It’s a safe bet that there are more vacation days used on November 15 in the state of Michigan than on any other day. It’s the traditional opening day for Michigan’s regular firearm deer season and for most, it’s a holiday better than any other. Like Remnar Soady said in Jeff Daniels’ film set in an Upper Peninsula deer camp, Escanaba in Da Moonlight, “It’s like Christmas with guns.”
How big of a deal is Michigan’s deer hunting tradition? Last year, over 640,000 hunters purchased at least one deer tag in the state according to the Department of Natural Resources license sales division. To let that sink in, there are about 540,000 soldiers in the United States Army right now, not including the National Guard. In 2012, Michigan deer hunters harvested around 419,000 whitetail deer. If personal deer sightings are any indication, 2013 should be a good year as well.
Michigan firearm deer hunters make up an army unto themselves, the Blaze-orange Army. As kids we learn about the importance of the hunt and what it means to not only those of us that hunt, but the economy and health of the state as a whole.
Some hunters travel across the length of the state to hunt deer. I’m sure the traffic on the Mackinac Bridge more than triples in the days leading up to opening morning. I fondly recall working at a sporting goods store and helping stock up the shelves wtih hand warmers, rifle ammunition, hats, gloves, and socks, all before taking off on my own adventure.
Building the heritage
Many of us start hunting at a young age. We learn from all the hunting stories of our families and all of the traditions, too. For some of us, it’s traveling to deer camp. For others, it’s wearing the same boots or hunting from the same blind season after season. We remember our first hunts and, of course, our first successes.
I remember my first buck. I was hunting with some high-school buddies way back when. We were doing our first deer camp, hunting a chunk of state land in Manistee County. My friends, who had hunted the same land for years beforehand, set me up in a spot that I suspect wasn’t optimal, but I was eager to go anyway.
I was hunting with an inherited rifle, my father’s .30-06 Winchester Model 70. I climbed into my brush blind at the base of a huge maple tree and hunkered down, waiting for sunlight to brighten things up and raise the temperature. There were more leaves clinging to trees that year than you’d normally expect in November. I remember that because it had impacted my squirrel hunting in the weeks leading up to deer season.
The first 45 minutes of daylight passed with little activity, but soon I saw the unmistakable legs of a deer moving through the brush on the edge of a clearing roughly 50 yards away. The buck stepped out and I had to try for a shot. I pulled up my rifle, steadied myself, lined up the crosshairs of the scope on its front shoulder, and fired. Miss! After that I really began to shake. I think I was on autopilot because I don’t remember deciding to work the bolt and shooting again—but as the deer bolted for the other side of the clearing, I made a second shot that found its mark. The buck wasn’t huge, but had a big body and was, in my opinion, the greatest buck shot that morning.
My friends all came running at the sounds of the shooting to congratulate me. Well, I think they were congratulating me. There was a lot of name calling, high-fiving, and all the other stuff that guys do. My buck was paraded around before finding its place on the buck pole, another one of the great traditions of Michigan deer hunting.
That hunt was many opening days ago, but I still can picture the buck breaking cover and walking out into the clearing. The memory is as crisp and clear now as the air was that morning.
These days, I hunt even more than I did in my youth, and always plan for November 15 as a special day. There are all kinds of cool new gadgets and do-dads available for deer season, but I often find myself grabbing the same rifle I used long ago and sitting in the same spot on the family farm. The deer have worn a deep groove in the dirt from using the same trail over and over again. You can even see it in satellite images.
There are a couple of new regulations in effect for this firearm deer season that will help preserve the hunt for future hunters. The most important in my mind is the apprentice license option for hunters 10 years old or older. Now families can take their son or daughter out and teach them how to hunt at an earlier age, instilling the desire to take part in the tradition much sooner. My son is only eight, but he will still go with me to the blind for at least one morning’s sit. He won’t carry a gun, but he wants to go hunting with dad. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t care if we even see a deer—which we probably won’t, knowing his tendency to be somewhat chatty.
Another new regulation for this season is an antler point restriction for the cluster of counties in the northwest Lower Peninsula. While I’ve never been a trophy hunter, at least on my home ground, I do support this. There were more spikes and fork horns on my trail cameras this year than in years past. While I’d let them walk anyway, I’m glad to know they will most likely get a pass from other hunters as well, getting the chance to grow a little bigger and pass along their genes. I have enough antlerless tags to cover my meat needs for the year and a healthy supply of does running around.
Hunter numbers may fluctuate every season, but I think they will always remain constant as long as there is a large and healthy deer herd. Rules can and will change, but they often help in the end, regardless of how they are received initially. Some businesses will thrive during deer season, while others will close down, but just for a little while—and they’ll keep a “Gone Hunting” sign in the window. Come November 15 and until the close of the regular season on November 30, schools that are still open will have a lot fewer kids in class. It’s no surprise that Thanksgiving falls during this time. If it’s one thing Michigan hunters are thankful for, it’s the heritage of the firearm deer season.
Images courtesy Derrek Sigler