"You're lucky down in Ohio," said Rod Clute, big-game specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
He was talking about deer hunting, which might surprise most hunters, given the long, rich tradition of deer hunting in Michigan. His remark takes a little explaining.
Unlike such states as Michigan and Pennsylvania, Ohio is a relative newcomer to deer hunting, at least on a large scale. Its tradition is young, having evolved only in the last 30 to 40 years. It evolved in an era of enlightened deer management, one in which taking of antlerless deer - females (does) and button bucks - generally has been a part of the annual harvest plan by the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
More importantly, it also has evolved as part of the general mindset among Buckeye deer hunters. It is OK, acceptable, to bag antlerless deer, not a mark against your manhood. The importance of nurturing that thinking cannot be overstated. It is essential to good deer management and good herd health.
The outmoded, unworkable bucks-only seasons that ruled in much of the 20th century resulted in horribly unbalanced deer herds in such states as Michigan and Pennsylvania. That has not been part of the Ohio equation, and as a result the state has one of the healthiest, better balanced herds in the country.
In recent years game managers in Michigan and Pennsylvania and other former bucks-only states have been scrambling to instill this enlightened outlook into their hunting ranks.
This enlightened management also values the hunter, especially the antlerless deer hunter, as a necessary part of the management team. By implication it also reinforces the fact that a big set of antlers has nothing to do with manliness. Big antlers may not even have anything to do with hunting ability, though in many cases it may.
No system, of course, is perfect. And deer are not distributed evenly across any state's habitat. Virtually all states with white-tailed deer are struggling with too many deer in urban/suburban areas where hunting is either not permitted or officialy frowned upon.
And no doubt some reader of this space will complain by filing an exception to the rule. Someone else will grouse that he no longer sees the deer he used to see in his camp, but will not take into consideration habitat changes, human development, or other factors which may have caused a population redistribution in a partricular area. But exceptions do not
invalidate rules, nor should they become the norm.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission, in its Web site feature on frequently asked questions, gives a succinct answer to why antlerless deer should be in the annual harvest.
"Antlerless deer are the linchpin of deer management because they are the herd's reproducers [excepting button bucks]," the PGC states. "Through issuing antlerless deer licenses the game commission controls herd reproduction by limiting or expanding the population's breeding base. It's also important to harvest females because male and female fawns are born in equal numbers and maintaining too many females would be unnatural.
"Some people disagree with shooting antlerless deer; they reason that protecting them - thus maintaining a maximum breeding base - will assure large numbers of antlered bucks because terrific numbers of deer will be born each year and button bucks wouldn't be harvested.
"But bear in mind, a smaller herd in balance can produce as many fawns as an oversized herd on poor range. Does have fewer young when habitat quality is lacking.
"Overall, a deer is a deer, and hunting antlerless deer is recreation, a pursuit hundreds of thousands of hunters annually partricipate in. We harvest female bears, wild turkeys, grouse, rabbits, and variety of other game. Why not deer?"
Deer managers in different states may state the equation slightly differently, but it all adds up to the same thing. Taking antlerless deer nowadays more than ever is critical.
Despite record or near-record bags in recent years in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, the deer herd just has not been reduced. Herds in many if not most states are above target levels.
Ohio now has a record 700,000 deer, Michigan has about 1.75 million, the same as a year ago despite a harvest of 495,000. Pennsylvania's herd also is the same as a year ago at some 1.6 million.
Such figures are almost worrisome, given aggressive antlerless-deer-management regulations in some states. The worrisome part is that controlling the reproductive capacity of deer, especially with such robust herd numbers, is like keeping a foot on a giant coiled spring. Take away your foot and - boom.
Bob Stoll, a retired Ohio deer biologist who witnessed the growth and expansion of the state herd to its current big-league status in the 1980s and 1990s, once worried that the long-term problem to deer management might be an insufficient number of hunters. His concern may be coming home to roost. Wildlife agencies everywhere at least quietly are concerned about a long, if slow, decline in hunting ranks.
If you want to hunt for that special buck, fine and good. Take the challenge to the max. But sometime before the season is through, challenge yourself to a doe or two [where permitted]. If all that venison is too much for your family, share it with the needy.
There are plenty of programs, such as Sportsmen Against Hunger, that will help you channel excellent venison to the needy. Here are some appropriate agency Web sites to locate such programs: www.ohiodnr.com, www.michigan.gov/dnr, and www.pgc.state.pa.us.
You'll be helping others, and helping the health of the herd as well.