As deer hunting season approaches, I’m reminded of a mental dilemma I wrestled with last fall when I had my first experience with hunting over bait here in Texas. I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, coming of hunting age (twelve) in the early 1990’s. We relished our deer season each year and commonly hunted homemade box blinds in thick woods, but never over bait. That was illegal. Sitting hours on end in cold, damp weather, memorizing the shape and sway of every tree, and listening intently for the rustling of oak, birch, and maple leaves under a deer’s hooves in the distance. Some days, despite best efforts, it was not unheard of to not see a single deer after waiting and watching for ten hours. When you are counting squirrels, it is a slow day in the deer woods. The temptation to tilt the odds was undoubtedly present on those days, but baiting was considered a form a cheating and those who did illegally bait were essentially poachers in the minds of good, honest, hard-working hunters. We would rather eat tag soup than to cheat, or worst yet, be labeled and outed as a cheater in the local community.
When I moved to Texas in 2018, I knew that baiting was legal and commonly used. After spending some time getting to know to the local hunting community, I realized that deer corn was as common to hunting in Texas as the color blaze orange was in Pennsylvania. In fact, you can often find a pallet of deer corn outside the local gas station, year-round.
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The widespread use of bait contradicted the methods and ethics I learned growing up, as well as the fair chase spot and stalk hunting in Wyoming that I love and look forward to each year like kids do to Christmas. That said, I kept an open mind last fall when my friend invited me to hunt his ranch north of Abilene for whitetail. He is a serious, responsible hunter and the ranch runs a respectable operation managing the deer population. In addition to corn and protein feeders, there were a few hundred acres of winter wheat accessible for browse. I wanted to see firsthand what it was all about.
The first morning of the hunt I was dropped off in the dark at the “feed road” blind. As we neared the blind and as the driver left, the feeder on the back of the truck lay out a dusting of corn, as if leaving a Hansel and Gretel trail of breadcrumbs for the deer to follow to the blind. As the sky slowly lightened, I could see that I was at the bottom of a wide “V” with a narrow road stretching four hundred yards on each arm of the “V”. Outside of the road, visibility was severely limited due to a heavy cover of mesquite trees, brush and broomweed. About seventy-five yards up the right arm, sat a large tripod feeder surrounded by a metal fence to keep the hogs out. Soon after I began to gauge my surroundings, the hogs arrived. A sounder of 25 hogs rooted, snorted, and squealed as they quickly gobbled up the corn that the truck had just deposited on the road. They occupied both arms of the “V” and got within ten yards of the blind. Then at 7:00 AM, precisely, the timer on the feeder engaged. The feeder opened, corn fell, and the motorized disk twirled. Corn was thrown 360 degrees, pinging and ringing the steel legs of the tripod and the hog fence. The commotion in the still morning air was enough to startle the entire sounder of hogs. Once the dust settled from the hogs’ abrupt departure, I thought “OK, here we go.” For sure, one of those massive Texas 10-point whitetails just heard the dinner bell and is on his way. Two and a half hours later, all I saw were three doe that were not interested in the feeder or the corn. I had another similar experience that evening at the same stand. What happened?
As one can imagine, hunting over bait is a controversial subject, both for ethical perception as well as actual effectiveness. When I began reading about the subject, I quickly learned there is a healthy amount of material available. For instance, this article from the Whitetail Institute, assesses food plots and baiting, and speculates that baiting can make a whitetail nocturnal. Having a readily available concentrated food source means that the deer can quickly feed and return to cover under the protection of nightfall. This also means that you or I are very unlikely to set our eyes, never less our crosshairs on these whitetails during daylight shooting hours. Baiting, and the unnatural congregation of deer, is also being argued as a catalyst to the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) amongst our deer herds. That debate, like much of the CWD research, is very much active and developing.
After a couple of uneventful sits on the “feed road” blind, I repositioned later in the hunt to an elevated blind over a two-hundred-acre field of winter wheat. While the field’s purpose was agricultural, and did not exist solely as a food plot, it shared many similarities. Oddly, I felt a relief having the possibility of harvesting a whitetail over bait removed from the hunt. Food plots were different in my mind…then I began to wonder why. Food plots, in my opinion, are a natural supplementation of nutrition that merge with the environment before being consumed or utilized by animals. Plants are living things, creating a tiny ecosystem for other life, and becoming part of a larger ecosystem. They are not specifically useful to deer, nor are they as starkly contrast to their natural surroundings as a pile of corn. Food plots require a great deal more effort, foresight, and preparation than baiting. The more I thought about it, the more significant the differences became. I’m not alone in my perspective, as supported by an article from the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA). To be clear, I don’t have a negative perception of hunters that do legally utilize bait. “Legally” being the key word in that last sentence. To each their own.
I continued to think about this over several sits during the next few days as I watched deer walk by that every Pennsylvania hunter I know would be bragging about for weeks, that Texan’s refer to as “non-shooters”. It was fun getting my head around that for a few days. I could feel my grandfathers shaking their heads in disbelief from above as a beautiful 8-point walked on by at 42 yards.
On the last sit of the hunt, as daylight broke over the field and I began to see dark spots emerge on the landscape. I pondered ethics and legality. Just after shooting light, I was fortunate enough to place my first Texas deer tag on a 9-point “management buck” that is the largest whitetail I have taken to date. I was reminded of something my legal professor used to say in graduate school. “Ethics is the law of tomorrow.” I believe the controversy over food plots, and more so, baiting, will meet this tipping point in the future. When the general ethos of society is that the behavior is unacceptable, our democracy quickly works to legislate regulations to declare the behavior as illegal, laws as enforceable and violations as punishable. Think of smoking in restaurants and bars, for example. Not too long ago, you were asked “smoking or non”. The ethos quickly evolved, and now one can’t light up twenty feet from the entrance of a building. It is critical that the hunting community maintain an awareness of perception, not only amongst peers, but of society at large, to foresee and prepare for potential conflicts to a way of life that we love and cherish.