that green field and wait for the deer to come to them, especially on a lot of these clubs.

"I think we're losing that ability to really hunt, to learn woodcraft, to read signs and find deer. That's where the quality of the hunting experience is falling apart. Outdoorsmen are surrounded by the largest deer herds in history, but they can't find the deer because they can't hunt."

Hunters hear differing sides from science to gossip in the field. All of which leads to this conclusion: Being smarter doesn't help much--if we're getting lazier.

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