Every year in Ohio, with the first two weeks of December comes shotgun hunting season. Hunters routinely bring in upwards of 200,000 does and bucks to local check stations. That's a big change from just a few decades ago, when wildlife officials worried the animal could disappear completely.
Clouds fill the sky on a gloomy day in rural Union county, where pickup trucks and orange hunting vests dot long country roads. The woods John McCoy and Adam McMahon plan to hunt sit a quarter mile off the road, on the other side of a muddy plowed field.
"We have five guys," McMahon says. "We'll put three on the back of the woods and push two through the front. Hopefully something will run to one of them."
Despite the occasional rut and puddle, it's a fairly peaceful walk.
Until shots ring out.
The hunt is on after the men see a buck drinking from a nearby creek. They fire and give chase, but soon lose the animal.
They're going home empty-handed today, but somewhere around 200,000 other hunters won't this year. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources says the herd is healthier than ever. Mike Tonkavich is a biologist with O.D.N.R. and helps track and count deer.
"Our minimum statewide population estimate was probably very close to three-quarters of a million deer, or higher than that," Tonkavich says. "We'll harvest somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter-of-a-million deer this fall, and those are numbers that we've never seen before."
That's good for hunters and dinner tables, but also good for state coffers: with licensing revenue and creating jobs, state officials say deer hunting has an annual economic impact of nearly $2 billion.
O.D.N.R. credits the so-called "Bambi Boom" to several things, including acorns. The better the state's acorn crop, the less deer have to travel for food, so fewer animals are seen and killed by hunters. Years of good acorn production have led to a healthy herd, a major change from a few decades ago.
"You couldn't hunt deer in 1931. They just weren't there."
Craig Springer is the author of several hunting and wildlife books. He says major changes to Ohio's deer population started with the state's first settlers, who replaced wooded areas with towns and made venison a big part of their diet.
"By the time the Great Depression rolled around, the deer numbers were way, way down. And in the game laws, it said 'deer were protected.' You couldn't hunt deer."
Plenty of Ohioans are hunting deer now, and with success. Dan Giannamore checks deer at Gander Mountain, a sporting goods store in Hilliard.
"A couple of the guys who work here have killed some nice deer," Giannamore says. "We've been seeing some pretty big bucks. I think last year people were saying the rut wasn't as good because it was hot in early November, and it was a little bit colder this year."
Initial returns from the state corroborate Giannamore's theory: hunters bagged more than 38,000 deer on the season's first day, up 12 percent from a year ago.
Back in rural Union county, John McCoy says despite missing a nice buck and sometimes getting frustrated at the whole process, he'll keep hitting the woods.
"It's been a family tradition ever since I was young," McCoy says. "There's always been a big group on individuals that have always went out hunting together. My grandfather's woods, my uncle's woods, the surrounding neighbors, families, friends everybody's always gotten together and done a lot of hunting together."
And with the current deer population, that tradition looks poised to continue.