The recent deer season taught me something many hunters already know: Deer bleat calls work. Nearly every deer I encountered while sneaking through the woods responded to a bleat call–a small canister that makes a noise similar to the bleat of a lamb. Some approached me, including the doe and buck I killed on separate occasions, and others remained in my near vicinity for 30 minutes or more.
You could say the call worked like magic. Sure, some skill was involved. I was able to sneak near the deer in the first place and be positioned so they couldn’t detect my scent. I also had the ability to be extra-patient and to not over-use the call. But without the bleat can, it’s very unlikely I would’ve had the same hunting experiences.
The bleat call makes ordinarily wary deer vulnerable to hunters. Although it isn’t foolproof–fellow hunters say the call works best during the first week of the gun season–the sound emanating from the little canister can be a powerful deer attractor. And I’m not sure how I feel about that.
Today’s deer hunters rely on a wide range of deer attractants to draw whitetails within lethal range. Products ranging from sex, food and cover scents to mineral blocks to grunt, rattle and bleat calls to lifelike deer decoys line the shelves of sporting goods stores. A surprising number of rural landowners grow gardens for deer, planting food crops solely intended to attract hungry deer during the hunting season.
Many hunters place great faith in deer attractants. I recently met several new hunters who sincerely believed a whitetail would approach their stand, drawn to a stinky concoction or mineral lick. Sure, these products work, but they are not substitutes for basic hunting skills. I’m not sure the new hunters knew the difference.
Attractants have been around a long time. Hunters used to cut the musk gland off the hind leg of a buck and rub it on their boots as an attracting scent. Rattling two antlers to sound like sparring bucks is a technique first popularized by Texas hunters several decades ago. However, the plethora of commercial attractants now on the market is a relatively recent phenomenon, fueled by the nationwide boom in whitetail abundance and hunting that occurred in the past 25 years.
When hunters rely on deer attractants they begin to inch away from the sport hunting tradition of fair chase, in which hunter meets prey on natural, if not necessarily equal terms. This is a key difference between sport hunting and the market gunning which proceeded it. Early hunting laws restricted hunters to daylight hours, outlawed the use of bait and live decoys for waterfowl and established rules–written and unwritten–to promote hunting skills. To the sport hunter, how you kill is more important than how much you kill.
Deer hunting is primarily a sedentary activity where hunters wait on stand for deer to pass by. Many hunters think using an attractant gives deer a reason to come to come by their stand and thus improves their odds of hunting success. Minnesota hunting laws clearly spell out what you can use to attract deer, primarily the aforementioned products and food plots. The law does not allow hunters to use bait. With the exception of food plots and mineral licks, the difference is bait is real and the attractants are mostly imagined. In order for a call, a scent or a decoy to work, a deer must be fooled into imagining another deer is nearby.
Bait is real food. As anyone who has ever dealt with backyard deer knows, whitetails are creatures of habit. If you put food out for them, they’ll return to eat it, day after day. That’s why baiting for deer is illegal in Minnesota. You may argue there is little difference between baiting and growing food plots or hunting near agricultural lands. This difference is a matter of geometry–the food is available throughout the field, not just at the bait site.
Some believe the lines between illegal baiting and normal agricultural activities are blurry. Recently, a state court of appeals overturned the conviction of a young man who was hunting over pumpkins scattered as “green manure” in a farm field and charged with baiting. The appeals ruling may lead the Minnesota Legislature to revisit the state’s baiting law. For hunters who obey the law and appreciate the current status quo regarding baiting, this may not be a good thing. If the Legislature relaxes baiting rules and allows deer hunters to use bait, Minnesota deer hunting will undergo a rapid and irreversible change.
Every autumn, I meet hunters from Wisconsin and Michigan who travel to Minnesota to get away from baiting. Both states allow deer hunters to use bait and most hunters do so. Those who choose to hunt without bait don’t have very much fun, especially if they are hunting on public land. Hunters are possessive of their baited stand sites, leading to confrontations when someone else tries to hunt near a baited area on public land. Deer often move from public forests to adjacent private land, where they find as much or more bait and encounter fewer hunters. All deer movements are influenced by baiting. They eat at a bait pile, then bed down nearby until it is time to eat again.
If baiting for deer became legal in Minnesota, the same scenario may occur here. Illegal baiting is already a common hunting offense, so legitimizing the activity would likely lead to a lot more of it. Once baiting becomes established in an area, many hunters begin putting out food for deer because they believe it is necessary to do so in order to compete with other baiters. Pretty soon, baiting becomes the predominate way to kill a deer.
When it does, there’s no turning back. While today’s new hunters are buying calls and scent potions because they believe these products make it easier to kill a deer, future newbies may do the same with shelled corn if baiting becomes legal. As a result, they may never learn or appreciate hunting skills. If the Legislature chooses to revisit the current baiting rule, we can only hope they honor the intent of the current law and keep the “hunt” in hunting.