Predictions on hunter numbers, increased harvests, travel trends, and more in the year of COVID-19
It's been a strange and difficult year, but hang in there because deer season is right around the corner. As I, like you, look forward to some much-needed treestand therapy, I can't help but wonder: This pandemic has affected everything in our lives for the last six months. How might it impact our hunting this fall?
Here are some things I expect to happen.
The first wave of the pandemic back in the spring coincided with the 2020 turkey season. Locked out of work and virtually everything else, with more free time on their hands than ever, many people who had never hunted turkeys before decided to buy a license and give it a shot. Indiana, for example, saw a 28% surge in turkey license sales. Georgia and other states reported similar increases.
The trend continued into the summer fishing season, with license sales up sharply in many states from Vermont to Minnesota to California.
Hunting and fishing are things people love to do but don't have time to do, said Vermont Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter. Now, because of COVID-19, they do have the time.
Many wildlife managers believe this trend will carry on into deer season. I agree, to a point.
While there will be a lot of pain in the outfitting business this year, this will lead to some spectacular big-buck opportunities in 2021 and beyond.
Back in May I predicted there would be a huge surge in the number of deer hunters for two main reasons. More spare time, for sure. But remember the food and meat shortages back then, and worries about disruptions in the supply chain? I expected the locavore/foodie movement to really take off in the woods as people concerned about their food source would look to shoot a deer or two for the freezer this fall.
Now the fear of meat shortages has subsided, and that will temper the surge in hunter numbers that I had predicted.
There will be more hunters in the woods this fall, both newbies and reactivated sportsmen (some people who used to hunt deer but stopped will have more time to give it another go). How many more hunters remains to be seen, but even a 2% to 5% uptick in license sales would be good. Hunter numbers have been declining rapidly in recent years, and we need all the new people we can get.
Hunting Close to Home
For the millions of you who hunt deer on private ground near home, the 2020 season will look pretty much like any other. Go out like you always have, have a good time, clear your mind, and shoot any buck that makes you happy.
But if you hunt public land, things could be different. Ninety percent of the new hunters this fall will be forced to hunt on public land. If you hunt a large national forest or wildlife management area, you should not have many problems. But if your honey hole is a small state area, you could certainly see more pressure.
It couldn't hurt to get proactive now. Head out to a public spot and scout out two or three more ridges and draws for stand locations. If a new hunter moves too close to your favorite spot in a few months, you'll have options.
Increased Deer Harvests
Across the U.S., hunters kill approximately 2.9 million bucks and 2.8 million does each year. With more people hunting this fall, those numbers will rise, though I do not expect to see a dramatic increase in the harvest.
The new hunters will be looking for meat, not antlers, and they will target both does and immature bucks. In the last few years, as experienced hunters have been selective and waited for older deer, the number of yearling bucks (1 1/2 years of age) in the harvest has been 30% to 35%. I do see that number rising, maybe to 40% or more in 2020. If a newbie sees a spike or forkhorn come by close, he or she is going to whack it. More power to them, I say — shoot what makes you happy.
Whitetail Road Trips … or Lack Thereof
Fall 2020 will not be the year of the traveling deer hunter. People who do travel to hunt will drive to their destination. Air travel to hunting spots out West or up North (the Canadian border is currently closed and could still be come deer season) will be light to almost nonexistent. Even the best outfitters will hurt for clients, and many will be forced out of business.
While there will be a lot of pain in the outfitting business this year, this will lead to some spectacular big-buck opportunities in 2021 and beyond. Say a whitetail outfitter normally takes 25 clients a year, but this fall he'll take only four or five who drive in from a neighboring state. That means approximately 20 bucks will not be harvested in his area, allowing those deer to mature and grow another year.
Multiply this one outfitter by 1,000 guides across North America who are in the same boat, and in theory you'll have better age structure and tens of thousands of bigger bucks roaming the woods next fall.
My best advice is to hunt near home this fall and do the best you can. If you want to plan an out-of-state hunt for a dream buck, 2021 or 2022 will be the year to do it.