2011 Wisconsin Deer Forecast...Our Top Hunting Areas

2011 Wisconsin Deer Forecast...Our Top Hunting Areas
Photo by John R. Ford

Two years of relatively conservative antlerless deer harvests and the ability to target a buck in any unit without the need of taking a doe first have Wisconsin hunters excited about this fall's deer-hunting prospects.

Deer herds in the farmland regions have posted some impressive rebounds, enough so that most of those units are under herd control status. That means hunters who have the opportunity will be able to target as many antlerless deer as they care to, either for themselves or to share with others — including the state's food pantry donation program — as they try to manage local herds toward better doe-to-buck ratios.

"One of the most important messages is that this season framework is set up so that hunters do have the opportunity to harvest deer as they see fit for their hunt area or property," said Jeff Pritzl, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' acting big game specialist for 2011. "It's really up to us as hunters to take deer stewardship into our own hands."

Pritzl said targeting two antlerless deer for every antlered buck taken in areas with high deer numbers helps balance the herd, and as a bonus, can produce more mature whitetails.

He pointed out that some of the top trophies in our state in the past decade have consistently come from units where earn-a-buck regulations were in place.

The only area where EAB might be used this fall is for any additional bucks in the state's chronic wasting disease zone. Even there, the first deer taken can be either-sex for the first time in nearly a decade.

In addition, the four-day October antlerless hunt was dropped by the DNR this year and later eliminated for future years as well, in most cases, by legislators.

"We hope hunters will see we've been listening to their concerns and that we are taking steps toward the kind of deer season they want to see in Wisconsin," said DNR secretary Cathy Stepp.

Pritzl said that hunters or hunting groups that have a lot of deer in their areas and harvest two antlerless deer for every antlered buck are doing their part to prevent aggressive herd reduction measures in the future.

"As the herd continues to increase, chances are we'll see a spike in crop damage complaints," he said. "I know a lot of hunters would rather not go there, but if we don't manage the herd to reduce conflicts, we don't know what more aggressive herd strategies might be down the road."

On the other hand, the DNR is continuing a conservative harvest strategy in some of the northern forest units so herds there — significantly reduced by past antlerless harvests, severe winters and predators like wolves, bears and coyotes — can have a chance to rebound.

While many people blame wolves for reduced deer sightings up north, Pritzl pointed out that there were plenty of wolves around during the state's record harvest of 2000. In addition to hunter harvests, winter stress and predation on fawns and adult deer, he said, there have been significant changes to the habitat.

"As forests mature, they simply don't harbor the ability to support as many deer," Pritzl said. "If expectations on deer sightings aren't being met, I recommend changing locations or changing expectations to bring them more in line with appreciating the whole experience and realizing that the factors that create deer movement aren't the same as they once were."

Even during the record and near-record harvest seasons, hundreds of thousands of hunters failed to tag a deer. "We all don't have access to those prime spots that produce the most sightings per hour," Pritzl said. "There are very localized variations in deer densities, and we'll continue to see pockets where we won't see any noticeable increases in deer numbers."

Very slow, almost imperceptible changes to the landscape have taken place in the past two decades, including more mature forests and an increase in food plotting and baiting.

"We're seeing more landowners almost competing with each other for the deer's attention, and some folks are in better position to do that and are able to make their areas more attractive to deer," Pritzl said. "That changes the distribution of deer, and there can be a decline in sightability for some as deer aren't forced to move on the landscape to find food or avoid hunter pressure."

Still, Pritzl said, even most of those without their own property should notice the increase in deer numbers in most of the state. Last year's fawn crop was solid, so he expects an increase in young bucks and plenty of older deer, too.

Wisconsin has millions of acres of public properties as well, and Pritzl said there's a positive hunting experience with opportunity virtually everywhere in Wisconsin.

"Certainly there is a wide variety of goals and expectations of what hunters want," Pritzl said. "The amount of effort put in really can play a big role in what a particular hunter sees or doesn't see."

LOOKING BACK AT 2010

There was a lot of brown, a little white and a whole lot less orange in the woods on opening day of the 2010 gun deer-hunting season.

A few northern counties had enough snow on the ground to aid visibility and tracking, but it was another mostly-brown opener across the rest of the state.

License sales dropped heading into opening day, at 607,926. Even with buys during the hunt, the final number of 622,910 was the second fewest in 30 years. Only the CWD fear factor season of 2002, when the disease was discovered, lured fewer hunters into the field (618,945). The record was 699,275 set in 1990, and the national record gun deer harvest of more than a half-million whitetails in 2000 was managed by 694,712 license buyers, the second most on record.

Pritzl speculated the big drop in sales the past two years — a combined 20,356 gun hunters and 11,989 bow hunters — could be a combination of some hunters who haven't had a lot of success in recent years taking a break and the beginning of a predicted demographic wave hitting as baby boomers retire from hunting. If it was simply dissatisfaction with earn-a-buck in the CWD area and fewer deer on the landscape, there should be a sizable increase in sales this fall.

Gun hunters again came from all 50 states, including a combined 32,460 from Minnesota and Illinois. There were 96 hunters from 22 foreign countries, including 32 from Canada and 19 from Germany.

Only about one in 10 hunters are female, but more than 20 percent of the mentored 10- and 11-year-olds are girls. A total of 10,229 youths aged 10 and 11 bought licenses this season.

The archery numbers were better, although still the lowest in five years. A total of 254,446 licenses allowing bow hunting were sold. The record was set at 266,435 two years earlier.

Archers registered 83,833 deer, including 9,785 during the late season. Gun hunters took more than 253,000 whitetails, the bulk of them during the nine-day November hunt.

Waupaca and Marathon counties each produced more than 3,000 deer during the bow hunt, while Shawano (2,796) and Clark (2,582) also put up big numbers. Polk led the gun kill with more than 9,500, followed by Marathon (8,972), Clark, Shawano and Washburn.

The Southern, Western and Eastern Farmland regions produced more than 250,000 of the 336,871 deer registered last year. The Northern Forest added more than 77,000 and the Central Forest nearly 18,000.

A total of 4,109 deer were killed during the youth gun hunt while 10,640 deer were taken during the four-day October antlerless season. Even with plenty of cold and snow, hunters killed more than 10,000 deer during the December seasons.

There were 3,025 deer taken under authority of the ag damage program, with all but 52 of them antlerless. The reported tribal harvest was 1,493.

Hunters who chose to sit out the 2010 bow and gun deer hunting seasons missed out on what appears to be one of the better years for quality bucks, at least according to the number and size of entries in the state Buck & Bear Club's record book. We'll have more on that in Part 2 of the season preview next month.

WHERE TO LOOK IN 2011

Good hunting is where you find it, and there are many private and public-land hunting options in just about every deer management unit in the state.

Ninety-five units outside the CWD zone are under herd control rules. Although there won't be an October antlerless gun deer hunt in much of the state (youths and disabled hunters can target any deer during their special seasons, and there were plans for a doe hunt in the CWD zone), there will be unlimited $2 antlerless tags available for herd control units.

In the CWD Disease Management Zone, a hunters' first deer can be either sex, with earn-a-buck requirements kicking in after that. CWD Management Zone buck stickers earned in 2010 will be honored in 2011; hunters can get up to four free CWD antlerless tags per day. Those tags can only be used in the CWD zone.

Stepp said Wisconsin's new deer research projects in northwest and east-central Wisconsin should help answer questions on predators and buck harvest rates to further improve the DNR's population estimations.

Even with all the complaints of reduced deer sightings in recent years, Stepp said, Wisconsin has one of the top three deer harvests per square mile of any state in the country, one of the highest buck harvests per square mile, and the highest number of bucks registered with Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young.

Outside of the obvious — that hunting prime farmland in the southern, western or eastern regions may give you the best chance of seeing deer — if you still don't know where you'll be hunting this fall, better get moving. Even with millions of acres of public properties, there can be plenty of competition for prime spots.

If you have the flexibility, don't limit yourself to county, state or federal forestlands. There may be crop damage properties worth a look, urban archery opportunities, or state and nonprofit agency-owned or leased lands in your area such as DNR fish and wildlife areas or land trust properties.

Pre-hunt scouting is the best way to make sure you'll be in the right place at the right time come the actual hunt. The use of aerial imagery is popular, and having an up-to-date plat book can come in handy, too, for getting a closer look at access areas to public lands that others might miss.

With thousands of acres of forests, swamps, marshes and grasslands available for public hunting in most units, license-buyers are limited only by budget, time and health in gaining access to spots with terrific potential.

Think outside the box. A hip-boot walk through water to reach high ground or a canoe paddle on a stream to get deep into a property might seem a little extreme to some hunters. But for those with the means and the physical ability, it could lead to an area where few others venture and where whitetails go about their daily routines largely undisturbed.

More than half of Wisconsin's counties had 1,000-plus archery deer kills last year. Seven — Buffalo, Clark, Marathon, Marinette, Polk, Shawano and Waupaca — even saw buck kills in excess of 1,000, with Jackson and Oconto counties producing more than 900 bow bucks.

Twenty counties had gun deer kills in excess of 5,000, led by Polk with 9,594. Marathon County led the gun buck kill with 4,442, followed by Marinette, Shawano, Clark and Polk, all with 3,000-plus gun buck harvests.

Despite the lowest hunting pressure per square mile of deer range, the most bears and wolves and the coldest, snowiest winters, the Northern Forest region produced the most gun bucks last year and the second-most bow bucks, a combined total of more than 36,000 antlered whitetails. Only the Eastern Farmland, with its state-leading 11,588 bow bucks and second-best gun buck take, produced more at just over 37,000 combined.The most antlerless deer by far, more than 66,000, were shot in the southern farmland region. The Western Farmland produced more than 44,000, Eastern Farmland more than 40,000, Northern Forest more than 25,000 and the much-smaller Central Forest region more than 9,000.

All told, the combined gun and bow buck kill of more than 148,000 was an increase of more than 14,000 over 2009, despite a drop of nearly 19,000 license buyers. Still, it's a far cry from the record kill of more than 212,000 in 2000.

While many DNR critics are glad to see EAB and the October antlerless hunt gone in much of the state, they're still pushing for higher over-winter deer population goals in farmland units.

How much of the recent decline in deer harvests was due to earn-a-buck, and how much to predators and severe winters, is up for debate. But this much we know: Wisconsin is entering its third straight year of no earn-a-buck outside the CWD zone, and herds are indeed on the rebound.

That should add up to increased deer sightings for many hunters this fall — and for more venison in the frying pan!

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