“Pick a good spot, keep still and stay there.” That was my dad’s deer hunting philosophy and it was a very rare year when he did not get a deer — usually a buck. For most of my 50-plus-year hunting career, it has been my motto, too.
While I do not consider myself an expert deer hunter, I have harvested more than my share of Pennsylvania bucks, including a 7-point, five 8-pointers and a 9-point — several of those being older, heavy-bodied deer.
My stay-put strategy has been successful and I have freely passed my hunting wisdom on to others. After all, walking hunters have regularly pushed deer in my direction and those mobile hunters rarely scored. Big, organized, multi-hunter drives have moved deer, but watchers often had only snap shots at running deer — not my kind of hunting.
“It doesn’t matter how many white tails you see flagging, what matters is how many deer you were able to identify as legal and how many you could have successfully shot if you wanted to.” — More of my father’s wisdom.
Nonetheless, deer hunting has changed in many ways during the past six decades. Success in 2020 and beyond might hinge on one’s ability to step back, look at the changes, evaluate their effects and adapt to them. Here are the big differences that I see, and maybe you will want to add others to my list. Each change has had an impact on the effectiveness of stay-in-one-place hunting.
The first five changes have made stand hunting easier.
One, hunting clothing has improved, keeping hunters warmer and drier, and making it easier to stay in one spot — even on the coldest days. Effective camouflage patterns make it easier to stay hidden.
Two, ditto for hunting boots, foot/hand warmers, etc.
Three, hunters are more affluent, so they can afford more expensive, better-quality gear. Gore-tex, Thinsulate and additional high-efficiency products are wonderful, but expensive. Even considering inflation, how many hunters in 1965 would have been able or willing to spend the equivalent of $200 or even $100 on a pair of boots? Dick’s Sporting Goods, Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s and other retailers have made this wonderful equipment readily available and, oh, so tempting.
The fourth big change has been in permanent tree stands. A “permanent” tree stand in 1965 involved a couple of pieces of scrap lumber nailed up in a tree. Today, some permanent tree stands are more like luxury boxes in Beaver Stadium. With wind protection, roofs, padded chairs and heaters, staying up in a tree all day is no longer a test of stamina. Some of these cost thousands of dollars. The concept of a climbing treestand was in its infancy in 1965.
The fifth change is that the sales of portable tree stands and blinds have skyrocketed during the past 30 years. Portable stands can be climbers, ladder stands or hang-on treestands. Now, anyone has the ability to locate a treestand or a blind quickly and easily, even on public land. Plus, it is not enough to own one portable stand — some hunters have a dozen or more. Considering that these cost $69 to $500 each, it again reflects today’s hunter affluence.
Despite all of this “progress,” why don’t you see as many deer from your treestand as 20 years ago? Simple — due to the previously-mentioned five reasons, more hunters are staying put and stationary hunters do not move deer. The total number of Pennsylvania deer hunters has also decreased by a couple of hundred thousand. Fewer hunters mean fewer people to move deer.
The other big changes have been in deer numbers and the age structure of the population. Habitat changes coupled with habitat-based herd-reduction management means that many areas of the state have far fewer deer than they used to have. Antler restrictions limit the legal buck supply to mainly older, smarter deer.
Combine fewer hunters with fewer deer and more-experienced bucks, then add that to the higher percentage of people stand hunting and those hunters being able to stay in their spots longer. It is easy to see why no one is moving deer and everyone is seeing far fewer whitetails.
While it might be easy to blame the Game Commission for hunters not seeing more deer, the big picture is much more complicated than that. True, the commission has lowered the total number of whitetails, and I believe rightly so, but that is not the only reason that stand hunting is not as effective as it once was strategy.
Maybe it is time to try something different to put venison on the table. Two strategies to consider would be still hunting — sneaking quietly through the woods — and one or two-person drives. I have used both of these techniques successfully.