By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
A hard frost coated any exposed ground one recent morning when Bobby Rakestraw was hunting in Holly Springs National Forest.
He’s been a hunter since childhood, but his pursuit of deer and other game has taken on a new importance these days.
The down economy means less construction and less call for the sheet metal work that is his stock in trade. With more spare time and less spare money than in years past, Rakestraw’s hobby has become more focused on bringing home a harvest even as it remains an enjoyable way to spend time in the woods.
“I’ve been out of work for five months. I’ve belonged to the union in Memphis since 1973, and it’s worse than I’ve ever seen it,” he said.
Rakestraw, an Abbeville resident who owns land in both Lafayette and Union counties, killed a nine-point buck two days before Thanksgiving and a doe that weekend. He often hunts with a cousin whose carpentry business also is slow.
“We process them ourselves,” Rakestraw said. “It’s no problem – I’ve killed deer since I was 15 years old.”
It’s probably a safe bet that few Northeast Mississippians are dependent on game for their very survival, but Rakestraw is one of those who see hunting and the meat it yields as counterbalance against a challenging economy.
And others, like Freddy Bost, have different food interests in mind. He hunts deer not so much for their meat, but to protect his vegetables.
A brisk business
Kevin Roberts, who manages The Front Porch, a state-inspected meat processor near Banner, said business is more than brisk and is likely to get busier.
“We’ve got a bunch more deer in here this year,” he said. Last Tuesday morning alone – one of the week’s slower times – customers brought in 11 deer carcasses to be transformed into vacuum-packed hamburger, sausage, steaks and roasts.
“We’ve got some guys this year that said they’re going to fill their freezers,” Roberts said. “We’ve also had a few folks that said they don’t like deer meat, but they’re going to learn to eat it.”
Insurance adjuster Darrell Bramlitt of Bruce was at The Front Porch on Tuesday to pick up his latest kill.
“I keep a stock of steaks and ground meat,” he said. “Last night, instead of going to the grocery store and spending $3 for a package of meat, we went to the freezer and thawed out a package of deer meat that they put up for me last year and made chili out of it. It saves time and gas and money.”
Bruce gunsmith Don Keifer said while some may focus more on meat harvest, he sees “no basic difference” in most people’s hunting this year.
“Everybody’s serious about hunting; that’s why they go,” he said. “A lot of guys hunt horns until they kill one, and then they go out and kill three or four to put in the freezer.
“Hunting is expensive, but people will always find a way to do it,” he added.
Mississippi law allows individual hunters to harvest as many as eight deer per year. State wildlife officials say the economic downturn may have had a slight impact on hunting license sales.
“It’s looking like we’re about 5 percent down from last year,” said Jason Thompson of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks. “We’re still in deer season, and we expect there’ll be some more people who’ll still buy licenses.” An apples-to-apples comparison is impossible, because the state moved from a universal June 30 license expiration in FY 2007 to a 365-day license in 2008, regardless of when the license is purchased. About one-third of the perceived decrease, though, is attributed to having fewer out-of-state hunters.
MDWFP media director Jim Walker said the economy doesn’t seem to be cutting much into residents’ hunting.
“Just as a personal observation, it seems like it’s business as usual for hunters,” he said. “They might be putting off buying a new pair of pants, but they’ve got their land lined up and their food plots planted.”
Former crop consultant Bret Howard is one who has cut back, but for reasons more physical than financial. In constant pain from a tree stand fall years ago, he takes his sons – ages 6, 10 and 12 – out in the field when he can.
“My boys love to hunt, and to me it’s about spending time with them,” said Howard, a Clarksdale resident doing business in Oxford last week. “To them, it’s about bringing something home.” In one nod to the economic downturn, he said his family has sold its share in a hunting club in favor of seeking game on friends’ farms.
For those who hunt public lands, yearly deer hunting costs can be little more than state license fees, ammunition and user fees that range from $3 per day to $50 for a year.
“If you can find a processor that’s reasonable or if you can (butcher) it yourself, that’s a way to supply yourself some meat,” MDWFP’s Walker said.
He does note one economy-driven hunting trend.
“I think people may be a little less eager to give away meat this year,” he said. “Some folks may keep more of it for their own families.”
Susan Gilbert, director of social services for The Salvation Army in Tupelo, agreed. The shelter normally gets six to eight deer donated – dressed and quartered – each month during hunting season, she said.
“This year I only know of one that’s been brought in,” she said. “Once people get their freezers full, maybe it’ll pick up.”
Another food issue
Bost’s deer hunting is about food as surely as anyone’s, but from a different direction.
Only a few of his extended family members care for venison, but he and his son, Marty, hunt to protect the vegetables on their farm near Water Valley.
Among other damages, they’ve had deer destroy an acre of peas in two nights, strip green tomatoes off thousands of plants and graze down beans, carrots and a host of other crops.
“They’ll eat anything that’s fertilized,” said Freddy’s wife, Aileen.
The Bosts, who sell their vegetables at the Mid-Town Farmers’ Market in Oxford, employ noise-making propane cannons to scare deer away, but the ruminants get used to them.
“The cannons will work as long as you kill some, too,” Freddy Bost said. “If you shoot one every once in a while, they’ll smell blood and stay away.”
Because of the damages they suffer, the Bosts have a depredation permit from MDWFP that allows them to kill deer in their fields any time of year, day or night. In summer, they don’t even have time to butcher the carcasses.
“They’re a nuisance,” Freddy Bost said. “They need to be like beavers and coyotes; there doesn’t need to be a season on them.”
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or firstname.lastname@example.org.