ESCANABA - It's hard to believe that the opening day of the firearm deer hunting season has come and gone. A glowing ember of enthusiasm keeps the spirit of anticipation alive as in just 361 days it will start all over again.
Today marks my 44th deer season as a hunter. I was able to participate in hunting as a kid a few years prior, accompanying my father and brothers, nimrods all, in pursuit of the wily whitetail. Even though I didn't carry a real gun, I got to wear red plaid head-to-toe and mingle amongst the big guys that did.
I now sit and reflect on the changes in the ritual of hunting that we've seen in the last four decades.
Forty years ago you walked and stalked the woods and fields, marking tracks and trails, working into the wind to maybe find a wandering buck. Now referred to as still hunting, it is one of the most challenging techniques used on deer and probably one of the least used by hunters.
The mechanized travel advantages of today in getting into the deep reaches of forest land where deer reside has enabled a wider distribution of hunters with varying expertise. It has increased the odds of making a kill, provided of course there are still deer in the area.
When I was coming of age as a hunter, there was a lot of woods harvest activity that manipulated the landscape and concentrated deer. It was relatively easy to figure out where and how to hunt the upcoming season based on harvest activity.
There are those who would argue against that, but the proof positive to the theory came from participating several years in the annual "Deer Pellet Survey" with the late MDNR Wildlife Biologist Dick Aartila. He was one of the most respected biologists the U.P. had ever seen.
The program was designed to achieve a constant that showed deer activity based on random patterns of grids that were first set by computer selection and kept under study for five year intervals. Deer pellets found to have been deposited after leaf drop within the grids were marked for five years. The formula of how the numbers work came from research by retired biologist John Ozoga who set many standards of deer research still used today.
In essence, the summation showed any changes that reflected increases or decreases in deer activity within the area. The numbers were consistent in the study and showed that deer moved towards cutting for food sources, especially during the winter months.
Knowing what the pellet survey showed from the previous year made it easy to figure a scouting plan for the coming fall.
Today, we see the forest trails lined with cameras that utilize digital technology and infrared imaging, all stored on wafer size cards that can be changed in seconds and then later downloaded on computer. Hunters can view any and every deer that comes into view and determine where a hot spot may exist.
Unfortunately, for many, the deer don't always adhere to your plans.
The use of bait has also transitioned hunting focus, again why still hunting has all but vanished for many.
When I was a kid, you bathed in "Deer Hunter's Soap", an exclusive product that was developed here in the UP by an avid sportsman, the late Ray Sabuco. It left a scent to mask human odor. Otherwise, you looked for a trail between feeding and bedding areas and set up an intercept point to take a deer.
Another anomaly of today is whether or not a hunter can take an antlerless deer (a doe) in addition to a legal buck.
I can remember back when we carried a license pinned on our backs, held in place in a vinyl sleeve that was windowed for view that we were in fact legal hunters. There were separate tags used to mark your deer after the kill.
During that same period we saw a transition where hunting evolved from bucks only to allowing antlerless deer hunting and it created an unprecedented uproar not seen before. Hate mail received daily in the MDNR Lansing headquarters was measured by the inches rather than individual count.
Years later, with herd size adequate to expectations within the Deer Management Units (DMUs) across the UP, harvest quotas remained lucrative and in some regards had us spoiled for a period because there was no reason you wouldn't have an opportunity to take at least one deer a year no matter where you hunted.
One thing I've learned is that the amount of deer present is mostly based on the environment and habitat conditions through the year, especially during the stressful winter months. Severe winters in the mid-1990's and lack of recovery has seen most DMUs shut down for antlerless hunting, some staying well under desired quotas.
Multiple seasons and options have made competition for a quality buck more intense and the former attitude of anything legal was open for shooting has changed to being more selective and the "Let-em go, Let-em Grow" mind set.
It has been intriguing to witness all these changes. I like how we are now looking more towards the future and long term needs of deer management. It assures me that as long as I have a chance to participate, I can have fun and continue learning along with my kids and then their kids, and deer hunting will remain one of the most cherished activities of my life.
Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.