Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of my first deer hunting season in Kansas. I was 15 and too young to apply for a rifle permit. I had an archer permit but I would have gotten a spear tag had it been my only option. It seemed surreal that I was able to hunt deer in Kansas.
Some thoughts on how times have changed:
• The 1973 season was only Kansas’ eighth, and came at a time when deer were relatively new to the landscape. It was debatable whether there were enough to warrant hunting, and to some deer seemed amazingly rare. My mother had died two years earlier, and had never seen a Kansas deer despite so many weekends at state parks and thousands of miles driven to see relatives.
• It was a time when the sight of a fresh track in the snow stopped a bird hunt, and Cub Scouts combed the woods hoping to make a plaster cast of the most elusive track in Kansas. Cars pulled over to look when there were deer in a field. Every sighting was reported to family, friends and any stranger who’d listen.
• Just getting a permit was a big deal, Gun hunters drew licenses every other year at best, and though unlimited, archery tags had an early summer application period. Word spread quickly when the first arrived in town, and hopeful hunters hurried to the small town post office to check their rented boxes. I tacked my first to a bulletin board in my room and honestly looked at it every day.
• Back then, just seeing a deer while hunting was a major success. I hunted two years before I saw a deer while hunting. In our town of 2,000, no more than four or five hunters got a deer — rifle or bow — per year. All were rewarded with a photo on the front page of the weekly newspaper. Hanging a deer in the yard or open garage stopped traffic, and packed the place for hours.
• It was many years before I heard the word “just” used to describe deer, like “just a six-pointer” or “just a three-year-old.” It was a time when all deer were trophies. Taxidermy shops held rows of basket-racked bucks with finger-long tines. Many who shot does had the entire hide tanned.
• Back then, most landowners would let you hunt small game, but only half would let you hunt “their” deer because they considered the animals so special and enjoyable to see. It was 25 years before they became “their” deer again because they were worth money. We’d never have believed the day would come when kids couldn’t hunt their grandfather’s farm because it had been leased for hunting. That people would someday pay $8,000 or more to hunt Kansas deer, or anything, would have seemed equally insane.
• The gear was amazingly simple, mostly recurve bows, a few cedar or fiberglass arrows tipped with one of the four or five kinds of broadheads then commonly marketed. Old olive-drab army fatigues were about as camoed as most of us got, and we’d never heard of things like grunt calls, mock scrapes, cover scents, scent-free sprays, pop-up blinds, portable treestands, deer decoys, trail cameras, food plots, compound bows, release aids, sight pins, deer lures, magazines and television shows dedicated to deer hunting ... you get the idea. I chuckle when I think back on all the silly mistakes I made.
• Talk of getting getting five or six permits per season would have gotten you laughed out of the barber shop. Most of us didn’t see five or six deer per year, including while driving down the road. Of course, who’d have thought you could go out and see more deer per day than quail over much of the state, either. Now it’s all too common.
• Then about the only B&C book we worried about was Betty and Crocker. Nobody knew a thing about cooking venison, and so many mistakes were made. A buddy used the fat from his first deer to make venison burger. That fat, by the say, is incredibly gamey and sticks to the roof of your mouth like peanut butter. Fortunately, my stepmom was one of the first to figure out some great recipes.
• I would never have believed I’d some day enjoy the kind of bowhunting success I’ve come to take for granted — passing up a buck in hopes of getting a bigger buck? Expecting to see deer every trip afield? While I still enjoy it all, I still think wrapping my fingers around the antlers of the first buck I ever killed, though closer to my smallest than my biggest, meant more to me than the biggest buck or bull I’ve killed since. I can still remember how he smelled, and what the fur felt like in my cold fingers.
I often think how much I miss the simplicity of those old times, and how every aspect of hunting deer in Kansas was a huge adventure. The hunting has gotten easier and more successful, but I’m not really sure it’s gotten better.