The traditions of deer camp.
Though it may seem a curse to some, we are fortunate to live in a region of seasonal transitions. Each of the four seasons is ushered in with excitement and anticipation of its unique offerings to come. For some, it may be spring’s warmth and renewed life, with blooming wildflowers, buzzing bees, and melodic songbirds. For others, perhaps the heat of summer lures them to float down a cool, meandering Ozark stream or take up some back patio grilling. For hunters, it’s the allure of the crisp fall air, the excitement in anticipation of the hunt, and a gathering steeped in tradition that draws them to deer camp each year.
Centered around one of Missouri’s most acclaimed game species, the white-tailed deer, deer camp is a tradition that goes far beyond the hunt. Most deer camp customs focus on opening weekend (though some can go all season long).
The November portion of the firearms deer season is viewed as a holiday by many hunters. For the 2021 season in Missouri, this portion runs from November 13 through November 23. You can guarantee many hunters have had Friday, November 12, blocked off for annual leave on their work calendars since the Missouri Conservation Commission approved the season dates.
The term “deer camp” is rather broad and offers generous sideboards in its definition. For some, it’s literally a primitive-style campout, with tent sleeping and cooking on an open fire or camp stove. For others, it’s hitching up the trucks to more luxurious pull-behind campers and parking them circled around a campsite near a favorite hunting spot. And then there’s the type of deer camp where someone has a piece of land where they’ve erected a hunting cabin or shack to host friends and family.
Deer camps can be intimate gatherings of family and friends who have come together in the same location year after year (hence the tradition). They have established customs and have their camp planning, set up, and activities down to a science to minimize the chaos and maximize the enjoyment!
Often, if you are invited or show up with one of the family members or friends of the camp, then you have already been vetted and are welcomed with open arms into camp festivities, regardless of whether you hunt or not. Of course, if you’re showing up uninvited, unannounced, and without knowing anyone, then you shouldn’t expect a warm welcome. This is always a possibility with some groups, but it can be a stretch, since these occasions are like mini family reunions. So, let’s make sure to be properly invited. Or you can always start up your own camping tradition.
If you are on a healthy diet kick, deer camp may not be the place for you. It’s a shrine to comfort foods. Some of the most common snacks include deer sticks, summer sausage, cheeses, chili, and stews, which can be made with venison from last year’s hunt. But a go-to staple and a hands-down favorite is fried fish (typically crappie or blue and flathead catfish fillets) and homestyle chips. None of this actually makes it to the table; rather, the snacks are passed around in a pan as soon as they exit the fryer!
Deer camps are social gatherings. Like many social gatherings, you can expect to find a variety of beers. But this time of year, many switch over to warming options like whiskey and bourbon, as well as dark and light soda mixers for those that don’t take them neat or on the rocks. A neighborly thing to do (and this fits with the concept of an inviting and welcoming atmosphere) is to bring some beer or your favorite bottle to share with the group. This will also go a long way in solidifying an invite for next season.
Breaking out a deck of cards for some friendly competition always seems to happen at camp, whether it’s poker, pitch, spades, hearts, or another group game. In Osage County, people play a lot of Preference, which is a card game of strategy. But hey, you do you, and have fun with it!
Perhaps the greatest tradition is passing down all the stories from past hunts and deer camp experiences. Hunters, like fisherfolk, are full of stories and tall tales. You’ll hear it all — stories told with great pride of a skillful, successful hunt and others where lady luck shined down upon an otherwise disastrous hunt. But most often, you’ll hear a lot from the blooper reel in stories of the big one that got away. For an over-the-top exaggerated example, think of the satirical song “Da Turdy Point Buck.”
Storytelling in and of itself is a tradition with an art to it. A well-crafted and timed delivery can leave camp-goers in awe, or perhaps have them belt out in laughter as they roast one another for past follies. The best part, though, is that storytelling is for everyone of any age, and each member brings their own unique experiences and varying perspectives. Some of the most humorous come when there are contradicting perspectives of the same hunt — when a “this is how it actually happened” phrase emerges. On a different tack, some of the most touching stories come from children who are given the floor to tell their own tall tale of their first deer. These unwritten history books of the group’s hunting experiences are irreplaceable.
Remember, deer camp is what you and yours make of it, and things may differ from experience to experience. Whatever your customs, be safe, embrace the spirit of kinship and camaraderie, toast to the cherished memories and a successful hunt to come, retell tall tales, find solace in nature, and most importantly, pass along your traditions to your children and grandchildren!