Start New Adult Hunters On Deer, Not Squirrels. Here are Three Reasons Why.

July 26, 2023 By: Hank Forester

“Would you like to try some squirrel?” I’d ask Swanny Evans as we manned our Field to Fork booth. We were waiting to share venison samples with passersby at the Athens, Georgia Farmer’s Market, where we tested a new approach to adult hunter recruitment. It was our inside joke, as I never thought squirrel samples would have worked as well as venison did every time we went out to recruit new hunters. 

Small game such as squirrel and rabbit would seem to be a logical first step in a new hunter’s education. It’s still a part of student hunter-recruitment programs Swanny and I started at the University of Georgia, and we took Athens Field to Fork participants rabbit hunting in the winter, after deer season ended. While it can be a good idea to start kids on small game, my Field to Fork experience shows that deer hunting is the best arena for recruiting and mentoring new adult hunters.

Here are the reasons why I suggest you skip small game and go directly for deer any time you are introducing other adults to hunting.

Venison Has Bigger Appeal

Venison is just more appealing than small game. While small game is fine table fare, it’s not as common on American dinner tables, and so non-hunters perceive it as more exotic or even strange. When we would talk to people at the farmer’s market, most reported having tried venison in the past. Venison was interesting and typically appealing to market attendees. Many were quickly drawn to hear more about how they might learn to acquire their own wild venison.

Food is a big attraction to hunting for new participants. Putting 40 to 50 pounds of venison in the freezer in a single successful hunt is a big selling point for deer hunting. Photo: Seth Vanderband. Lead photo: Marc Moline.

Field to Fork has found an audience hungry for ways to procure local, wild, sustainable food, so pounds per unit of effort is important. Nothing is as attractive to a food-focused new hunter as 40 to 50 pounds of venison in the freezer after a single successful hunt. As a hunter, you know the feeling of providing for the table and sharing your harvest with friends and family. For many of us, small game adds a little variety to the freezer, but we fill it with deer. Help new hunters do the same.

Also, venison diplomacy – the recruiting of new hunters or new supporters through the sharing of meals – is possible because there is ample supply. Many of our successful Field to Fork hunters share their bounty of venison with their friends, magnifying the recruitment potential. We just had a Michigan volunteer donate the venison from two does to be used for meals at Field to Fork events on NDA’s Back40 property. Deer hunting provides so many meals that there are entire donation systems built around venison. 

Deer Are Accessible

Those freezer-filling units of wild meat are also widely accessible. Deer are the number one big game species in the world, the most populous, and with the largest range of any other big game species. Though down from recent highs, deer populations are still higher than at any time in history. Importantly, the whitetail’s range covers most eastern states, where most Americans live. Little wonder deer are the most hunted game species in the world. Whitetails offer a truly unique opportunity for food-focused hunting. 

Deer are abundant in eastern states where most Americans live, and even in suburban areas. Expanded seasons in these areas intended to manage deer numbers mean opportunity for new hunters is also abundant. Photo: Seth Vanderband

Deer are likely in your backyard and thrive in the fringe of human disturbance and suburban development, putting them in reach of mass numbers of Americans. No other species offers both hunters and aspiring hunters an opportunity like urban archery deer hunting, which in many cases involves extended hunting seasons, too. It’s a great hunting opportunity where a majority of Americans live.

A large number of our Field to Fork programs also take advantage of early and late antlerless rifle seasons which are offered to help hunters to harvest more antlerless deer for herd management. I hope we continue to expand these opportunities, and I think we should include mentored, new, adult hunters in special opportunities like youth and veteran’s seasons.

Perhaps because deer are abundant, public approval of deer hunting always ranks higher than for less populous species, like elk, moose and bears. Turkey hunting is usually second to deer in approval. Again, this high approval for deer hunting works in your favor when inviting non-hunters to learn about hunting.

Deer Hunting is Where We All Want to Go

Big-game hunters outnumber small-game hunters roughly three to one. Our national hunting statistics also show small game hunting only accounts for 29% of days afield compared to big game. So three times more current hunters prefer to hunt big game than small game. 

“Modern hunters choose deer hunting over small game three to one, and in my experience, new adult hunters do, too.”

Think about that for a minute. Why recruit new hunters to do what we ourselves desire less? Squirrel hunting might be the best place to start a 6-year-old, but adults have the maturity, independence, drive and desire to tackle big-game hunting with your guidance.

You could argue that small game hunting is cheaper, as expenditures are only 11% of the money spent to pursue big game. But through sharing, your mentorship and assistance can cut down on many initial costs for a new deer hunter until they can decide what else they need to buy. We have not observed cost to be a barrier to most of our Field to Fork recruits. After participating with borrowed gear, many eagerly go out and buy optics, camouflage, deer stands, archery equipment, rifles – even hunting land.

Also, only the most basic small-game hunting is inexpensive. Most of the great small-game hunting I have experienced involved the use of good dogs – a major expenditure both in time and cost that is probably overlooked. 

Deer First Doesn’t Mean Deer Only

Small-game hunting can be a social activity, and that’s important for building camaraderie and community in learn-to-hunt programs. We make sure our Field to Fork programs provide ample social support, and small game hunts can enhance this aspect.

NDA’s Athens Branch holds annual rabbit hunts for its Field to Fork hunters after deer season. Small-game hunting can be a social activity, and that builds camaraderie and community. Photo: Hank Forester

For example, for the Athens Field to Fork program that continues today, rabbit hunts are a great way to get the gang back together after the fall deer season. They turn out to be both social and educational. We typically hunt rabbits in the morning and wrap-up around noon with a wild-game meal. By incorporating small-game hunting into our program, we have found the sweet spot for mentoring deer hunters.

As you can see, I’m not here to discourage small-game hunting, but I maintain that deer hunting is the best bang for your buck in opportunity to pursue game while helping a new hunter fill their freezer. Modern hunters choose deer hunting over small game three to one, and in my experience, new adult hunters do, too.