These Are the Good Old Days of Deer Hunting. Here Are 3 Ways to Ensure They Last.

February 21, 2024 By: Kip Adams

I’m fortunate to hunt on the family farm in Pennsylvania where I grew up. When I started hunting in the 1980s, we had a lot of deer, very few bucks over 1½ years old, very short seasons, and a one-deer-per-year bag limit. If you shot a doe in October with your bow, your deer season, or at least the shooting part, was over for the year! One deer per hunter per year – no exceptions.

Deer hunting in Pennsylvania 40 years ago was a lot of fun, but I never dreamed my kids would have the opportunities they do today. We still have a lot of deer, but we also have exceptional age structure for bucks and does, expanded archery, muzzleloader and rifle seasons, and a vastly increased bag limit. We can still only shoot one buck each year, but we’re flush with antlerless harvest opportunities. My kids routinely shoot more than 10 deer combined annually and couldn’t fathom having to stop at one. 

14-year-old Kip Adams with his first buck (left), a “monster” 4-pointer that was one of the biggest deer shot in his area in 1984. On the right is Kip’s son Bo who, at age 13, killed this 6½ -year-old buck in the same area. Kip’s bag limit at age 14 was one deer per season. But Bo and his sister Katie routinely shoot more than 10 deer combined annually and can’t imagine having to stop at one.

Today’s deer herd and hunting opportunities result from the hard work and determination of our state wildlife agency, NDA members, researchers, educators, hunters, landowners and others. I reap the benefits and appreciate the opportunities more than I can explain. I’ve been closer than most to Pennsylvania’s deer management program and hunting seasons over the past four decades. I’ve been educated in university wildlife programs, and I’m fortunate to have worked in the wildlife field for over three decades. 

However, when I started deer hunting as a 12-year-old I could never have predicted my future deer hunting would be as good as it is today. Deer numbers are strong, age structure is the best it’s been in over 100 years, bag limits are robust, and opportunities abound. Even with this, many hunters find reason to complain. I guess that’s just proof you can’t please everyone.

The late New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”Today’s hunting ain’t what it used to be, either, and the same will be true for my future grandkids. There’s no guarantee hunting will be better for them than it is today. In fact, given how good it is today, there’s a strong chance it won’t be as good unless we work now to sustain our success. Here are my thoughts on how we can do that.

Keep Improving Deer Habitat

Now I’m sure some reading this will argue they don’t have good hunting today. If that’s the case, then fix it. If you own land, work to enhance the habitat to create healthier deer and more attractive stand setups. We know more today than ever about enhancing every component of deer habitat. This website is full of articles on increasing food and cover in hardwood forests, pine stands and old fields. There are even more articles on food plots, and our YouTube channel has videos to complement many of these articles.

If you don’t own land, gain access by joining a hunting club or trading work for the landowner for hunting rights. I’ve gained permission in multiple states by offering to cut wood, fix fences, pick up trash, or work cows for the landowner. In addition to receiving hunting permission, I developed some great friendships without even a penny exchanging hands. Several handshakes were involved though.

If you prefer public land, many states have volunteer opportunities. Numerous NDA Branches have worked with their local habitat crews to plant food plots, cut invasive species, plant trees and more on public lands. Get involved and make a difference where you hunt. 

NDA volunteers plant tree seedlings and work on other habitat improvements at the Back 40 property in Michigan.

Private land is important for future deer hunting. Today, 88% of whitetails are shot on private land, and that number is likely to hold in the future. This emphasizes the importance of knowledgeable landowners, access, and active habitat management programs. 

Prescribed fire is used by an increasing number of private landowners today. That’s good, and it needs to continue. Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed changes to air quality regulations for urban areas that could unnecessarily impact our ability to use prescribed fire. NDA’s advocacy team is fighting these proposals on behalf of deer hunters across the whitetail’s range, but this is just one of many threats impacting our future deer hunting.

Welcome New Hunters

Currently, only 5% of the U.S. population buys a hunting license annually. We don’t get to do anything in this country because 5% agrees on its value. We get to hunt because about 80% of U.S. adults support legal, ethical, regulated hunting. 

Today’s hunters have a much higher positive image than those 50 years ago. The majority of society views today’s hunter as knowledgeable, educated and law abiding. Mostly gone is the stereotype of a fat, drunk, slob hunter. That’s a good thing, and it needs to continue. However, society’s makeup today is different from the past, and the future hunting demographics must also adjust to better reflect the makeup of society if we want to maintain high hunting approval rates.

Society’s makeup is different from the past, and future hunting demographics must also adjust to better reflect the makeup of society if we want to maintain high hunting approval rates. Urban adults, women and minorities have the same interest and motivations for learning to hunt, and NDA’s Field to Fork program is capitalizing on that opportunity.

NDA’s hunting programs are working toward this important goal. Hank Forester, NDA’s Director of Hunting, routinely challenges today’s hunters to mentor at least one new hunter each year, and importantly, to mentor someone who doesn’t look like them. Our future hunting population must include more females and minorities for us to remain relevant to society. You can help with this challenge by taking someone hunting this season. NDA’s website has all the helpful information you need to be successful with this.

Fight The Greatest Threat

There are many other factors threatening our future deer hunting, but none larger than chronic wasting disease. When I was young, hunters in the eastern U.S. had never heard of CWD, and only a fraction of western hunters knew what the acronym stood for. That’s certainly different today as the disease has been confirmed in at least 492 counties in 32 states, as well as six Canadian provinces, Finland, Korea and Norway. A few states have found it in a single county, while Wisconsin has confirmed it in 59 of its 72 counties. Twenty-three years ago, the Wisconsin DNR reported zero CWD-positive deer, and today 82% of the Badger State’s counties have it. It’s in 49 Kansas counties, 53 Nebraska counties, and it continues spreading to new counties and states.

Deer hunters can engage in the fight against CWD and help protect deer populations by submitting deer for testing when there’s an opportunity, stopping the transport of deer carcasses across state lines, and other important steps.

The vast majority of wildlife professionals view CWD as one of the largest threats to the future of deer hunting and management. The disease’s impacts are incredibly different today than they were one, two and three decades ago. The million-dollar question is what will those impacts be one, two and three decades from now? We can’t answer that with any certainty today, but fortunately there is some amazing research being conducted to help with this fight. 

Hunters are more knowledgeable than ever about ways they can help (like not transporting the high-risk parts of harvested deer), state wildlife agencies are spending resources on this threat, and we even have federal legislation appropriating revenue to help fund this battle. While we don’t have a crystal ball, we do have great evidence about how bleak our future deer herds and hunting opportunities will be if we ignore this threat or do nothing and just give in to CWD. That’s not acceptable, and NDA will do everything we can to continue the fight.

A Force for Deer Conservation

Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra died on September 22, 2015. Yankee and baseball fans worldwide mourned his passing. While he’s gone, his words of wisdom live on. “The future ain’t what it used to be” is true for baseball, and it’s true for deer hunting. 

Our future deer hunting will be impacted by how we address today’s issues including habitat management, hunter recruitment and mentoring, and CWD. I’m thankful thousands of wildlife professionals go to work for wildlife every day. I’m thankful millions of hunters pursue deer each fall and fund our wildlife management programs, and I’m thankful NDA fights for every deer hunter every day to ensure the future of wild deer, wildlife habitat and hunting.

About Kip Adams:

Kip Adams of Knoxville, Pennsylvania, is a certified wildlife biologist and NDA's Chief Conservation Officer. He has a bachelor's degree in wildlife and fisheries science from Penn State University and a master's in wildlife from the University of New Hampshire. He's also a certified taxidermist. Before joining NDA, Kip was the deer and bear biologist for the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department. Kip and his wife Amy have a daughter, Katie, and a son, Bo.