Every deer hunter has a story. It might originate from a perfect outing, imperfect weather, an unbelievable encounter, a one-of-a-kind moment, or so much more. Each memory is unique and builds through the years to help shape our joy of the outdoors. We share our stories with others who have similar experiences, and bond over them. Each new hunting season provides another chance to add new legends to an already full quiver of adventures.
In this way, the ODNR Division of Wildlife has its own deer hunting story. This year, the ODNR Division of Wildlife is celebrating 75 years of modern deer hunting, which began in 1943. Think of all the stories from those years: in 2016-2017 alone hunters checked 182,169 deer! Of course it wasn’t always this way. Ohio’s story started with a short open season in Adams, Pike, and Scioto counties. Ohio’s deer population was growing and encounters were becoming more common in the field. Residents in some areas were frustrated with deer damage. This frustration and an interest in hunting big game prompted Ohio’s first deer season. It took three proposals before the dates and locations were finally set. It was a popular event: approximately 8,500 permits were sold and hunters killed 168 deer, all bucks.
Prior to that, deer hunting was not allowed in Ohio. For many years it wasn’t from a lack of desire to pursue deer; the species was extirpated in 1904 so we had no deer to hunt. It’s sometimes difficult to believe that a mammal so common now was nonexistent back then. The return of deer to Ohio didn’t happen overnight, or even in a decade. It started when they naturally moved into Ohio from Michigan and Pennsylvania. As much as 80 percent of the state received its initial stock from the northeastern herd, which originated in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania population had expanded so much that some people there considered deer a nuisance.
Restoration of the herd was also ongoing at the Roosevelt Game Preserve in Scioto County. Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States and the man after which the property was named, was gone by the time the preserve was created in 1922, but he likely would have approved of the preserve’s research designed to improve Ohio’s game populations. An 800-acre parcel was carved out for a massive corral on the preserve. From 1922 to 1930 the state purchased at least 200 deer from private individuals in Ohio and surrounding areas. Maintaining a fence around 800 acres was not easy, and escapes became common. The gates were removed and about 1,000 deer were free to roam the countryside by 1932. The species was protected until 1943.
Ohio opened its first either-sex season in 1947, when hunters could pursue deer in eight northeast counties (the season in southern Ohio closed in 1946). Crop damage was one of the main drivers of northeast Ohio’s first hunting season. Any deer of any age and any sex was legal game. The animals were perceived as overpopulated in the region and hunters responded by shooting an estimated 1,000 deer.
Deer hunting was immediately popular from the time it returned, and certainly many hunters had the skills and knowledge to pursue game. Rabbits and pheasants were plentiful back then. Fox seasons were open year-round, and wing-shooting ruffed grouse was popular in Ohio’s emerging forests. But deer were different than the small game that most Ohioans chased. Scent and noise control, not always necessary hunting behind a beagle or a foxhound, was important to get close enough to shoot a deer. The shotgun slug performed much differently than a rabbit or pheasant load. Tree stands were not common and almost no one used a bow and arrow, which in no way resembled the modern compound bow. It was a new challenge that many Ohio hunters embraced.
The deer population grew rapidly during the next several decades, and hunting increased with it. It wasn’t a straight-line ascent: Ohio’s called off deer hunting for the final time in 1961 to give the program time to regroup. The season returned in 1962 with mandatory harvest registration and other changes. The temporary halt allowed biologists and administrators a chance to create a better management program.
A larger deer population, changes to bag limits, improved hunting implements, and additional dates for legal harvest give the modern hunter more chances than ever for a successful day in the field. Deer hunting remains a fantastic outdoors activity in the Buckeye State. The story continues in 2017 and beyond. We can’t wait to see what the next 75 years bring.
Brian Plasters is the managing editor of Wild Ohio Magazine.