For most of the year, life in small-town rural Missouri moves at a quiet pace, but come November these peaceful hamlets transform into prime destinations for those on the hunt for deer. Every year, from September to January, men and women dressed in camo and blaze-orange safety clothing fill the country cafes and mom-and-pop motels of rural communities across Missouri. Enthusiastic hunters wait in long lines at grocery stores, convenience marts, and outfitters to buy everything from licenses to ammunition. When the 11-day firearms deer-hunting season is underway in November, the air is alive with the sounds of gunfire and the ka-ching of cash registers.

“Deer season is like a holiday for us,” says Rick Judd, a longtime hunter from West Plains. “It’s probably second only to Christmas. Some businesses shut down for the week. And some of the small schools—like Dora and Winona—are closed because everyone is hunting. It’s all anybody is talking about.”

Statewide, more than 400,000 hunters participate in the annual hunt. And they spend big bucks to chase big bucks: surveys show that deer hunting is a $1 billion business in Missouri, once you consider the ripple e”ffect on the economy. Ready to set up camp? Join us on a journey through some of our big deer towns.

West Plains • Population 2,248

It’s 7  on the eve of the Missouri deer opener, and business is booming at the local Walmart in West Plains, the seat of Howell County in the southeast Missouri Ozarks. Long lines of hunters radiate from the sporting-goods counter as three clerks frantically process hunting licenses. Elsewhere in the store, everything from deli meat to beer to boots are stripped from the shelves and tossed into shopping carts. Welcome to hunting’s version of Black Friday.

“This Walmart is like the hub for deer hunters,” says employee Je† Smith. “I’m always amazed at the number of hunters who come here the night before the season. We have out-of-state hunters who will drive all night, get here at 3 or 4 in the morning to buy a tag, then head right to their deer camp.”

There’s a big spike in sporting-goods sales in November, but the increase is not restricted to seasonal purchases. Sales of groceries, thermal clothing, men’s boots, deli items, and beer also soar. That’s understandable in a county that consistently ranks at or near the top in the state’s firearms deer kills.

Howell County is ideal deer country. It has the thick timber the Ozarks are known for, but clearings and crop fields also dot the landscape. And it has large chunks of public hunting land, such as the White Ranch Conservation Area, managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

On the 2017 opener, nearly every pull-o† on White Ranch had a deer camp—some consisting of several tents, others much fancier with high-dollar RVs. The hunters in those camps shot plenty of deer: by the time the firearms season ended, Howell County topped the state in harvest, with 4,599 deer taken.

“There’s a story going around that a teacher asked her young students to list the four seasons,” says West Plains resident Joe Fox. “One kid said, ‘Deer, turkey, squirrel, and rabbit.’ We laugh about it, but that says a lot about our area. We are crazy about hunting.”

Houston • Population 2,093

Houston, Missouri, doesn’t have a lot in common with its namesake city in Texas. The Missouri version is about as rural as you can get. Dominated by a large piece of the Mark Twain National Forest, this Ozark area probably has more deer than people … that is, until deer season arrives. In November, the odds even out a bit. Town offi‡cials can’t tell you how many people stream into the area in mid-November, just that it’s a lot. For as long as most people can remember, Texas County has been one of the best deer-hunting spots in the state. In 2017, it ranked second in firearms deer kills.

Clark Morton and his son, Josh, flock to Houston each fall. They drive more than 11 hours from their home in Coal Center, Pennsylvania, to hunt at a relative’s farm. They always stay in the same motel, the Lazy L, and they always eat at the same restaurant, The Eatin’ Place. For them, it’s tradition. The Mortons have been making the trip every fall since 2007.

“This is a lot diff–erent than Pennsylvania, but we love this country,” Josh says. “There are a lot of deer, and by now, we have a pretty good idea where we’ll find them on the farm we hunt.”

Warsaw • Population 2,120

After 23 years on the job, Beth Drake knows what to expect when her Osage Mini Mart opens during deer season: “Long hours, long days,” she says.

But that’s fine with her. For as long as she can remember, her convenience store has been a hub for the deer hunters who flock to Warsaw in west-central Missouri. A plethora of public hunting land surrounding Truman Lake lies just miles from her store.

“We know we always have to be stocked up on three items: jerky, beer, and chewing tobacco,” Beth says with a laugh. “That’s in high demand.”

Hunters flock to Warsaw in Benton County because they know they can always find a place to hunt. And deer are plentiful in the thick woods surrounding Truman Lake. So are the deer camps hunters set up during the firearms season. National outdoors magazines routinely put Warsaw on their lists of top places to go.

“Deer season fills a void for us,” says Mac Vorce, director of the Warsaw Chamber of Commerce. “It comes at a time of the year when a lot of our businesses would otherwise experience a little slump. But with the sale of fuel, groceries, lodging, even land leasing, deer season is huge for us.”

Macon • Population 5,377

On opening day of the 2017 deer season, business was booming at Special D Meats, a processor in Macon. For more than 30 years, Special D has been processing deer into summer sausage, chili meat, and venison roasts for hunters. Located in a hotbed of Missouri hunting in the northeast part of the state, owners have never had to worry about attracting business.

“There are just a lot of deer around here,” says Beverly Rhoades, retail manager at Special D. “I drive 30 miles one way into work and I dodged six of them today.”

Special D took in 600 harvested deer during the 11-day hunt in 2017. That might sound like a lot, but Beverly remembers one year when that total reached 1,000. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)—a fatal, contagious disease that biologists say can have a disastrous e—ffect on deer herds—was found in captive deer near Macon in 2011 and 2012, and in free-ranging whitetails in 2012. The Department of Conservation has reduced the herd to slow the spread of the disease. CWD sampling is mandatory in 31 Missouri counties on opening weekend this year. Macon County still has plenty of healthy deer to hunt, and business is booming, according to merchants.

Gerald • Population 1,312

Just 75 miles from downtown St. Louis, Gerald is a world away from urban life. You won’t find skyscrapers, traŸffic jams, or much human activity here. Instead, you’ll find plenty of deer in a perfect habitat—a patchwork of timber, farm ground, and big rivers. Gerald sits at the western edge of Franklin County, one of the top areas in Missouri during the firearms deer hunt. It’s a popular destination for St. Louis hunters, who can travel there in a little more than an hour.

“You can see the mass migration from St. Louis the night before the deer season,” says Todd Wright, a conservation agent for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “A lot of hunters will set up deer camps or stay in old farmhouses that have been passed down. A lot of those farmhouses are empty for 11 months out of the year, but they’ll be busy during deer season.”

Business can be brisk during the firearms hunt. “November has the potential to be slow for a business like ours,” says Cary Parker, who owns the Bistro at the Mill with his wife Jeannie. “But with the influx of hunters, we are busy. We will get a group of 10 guys come in, dressed in orange, looking for a place to eat after a day of hunting, and we’re grateful they stopped.”

The 2018 firearms deer season runs November 10-20. Visit HuntFish.mdc.mo.gov for current information on seasons, permits, and other regulations.