I remember how excited I’d get the Thursday before opening day of gun season. I’d get home from school and my dad was already loading up our 1974 Chevy Blazer. He’d be packing the essentials that were needed for a weekend at deer camp: hunting clothes, orange vests, sleeping bags and about a week’s worth of food. He’d pack it neat and orderly, and then check it off a typed-up list.
“What can I do to help?” I’d ask.
He’d scan his list.
“Go down to the basement and get me that red cooler, boy,” he’d say.
I’d go running down there, bring it back and then he’d have another something for me to go fetch. I didn’t mind. It was all part of getting ready for that first hunt of the year. To me, the last few hours before gun season held greater anticipation than Christmas morning.
One of the beauties about opening day was that dad would yank me out of school Friday afternoon. It may have sounded like a short day at school, but that morning crawled on and on while I waited for 12 o’clock.
When he finally arrived we headed south of Atlanta, me smiling and leaving the rest of the world behind me. Trucks packed with deer stands and coolers lined the interstate… it was excitement on the freeway. Our destination was Coweta County, just outside of Moreland. Dad worked with Gleason Poole, who owned 30 acres of land and had invited us to hunt.
The whole way there I kept thinking about the next morning. Would I see a deer? Would I get a shot?
We’d arrive before Gleason, so we’d unlock the trailer, turn the gas on and then there was enough time to check out the woods for the next morning.
Out behind the trailer there was an old logging road that led through some pines to a kudzu field. At the kudzu field there were always several deer trails that would intersect, and it was just a good spot to see deer.
My ground blind from the year before would still be intact, but we’d quietly toss on a few green limbs for added protection. Then we’d head back to the trailer for what would be a sleepless night in Moreland.
I can remember my very first opening morning — I saw five does! That was in the late 1980s, a time when Coweta County’s opening day didn’t include doe days. I remember not being able to stand it until doe days started — it would be like another opening day.
The only deer I killed in Moreland on opening day was a small 8-pointer that I peppered with 00 buckshot. I sure was proud.
I can remember hearing 30 or 40 shots on each gun opener, more than any day of the season, except for maybe that first doe day.
Opening day in Moreland always included a trip to Moore’s Deer Cooler to see what the locals had done. About 11 o’clock that place was usually packed with solid orange. After that it was a lunch of Beenie Weenies, roasted peanuts and a Coca-Cola. The Dawgs were usually on, and we’d watch it on a black/white TV where I just hoped I could see through the snow-filled screen. We were just killing time until the afternoon hunt.
I remember those days like they were yesterday. Man… opening day was special back then. What happened? Now I can’t even remember where I was for last year’s gun opener.
You may be thinking that since I was a kid opening day just meant a lot more. That could be part of it, but as an lifelong hunter and an editor of this magazine, I’ve really seen the excitement that so many folks used to put in to opening day dwindle.
Don’t get me wrong. You’ll see your share of hunting vehicles headed south on I-75 the afternoon before gun season will start. I just think you’d have seen a lot more 20 years ago. Why?
First and foremost, hunter numbers have dropped drastically in 20 years. In 1985, Georgia had 322,744 hunters. Last year there were only 268,561 hunters.
I picked up the phone last week to discuss this topic with several hunters. Despite lower hunter numbers, these guys believe the excitement of opening day has lessened due to several other factors.
“Basically I think it’s just so easy to kill a deer these days that it’s not as big a deal to go as it used to be,” said Ricky Smith, a deer-cooler operator in Newborn. “I’d say my opening-day business is down at least 10 percent just in recent years. Back in the late 1960s and early 70s, opening weekend was like Christmas morning. I used to get real excited. I lived in Rockdale County, and we’d go down to Gray on the Friday before and sometimes hunt until Monday or Tuesday.”
Ricky laughs when he thinks about the deer population back then.
“Back then if you even saw a deer you would get to tell your story around the campfire that night,” said Ricky.
According to WRD deer data, there were an estimated 198,000 deer in the 1970-71 season. Today, we’ve got an estimated 1.2 million deer. So, according to Ricky, opening day was a bigger deal 35 years ago when the deer population was one million animals lower than what we’ve got today. It’s funny… with more deer to hunt, folks have turned lackadaisical about getting to hit the woods opening weekend.
Ricky believes the lack of kids in the hunting population also seems to be taking a toll in opening-day business. Kids who hunt are good at nagging daddy about going to deer camp, and Ricky said a kid doesn’t want to miss the gun opener.
“When I was a kid all you had to do until you could drive was hunt,” said Ricky. “Now kids have computers, video games and TV. When I opened my cooler in 1987 there was still this rush of parents bringing kids out. Now I don’t see many kids at all.”
The same year as Ricky opened his deer cooler, the state was witnessing the highest number of whitetails it had ever seen —1,205,639. Two years earlier, in 1985, the state deer population was only 786,666.
The state was also seeing a boom in hunter numbers, 333,474 — the second highest number of hunters ever.
I believe hunters were in utter shock at this booming population of whitetail deer, and they came out of the woodwork to hunt them.
“I think with all the deer, folks were starting to realize they had a good chance to kill one,” said Ricky. “They started spreading the word.
“I’ll never forget the 1987 opening day — it was like nothing I’d ever seen. I was living in Conyers at the time and didn’t even have time to go home. I pulled my camper in the back of the shop and slept for two hours.”
Hunters killed 192,200 bucks in 1987, compared to 138,000 taken last year. So, they killed more bucks in less time — there was a December break in 1987. You can imagine more traffic for the opener than there was last year.
Ricky added that a bigger interest in hunting around the rut may have triggered some folks to stay at home opening weekend.
“Around here if you want to be hunting a mature deer around the rut, you want to hunt November 6-16,” said Ricky.
With that being said, deer season opens October 22. Are you going?
“Oh yeah I’m going opening weekend. I get fired up — it’s my passion,” said Ralph Wood.
Ralph has been president of a Hancock County club for 11 years, and he said he’s seen opening-day interest deteriorate over the years.
“Last year we had six people come opening weekend — three on Saturday and three on Sunday,” said Ralph. “We have 32 people in our club.”
Like Ricky, Ralph said he’s also seen a shift where hunters focus more on the rut than opening day.
“We had 19 there on the first Thursday in November,” said Ralph. “Larry came down there and said ‘I thought I was going to have the club to myself because it was a Thursday.’ I said, ‘Shoot it’s in the middle of the rut, everyone is down here.’”
In discussing the rut’s impact on opening-day participation, Ralph pointed his finger at GON’s rut map.
“Everybody knows the rut is the best time to get a big buck,” said Ralph. “I think the map is accurate, too. Based on what you put out, it could very well be that people are gearing up for the rut instead of opening day.
“I think in general that people have become more and more experienced in hunting, and they realize it doesn’t take opening day to kill one. It takes knowledge. I used to think if I didn’t get one opening day I wasn’t going to kill one. It made it a bigger event. I was there, I was prepared, I did everything right. After that I figured chances were slim to kill one. I guess it was because I didn’t have the experience.”
Ralph said that with the influx of magazines and TV shows devoted to hunting, there’s just a pile of education that people can use to kill a deer.
“We learn so much more about how to hunt and techniques to hunt, what to do, when to do it, hunters are realizing you don’t have to be there opening day,” said Ralph. “That’s the case with me, but I’m still fired up to go on that day, not because I think my probability is so much better. I just enjoy hunting. My job is stressful, and I use that as my rest and relaxation.”
Ralph started hunting in the late 1970s, a few years before Georgia got liberal with doe days.
“I think it was in the late 1980s when they really opened up doe days, I think the limit was three,” said Ralph. “I remember when the first doe days were special. Everybody would skip the week before and the week after to make sure the wife would let them go opening day of doe days. Now with doe days all year long it spreads it out. We’ve got all year to kill a doe.”
Ralph and I were talking, and we both agreed that if deer season were cut to a week-long season, with just a day or two for doe hunting, the entire state would shut down. He has a friend who deer hunts in Pennsylvania, a state where deer season is only a week or two long.
“His company closes for a week just for deer hunting,” said Ralph. “It’s such a family event and it’s such a short-lived event. It’s a tradition.”
WRD’s Assistant Chief of Game Management John Bowers remembers when he was entering the deer-hunting world that it was the togetherness and camaraderie that made opening weekend a had-to-be-there experience.
“Deer hunting when I was coming in was a community venture,” said John. “There’s still at least one component of deer hunting that is still that group and community effort — that’s dog-deer hunting. When I first started hunting, I was introduced through dog-deer hunting and moved into the still-hunting arena. Still, when I was introduced into that it was a community and group effort. Since then it has migrated away from that. It’s an individual competition now.”
John said the amazing amount of opportunity results in the no-rush attitude for opening day.
“By and large, in my opinion, it’s just another hunting weekend,” said John. “Let’s face it, gun season is three months long, and you have a month of archery before that. Deer season isn’t special anymore. Twenty years ago you had a month to hunt. This was all the time you got, and it was priority. You were taking two weeks of annual leave and going hunting. Now it’s like, ‘I don’t need to go this weekend, I have 11 more weeks to hunt.’”
It seems there’s an array of opinions on why the excitement of opening day has dwindled. The folks I talked with all came back to one pretty solid point: when you increase opportunity, it spreads out the participation.
People are going to hunt and they’re going to shoot deer, but I don’t think we’re seeing as much of it on opening day, like when I was a kid.