It’s September, so Adam Doerhoff has been setting up his stands in the fields he’ll be hunting.
The archery portion of deer season opened Sunday, and many Missouri hunters loaded up their trucks and headed out before dawn, hoping to fill their first tag of the fall.
While archery season is much longer, the November firearms season accounted for over two-thirds of the state’s total deer harvest in 2018: 200,738 of the 290,224 deer reported harvested last year, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Bow season extends to Jan. 15, with a two-week hiatus from Nov. 15 to 27 for firearms season. Doerhoff didn’t get out on Sunday, but he has plenty of time. He prefers hunting in the late fall anyway — freezing up in a tree stand on a frosty November morning.
Bow hunters harvested 52,923 deer in Missouri last year, including 20,708 bucks, so the opportunities are there for those willing to wait for a deer to get into bow range. Still, the four-month season accounted for only 18 percent of the state’s total deer harvest.
Because it contains so much land, Callaway County paced mid-Missouri with 1,004 deer harvested during archery season last year — fourth-highest of any county in the state. Boone County also had a sizeable harvest of 753 deer, while Cooper, Howard, Cole, Randolph and Audrain each had bow harvests of around 400 or fewer deer.
Hunters in Audrain County can access the conservation areas Marshall I. Diggs, Lowe, Northcutt Memorial, Robert M. White and the Vandalia Community Lake, according the the conservation department. While only 368 deer were harvested last archery season, a total of 1,566 were bagged last November firearms season in Audrain County.
Hunters looking for a good bow hunt on public land this season will have their best luck at Davisdale Conservation area, which includes hills and bottomlands in southeastern Howard County, said John George, supervisor of the Missouri Department of Conservation Central Region.
Flooding in the Missouri River bottom forced deer to leave Diana Bend and Franklin Island conservation areas during the summer, George said.
“Deer don’t mind water, but they don’t want to be in it all day, either,” he said.
Franklin Island is much drier than Diana Bend at this point. It’s possible more deer have returned there, but some of them may have permanently relocated to the hills, George said. Flooding wiped out a lot of the food that draws deer down to those bottomland areas, but it also may have opened new food opportunities, George said.
“That’s what’s great about scouting during archery season, is seeing where the deer are coming and going,” he said.
The deer population in Davisdale should be bountiful, George said. It includes some bottom lands along the Salt Creek but also has a lot of land in the hills. Even in a year without historic flooding, Davisdale is the best spot on the Highway 40 bottom corridor, because the state manages it to have a higher than average deer population. It only allows bow hunting and manages food plots to attract more deer.
“Davisdale is always excellent,” George said.
Whetstone Creek Conservation Area in northeastern Callaway County is another spot the state manages to have a dense deer population, George said. Hunters can only harvest deer at Whetstone as part of a state-managed hunt, so there are plenty of deer there.
The Moniteau Creek Conservation Area in eastern Howard County is less restrictive, but it’s small and not as popular as other sites, so there’s generally a good density for bow hunting, George said. Rudolph Bennett, split between Howard and Randolph counties, is one of the most spacious areas around and usually has a good density, too, he said.
Doerhoff been bow hunting since he was a kid on family farms in Jefferson City. In the last few years, he’s latched onto a piece of private property in Columbia, he says.
“You know, the world we live in is just go, go, go,” he said. “To go bow hunting, you’re gonna be in a stand or a ground blind, and you’re gonna make yourself stay there for probably a few hours. So you get a good chance to relax and, you know, think about things you put off in your normal days.”
As a conservation agent, he gets pretty busy during the short firearms season, so some years he doesn’t even bother getting a firearms tag. He’s been focusing more on bow hunting, which he thinks is more exciting — using only his own skill and a relatively primitive weapon.
“Archery equipment’s come a long, long way from what it once was, but it’s still not a firearm,” Doerhoff said.
A lot of people don’t understand that there’s a big gap between getting close to a deer and getting an ethical shot, one to the heart or lungs that will kill the deer quickly. Accidents happen — an arrow might bounce off a tree limb, or a deer might jump — but a good hunter will avoid wounding a deer.
“You see a deer in someone’s yard and it seems like the easiest thing in the world, but it takes a lot of things going right all at once,” he said. “If one thing’s out of place, you may not get the shot or shouldn’t take the shot offered to you.”
Being sure not to waste the deer is important, too. Doerhoff likes to process the deer himself. A lot of it he grinds up into burger meat. He keeps other strips for a roast in the slow cooker or to grill, and sometimes he’ll make jerky.
Wherever hunters choose to go, practice is key, Doerhoff said. He sets up a stand in a tree in his backyard to practice realistic shots instead of shooting at a target standing on the ground. Of course, the only way to anticipate how a live deer will react is to get out and hunt, he said.
“Every hunt — whether it was a great hunt, terrible hunt, whatever — always try to learn something from it. Always try to be a little bit better, a little bit wiser,” Doerhoff said. “As a hunter, you owe it to yourself, to the animal, to other hunters.”