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Deer U.: Oh, to just major in deer hunting

4/18/2006
Auburn University 

Toward the latter end of my junior year in high school, it seemed like everyone and my mother was giving me advice on where to go to college.

There were those that said I should go to a school that specialized in something — like engineering or business — because a specific degree would help me land a fat job after graduation.

Then, there were those that said I should investigate schools with tremendous alumni networks because, as one uncle put it, "What really counts in this world is not who you know, but who I know."

Last, there were the marginalized, aging hippies in my family who told me just to go find a nice liberal arts college where, "you can really learn something good, man."

Looking back, I never got the advice I really needed.

What would have been great is if someone pulled me aside and told me about life during and after college. How schools give you the option of scheduling classes however you like. How there are many good schools in wild and woolly places. And how "success," whatever that is, often hinges upon following your passions.

If I had known all that ahead of time, I might not have gone to a small college on the outskirts of Philly. Instead, I might have gone to one of these five schools — all places where a student can get a good degree … and spend four years hunting like a wild man:

Pennsylvania State
State College, Penn.

Pennsylvania is a state that takes its hunting very seriously. At last count, it had more than 1 million resident hunters and 1.3 million acres of state games lands set aside for the pursuit of wild game. This may help explain why every year, Pennsylvania hunters take an average of 400,000 deer. And right at the center of all the action is Penn State.

State College, home of the Nittany Lions, is located in the middle of Pennsylvania. The university is a big, with a student body of 40,000, and as such provides a wide range of academic disciplines, including agriculture and forestry. It's the latter that helps make Penn State such an attractive school for hunters.

In the 1920s, forestry students started a fraternity called Tau Phi Delta. Originally it was an organization reserved for wood-lovers, but, over the years, it has become defined mostly by the type of students who live there. Now, according to Pat Weiss, a live-in alumnus of the house, Tau Phi Delta is a hunter's frat.

"Behind the house, we have a woodshed, an archery range and a game pole," Weiss said. "During deer season, we have buck pools and organized house-drives. Usually we'll get guys to donate their deer to the house. We have to — the house eats venison three or four nights a week."

"The alumni are pretty loyal to the house, too," he said. "We usually get a few guys coming back for the deer drives, but they turn out in droves for our bear drives. Bear drives are a house tradition; we have some pushes that we've been doing since the middle '70s."

The location of the frat also makes it pretty convenient for hunting. As part of a land grant, Penn State owns thousands of acres of forested land, a good deal of which is open to hunting. Plus, there's no shortage of local state game lands and state forests.

When asked how far Weiss travels to hunt deer, he replied, "Shoot, I've killed deer five minutes from the house. In fact, I can hear the football games from a few of my stands."

For more information on Penn State and Tau Phi Delta, call the school at (814) 865-5471 or visit the school Web site.

Auburn University
Auburn, Ala.

The broad strip of dark, fertile soil running through the center of Alabama is called the Black Belt, and it is the heart of Alabama's agricultural land.

Not surprisingly then, it is also ground zero for the state's enormous deer herd, which numbered 1.75 million animals at last count. Conversely, Alabama's hunting population is relatively small — 217,000 in 1999.

Put the two together and you can see why the deer seasons are so liberal. You can hunt from the bow opener Oct. 15 through end of gun season Jan. 31 — and you can take a buck a day. The Alabama Game and Fish Department cordially invites you to knock yourself out.

All of this may explain why Bobby Cole went to Auburn University. The university, including its satellite campus at Montgomery, is right in the guts of the Black Belt and the local deer hunting is phenomenal.

"It took me eight years to get a four-year degree," said Cole, now a national sales manager for Mossy Oak. "I worked at a local sporting goods store and loaded up on my classes in the summer, but I just couldn't go to school in the fall. The hunting was just too good."

Since many of the storied Alabama plantations were located in the Black Belt, much of the local land is locked up in large private blocks. However, that can work to a student's advantage.

"Come fall, pick up any local paper and you'll see ads for hunting clubs needing members. Usually, the fees are not that bad. And if it's a choice between paying dues at a frat or paying dues at hunting club, I gotta go with the club," Cole said.

"If you don't want to do that, knock on doors. People can have a hard time saying no to a college kid and all it takes is one yes. Then you're set for four years … or more."

Of course, if knocking on doors makes you uncomfortable, you can always hunt on the sprawling Barbour County Wildlife management Area or on the 11,000 acres of the Tuskegee National Forest, both or which are less than 15 miles from campus.

For additional details on Auburn, call (334) 844-4000 or visit its Web site.

Lake Superior State University
Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

Odds are that unless you live in the Michigan's Upper Peninsula, you've never heard of Lake Superior State University. With but 2,000 students and a small campus tucked within a stone's throw of the Canadian border, it doesn't make the regular tour for graduating high-school seniors. And that suits many LSSU students just fine; more hunting for them.

"We're definitely a pro-hunting and fishing school," said LSSU spokesman Tom Pink. "We have a strong forestry and wildlife management program, and we're located in rural UP (Upper Peninsula), so we attract a lot of outdoor-oriented students.

"During hunting season, student-activities directors run a big-buck pool, with photos of the deer posted in the campus center. It's nothing formal; when a student gets a buck, he brings it to campus security where they take a photo, count the points and maybe take a measurement of the inside spread.

"There's a small cash prize for the biggest deer and when the season's over, the students get together for a game feast."

Finding a place to hunt in the UP is not a problem. LSSU is maybe 15 miles from the 880,000 acres of the Hiawatha National Forest and there are myriad closer state and federal holdings. "A student can be hunting 20 minutes after leaving campus," Pink said.

While LSSU is a pro-hunting school, even it needs to draw the line someplace.

"A couple years back, I came through the front gate to the school, and glanced to one side. There was this deer hanging in a tree and a freshman was getting ready to dress it," Pink explained.

"I hated to do it, but, as the PR guy, I had to tell him that skinning a deer by the front gate was not the best idea. We prefer students take their deer to the game-cleaning room located in the freshman dorm."

For details on Lake Superior State, call 888-800-5778 or visit its Web site.

Snow College
Ephraim, Utah

Roughly 60 miles south of Provo, Utah, in a mountain valley at 5,600 feet elevation sits the town of Ephraim and Snow College.

Unlike the other schools where whitetails are the chief pursuit, elk and mule deer are the names of the game here.

The mountain east of town is an elk management area — spikes only, with bigger bulls reserved for those who draw a trophy tag.

To make things even sweeter, access is not a problem, since much of the foothills are federal or state holdings, bought to provide secure elk habitat.

To hear Allen Stevens tell it, the programs are working out.

"I've been in spots 10 miles from school and had 15 to 20 bulls bugling. And we regularly take 350-plus bulls right outside town limits," said Stevens, a hunting guide and Snow's assistant professor of biology and ecology.

"When I was a student at Snow, I would schedule all my classes for either the mornings or the afternoons so I would have large open blocks of time to hunt. I'd just hunt until it was time to roll on back to class. But if I got something, I'd gladly skip."

It seems Snow attracts a lot of similar students. By his rough estimate, 30 to 40 percent of the male students hunt, and the opening weekend of deer season is a very popular event. "The first Monday of the deer rifle season is a day off at Snow. We call it 'Harvest Holiday,'" Stevens said.

While not as good as the elk hunting, the mule deer hunting is fair. "I'd say the success rate for the students on muleys is around 40 percent," Stevens said. "Most of the bucks are two- and three-pointers, but every once in a while somebody gets one with a 30-inch spread."

For details on Snow College, call (435) 283-7000 or visit its Web site.

Virginia Tech
Blacksburg, Va.

If you ever enroll in Virginia Tech, you won't have to look far for a place to hunt. The university, located in the Southwestern Virginia town of Blacksburg, sits just outside 1.6 million contiguous acres of the Jefferson and George Washington National Forest.

It's this ready access to wild open lands, coupled with Virginia Tech's renowned College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, that attracts outdoor-oriented students.

And if the class load gets too much, students can always blow off steam in the clay- and target-shooting programs offered through the school.

Students at the school aren't exactly starved for deer-hunting opportunities, either. Virginia takes close to 180,000 deer annually, with the herds near Blacksburg on the rise recently. Perhaps this explains why the bow season opens in early October and continues through Jan. 1.

It also may explain why Virginia Tech runs a series of controlled hunts on its Kentland Farm.

For details on Virginia Tech, call (540) 231-6000 or visit its Web site.

This article originally appeared on ESPNOutdoors.com in June 2001.