COLUMBIA — Missouri hunters congregated at the Boone County Fairgrounds on Saturday for the 20th Missouri Deer Classic. But there is something new to discuss this year — everyone knows about it and everyone has an opinion.
The Missouri Department of Conservation might shift the dates of deer seasons and add restrictions on the size of bucks shot.
But the Missouri Deer Classic, which is taking place this weekend in the indoor arena of the fairgrounds, has not changed much, according to regular visitors. The walls still ring with voices and turkey calls.
Hunters brought their antlers in Saturday and will bring their skulls and horns Sunday to be measured by official Boone and Crockett licensing agency measurers and maybe move in to the Show Me Big Buck Club.
At the classic, hunters can sign up for safaris in Africa or bear hunts in the boreal forests of Ontario. They can find camouflage, and test, buy and raffle handmade wildlife calls, deer scent, feed and bows.
Salesmen are showing off their latest trucks, boats, and amphibious vehicles, and Bass Pro Shop brought a museum on wheels to show its collection.
A woman who trains dogs to find shed antlers gave a lecture on Saturday, as did Jay Gregory of the show “The Wild Outdoors.” Jim Wilson of Ozark Mountain Outfitters lectured on how to grow better food plots.
William Zimmerman, the show coordinator, said the turnout is steady and 8,000 hunters are likely to show up over the weekend.
“A lot of big deer have come in to be measured this year,” Zimmerman said. “Antler restrictions are helping that out.”
Antler restrictions are one of two possible changes conservation department could make that would alter hunting regulations. The new antler rule would restrict hunters from shooting antlered deer without at least four points on one side of their head. Testing of this rule has taken place in 29 counties over the past four seasons, and the conservation department is now deciding whether to make the restrictions statewide.
The second change would shift the antler-less firearm hunt to October, open the firearm hunt the weekend before Thanksgiving, and move the muzzle-loading season into late December.
Nearly all of the hunters at the classic knew of the proposals. There have been sixteen public forums throughout the state and 6,000 comments have been sent online to the conservation department.
“A lot of the people who talked to me today have expressed support,” said Bill Heatherly, a supervisor with the Department of Conservation who set regulation guides up on table in the entrance of the arena. “People have asked today, ‘What is it going to be?’” He answered their questions: In the middle of March, an employee board will meet, and by the end of April, the department will have make a decision, he said.
“We’re in a position that no matter what decision we make, there will be a large group of people who think we made the wrong decision,” he said.
The Missouri Conservation agents are not so happy about the proposed law because it would mean working on Thanksgiving, one of only two holidays for agents, said District Supervisor Dean Harre, who was on hand at the Classic to represent the Missouri Conservation Agents Association.
For that reason, the agents are making the point at the public forums that meat processors won’t be open on Thanksgiving, and wives will be disappointed if their husbands are hunting instead of spending time with their families.
Don Roper, a corrections department warden and official measurer at the show, has been to the meetings on proposed rules and supports them.
“Some folks are not for it,” Roper said. “It’s a change, and some people are opposed to change. But the purpose is to make the Missouri (deer) herd a better herd.”
By moving the firearm season out of the breeding season, Roper thinks it allows the bigger bucks to breed. In the past, the focus has been on having a bigger herd to supply more deer to shoot, but now it is on a higher quality herd.
Rick Barnes, a truck driver who was waiting by the measuring section on Saturday, agrees that the regulation should be changed, because “it gives the working man a little more hunt”. Two more days would be added, and he said most people he knows agree that the new regulations are a good thing. He e-mailed his opinion to the conservation department because he couldn’t find a public meeting.
“The only thing I’d like to see is the muzzle-loading season moved up,” he wrote in the e-mail.
Barnes said they’re moving the seasons back because it is getting too hot, and the big deer are not moving as they should. He hunted in a short sleeved shirt this year, though he remembers it being below 20 degrees when he first began hunting 30 years ago. As hot as it is now, the window to hunt is a half-hour before dawn and a half-hour at dusk.
David Bachtel had a staff of five running the booth for his Web site, answering questions for any hunter who stopped by. He said there is a lot involved in deer movement outside of temperature, including crop exposers, timber clearing and food plots. He would not talk about the possible conservation department changes, saying it was too contentious an issue.
But he did say that “it’s been a hell of a year for hunting.”