Delaware deer hunting evolves with changing land use, technology
“All I could see was that white tail bouncing away on the other side of the field.”
David Pepper is reminiscing about the one that got away, the biggest white-tailed buck he ever saw, on his very first solo buck hunt.
The 36-year-old Georgetown hunter took a shot at it and missed. He couldn’t get a new shell in the chamber fast enough.
“That’s when I knew I was hooked,” he said.
For many, the kill is just one small part of the hunting experience, one they hope to pass on to new generations, despite dwindling hunter numbers.
“I teach my grandsons and I find, in doing that, they become a more well-rounded individual and show more respect for wildlife,” said 59-year-old Wayne Moore of Felton. “It’s not just a sport, it’s a life lesson.”
With a vast population of white-tailed deer, new ways to access hunting land and ever-evolving technology making it easier to hunt, many describe deer hunting in Delaware in 2020 as a first-rate experience.
Rich Hawkins of Magnolia is cofounder of the Delaware chapter of Whitetails Unlimited, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the hunting heritage.
“I’ve hunted all across the country, and I just truly feel like we are a best-kept secret, as far as quantity and quality of deer,” Hawkins said. “Other states touted are as much greater, like the Midwestern states on hunting shows, but we have it just as good here as anywhere in the country.”
Deer population control is balancing act
White-tailed deer are, by far, the most popular species to hunt in Delaware and the U.S.
Yet there was a time when Delaware’s deer population was dangerously low. After overhunting and habitat destruction drove numbers down, the First State banned deer hunting in 1841. It remained that way for over a century.
The deer population grew quickly in the '80s and '90s in Delaware, and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control responded by liberalizing hunting limits.
They also added crop damage programs, allowing extra hunting on farmland damaged by deer. In 2005, 75% of Delaware farmers surveyed experienced some form of damage related to deer. Deer cause millions of dollars' worth of crop damage to this day.
“It’s good to be a deer in Delaware,” said Rob Hossler, DNREC's Wildlife Section administrator.
Interest in hunting waned as grocery stores proliferated in the 20th century. More people started working 9-to-5 jobs and had less time to hunt. Those that began hunting out of necessity or were close to generations that did are now aging out of the sport.
“When I was a kid, my grandparents and great-grandparents, that's how they fed their families. They had large families — 13, 14 kids,” hunter Wayne Moore said. “It’s gotten to the point in our society where you don’t have to hunt anymore. You just go to the store and buy a steak or whatever you want.”
Meanwhile, the white-tailed deer population has expanded.
According to DNREC spokesman Michael Globetti, there were an estimated 45,000 white-tailed deer in Delaware before the 2020 hunting season began Sept. 1.
"Based on hunter harvest data, the size of the deer herd appears to be stabilized or very slightly increasing annually (1%-2%),” Globetti said. “DNREC believes that with increased recreational deer hunting opportunities offered by the Division of Fish and Wildlife as the only statewide means for reducing Delaware’s deer herd, it will decrease in size over time.”
Deer have no remaining natural predators in the First State. According to Hossler, hunting is their No. 1 cause of death, followed by car collisions.
The lack of predators, relatively mild winters, abundant food and the ability to survive in a variety of habitats were a recipe for population explosion.
During the 2019-2020 Delaware deer hunting season, a record 16,969 deer were harvested. The harvest has been around the 16,000 mark for several years.
Bang for your buck: The rising cost to hunt
As the deer population grew, so did the cost of hunting them, largely due to inflation.
Another reason: The length of the hunting season is much longer and the number of antlerless deer a hunter can take is unlimited.
“The opportunities we have are so much greater now,” Hawkins said. “For $12 in 1987, you could kill one buck and one antlerless annually. Today for $59.50, we can harvest two bucks and four antlerless.”
A three-day deer hunting season is something to scoff at now. Deer can be hunted with bows for five months of the year, September through January. Muzzleloader and shotgun seasons run for a few weeks apiece.
A pipe dream until 2018, there’s now a weeklong handgun season, as well. Once considered sacrilege, hunting on Sundays is now allowed.
“We’ve created a little bit more opportunity,” Hossler said. “We’re trying to provide reasonable tools for our hunters to help reduce the deer population.”
The cost of a hunting license has gone up by less than $10 when inflation is accounted for, but today’s hunters have other fees to pay, too.
“When I bought my first license in 1985, I believe it was $12,” Hawkins said.
Today, an annual hunting license costs $39.50 for in-state residents. It comes with a one-vehicle conservation access pass, which is needed to access state wildlife areas.
There's a $10 fee to hunt in state parks, and it’s another $20 to use one of the duck blinds or deer stands on state land.
A Delaware hunting license allows the holder to harvest four antlerless deer (does). Two bucks can be harvested per season by purchasing a $20 quality buck tag. Hunters can harvest an unlimited amount of antlerless deer (does or antlerless bucks, for $20 each after the first four.
According to the 2020/2021 Delaware Hunting and Trapping guide, almost half of all license dollars go toward wildlife area operations. The rest goes toward wildlife management and research and hunter education and range management.
Development diminishes hunting grounds in Delaware
An emerging challenge in hunting today is diminishing access to private land.
Development is the main culprit, especially in the about 765,000-acre Sussex County, where the planning and zoning commission has approved over 2,266 acres in subdivisions alone since the start of 2018. But there’s another issue.
In the past, hunters simply knocked on the door of a property owner and asked if they could hunt. Most of the time, it worked. But now, liability makes private property owners wary.
“If you’re not close with or have a relationship with a farmer, they can be leery about letting you hunt because of possible property damage or injury and lawsuit,” said David Pepper.
Owners of good hunting property have also realized they have a commodity. They can charge hunters to lease their land, and it’s not cheap.
Pepper lives in Georgetown and splits a land lease in Millsboro with four other hunters. They pay $2,000 annually for 120 acres, plus a $250 insurance policy.
“I never thought, growing up, that I would pay to hunt, but it is a way to secure a relationship with a farmer and lock in a good piece of land that you might not have a chance at otherwise,” he said.
The state is attempting to mitigate private hunting land loss by purchasing public land — over 60,000 acres in 19 state wildlife areas.
“The state land is important,” said Pepper. “I know a lot of hunters that could lose land to development.”
Mari Grehofky of Dagsboro hunts on public land.
“It is all about the experience,” she said. “The excitement of the lottery, hanging out with all the other hunters before and after, trading stories, seeing people you only see at this occasion.”
Technology has also led to an entrepreneurial opportunity to help hunters access private land. Online hunting land lease networks are coming on the scene, absolving the need to door-knock and face possible rejection.
Hunting Land Rentals by Owner, or HLRBO.com, is one such networks. CEO Heath Schubert, out of Minnesota, said his brother inspired the idea.
“I asked him why he wasn’t going hunting anymore, and he said he didn’t know anybody who owned property anymore and public land was always really crowded. If you wanted to purchase the hunting rights for private property, it had gotten really expensive,” Schubert said.
HLRBO allows landowners to list their property for free, as well as provides free leasing contract templates and a pricing calculator. Hunters pay an annual fee of $12.95.
“The goal is just to expand access to hunting,” Schubert said.
The internet and other technology have changed virtually all aspects of hunting, for better or for worse.
“The deer check-ins used to be a big hoopla,” Hawkins said. “You’d go to the check-in station, sit in line for hours in your truck. It was a big to-do. Guys liked it. Nowadays you just do it on your phone as soon as you harvest your animal and move on to the butcher shop.”
Hunters might reminisce about the check-ins but they’re just not feasible anymore.
“Nobody seems to remember the tremendously long lines,” Hossler said. “And that was when we were shooting in the neighborhood of 7,000 deer a year. It wasn’t fiscally responsible once the technology became available. The manpower we would need to manage those stations now would be very cost prohibitive.”
Then there’s the gear. There are hand-held thermal imaging devices, scent eliminators, trail cameras that instantly send images to your phone, all-terrain vehicles, laser rangefinders. It’s never been easier to hunt.
The weapons have changed a lot from the shotguns an average hunter was using in 1954. Many of today’s hunters opt for bows over guns.
“The crossbow scene has just exploded,” said Kelly Racz, owner of Kelly’s Outdoors in Millsboro. “They require less practice than a gun and they shoot longer distances than they used to. Because of the lack of recoil, it’s just an easier weapon for the youngsters and the aging hunters.”
They’re small and lightweight, making them easy for hunters who are young, old or disabled to use. Loading a bow requires less strength than in the past.
“With the newer crossbows today, they have winches built into them. It reduces it down to 6 or 7 pounds of pressure,” Racz said.
They’re equipped with scopes, a boon for any hunter, but especially for aging hunters whose sight might not be as good as it once was.
The distance from which a bowhunter can kill a deer has grown to about 50 yards. Recreationally, today’s bows can shoot around 500 yards.
“We’ve seen is a big shift in hunters being less generalists and more specialists,” said Hossler. “In the past, hunters kind of rolled from one season to the next. Now, probably because of lack of time and money, they’re more specialized. Lots of only-archery deer hunters.”
Hossler and his colleagues at DNREC are curious to see the impact COVID-19 has on this hunting season.
“It’s a great way to get people outdoors, especially with the pandemic,” he said. “We saw increase in hunting in the most recent spring turkey season. We’re looking forward to seeing what happens this fall.”