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Forecast By Alan Garbers

Deer season starts this month and the vast majority of us are wondering what lies ahead. Where are our best chances of putting meat in the freezer and a rack on the wall? That’s what this two-part special is about. This month we’ll look at the best places to put meat in the freezer. Next month we’ll look at the best places to hunt for that trophy rack.

If you listened to the news you already know 2012 was a record-breaker in total deer harvested. Over the four 2012 seasons 136,248 deer were checked in, but the percentage of bucks dropped by 9 percent over the 2011 harvest.

This year many are debating the effect of the long drought of 2012, last winter’s heavy snows and this summer’s weather had on the state deer herd. But, if a county was great for whitetail deer hunting in Indiana in the past, most likely it will be great again this year. To make a forecast, historical numbers and everything that has affected the deer herd has to be analyzed.

One side effect of last year’s drought was the lack of moving water in many of our creeks. That, in turn, led to a rise in a tiny midge that transmits epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD). Reports of dead and dying deer lying in ponds and stagnate water were rampant. IDNR Deer Research Biologist Chad Stewart agrees with what many hunters are already thinking. “EHD can have significant short-term impacts on the population in areas where it occurs. Some populations can be reduced by upwards of 50 percent in a small area. These impacts may last several years but, ultimately, the deer herd will recover.”

With a dire prediction like that we asked Stewart what counties were hit hardest. “We began seeing reports from Putnam and Morgan counties in early July 2012, which is very early for an outbreak to begin occurring. Not surprisingly, those areas were pretty hard hit. LaGrange County also got hit pretty hard, as well as areas in Cass and Jefferson. EHD was confirmed or suspected in 67 counties last year, so it was incredibly widespread, though the impact varied from spot to spot.”

The drought of 2012 also affected Indiana’s crops, which in places are a large part of the deer herd’s diet. In some places the corn never matured and withered on the stalk. Many were wondering how that combined with the warm fall temperatures affected the deer harvest. Stewart is actually optimistic. “Other than losing deer from EHD prior to the hunting season, there was very little effect on the harvest. The drought allowed farmers to get crops out of the field (or at least what was left of crops) prior to the archery season, which tends to concentrate deer in wooded areas rather than having them more widely dispersed in standing crops. This generally bodes well for hunter success early in the season.”

Some bow hunters preached that the new legality of crossbows would destroy deer hunting as we know it, the same argument that was used when compound bows first came on the scene. While statistically the percentage of crossbow kills rose a dramatic 675 percent, in reality is was only 6 percent of the total harvest. Since the state is trying to lower the overall deer population, IDNR was pleased with the results. “Our goal was to increase the harvest early in the deer hunting season, and I think allowing crossbows in the archery season was a major contributor to that.”

If you look, the firearm season harvest, the muzzleloader season harvest and the overall antlered deer harvest numbers were down. The lower firearms and muzzleloader harvest trend may be partially a result of the drought. Most of the corn was harvested early or mowed down, which forced deer back into the woods before or during archery season where they were more vulnerable to bow hunters. The other portion is most likely a result of the IDNR’s plan to reduce the state’s deer population. We can expect to see fewer deer as more hunting pressure and harvesting takes place.

So how did we have a record harvest? That may be due in part to one of the IDNR’s big rule changes — the deer license bundle. The deer license bundle allowed hunters the opportunity to take two antlerless deer and one antlered deer across all of the deer seasons.

“I believe if any one item impacted harvest, then this would have the most impact,” Stewart said. “We won’t know for certain until we can do a thorough deer hunter survey, but one item in the data struck me. Historically, resident license owners (the ones who are purchasing archery, bonus antlerless, firearms, etc. licenses) only take about 43 percent of the total deer in the harvest. This year, our resident harvest exceeded 47 percent of the harvest. That doesn’t sound like much of a change, but to move the number that much in one year is actually pretty impressive. When you look and see that the deer license bundle was almost our top-selling individual license, I think it is easy to connect that the two go hand-in-hand.”

So what does the 2013 forecast look like? How is the health of the deer herd? Are there predicted changes in the harvest numbers? We asked Stewart those very questions.

“Indiana’s deer herd is incredibly healthy. We are fortunate to live in an area of the country that provides optimal nutrition and has relatively mild winters, which allows deer to come out of the winter in relatively healthy condition.

“It’s a little early to be doing predictions, but I would be expecting the harvest to be down in 2013, but I don’t expect a drastic reduction. In general, numbers don’t really change that much from year to year.”

Payton Mireles with her amazing buck from Starke County, Indiana. Photo courtesy North American Whitetail.
So what counties and areas of the state hold your best chances of putting venison on the table? Generally, greater deer densities mean better hunter success. Statewide, hunters harvested an average 3.74 deer per square mile, but the range runs from a low of 0.35 deer harvested per square mile in Benton County to an incredible high of 15.86 deer harvested per square mile in Switzerland County. Why the huge difference? If you look at the map you’ll see the vast “corn desert” that runs through the middle of the state. If you drive through the area in the winter you’ll see small islands of trees miles apart and the rest is a barren moonscape of harvested corn and soybean fields. It’s simple. Limited habitat means fewer deer and it’s easier for hunters to key in on good areas.

“Given the more highly fragmented habitat of the north, it appears that we are having more of an impact in reducing the deer population than the more characteristic continuous habitat and larger woods of the south.” Stewart said. “We are seeing what I believe is a realized decrease in the deer population up north, whereas down south it is difficult to achieve these reductions because there is so much refuge in the form of woods that are hard to reach and hunt. The north doesn’t have this to that extent, and I think hunters can have more of an impact on the deer population. That being said, I suspect that the deer production in the north is as good as anywhere, so they still exist at healthy levels.”

Going by districts, we can more closely identify the higher deer-producing counties.

In District One the best producer was Warren County, with a better-than-average 4.11 deer harvested per square mile and yet next door is Benton County, which had the state’s lowest average of 0.35. The rest of the zone was statistically average or slightly below. But those numbers can be a little deceiving. Much of Lake and Porter counties are urban areas with no hunting allowed. That indicates that the deer numbers harvested came from the remaining rural areas and urban zones. Taking that into account, the numbers of deer harvested in those counties was most likely better than average.

In District Two, Marshall and Starke counties were the top producers with an average of 6.37 and 6.23 deer harvested per square mile, respectively. Kosciusko and Pulaski counties were close behind with averages of 5.33 and 4.60. While statistically LaPorte, St. Joesph and Elkhart counties were lower than average, they also have a great deal of urban areas which would put the remaining rural and urban zone areas at a higher average.

District Three is one of the traditional hotspots of the state. Steuben County is one of the top deer-producing counties at 9.95 deer harvested per square mile. Noble and De Kalb were also very high with an average 6.75 and 6.66 deer harvested per square mile, and LaGrange is just behind them with an average of 5.29. LaGrange’s average could have been higher but EHD hit the county hard.

In District Four, Fulton County was the leader with a 5.14 average, followed closely by Miami and Wabash counties with averages of 4.26 and 4.12. Cass County’s harvest could have been higher had the herd not been affected by EHD.

In District Five, Huntington County is the leader statistically, but don’t rule out Allen County. Without Ft. Wayne taking up a large portion of the county, the average for the rest of the rural areas would be higher. Plus, there are some great opportunities in the urban zones.

There’s more to District Six than covered bridges. Picturesque Parke County produced a respectable 6.51 deer per square mile. Vermillion, Fountain and Putnam counties were also above average with 4.92, 4.26, and 4.08 deer harvested per square mile. While Tippecanoe County results are below average, many great opportunities exist in the urban zones around LaFayette. While Putnam had a higher than state-average harvest, it might have been even better had EHD not affected the herd.

Across District Seven exists the vast Indiana “Corn Desert.” While the numbers for each county is below average there are places in each county that are great. Look for areas that provide what deer need and you’ll find the deer. The urban zones, especially those around Indianapolis, see little pressure and can produce huge deer, including bucks like “Nightmare,” a 300-pound buck that was poached in western Marion County in the fall of 2012.

“In general, urban deer hunting provides phenomenal opportunities for hunters if they are fortunate enough to gain access. That being said, most urban hunting is going to be limited to archery or crossbow hunting, since firearm use is often limited or prohibited.” Stewart explained.

“I know extremely talented hunters who kill deer every year in rural areas. I think the possibility for larger deer densities exists in urban areas, which bodes well for the success of an urban deer hunter.”

In District Eight, Fayette County is the leader with an average of 4.53. Hunters in Wayne and Union counties should keep a sharp eye out for some of Indiana’s growing wild hog population.

In District Nine, Sullivan and Owen counties are almost tied with averages of 4.62 and 4.60.

In District Ten, Brown County is a powerhouse deer-producer with a 6.50 average. Jackson and Monroe counties are not far behind with 4.24 and 4.10 averages. Jackson County hunters may also get a chance to bring home bacon with their venison as a small but growing population of wild hogs roams the wooded hills and valleys. Morgan County might have ranked higher but EHD hit the deer herd hard.

District 11 is the number-one place for deer in Indiana. Switzerland County hunters harvested a phenomenal 15.86 deer per square mile! Ohio County produced an average of 13.64 while Dearborn County beat the state average by 300 percent at 10.41 deer harvested per square mile! Franklin County doubled the state average with 7.97 deer per square mile.

In District 12, Dubois and Martin counties were close with above-average results of 4.63 and 4.57, respectively.

Trying to pick the best counties to hunt in District 13 is like trying to pick the prettiest Colts cheerleader. All of the counties are above-average with the top producer being Crawford County with an average of 7.11. Harrison County is a close second with an average of 6.38. Like Jackson County next door, Washington and Lawrence counties have growing populations of wild hogs. There are no limits or seasons on Indiana’s feral hogs, so harvest all you can.

District 14 runs from average to great hunting. The leader is Jefferson County at 6.44, followed closely by Jennings with an average 6.04 deer harvested per square mile. Jefferson County’s average may have been even higher but EHD hit hard and killed countless deer.

In District 15, Perry County is the top producer at 4.45, followed closely by Warrick and Vanderburgh counties with averages of 4.40 and 4.11 deer harvested per square mile.

As the IDNR biologist said, numbers don’t change drastically, so the best areas last year will still be top spots this year. Study the numbers and start knocking on farmers’ doors or head for Indiana’s public lands. Somehow, the hunters that do pre-season scouting, and who go farther and hunt harder are the luckiest. With just a little bit of work, that could be you.

Check out this link for a more detailed summary of the 2012-2013 Indiana deer harvest.

And don’t forget to upload your best deer photos to our Camera Corner!