There are few other states in the nation with as many different styles of whitetail hunting available to a hunter as can be found in Minnesota. There are rolling prairies with ridgelines and creek bottoms to hunt in the southwest; wooded ravines cutting through fertile croplands in the southeast; vast cedar swamps with massive timber stands in the north; mixed hardwood forests stretching across the mid-section; and a unique blend of two or more of each habitat in those millions of overlapping acres.
Throughout each of those habitats, Minnesota’s deer herd is solid for the 2010 season. Archers have been in the woods since mid-September, but October brings additional opportunities to our deer hunters.
One of the reasons for the strong health of our deer herd is due to last year’s winter, which was mild and nicely complimented by the second warmest spring on record.
“If you go on the DNR Web page and check the statistics for 2009′s Winter Severity Index you’ll find that this past winter was essentially a non-event,” said Lou Cornicelli, big game program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “We had an excellent spring, and that helped even those few deer that came through the winter in rough shape.”
The only thing that kills more deer than deer hunters is a severe winter and Minnesota’s deer herd has benefited from more than a decade of relatively mild ones. The last significant winter is now 15 years in the past and every year the deer herd has the opportunity to grow if hunters don’t do their part to keep it in check.
Even with all that good news, some Minnesota hunters are hanging their heads low because they haven’t seen as many deer in the past few seasons as they did only a few years prior. For the fourth year in a row, our deer season has had a lower overall harvest than the one before it.
The overall harvest in 2009 — including archery, firearms and muzzleloader — dipped below 200,000 for the first time in a decade. In the past 17 hunting seasons, only four have had lower harvest numbers and those came after a series of brutal winters.
So what’s going on? Is deer hunting in Minnesota gradually coming to an end? Why are game managers so optimistic about the overall health of the herd, and why are knowledgeable hunters and hunting organizations optimistic? Is this reduction a trend?
The simple answer is that this drawdown in the population was completely by design. Those “good old days” of harvest rates topping 250,000 that existed for five seasons, from 2003 to 2007 were done because Minnesota’s herd was growing too big for its own good.
“Statewide, we’ve put a lot of effort in lowering deer densities and it has been effective in most areas. We’re getting the population to where we’d like it to be with regards to density in most parts of the state and that shows on the permit area map in the 2010 regulation book,” Cornicelli said.
Deer density is a difficult subject, but one of the keys to a healthy herd is making sure that a specific habitat has the carrying capacity for a specific species. In the case of the white-tailed deer, especially across the forest zone, they were eating themselves out of house and home and possibly setting the stage for a rough winter to become especially brutal. High deer densities impact plant growth and forest regeneration, not to mention creating more social problems such as deer-vehicle accidents and destruction of private property. Long story short, the herd needed to be reduced in density and Minnesota hunters did their job quite effectively.
TOP HUNTING AREAS
Check the tables accompanying this article and you’ll see some top permit areas around the state based on last year’s harvest numbers. The jury is out, however, as to how much this information helps hunters looking to explore new hunting lands for 2010.
Having written this deer outlook for the past six years, I’ve noticed a definite trend of the same permit areas showing up year after year. Sometimes it is a simple matter of flip-flopping a permit area or two within the top five, but they follow the same trends. The same basic areas that produce large numbers of deer each year also are some of the heaviest hunted.
There’s good hunting to be had throughout Minnesota’s 87 counties and 166 deer hunting permit areas from year to year. But there are so many factors that go into what makes the hunt good in one area or another, harvest data alone is not enough.
The simple fact is that the vast majority of deer hunters in Minnesota hunt the same land from year to year. It is especially true for hunters who hunt land they own, but it is even true for those on public lands. Hunters who are not tied to their own chunk of land have millions of acres across the state available to them, but almost all of them still park their vehicle along the same stretch of road each year.
“Minnesota hunters often have a rich tradition with the areas they hunt, whether they own the land or not, and it shows that shooting a deer is not the only thing that this annual tradition is all about,” said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunter’s Association.
Hunters looking to hunt in a new location this year should read this issue cover to cover, and then get out a map and figure out where they want to go. The best time to plan that move was several weeks ago, so right now is crunch time.
Tom McFarlane is a land specialist and agent with Whitetail Properties who travels all around the upper Midwest and Great Plains searching for prime whitetail trophy land for his clients. “Whether scouting public land you can hunt this year, or considering purchasing a private parcel for yourself, knowing the patterns and movements of the deer in the area is the key to success,” he said. “And that comes from scouting — the biggest difference being when you own the land you can control who scouts and who ultimately hunts that land.”
Because the herd is healthy across the state and opportunities for harvesting a deer abound in every permit area, a hunter looking to explore new territory would be best served by first determining the kind of experience he wants. Choose the terrain, find a piece of public hunting land, and go scout it out.
“Big bucks do a lot of moving during th
e rut,” said Pete Hein, owner of Flatline Productions, which recently released their newest whitetail video. “If you see a big deer taken from an area you were hoping to hunt, don’t be discouraged; other bucks in the area figure out that the big boy is gone and move into his territory. If you are there first, you can take advantage of that situation.
“There are big bucks to be had throughout the state on public land, sometimes in the busiest of places,” he added. “But they’ve figured out how to avoid hunters and you just need to figure out his patterns to put yourself in the ideal location.”
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