The sporting goods store operated by Charles Sutfin was broken into and 24 guns were taken.
—Entry in Sacramento police blotter last week
The above item, as far as motive was concerned, posed no great mystery to Sacramento's police force. Unmistakably, fresh hunting sign was showing up all over the place as 6 million hunters got ready for what should be the best big-game season in decades. Nearly all of the country's top big-game animals, most of them pictured in color on the following pages, have shown population increases in the past year, and seasons and bag limits are being increased on some to harvest the surplus crop.
Thanks to scientific management and the courage of those enlightened hunters who, for the sake of improving the herds, could last year bring themselves to shoot does, where legal, as well as bucks, the nation's No. 1 big-game animal, the deer, this year is coursing its nationwide range in healthier and bigger numbers than ever before. And a record-breaking number of hunters—most of whom haven't had a gun in their hands since last year—are out after them as seasons open across the nation.
Next to deer, the fleet-footed antelope will entice the greatest number of hunters, and by season's end 80,000 pronghorns will have been killed. Elk, with an expected kill of 52,000, is the hunter's third choice; then bear (24,000), javelina (8,000), boar (1,200), moose (900), mountain goat (300), mountain sheep (250) and buffalo (40).
And approximately 1,175 hunters will also be dead.
For the greatest danger the hunter faces is himself. A day's hunting on public lands near any big city was recently likened by one sportsman to the first 48 hours on the beaches of Dunkirk. "Going into the woods on opening day," he added, "is like dealing yourself in on a concealed game of Russian roulette."
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Bakersfield correspondent, Duane Spilsbury, reported from California: "Opening day at dawn on Saturday (Aug. 4) gave promise of a roaring season to come. Ten thousand hunters crowded through a check station at Frazier Mountain Park in the Tehachapi Range in a period of 48 hours. By Sunday night 155 bucks had been killed, one hunter had shot himself in the foot, a $12,500 forest fire was burning briskly, 50 citations for illegal fires had been handed out, another six had been given for illegal discharge of firearms within a quarter mile of campgrounds and roads. Theoretically, the 10,000 hunters were spread out over an area of 200,000 acres. Actually the hunters followed the ridgetops and canyons, cross firing enthusiastically at each other over the deer caught between."
Considering the amount of deadly ammunition which cannonades through the woods during any hunting season, remarkably few fatalities occur while hunting—less than while swimming, in fact. But as the number of hunters grows, so do the hunting accidents. The biggest hazard, as usual, is the hunter suffering from "buck fever"—that old hunting malady which can turn the most calm and placid citizen into a trigger-happy gunman the instant he steps into deer country with a gun. When this happens, nothing-that moves (and a lot of things that don't) is safe.
On opening day in the Los Padres National Forest this year, one eager hunter shot and killed a horse within a 100-yard range. Pot shots have been taken at pack horses carrying slain deer out of the woods; cattle—even such undeerlike varieties as Holstein dairy cows—have been particularly vulnerable, and Kern County Sheriff Leroy Galyen has seen empty handed and frustrated hunters actually shoot beef steer and make off with the hind quarters in lieu of venison. It is also a matter of record that a hunter in the Angeles National Forest carefully tied his horse to a tree, circled quietly around a mountain and seeing something move in the distance joyously shot—his own horse.
To the increasing danger of more and more hunters using the diminishing range, a frightening fact has now been added. It is known that, of the total population of the U.S., roughly eight percent is color blind in varying degree. With this in mind, the Fish and Game Department of California considered its figures of 650,000 hunters and came to a deadly conclusion: some 50,000 men without normal color perception are abroad in the fields and forests of the state with loaded guns in their hands. Under these circumstances, what good is a bright red, protective coloring?
Working with the National Rifle Association and the California Optometric Association, the California officials conducted field tests with both color-blind subjects and those with normal vision. They found that red is definitely an unsafe color for hunters. The best color for hunting caps and jackets is lemon yellow. But whether this conclusion will stand the test of acceptance by the hunters remains to be seen. A stubborn lot, they are not quick to change what they believe to be traditionally right—whatever science says.
Perhaps the biggest hunting controversy in the country remains the question of shooting doe deer. Right now the pros and cons of this question are being hotly argued in California, which has opened a season on does for the first time. Sides are sharply drawn between young and old hunters. Oldtimers oppose shooting females "on principle." Young hunters shrug and say "meat is meat." Though biologists tell them that shooting the does is the best thing that could happen to the herds, few hunters can bring themselves to do it. "You would think we were asking them to shoot Bambi's mother," complained one biologist ruefully.
Two new trends have emerged from the increased hunting pressure. Perhaps the biggest trend is toward bow and arrow hunting. Special early seasons, when the deer are not yet panicked by the crackle of constant gunfire, plus the added safety factor that a hunter has to get pretty close to what he is shooting at to be able to kill it, are drawing thousands of former gun hunters to the weapon of Robin Hood.
The other new trend which is gaining popularity with each season is wilderness hunting. Hunters who can afford it are flying by plane into safer and better country for their sport. Last season, on opening day in the middle Sierras, 60 private planes were parked on a mountain meadow landing strip. The charter business is booming, too, and in a day-and-a-half period one pilot flew more than 150 hunters into the backwoods.
One of the places to which overcrowded hunters are fleeing is the bountiful hunting state of Colorado. Boasting the most liberal big-game season in the nation, it draws more nonresident hunters than any other. The good news for them this year is that the upcoming season will be better than 1955 when 70,000 deer were killed, and the total bag included 7,000 elk, 3,000 antelope, 590 bear and 43 bighorn sheep.
Led by hunters from Texas, Kansas and California, these nonresidents gladly fork out $40 and $50 for deer and elk permits respectively for the privilege of an almost certain kill. The hunting success ratio in Colorado for all hunters is a high 63% to 70%.
Elsewhere around the country hunting prospects couldn't be better. In Wisconsin 300,000 hunters will turn out to try for whitetail buck deer during their nine-day gun season Nov. 17 through Nov. 25, and this year the usual forked-horn buck season is being liberalized to allow hunters to shoot spike-horn bucks.
For bow and arrow hunters Wisconsin will have, in addition to the gun season, two archery seasons. The limit will be one deer, any age, either sex, and about 25,000 archers are expected to take advantage of the statewide season from Sept. 22 to Nov. 11. In southern counties a second season from Dec. 15 to Jan. 13 will be open. Last year, 1,130 deer were killed by archers in Wisconsin.
Pennsylvania, another of the country's top big-game hunting areas, has inaugurated a "farm game project" to alleviate its extremely heavy hunting pressure. Under the plan devised by the game department approximately 10,290 farms, covering 1,040,000 acres, have been opened up to hunters in a mutual pact which permits hunting on the land in return for strict observance of signs marking "safety zones" around pastures and buildings. Farmers cooperating in the plan are also supplied with shrubs, trees and advice on game management by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Most big-game hunting in Pennsylvania is for deer and bear, and seasons for them this year will be Oct. 1-19 (archery) and Dec. 3-15.
Top topic in Michigan, which has the largest number of licensed hunters in the country, is its special two-day season, resuming this year, on antler-less deer. About 40,000 bucks will be taken in the state during the regular 16-day season from Nov. 15 through Nov. 30. The bear season will run concurrently except for a special season which opened Sept. 1 on the upper peninsula, during which bears may be hunted with dogs. In Michigan, too, archery is booming, and 40,000 bow and arrow hunters are expected to show up for their special season Oct. 1-Nov. 5.
New York State hunters will also get a chance at antlerless deer again this year during a special one-day season which has been extended to all of 24 counties and parts of five others. Regular hunting prospects, says Chester Griffith, assistant District Game Protector, "are better than they have ever been."
The same can be said for nearly every hunting state in the country. Hunters just haven't had it so good in years. All they have to do is to watch out for each other.