It’s that time of year when hunting families wake up before dawn, ready their gear, put on their blaze orange and head out to the woods.
For many families across the county, fall is the time for deer hunting season, an activity that has become synonymous with football, Thanksgiving and other fall traditions.
"It's like Christmas for three months for a lot of people," said Russ Austad, the Program Services Director at Whitetails Unlimited in Wisconsin.
But why does deer hunting season happen during fall, and not during spring or summer? The answer largely lies in deer herd health and deer biology.
Scheduling the harvest
While deer hunting season is synonymous with fall, its exact start and end dates are different throughout the nation.
"Deer hunting seasons vary by state," Austad said. "Typically, they start early September and run through the end of December, and in some states actually can go through the middle part of February."
According to Austad, each state’s game agency determines the dates of each year’s hunting season based on the deer herd health, or the estimated number of deer per acreage of habitat.
Healthy numbers will allow hunters to hunt a bit longer, while lower numbers may cut the hunt short.
"The first and foremost important part about [deer hunting season] is it is timed to not be detrimental to the deer," said Kip Adams, wildlife biologist and Chief Conservation Officer of the National Deer Association.
"It is timed when it is OK to harvest those excess animals while not negatively impacting the future of that deer," Adams added.
To make this determination, game agencies pay attention to the deer’s natural cycles.
Mother Nature’s arena
"[Deer hunting season] is all based on biological principles and best management practices for that deer," said Adams.
According to Adams, one reason why deer hunting overlaps with fall is because that is the time of year when deer are old enough to live independently from their mother. Most deer are born around May, so if the mother were taken by hunting or predation in the fall, their offspring would be able to survive on their own.
"That keeps deer populations sustainable, keeps them very healthy," said Adams.
Another factor involves the biology of male deer, or bucks.
Bucks are often hunted in part for their antlers. According to Austad, bucks grow and shed their antlers annually, shedding them around mid-January and then regrowing them around mid-June.
This means that they reach the peak of their antler growth in the fall.
"From a trophy standpoint, [fall] is the time of year when you want to be hunting deer," Austad said.
Fall is also when a catch can be better preserved due to the temperature change.
"It is much, much cooler, so that you have natural cooling of the animal once it is harvested, before that animal is processed and then put in somebody’s freezer," said Adams.
According to Adams, the lower temperatures provide a better opportunity to harvest deer and then minimize any waste of that deer or that venison from heat.
The history of deer hunting season
While restricting the hunt to a specific season differs from the way humans hunted traditionally, it arose as a necessity for maintaining healthy deer populations in human-dominated spaces in the modern era.
"It's like any situation in life where you have a privilege and the privilege was abused and taken advantage of," Austad said. "Then, rules were put into place to preserve that privilege."
The regulation of deer hunting began to spawn around the mid-1800s, according to Austad. The country had a seemingly infinite number of deer, but then the deer became overhunted and their numbers started to quickly dwindle.
Austad said that state agencies stepped in and, one by one, started to regulate hunting. For instance, Wisconsin began regulating hunting in 1851 and nearby Michigan began in 1859.
Each state now has its own rules for their respective deer hunting seasons, but are largely in lock-step in making sure they happen during fall.
A family tradition
Deer hunting has evolved quite a bit since the early days of humans and even within the past generation.
"The average hunter today knows more about deer biology, deer ecology, deer management, how to enhance habitat for deer far more than hunters of 20 or 30 years ago, because there's so much more information available to them today," said Adams.
That information is then passed down from one generation to another, as many families continue this tradition of participating in deer hunting season.
"The actual hunt is important, but all of the events that surround the hunt can be very, very different," Adams said. "A big part for me for deer season, not only is the hunt, but it is being in a hunting camp with some of those other people that I consider very, very close friends — some of them are family."
"That camp experience is as much a part of deer season for me," he added.