THE 5 STAGES OF THE DEER HUNTER
BY CHARLES J. ALSHEIMER
Recently a newspaper reporter asked me to reflect on my career as a writer, hunter and wildlife photographer. As I thought of how to answer the question my thoughts focused on how my incredible journey began. What I've accomplished as a writer and photographer has a base - a rock solid foundation. I am what I am because of hunting, specifically white-tailed deer hunting.
I was blessed to have been born to farm folks. My dad and grandfather operated a 500-acre potato farm in the heart of New York's famed Finger Lakes Region. My father, Charles H., was also a deer hunter who felt his only son needed to know what the deer woods were all about.
My journey as a deer hunter began long before I could ever legally carry a bow or firearm. In New York you cannot begin hunting deer with a firearm until you are 16, so from age 5 to 16 I tagged along at my dad's side or bird-dogged the local woodlots for other hunters. As I reflect back on those days I get goose bumps. They were great times to be young.
The Five Stages of the Hunter
The heart and soul of the American deer hunter has been defined by researchers. Some twenty years ago Deer & Deer Hunting reported on a study done by Drs. Robert Jackson and Robert Norton from the LaCrosse campus of the University of Wisconsin. After interviewing over 1,000 deer hunters they concluded that America's deer hunters pass through 5 stages in their lifetime deer hunting journey. They are as follows:
1. The Shooter Stage: This is when the hunter begins. They need to have some success and be able to have a level of accomplishment.
2. The Limiting Out Stage: From stage one most hunters progress to this stage. In stage two the hunter's goal is to harvest as many animals as is legally possible.
3. The Trophy Stage: In this stage the hunter has enough knowledge of his quarry that he begins to exhibit selectivity in his hunt. Bigger antlers and a keen knowledge of stewarding the whitetail resource begin to take center stage in the deer hunter's life at this point.
4. The Method Stage: By the time a hunter reaches Stage 4 he is beginning to mellow out. With many autumns under his belt he begins to become more interested in how he hunts. Understanding deer behavior also becomes paramount during this stage.
5. The Sportsman Stage: By the time a hunter hits this stage he truly knows who he is. He knows deer behavior, has killed many deer, has probably become involved in the preservation of hunting and makes a conscious effort to see that hunting is passed on to the next generation. This is also the stage when many deer hunters become involved as managers of their own deer hunting properties. I've often viewed this stage as the reflective stage.
Though all five stages can stand alone, stages three through five can be and often are interwoven. As a fifty-seven year old I'm able to see this in my own life because I'm passionately interested in hunting mature bucks, learning all I can about whitetails, managing our farm's deer population, and sharing what I've learned with the public. Let me explain by sharing with you my five-stage experience.
1 - The Shooter Stage
Pinpointing when my Stage 1 began is easy. Though I couldn't carry or shoot a gun it began when I was five years old, in the front seat of my dad's pickup truck. We were driving through our farm in mid-November when a big buck ran across the road in front of us, just missing the front of the truck. Though it occurred over 50 years ago the sight of the mature buck bounding in front of us and across our harvested potato field is still etched in my mind. That event lit the whitetail fire in me - and it remains burning today.
At seven my mom and dad got me a Daisy lever-action BB gun for Christmas. By the time I was ten I had shot thousands of BBs through it, and actually got pretty good with it. When I hit twelve I got my first real gun, a single-shot .22, for Christmas. What struck me was my new gun didn't go pop like the BB gun. It made a loud bang! I was hooked.
Well before my 16th birthday I'd gotten serious about woodchuck hunting. My hero was Jack O'Connor, Outdoor Life's Shooting Editor. I loved rifles so much that I had the Speer handloading manual nearly memorized.
In my early teens I graded potatoes for a local farmer on weekends during the winter months so I could earn the money to buy a .243. By the time I was 16 I was handloading my own ammunition in my bedroom - much to my mother's chagrin. Athletics and hunting were my focus and passion as a teen and I did both every possible moment. No woodchuck on our farm was safe during my teenage years. Then when I could finally hunt deer my passion for them took center stage.
2 - The Limiting Out Stage
As I reflect back this is probably the stage of my hunting life that I'm least proud of. With many hunters the Limiting out Stage is a period when they feel that the only way they can prove their worth and prowess as a deer hunter is by how many deer they kill. This described me.
I had been putting in the time in the whitetail woods long before I could actually hunt deer so I knew a lot about deer behavior before I could hunt to kill. Consequently, I had a real jump start on other hunters my age. Because of this I tagged out early every year. The first buck I harvested, on my very first opening day, placed second in a local big buck contest. The next seven bucks were all yearlings. Though I would have loved to harvest a big racked buck, any buck was okay in my early years. My goal was to prove I could do it, and do it ASAP. Fortunately, I didn't spend too much time in this stage before coming to my senses.
Much of my progression from Stage 2 to 3 came about because of a 35mm camera. I returned from Vietnam on December 3, 1970, and was discharged from the U.S. Air Force that day. While in Vietnam I purchased a 35mm camera and a long telephoto lens. I had become fascinated by Erwin Bauer's and Lenny Rue's whitetail photography and was challenged to see if I could get images that rivaled theirs. So, in the winter of 1971 my journey as a whitetail photographer began while attending college. The camera changed my life forever. It also changed me as a hunter.
3 - The Trophy Stage
By my 26th birthday I had graduated from college and married. Stage Three of my hunting journey began to manifest itself. The athlete in me still drove me to limit out but I started to look at deer hunting differently. I knew how much smarter mature bucks were than the yearlings I'd been regularly harvesting and the challenge they presented started to shift my focus toward hunting older, smarter bucks. I began spending the entire year scouting and photographing whitetails, learning all I could about their behavior. My true education as a whitetail photographer and hunter began in this stage.
In my late twenties I began lecturing and along with it came writing assignments for the Stump Sitters, the forerunner of Deer & Deer Hunting. It didn't take me long to envision that I might be able to make a career out of writing, photographing and hunting the whitetail.
Probably the trophy stage is mischaracterized more than any other stage the hunter goes through. Many think of it as the period of time when the lure of big antlers obscures the true reason for hunting. This assessment is unfortunate. In my case the trophy stage solidified my love for hunting and helped me understand why a man would sit for long hours in rain, sleet and snow to hunt a four-legged animal with bone on his head. For non-hunters the thought of this is bizarre.
This stage taught me more about the rhythms of nature than any other because I was spending far more time in the woods, learning about all aspects of nature. No longer was I in a hurry to limit out. I was beginning to see the bigger picture of why some men become passionate about the white-tailed deer.
Due to the time I was spending observing, photographing and hunting whitetails the spoils of these efforts began to come along. Though it was very difficult I found that it was possible to hunt and harvest older class bucks through patience, perseverance and being a keen observer of deer behavior.
I make no apologies about my passion for this stage. It made me a far better hunter and conservationist than I ever would have been if I had continued to stay in Stage 1 and 2. To me there is nothing wrong with this stage. Nearly every mature buck hunter I know shoots three times as many does as bucks and many go multiple years between harvesting bucks. In the process a true trophy stage hunter is immersed in thoughts of why he hunts and the methods he uses to pursue the whitetail.
4 - The Method Stage
If I had been involved in the research I would have thought the Method Stage would have come before the Trophy Stage. Actually for me it is tough to differentiate a separation in Stages 3 and 4 - the way I see it, they go hand-in-glove. To get into the Trophy Stage I had to know and understand the Method Stage. Though I'm firmly entrenched in Stage 5, Stages 3 and 4 are still very much present in my life and career.
For as long as I can remember I've been fascinated with whitetail behavior. This caused me to finally build my own white-tailed deer research facility here on our farm in 1995. The facility's 35-acre enclosure, coupled with the farm's remaining 165-acres of quality deer management land has provided me with the ultimate behavior research location. The enclosure's 15 whitetails (which are not hunted) and the free-ranging deer on the balance of the farm offer an incredible window to the whitetail's world.
Living with whitetails every day of the year has helped to refine how I pursue them with bow, gun and camera. Some of the techniques I've incorporated into my hunting have caused some raised eyebrows over the years - from both biologists and arm chair hunters. None of the strategies I use and write about are pipe dreams or hocus-pocus. They've all come about through years of constant observation and trial and error.
5 - The Sportsman's Stage
At some point many hunters reach a place where they feel they've seen it all, done it all. For a few there are more mountains to climb - providing their fire is still lit. For those with a passion for whitetails and deer hunting the Sportsman's Stage is a period in a hunter's life when he reflects on where he has been and wonders what is left in his tank. If he is willing and able the Sportsman's Stage can be incredibly fulfilling.
In many ways I entered this stage in December of 1989, when I met legendary deer biologist Al Brothers while photographing on the Jambers' Ranch in South Texas. This encounter really got me thinking about what I call Total Deer Management - the management of all segments of the deer population as well as the natural habitat. Many now look at TDM as quality deer management.
Since 1989 I've become immersed in practicing TDM/QDM on our farm. The process has been infectious because many local landowners have embraced it as well. Consequently, what has occurred here in western New York has been impressive. Though I always spent a lot of time scouting, planting food plots and photographing deer the whole concept of Total Deer Management has been a real eye-opener. Not only has it made me a better hunter but I've become more knowledgeable of whitetail behavior. The process has spilled over resulting in a better understanding of our farm's entire ecosystem.
Much of what I've gleaned from this stage has been shared in the articles I've written for Deer & Deer Hunting. Stage 5 also gave me the opportunity to have a greater bond with my son, Aaron. He was just learning to hunt in the early 90s and our deer management/hunting journey has proven to be very special. The bottom line to all of this is that my Stage 5, with a lot of Stages 3 and 4 thrown in, has been a blessing from God.
Not long ago my friend Joe Hamilton wrote an article for Quality Whitetails entitled A Hunter's Path. In many ways it was a reflective piece and his ending words were touching to me and worth sharing.
"This is my creed. A seasoned hunter, one with the hunting spirit, pursues his quarry on each occasion with the enthusiasm of his first encounter and with the reverence as though it were his last. I, for one, do not want to know when I have had my last hunt."
"How do I wish to be remembered? Simply this: In his chest beat the heart of a hunter - a seasoned hunter who embraced the spirit of the hunt as he lived and how he lived so that those who follow will have a secure and well-defined path."
Joe's words pretty much sum up why I do what I do. I've been blessed to have lived in America, doing what I consider to be the greatest job on Earth. In the process the white-tailed deer has given me a quality of life like none other.
I feel very fortunate to have lived long enough to experience all five stages of the hunter. It's been an incredible journey - one scripted in Heaven.