Deer hunting remains an important ritual for many

Steve Wynn sat alone at the edge of the woods when the deer appeared, making his heart race. A five-point buck.

He raised his .12-gauge shotgun, fired and missed. Then again. Five times in all he shot.

The 15-year-old rookie hunter was bereft. The deer was still standing. No meat for him. He began the trudge to his Medora home, reloading as he went and muttering at his circumstance.

Only a couple of hundred yards later, the instant replay presented itself. Another five-point buck. This time, he did not miss, and when he reached home with a smile, he enlisted help to haul the deer in.

“We had to put it in the trunk of my mother’s Ford,” Wynn said.

That was 22 years ago, the hunt that really got Wynn started. If baseball players always recall their first home run, hunters always remember their first deer.

Also like Wynn, they have continued to hunt deer each fall and other species, too, such as coyote and turkey. For hunters, the deer hunt remains an important ritual, opening day a landmark on the calendar, a time to spend enveloped by nature, inhaling the outdoors, sharing with children, providing meat for the family.

These remain elements of the hunt in the 21st century, even as fewer Americans provide for the table, even as anti-hunting organizations speak with louder voices. In Indiana, as elsewhere, hunters take to the forest in huge numbers, the way they have since before the United States was founded.

And they will again for the firearms deer season beginning Nov. 13.

Many prefer eating off of the land rather than purchasing meat wrapped in plastic from the store. Many revel in time spent in an outdoor environment, solo, with friends or with relatives instead of commuting to a job, sitting at a desk.

Satiating hunger by one’s own hand by pulling the trigger or firing an arrow carries its allure, but so does the solitude of sitting in a tree stand in the woods. The air is usually crisp or even when it’s cold and wet, yet hunters appreciate sights and sounds that God made instead of honking horns and breathing automobile fumes that man made.

“It’s always an adrenaline rush,” said Wynn, who now lives near Brownstown. “You always get pumped up. It’s still exciting to see that first deer of the season, putting in the deer stand, sitting on the right ridge. It’s the whole nine yards for me. It’s nature in general. You get to see so many animals and see how they act and play.”

In 2020, Indiana sold 298,153 hunting licenses or stamps, plus 112,413 combination hunting-fishing combination licenses.

In an increasingly sophisticated and technologically oriented country, as the population continues to expand and even as more women hunt and many young people are introduced to the activity each year, overall numbers have trended downward in recent decades. In 1985, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Indiana sold 521,000 resident and nonresident license holders.

Yet the passion remains, the desire to be as best as possible replicate the experiences of yesteryear, dressing in camouflage, draping on orange clothing, taking advantage of the bounty of the land.

Rick Zschiedrich, 62, of Seymour has hunted for a half-century. When he was younger, he felt pressure to harvest a deer a year.

“I know I’ve got to shoot one to eat,” he said.

But that explains only part of the hunting for him. One year, he blocked out three weeks of vacation and felled a deer with a crossbow on the season’s first day.

“I still went out every day just to sit,” he said. “There were the sights and sounds — hawks, eagles, coyotes next to you while you were sitting in the tree.”

Not everyone who hunts this fall will harvest a deer, but in 2020, 124,180 were taken within the state’s borders.

Refuge prize spot for Seymour

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources regulates hunting in the state, setting seasons, overlooking state parks and refuges, selling licenses.

When the country was young, a person with a firearm could step outside his cabin to hunt as often as his family felt the need for meat. Those days are long gone.

As the nation grew, many species of animals were threatened with extinction. Bison came this close. The grizzly bear is unknown in all but a few states in the Lower 48. Hard to believe given their proliferation, but in the early 1900s, deer were endangered. So DNR enforces bag limits and for human safety sets rules prohibiting where shots may be fired.

The more wide-open southern portion of the state is where the most popular hunting areas are.

“There are a lot of outdoor opportunities south of Edinburgh,” said Anthony Barenie, a fish and wildlife division manager.

Many private landowners grant permission for hunters to roam their farms. Public properties conduct draws for hunting slots. One popular location in Seymour is Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge.

Zschiedrich, who still lives just outside the park boundary, grew up so close to Muscatatuck as a youth he rode his bicycle onto the grounds. It has been a lifelong playground for him and his family. That’s where he first hunted squirrels with his dad, Walter. Near where the Interstate 65 on-and-off ramps are situated today, he hunted rabbits.

“Something was in my blood from when I was young,” he said. “I always had a passion for the outdoors. Always having access to the refuge may have been some of it.”

Muscatatuck’s hunting seasons track state regulations. Created in 1966, the refuge encompasses 7,724 acres with 314 open for hunting. It offers seasons for archery deer, muzzleloader deer, youth deer, spring turkey, youth turkey, squirrel, rabbits, quail, snipe, woodcock, ducks, coots, mergansers, geese and mourning dove.

“I have never ever seen anyone hunt a skunk,” Park Ranger Donna Stanley said.

Hunting is considered one of six priority refuge uses, Stanley said, a directive that came from Washington, D.C., during the administration of President Donald Trump.

“Hunting is a great traditional activity,” she said. “I see the value of hunting. We don’t have the best habitat for some of those species.”

Muscatatuck is a lure not only for local hunters but for those with few options at their disposal and are willing to drive some distance once they gain a place in a draw.

That can be true for the youth deer hunt, which was Sept. 25 and 26, and archery deer season, which began Oct. 1 and runs through Dec. 3.

Father Seth Spradley, 33, and son Field, 11, made the 160-mile drive from 550-person Cynthiana near Evansville to experiment with a new hunting place.

“We just figured we’d come check it out,” Seth said of what brought them to Muscatatuck for the youth hunt.

Dad has hunted in about 10 states, and young Field is passionate about hunting. Although the boy did not harvest a deer, he did see one, as well as a massive bullfrog.

For Spradley, it was quality time.

“I just like to spend the time with my son,” he said. “There’s always something new. It’s never the same.”

Jacob Pryor, 28, and Aaron Pollitt, 27, are Indianapolis roommates who showed up at Muscatatuck for archery deer season in early October, really the handiest place for them to hunt away from the big city.

They rose at 4 a.m. for the drive. Hunters cannot enter the refuge, however, until one hour before sunrise, so they were met by a closed gate and went back to sleep in the car.

“We were like the first ones here,” Pryor said.

It was a slow day in the woods.

“There was not a lot doing in our spot,” Pollitt said. “We didn’t even see squirrels.”

Pryor is the more experienced hunter. Pollitt was after his first deer after taking up the activity last year, attracted to the idea of killing his own dinner, bringing his own “food to the table.”

They did not seem to have much company in the refuge that day. No one within view had harvested a deer yet.

Although Stanley does not hunt, she has taken the state’s hunter education course and has great respect for the hunters she meets on the job in the refuge.

“My experience is that some of the people who love conservation the most are hunters,” Stanley said. “The best hunters love wildlife as much as everyone else. They’re bonding with the wild.”

Hunting pays a lot of government bills

Those who don’t understand, identify with or oppose hunting do not realize the role the United States’ 38.6 million hunters play in preserving and managing the nation’s animals. They are not arm-chair conservationists but practicing conservationists, spending time in the outdoors, spending time in the creatures’ habitat.

Those who return to a location year after year can read population changes, see differences in terrain, follow evolution of a habitat with their own eyes.

They also pay for the privilege by purchasing licenses and for decades have helped fund state departments of natural resources when they buy their own hunting equipment. They are willing conservationists and taxed conservationists, their spending serving as financial contributions to the environment.

The Pittman-Robertston Wildlife Restoration Act became law in the fall of 1937 after being passed by Congress. The Dingle-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act followed in 1950. The first counted on hunter purchases for funding. The latter Act taxes anglers.

There also is a Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, established in 1929. Birding businesses and their customers pay into that with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation providing matching grants. Duck stamp sales handled by the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund paid for the purchase of Muscatatuck.

Each year, millions of dollars are distributed to the states under the auspices of these funds. Each state gets a cut based on how much money their hunters and anglers spend.

“Both operate the same way,” Barenie said. “If you buy any sort of hunting equipment, it goes into a pool of money.”

Dingle-Johnson includes expenditures on boat sales and fuel for the vessels, which cost so much more than a shotgun.

“It goes to habitat and restoration,” Barenie said of what Indiana and other states do with the payouts.

He thinks people who care about the wild and who don’t hunt should support hunting because the huge financial returns from these funds back what they believe in.

“I really believe if you are passionate about sustainability and still like to eat meat, this is one of the best ways to align your values,” Barenie said.

In March 2020, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced excise taxes accounted for $1 billion in outdoorsmen-raised money to be distributed to the states from the previous year’s spending. Over time, the funds have produced $22.9 billion disbursements to states that were matched by $7.6 billion. Indiana was granted $10.2 million from the wildlife trust fund and $5 million from the Sportfish Act.

Outdoor sports equipment manufacturers keep producing new items to get people to spend their money.

Brownstown’s Jeremy Steinkamp, who hunted squirrels as a youth and his first deer at 18, specializes in developing food plots on various lands for himself and others. He thinks the biggest change in hunting over the last 25 years is equipment improvement dramatically.

“Your tree stands have gotten better,” Steinkamp said. “All aspects of equipment.”

Not everyone thinks every high-tech gizmo or every fresh item on the market is necessary.

“One of the barriers people face is actually knowing what they need and will make them effective,” Barenie said.

Steve Backs, 68, a DNR wildlife biologist and turkey specialist, may have an old-fashioned outlook. He has seen many changes since his youth as a beginning outdoorsman and in his decades working for the department.

“You don’t necessarily need to have a deer stand,” he said as one way to save money for those just starting out. “You really can go to the Army surplus store and buy face paint for $7.50 (instead of more costly camo sticks).”

Backs remembers when bows were made of fiberglass and arrows of wood. His first hunts were with his dad as a tagalong on pheasant trips at 10, and he was about 12 when he shot his first squirrel.

He also remembers when turkey hunting, which is in its 51st season, did not exist in Indiana.

Turkeys can fill freezers, too

Hunting turkeys has become more popular as they have spread county by county north and south within state borders.

This year, the spring season produced a harvest of 12,319 birds, a relatively stagnant total over the last several years with a few blips higher and lower.

Steinkamp, who has turkey feather mounts in his garage hunting room and not only pursues turkey during the Indiana season but is willing to drive to Kentucky and elsewhere to try for more, loves the challenge of coping with the smart, sharp-observing birds. There are wild turkey acolytes like Steinkamp everywhere now.

Wynn, who harvested that deer so long ago as a teen, hunts as close to year-round now as he can, and that includes trying to outsmart wily turkeys.

“Really, turkey hunting is my No. 1 hunting thing now,” Wynn said.

By charting numbers, Backs has watched that passion grow for hunters.

“Initially, it started out as a specialty sport,” Backs said. “Now, it is popular around the state. Now, we have turkeys in 92 counties.”

Wild turkeys have spring and fall seasons. While native to the state, they were extirpated and had to be restored, beginning in 1956, though most heavily in the 1980s. They have since thrived through habitat management.

“I think the thing that’s attractive about turkey hunting is that it comes as cabin fever relief,” Backs said of spring in particular. “There’s something that’s refreshing when March and April come around. There’s the angst to get out. For some people, it’s, ‘Hey, we’re getting out of the doldrums.’ People like sunny, warmer days. And there’s nothing else to hunt.”

It also means turkey is no longer just for dinner at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

This is the first in a three-part series. Part 2 will be published in the Saturday, Nov. 6 edition of The Tribune.