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A Year of Deer Hunting We Won't Soon Forget

2020 began with COVID, but the oddities sure didn't end there. Let's hope the upcoming hunting season gets us back on track.

A Year of Deer Hunting We Won't Soon Forget

A deer having two upper canines is as rare as it gets. Research shows that upper canines appear to be more prevalent in Southern deer, like this one my daughter shot.

Has COVID-19 impacted your hunting? If you had plans of bowhunting in Canada or overseas last year, then the virus most definitely messed things up for you. Worse yet, I had two good friends pick up the virus while on two different, out-of-state deer hunts. Although no one knew it at the time, once everyone returned home, all the hunters had more than just a few deer to show for their efforts.

At the time of this writing, COVID-19 is still affecting the country, but the number of folks testing positive is starting to level off. Could this still significantly impact the upcoming 2021 deer season?

And what about the possibility of COVID transfer between humans and deer, or other animals? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “Based on the limited information available to date, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 is considered low. At this time, there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to people.” Researchers do know a small number of domestic dogs and cats, plus some large captive animals, have been infected. It’s believed these critters became sick after contact with people who tested positive for COVID.

And if COVID wasn’t bad enough in 2020, think of all the hunters, some of whom waited years to draw a deer tag, only to face one of the “hottest” ruts in years. And I’m not talking about the intensity of the rut, but temperatures that hit the 80s during the day. Obviously, the rut wasn’t late like some hunters say (research is clear on this fact) — breeding still occurred at night.

This year, I hunted the rut in Kentucky and Kansas. Although daytime deer movement was slow, what was unusual for me was over half the hunters in the Kentucky camp were using crossbows.

We know total hunter numbers have been decreasing for decades, but when you look at bowhunters specifically, our numbers across North America have increased 17.2 percent from 2001. In fact, the 2019-2020 season was enjoyed by the third highest number of bowhunters (3,616,510) on record for North America. Although hard to prove, this increase in growth is most likely linked to the expansion of crossbows into the various state archery seasons.

Since the number of bowhunters is increasing, have you ever wondered, “What percentage of the total archery harvest comes from crossbow hunters?” Ohio leads this category with 67.6 percent of the total archery harvest. This is followed by Michigan (66.9 percent), Pennsylvania (65.1 percent), Delaware (64.2 percent), New Jersey (63.1 percent), and Maryland (56.1 percent).

Eleven states now have an archery harvest of 50 percent or more made up of crossbow kills. Last year, there were eight states. Regionally, the Mid-Atlantic states have the highest percentage of crossbow harvest, with an average of 59.2 percent of all archery kills.

It’s important to note that no state has reduced the number of days in the archery season due to crossbows. In fact, archery seasons in many of these states have increased in length. Even with the additional recreational days afield with crossbows and increased harvest rates, the majority of all state and provincial wildlife agencies still depend on firearms hunters as the primary means of controlling deer populations (minus some urban states with various firearms restrictions).

Three states (Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania) have nearly two-thirds of their total archery harvest made up of crossbow kills. These statistics are evidence that the inclusion of crossbows in the archery season has had a major impact on who’s taking what during the archery season. But again, the data doesn’t appear to be a biological concern in relation to overharvest of deer in any state.

Last year, Maine became the latest state to allow crossbows in the entire archery season. To purchase a crossbow hunting permit in Maine, you must complete a Hunter or Bowhunter Education class, plus take a crossbow course. Existing license holders who have already held an archery or hunting license and want to try crossbow hunting only need to complete either the online crossbow course for $30, or attend one of the in-person courses (often free, but facility fees may apply) that are offered periodically to become eligible for a permit.

Maine now joins Alaska in requiring hunters to take mandatory crossbow education classes. It’s believed that requiring a crossbow-education class will make for better, safer crossbow hunters. This is one reason why the National Bowhunter Education Foundation has a crossbow curriculum available online at If interested, I suggest you visit and take the course.


This doe’s food impaction in her jaw looks severe. Death is possible, but only in serious cases.

And if COVID, an unseasonably warm rut, and crossbows weren’t enough, I had some very weird deer cross my path last year. My buddy sent me a trail-camera picture of a doe that looked like she was chewing a big wad of tobacco. Right away, I knew it had a food impaction. This is caused by an arterial worm that lives within the carotid arteries. When the worm starts to reduce blood flow, it can prevent the deer’s jaw muscles from functioning properly, which then impedes chewing and swallowing. This, in turn, causes food to build up in the cheek and become impacted. It only took me one sit in a ground blind to tip that infected doe over.

About a week later, my buddy took a 2½-year-old buck out of the same ground blind. The buck had a severe overbite. While rare, this genetic anomaly exists in every deer herd. Although the buck would have most likely survived, it did have a hard time feeding. Prior to shooting it, my friend watched the buck almost turn his head sideways in an attempt to browse on some twigs.

In January, my daughter shot a deer with upper canine teeth (pictured above). Although I remembered discussing this anomaly in college, what made this even more rare was the doe had both upper canines. Researchers believe upper canine teeth are an ancestral throwback from thousands of years ago that occasionally appears from time to time. Whatever the percentage of deer that possess upper canines, it’s well below one percent. Seeing one, let alone shooting one, is very rare.

C.J.’s Summary: Whether it was COVID, a camp full of crossbow hunters, hunting in a T-shirt during the rut, deer with food impaction or upper canines, this was the first time I observed all these anomalies firsthand. And to top off my 2020 season, I also missed a 6½-year-old, eight-point buck in Kansas at 25 yards, when my drop-away rest’s serving came undone when I shot. Disappointing, but not surprising, if you know what I mean...

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