2011 Minnesota Deer Hunting Forecast - Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

2011 Minnesota Deer Hunting Forecast - Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas
Photo by John R. Ford

The big doe emerged from a thick stand of aspens and stepped into the more open woods where I sat. The .300 Winchester Magnum in my lap was ready to go and so I quietly brought the gun to my shoulder as she closed the gap between us.

When she was 50 yards away there were still too many small branches between us for me to chance a shot. I was still dealing with a bruised ego from the year before when I had fired at a buck at a similar distance only to have an unseen branch foil the shot.

It was slowly angling away from me, presenting the perfect shot and I followed the buck with my scope's crosshairs, firing as its chest emerged from behind a nearby tree.

The branch was only 10 yards from him but significant enough to alter the path of the bullet. I found the stump and bullet hole and determined that the lead probably drifted mere millimeters over the lucky buck's back.

Like most other hunters, I pride myself in being accurate and careful with shot placement. Yes, to the point where I've grown exceptionally confident in my first shot; rarely have I needed a second to finish the job.

The doe was now at 40 yards and her gait slowed. She sensed something that made her uneasy and she began doing that head bob that whitetails do when they are looking for something out of place. I was in a ground blind and slightly below her at that point. She looked right into the half-open window I was gazing out of and saw my eyes.

As she took a few more steps to get a closer look and confirm her suspicions, she walked behind a small tree just slowly enough to allow me to click off the safety, the sound masked by her steps on dry oak leaves.

I peered into the scope and counted branches. I had to get over last year's failed shot but I couldn't help it. Then, as she stood facing me at 30 yards, her tail flinched. She stood where I had first set my ground blind down and apparently there was enough scent there that it didn't matter if I was downwind.

She stomped once at me and turned only slightly to run off when I touched the trigger with the crosshairs centered on her chest. As she pivoted and took off I chambered another round ready to fire again. I wanted to fire a second shot, but the thickness of the woods prevented that from being safe or prudent, so I just watched as she ran off, presumably uninjured.

She never stumbled or slowed in gait as she disappeared into the thicket. It took a bit of tracking but she was down. Upon further examination, the shot broke her shoulder and did a number on her lungs and heart. How she ran so far is beyond me, but I was glad when I found her.

A large doe doesn't offer anything for the wall, but the average Minnesota hunter is not after a wallhanger and, surveys reveal, is more willing to fill a tag and have venison than wait out for a massive antlered trophy. That doe put me among the 35 percent of hunters that successfully filled a tag last year and capped off an average season, not just for me but for deer hunters across the state.

In 2010, Minnesota deer hunters killed 207,313 deer, representing an increase of more than 13,000 from 2009. It signals a return to overall harvest numbers above 200,000, which dominated most of the last decade. Annual harvest rates in the 1990s were under 200,000 more often than they were above that number.

Compared to the past 20 deer seasons, the 2010 deer season was average. Literally. Add up the registered harvest for all those seasons, divide by 17 and you come to a number very close to last year's registered harvest. "Overall it was a good season with a great firearms season," said Lou Cornicelli, Minnesota's big game coordinator and the guru of whitetail management.

Approximately 80 percent of the state's permit areas are within 20 percent of their goal, which is a good place to be, Cornicelli explained. "We've always talked about deer population goals and setting goals across the state in an effort to reduce densities; we met many of those goals two years ago and hit it again last year with a harvest around 200,000 and a good archery and muzzleloader season," he said.

The Minnesota deer hunting firearms opener is an unofficial statewide holiday with around half a million orange-clad hunters taking to the woods and fields in pursuit of a deer. Almost three-fourths of Minnesota hunters shoot only one deer and the majority of the deer harvest takes place during the opening weekend.

"Usually that number is around 60 percent of the total harvest, and last year was right on track with 106,000 deer harvested opening weekend in 2010," Cornicelli said.

The trend was actually on pace for a total statewide harvest around 211,000 but a brutal series of winter storms in December greatly impacted the muzzleloader season and the final weeks of archery.

"Registrations after that big storm in early December just tanked and cut short the total harvest by probably three or four thousand," he said. "It was not a 'regular' December."

LICENSE SALES UP

Last year was a good year by hunter numbers as well. The total number of licenses sold in 2011 to Minnesota deer hunters increased by 1.5 percent, which works out to 8,829 more licenses. Almost 2,800 more residents purchased a firearms tag and non-resident firearms tags increased as well. Bonus permits were more prevalent and hunters responded by purchasing 3,000 more than last year.

Increased efforts to introduce youth hunters to the sport have also proved to be successful. Youth firearms license sales increased with almost 60,000 sold in 2010, continuing a three-year trend. Youth license sales slipped both in 2005 and 2006 and were as low as 49,242 but have risen ever since.

"We are very happy with that trend and are continuing to develop strategies that will get young people interested in deer hunting," Cornicelli said.

There were more archers in the woods as well, with almost 2,500 more residents and 400 more youth bowhunters trying to arrow a deer. "Archery harvest was over 20,000 which is what it's been since we went to the archery either-sex statewide regulation."

Muzzleloader sales slipped quite a bit with more than 7,600 fewer tags being sold. "A bad snow the last weekend of muzzleloader put the clamps on the entire deer season and probably contributed significantly to that reduction," Cornicelli said.

More conservative regulations for muzzleloaders, regarding purchase of antlerless tags, probably also contributed to that reduction, he added.

"We were a little conservative with that last year, but it worked out like we wanted so we are going to adjust it for 2011. Last year if you drew an antlerless tag in the muzzleloader season it was only good for the muzzleloader season; this year you will be able to apply and if you draw the permit you can fill it in either the firearms or muzzleloader season."

The muzzleloader harvest was actually up 40 percent for the first two-thirds of the season, but overall was only up 10 percent because of the poor weather.

HUNTER'S CHOICE

License sales in 2011 could increase even more, thanks to a new permit the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has created to provide hunters with more opportunities at shooting a deer. Cornicelli said this new permit will join the current lottery/managed/intensive harvest system and designated as "Hunter's Choice."

It will be labeled on the statewide permit area map with a new color. About a third of the permit areas are listed this way including some of the most heavily hunted areas across the state. "We're really hoping that hunters like the hunter choice permit because it means they won't have to worry about applying in time for the lottery."

We could call the hunter's choice permit an "if it's brown, it's down" style tag because hunters who hunt in those permit areas will be allowed one deer of either-sex for the season. "It's a one deer limit of either-sex and hunters will not need to apply for a lottery," said Cornicelli. "It's basically a designation that fills the gap between managed permit areas and lottery permit areas."

Hunters can hunt throughout different permit areas, and they still need to know their bag limit, depending on the permit area they are hunting.

"You can shoot a deer in a hunter-choice permit area and then go to a managed permit area and get another one with a bonus tag, or intensive harvest area and take more," Cornicelli said.

That includes unlimited tags in permit areas like 601 (Metro Area) and the CWD zone where bonus tags are only $2.50. Check the map in the 2011 regulations for all permit area designations and boundaries.

A MODERATE WINTER

The winter of 2010-11 was also not as bad as many predicted during the snowstorms that prevailed throughout December. The winter looked to be a repeat of the devastating ones of the mid-1990s where the deer herd was greatly impacted and harvest rates significantly slipped.

"I'm glad that the winter was not as bad as we though it would be," Cornicelli said. The winter was especially rough throughout southern Minnesota but Cornicelli said it does not translate into a significant impact on deer populations.

"Those areas have such high production rates with yearling does having fawns and many does with triplets, I'm sure we didn't lose enough to make a difference," he said.

Where the impact is felt greatest is through the forest region, Cornicelli said. "Grand Rapids and the Arrowhead had some locally bad winter weather but when you look at the WSI (winter severity index) numbers, it was generally a moderate winter."

Many of those permit areas in what is known as Zone 1 will be labeled under the new hunter choice category, meaning hunters will be able to harvest one deer of either-sex without having to apply for antlerless permits.

UNIQUE DEER HABITAT

Minnesotans are proud of their state and of the fact that it stands out as rich in the outdoors. The state rests along the edge of several continental landmarks including the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, the western edge of the Great Lakes and the eastern edge of the Great Plains.

This impacts deer habitat, hunting grounds and also the state's weather systems. "Minnesota basically has nothing between it and the Arctic Circle other than a barbed-wire fence," said meteorologist Jonathan Yuhas of KARE-11 News out of the Twin Cities. Yuhas explained that Minnesota's cold temperatures in the winter are the result.

States like Wisconsin and Michigan have the Great Lakes shielding them from some those Arctic fronts and states farther east feel the influence of the Great Lakes as well as the Atlantic Ocean, Yuhas said. Proximity to major continental landforms such as the Rocky Mountains and water bodies like the Gulf of Mexico also greatly impact states to the west and to the south.

What does that mean for Minnesota's deer hunters? Actually, it means quite a bit.

It means dealing with greater temperature extremes from the beginning of the season to the end compared to many other states. It means greater average snowfall and colder mean temperatures in the wintertime, impacting survival rates and stress on the herd as well as on individual deer. It also means a tremendous amount of biodiversity from one end of the state to another.

Minnesota has coniferous forests throughout the rocky Canadian Shield in the northeast Arrowhead — quite a contrast to the prairie highlands in the southwest corner. The unglaciated region of southeast Minnesota features a blend of rivers, valleys and farmland while the northwest prairie lands used to be the bottom of an ancient sea created by a melted glacier.

Cutting through the heart of those contrasts are the headwaters of the Mississippi River, which begins humbly in the lake country and forests of north-central Minnesota. As the river winds through the state, picking up steam and growing in size, it defines the transition zone between those regions.

The state also has a significant urban core in the Twin Cities and an ever-growing suburban/exurban area where gardens and hobby farms provide ample food and habitat for whitetails. At the same time, city codes and county regulations restrict management through traditional hunting methods. This area has its own permit area (601) because deer need to be managed independently of similarly suitable outlying areas.

Cornicelli said Minnesota is a unique state with a lot going on from one region to another. It creates challenges from a management perspective but it also means a lot of opportunities for hunters.

"Unlike a lot of other states, the Minnesota DNR tries to divide the state into permit areas independent of counties. We try to line it up by habitat and use roads or rivers as our dividing lines," Cornicelli said.

The historical settlement of Minnesota, combined with the number of natural boundaries such as rivers, has made for a wide variation of county sizes and shapes. Minnesota is unlike North Dakota or Iowa, where county lines are very straight and counties are similarly sized. Cornicelli cited the fact that some counties are massive and look very different from one end to the other. For example, St. Louis County is bigger than Delaware and includes distinct habitat regions.

For all those reasons, Cornicelli said, "the Minnesota DNR bases its permit area boundaries based on biology rather than political boundaries of counties."

GET OUT THERE

Wherever hunters choose to pursue deer across Minnesota's varied wilderness, the most successful hunters rely on scouting. It's obvious but too many of us are too busy to do a good job with it due to time constraints.

Don't forget to visit the DNR Web site and check out the detailed maps of Wilderness Management Areas that enable us to scout without stepping foot on the land. Hunters seeking public hunting lands should also get hold of a PRIM map and seek out areas near where they'd like hunt.

Geography, science, math and history all significantly impact the annual deer hunt, and so if Minnesota hunters want to be above-average, then they need to do their homework.

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