Why deer hunting season happens in the fall

The timing of this fall tradition is based on deer herd health and deer biology.

It’s that time of year when families wake up before dawn, ready their gear, put on their blaze orange and head out to the woods.

"It's like Christmas for three months for a lot of people," said Russ Austad, the Program Services Director at Whitetails Unlimited.

Deer hunting season, an annual tradition for families like Austad’s, kicks off as the seasons change from summer to fall.

"Here in Wisconsin, deer hunting is synonymous with football," said Austad. "It’s all during the same season, whether it's football, leaves changing, Thanksgiving."

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.

Flexible schedules

While deer hunting season is synonymous with fall, its exact start and end dates can be pretty fluid.

"Deer hunting seasons vary by state," said Austad. "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," added Adams.

To make this determination, game agencies pay attention to the deer’s natural cycles.

Mother Nature’s arena

"It's 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 fall is 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.

According to Austad, mature bucks are at the peak of their antler growth in the fall.

"Deer grow and shed their antlers annually," said Austad. "Around mid-January is actually when they start to shed their antlers and then they'll start to regrow them about mid-June."

"From a trophy standpoint, [fall] is the time of year when you want to be hunting deer," Austad added.

Also, the fall temperatures help preserve the catch.

"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, "we have a better opportunity to harvest deer and then minimize any waste of that deer or that venison from a heat perspective."

The need for the season

Working with nature and understanding deer biology are the main reasons behind deer hunting season’s fall timing.

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, and then rules were put into place to preserve that privilege," said Austad.

"It kind of all started to spawn around the mid-1800s," said Austad. "We had at the time a seemingly infinite amount of deer. Well, then of course, the deer were becoming over hunted, over harvested, and then the numbers started to dwindle and they started to dwindle fast."

According to Austad, 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.

Fall in

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," said Adams.

"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."

Adams added, "That camp experience is as much a part of deer season for me."