Have you ever wished you could have hunted deer in the old days, back before tens of thousands of hunters roamed he woods each year? Well, you might be surprised how tough it would have been.
The whitetail is the oldest deer species in the world, but it has not always thrived in Louisiana.
Thousands of years ago during the Ice Age, large mega fauna such as mastodons and saber-tooth tigers roamed what was then a cool, grassy landscape. It was not until the Ice Age ended and the saber-tooth cats and other Ice Age carnivores became extinct that the modern environment was established, and the deer herd expanded.
Sportsmen often imagine what it would have been like to have hunted deer hundreds of years ago when the land was untouched by modern civilization. If they did have the proverbial time machine and traveled back to 1699 when the French established the Louisiana colony, they might just be surprised at what they’d find.
Biologists estimate that our deer herd at that time was between 250,000 and 400,000 animals. Compare that with the 750,000 to 1 million we have today.
As much as a third of the state was open prairie, and those grasslands were poor whitetail habitat. Also, much of northern and western Louisiana and the Florida Parishes were covered in pine forests.
Unlike today when logging operations promote browse growth, the virgin pine forests were almost sterile in terms of deer nutrition.
Even the Mississippi and Atchafalaya floodplains had far fewer deer than today. The towering oak trees’ thick canopy shaded out the ground and prevented browse from growing. Acorns were plentiful in the fall and winter, but there was little for deer to eat the rest of the year.
In short, unlike today when nearly every parish has a healthy deer population, in the old days there were large areas of Louisiana almost devoid of whitetails.
Nonetheless, Native Americans hunted them with a passion. The Choctaw even had chiefs who governed deer hunting.
Louisiana’s first deer hunters used the atlatl, a wooden spear thrower that launched a dart (essentially a large arrow 4 to 5 feet long). About 18 inches long, the atlatl had a bone or antler hook fitted into one end, on which the butt of the dart was inserted. The dart then was held in place with the thumb and forefinger.
The hunter took a step and slung the atlatl overhead, releasing the dart when he reached maximum acceleration. Thus, by artificially lengthening his arm, an Indian could throw a dart much farther and with much more force than by hand.
Tipped with a stone projectile point, an atlatl dart could bring down any Louisiana game.
The atlatl was used for thousands of years, but it was quickly replaced by the more-accurate bow and arrow when it was introduced to Louisiana about 1,600 years ago.
The Caddo Indians of Northwest Louisiana made some of the finest bows in America. Constructed from hickory or osage orange (aka bois d’arc), they had bowstrings fashioned from twisted deerskin, fiber or bark and shot arrows made from switch cane, dogwood branches or hickory.
The arrowheads, often called “bird points” today, were only ½ to 1 inch long.
A 1,000-year-old Caddo bow discovered in a burial site had a leather grip and recurved tips, and would rival any modern longbow. Such bows usually pulled 40 to 50 pounds, and some archers could consistently hit targets at 120 yards.
Early French explorers noted how Louisiana’s Indians practiced deer management using controlled burning in the piney woods and marsh to promote browse growth.
Similar to modern hunters using food plots, Indians also planted the types of vegetation that deer preferred to eat.
Indian hunters often looked for bedding areas and stayed there all night to bushwhack the in the morning or hid out in trees, camouflaging themselves with leafy branches.
Sometimes standers were placed at strategic escape points on the prairies and marshes, and the grass was set on fire to push deer toward them.
Drives were also made through known bedding thickets to run deer to standers.
For the Natchez, deer hunting was sometimes a communal effort. The French described how the Indians would find a deer, and then form a semi-circle around it with as many as 100 men, who chased the deer from side to side until it finally fell from exhaustion. This sport was said to have been as much for entertainment as a way to gather food.
Although it defies belief, the French claimed that the Attakapas Indians, who inhabited the prairies and marsh country of Southwest Louisiana, used relays to run deer to exhaustion.
Indians also knew the usefulness of decoys and often caped out the carcass, stretched the hide on a cane hoop and cured it with smoke. The hunter then either wore the decoy or carried it in one hand, and used mimicking motions and calls to draw his quarry near. Some were so skilled in this technique that other Indians were fooled and began stalking them.
Indians even used cover scent by standing in the smoke of a red oak fire. Woods fires were common, and Indian hunters knew the smell of natural smoke would not alarm their prey.
When the French arrived in Louisiana in 1699, they documented how important deer hunting was to the Indians.
“They … gave me one of their most valuable possessions, a dozen very large deer hides, most of which had been pierced (by arrows),” Sieur d’Iberville wrote in his journal when he met the Bayougoula tribe. “I gave them to my men for use as shoe leather.”
The French arrival began a new era in Louisiana deer hunting. The ancient practice of subsistence hunting gave way to commercial enterprise, as professional hunters partnered with merchants to collect deer hides, bear oil and buffalo tongues.
Hunting was a lucrative business, and in the early 1700s French hunters delivered more than 20,000 deer hides to Natchitoches every three months.
The weapon of choice was a .62 caliber (20 gauge) fusil de chasse (“hunting gun”). This flintlock musket was a smoothbore, which allowed the hunter the option of shooting round balls for big game or shot for fowl and small game.
The fusil de chasse was 59 inches long, with a 44-inch barrel and barrel-length walnut or maple stock. Slender and well made, it weighed less than 7 pounds.
The musket sported only a front blade sight, but an average hunter, using about 60 grains of black powder, could easily hit a deer’s vitals at 25 yards.
Despite the professional French hunters, the overall deer population seems to have remained stable in many areas.
When William Dunbar explored the Ouachita River basin in 1804, he noted that when Catahoula Lake dried up every summer “the bed of the (l)ake … becomes the residence of immense herds of (d)eer, of (t)urkeys, (g)eese, (d)ucks, (c)ranes, etc., etc., feeding upon the grass and grain … .”
Dunbar met a number of French families on the Ouachita, and described how they headed into the deep woods every November to stock up on venison.
“(They) carry no provision with them but a little (I)ndian corn, depending on their guns and ammunition for the rest,” he wrote. “The (d)eer is now fat and their skins in perfection …. ”
Soon after the Louisiana Purchase, Louisiana deer hunting entered another phase as thousands of Americans moved into the territory. Plantation agriculture and countless homesteads destroyed deer habitat, and the use of dogs to hunt year round put tremendous stress on the herd.
Rapid technological developments such as rifles, double barrel shotguns, percussion caps and centerfire cartridges, also made hunters much more successful.
Even with the improved weapons, however, some hunters continued to rely on ancient skills. In 1886, an Iowa newspaper reported that an anonymous Winn Parish man could actually detect deer by smell.
“It is said that, on a calm day or when the wind is blowing toward him, he can smell a deer 30 to 60 yards,” the newspaper reads. “He is a popular hunting companion with the neighbors who know of his power. While riding or walking through the woods he will stop, throw his head very much as a dog does when he strikes a scent, and in this way he rarely fails to locate the deer if it is within gunshot distance of him.”
The biggest threat to Louisiana’s deer herd in the 19th century was the so-called market hunters. America’s explosive population growth created a great demand for venison and hides.
With few hunting regulations to protect deer, market hunters armed themselves with the latest weapons and systematically slaughtered the herd.
As a result, deer had disappeared from many areas by the turn of the 20th century, and it was questionable whether they would ever return.