Deer hunting traditions trump harsh weather

Surrounded by the hardwoods and the hard falling snow in the three-generation deer camp, Sandy Chappelow of Geneva allowed a grin to spread over his craggy face in satisfaction of just being out for another firearms opening day at 84.

In 1963, Chappelow harvested his first whitetail deep in the woods in the Hoosier National Forest area.

“I killed a year-and-a-half-old buck,” said Chappelow, this year hunting with a son and a grandson. “It weighed 117 pounds.”

Opening day Nov. 12 when it snowed about 3 inches and temperatures hovered between 28 and 32 degrees did not bench him. One member of the party commented his gun felt like an icicle. But the family was on a 10-day excursion, toasted by a fire, a snow-coated axe leaning on a large pile of firewood amidst the tall hickory and oak trees.

“In 1963?” asked Indiana Conservation Officer Rob Klakamp as he dodged smoke blowing from a fire. “Back then, you were lucky to see a deer.”

Klakamp termed the first day of Indiana firearms deer hunting a “Hoosier holiday.” It is just about Klakamp’s busiest of the year. Klakamp, 47, in his seventh year as a conservation officer, grew up hunting the area and knows the backroads and backcountry well.

Starting about 6 a.m., Klakamp drove 120 miles in nine hours in his green, obviously labeled “conservation officer” truck through the 200,000-acre Hoosier National Forest, to the Monroe Reservoir, to Brown County and past private land.

Klakamp checked the authenticity of camouflage- and orange-clad hunters — all of them male this day — pursuing meat for the freezer or big antlers for the record books.

Chappelow was the oldest hunter met and a 15-year-old the youngest. Both being in the woods made Klakamp smile.

Snow for opening day

Checking the forecast ahead of time, Klakamp said frosty temperatures forecast good shooting.

“The hunting should be really good,” he said.

Under Department of Natural Resources rules, shooting time began at 7:24 a.m., though many hunters clambered out of bed much earlier to ascend deer stands or hike to favorite spots. Off-and-on the snow was quite thick, yet the hardy ignored the air’s chill. Just two days before, the thermometer hit 75 degrees.

“If it’s opening day, it’s either snowing or raining,” shrugged hunter Justin Pickford.

Branches became weighted with wet snow, though some brown leaves clung to their trees as if hanging desperately by fingernails.

Klakamp circled dirt roads, pulling into camps, parking next to trucks roadside. He confirmed licenses were legit and just chatted up the men of the woods. His job may be law enforcement, but it’s fine with him if he doesn’t find wrong-doers.

“I’d just as soon check a lot of happy hunters,” said Klakamp, something which applies to himself.

Klakamp took a week’s vacation to bow hunt prior to the firearms opener and following opening day firearms hunted on a day off.

Most hunters, more than 90%, Klakamp said, are law-abiding, care about the resource and resent those who break the law, such as taking game out of season, illegally harvesting too many of a species or shooting from the road. He did not spot a violator all day but issued three citation warnings for not tagging a harvested deer fast enough.

Last year — much bigger deal — Klakamp saw a hunter in the act of shooting at a department-placed decoy from the window of his vehicle.

“He ran from me,” Klakamp said.

That hunter was caught.

Each opening day encounter ended the same way.

“I shake everybody’s hand,” Klakamp said.

However, in this age of COVID-19, the disease receding or not, Klakamp keeps hand sanitizer handy.

Deer almost vanished

Nonhunters probably do not comprehend the scope and popularity of Indiana deer hunting.

In 2021, Indiana sold 156,968 deer licenses, resident, nonresident, archery and firearms, said Linnea Petercheff, DNR licensing and permits supervisor. Last year’s deer harvest was 112,482, thought it was 124,180 in 2020.

An outfit called Precision Outdoors reports that nationwide deer hunting has a $20 billion economic impact through equipment purchases, travel expenditures and the like and is responsible for creation of 200,000 jobs.

Indiana does not know the financial impact of deer hunting within the state, but a study is underway to quantify it.

Despite Klakamp spotting just a single roaming deer in the woods on opening day, Hoosiers are normally used to seeing deer in abundance the rest of the year. They are likely to be astonished to hear once whitetails were in short supply and dwindling nationwide and in the state.

By the latter part of the 19th century, too much vigorous hunting combined with lack of game laws resulted in reduction of deer herds.

One source indicates in the early years of the 1900s, the U.S. deer population was estimated being as low as 215,000 animals. Through hunting regulation and conservation, whitetails made an astounding recovery, and by the 2000s, the population was estimated at 30 million.

Indiana’s story was similar. Petercheff said after a recorded 1893 kill in Knox County, deer were absent from the state until the 1930s. DNR forebears embarked on a repopulation effort, initially releasing 296 deer transplanted from Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Michigan.

Abandoned farmlands, Brown County State Park and Harrison State Forest were stocked between 1934 and 1942. By 1944, the Indiana deer herd reached 1,200 and had spread to 35 counties.

In 1951, responding to agricultural depredation and growth of the herd to about 5,000, for the first time in 58 years, Indiana authorized a deer hunting season. Except for 1957, Indiana has conducted a hunt every year since under varying regulations.

Chappelow may well have harvested one of the earlier deer taken in southern Indiana in 1963. But much smaller herd sizes shaped Klakamp’s comment on the rarity of seeing deer then.

A prized first deer

Chris Norris of Austin was stationed in the woods 18 feet high in a tree stand well before first light fighting sleep.

“I had my eyes closed and I heard something,” said Norris, 15.

The sound woke him, and he peered into the gloom just past 7:30 a.m. Dreamlike, an eight-pointer was strolling within 25 yards. Norris aimed his .44 Magnum.

“Pow!” he said. “It ran about 60 yards. As soon as I shot it, it started snowing.”

It was as if the weather provided a seasonal announcement of “Merry Christmas.” Then Norris made his own declaration with a broad smile: “My first deer.”

He straddled the deer and raised the head, showing off antlers, then displayed the shell casing he retrieved. Everyone remembers their first deer, and this was a good one to commemorate.

Drivers may curse snow on the highway, but outdoorsmen often revel in fresh snow and wintry weather. It makes them feel more alive.

Wes Allen of Mooresville and three friends were spread over flatland bounded by tall trees in their seventh year together for opening day. The deer he bloodied ran across a field and died near a road.

Beginning to dress it, Allen was unfazed by freezing air.

“No, not bad,” he said. “It doesn’t get much better than snow on the ground. This is beautiful.”

Milo Mossman of Mineral Springs woke at 3:45 a.m. and was in the field early. In his first time hunting the area, a 60-yard shot put down an eight-point buck from a deer stand located a half-mile hike from a road.

The 190-pound deer fell downhill from a ridge, an advantage for hauling the carcass out. However, after trudging through the snow to a friend’s parked truck to obtain a hand cart, Mossman found the doors locked. Stuck outside until the driver returned, he was still thrilled, holding up a cellphone photo of his deer.

“I haven’t had a workout like this in about four years, said Mossman, who kept inhaling deeply. “I’m wore out.”

But he was also salivating, saying he couldn’t wait to cook up venison burgers.

Indiana deer bigger

From nothing to giants. Recently, Indiana has received national attention for hunters harvesting large, trophy bucks and gaining record-book attention from the Boone and Crockett Club.

In July, Outdoor Life published a story headlined “Indiana Now the Top Trophy Whitetail State, Here’s Why.” Boone and Crockett itself published a story titled “Indiana’s Big Whitetail Buck Revival.”

While no hunters Klakamp visited on opening day shot a huge deer creating such a sensation, there has been a growing sense Indiana is now one of the finest places to hunt whitetail.

On Nov. 4 of last year, Dustin Huff, 27, was on a hog farm he had hunted since he was a youth and bagged an Indiana state record 211 4/8-inch deer. It is the largest “typical” deer, as the scoring goes, ever taken in the United States.

While such a monster is not typical by any definition, in 2019 and 2020, Indiana led Boone and Crockett entries, provoking comment.

State deer biologist Joe Caudell said those articles sparked nonresident hunter interest. However, Indiana has been a big-buck player for some time.

“They were making the all-time list,” Caudell said. “It was just overlooked.”

High-quality soil and farm ground coupled with a 2000 DNR rule limiting hunters to a single buck this season has led to more record-book bucks taken, he said.

“The one-buck rule means you’re going to let other deer walk,” Caudell said. “It causes people who want to do that (hunt trophies) to have to make a choice.”

Boone and Crockett called the one-buck rule “a game-changer in terms of herd health, hunter satisfaction and trophy buck entries.”

The bucks passed up live to roam another day.

“I can see a steady increase in age,” Caudell said. “I talk to a sample of out-of-state hunters. They’re going somewhere they perceive they have a chance of getting a big deer.”

Recently, that place is often Indiana.

Deer camp differences

Old school. Anyone deer hunting with a flintlock rifle in 2022 fits that category, such as Tim Byrket and his grown son Connor of Spiceland. They spent opening day pursuing the modern-day deer with a weapon introduced in the 16th century. Those rifles fire through a flint-striking mechanism, requiring half-cocking the hammer.

Connor’s rifle was built from a kit.

“This is its first trip into the woods,” he said.

Tim began building his own flintlock 30 years ago. Then he let it sit a long while before fine-tuning it. On opening day, he shot his first buck with that gun, a deer soon reclining in the flatbed of his truck. Tim felled his deer after eyeing it through a scope.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to take this shot,’” he said.

He shot and wasn’t positive it was a sure shot, so he fired again. Upon examination, he realized he put both shots in the same place, through the liver. Two bullseyes.

On his rounds, the closest Klakamp came to seeing violations was reaching hunters before they tagged their animal. Under Indiana law, a deer must be tagged immediately. Three times, Klakamp wrote warning citations for hunters who downed a deer but had not yet tagged it.

Klakamp even checked one deer hoisted on a tree next to a Heineken cardboard box sculpted into a deer. It was called “the beer deer.”

“I still tagged it,” joked Scott Armacost, 50, a former Hoosier living in Georgia who traveled 550 miles to hang at deer camp, as he has since 1987.

A gang of 25 or so friends clustered at that deer camp at Combs Creek spent as much time partying as hunting. They, their fathers and grandfathers have gathered at the site for more than 40 years.

Armacost did not demur at the notion the camp was somewhat akin to “Animal House.” Some frat members only partied. Some followed deer camp tradition, which included partying. Though not hunting this year, Armacost recalled harvesting his first deer in 1989 at this camp.

“A doe, right here at the top of the hill,” he said.

A genuine deer, not a beer deer. However, both seemed staples of this Hoosier holiday.