Bourjaily: The Good and Bad of Deer Hunting

The comeback of the whitetail deer is both the best and the worst thing to happen to hunting in my lifetime. First, the good: I grew up in a time when if you saw a deer, you told people about it. Now there are whitetails everywhere, and lots of people hunting them. About 75% of all license holders hunt deer, according to a recent National Shooting Sports Foundation report. Without deer, we wouldn't have anywhere near the number of hunters left in the U.S. that we have today. Without deer, Field & Stream would have to change its name to Stream. I would need to find a real job.* Also, deer taste good, and most years it's not too hard to put one or two into my freezer.

The bad part is, whitetails have antlers. It wouldn't be a problem if all their antlers were the same size, but they're not. The fixation on big antlers and the amount of money people will pay to lock up land for trophy deer hunting is one of the most troubling trends in hunting. Unlike farmers, who may let you on their property, the new deer hunter-landowner won't let you on at any time of the year for fear of scaring the trophies. It's an accepted part of trophy deer management that you create sanctuaries where no human ever sets foot. All this because of antlers, which, I might point out here, are inedible unless you are a gnawing rodent.**

Here's an extreme case: a friend of mine used to bowhunt with a local doctor. The two had hunted ducks together for many years until the doctor became obsessed with trophy whitetails and bought a farm he managed for deer. One very wet fall the normally dry sloughs on the doctor's farm filled up. Then mallards moved in by the thousand. Where I live, a crack at 5,000 mallards loafing on private property is rarer than a shot at a big buck. My friend suggested they swap bows for shotguns and decoys the next morning.

"We can't hunt those ducks," said the doctor. "They're in my deer sanctuary."

The doctor wouldn't even give himself permission to hunt his own property for fear of disturbing his trophy bucks. That's the bad side of the whitetail comeback.

*Postal carrier with a walking route. That's my dream job.

** For the record, I am not completely numb to the appeal of antlers. I have shot one big deer in my life, and it hangs as a skull mount in my living room.