Minnesota's 2009 Bowhunting Forecast

Minnesota's 2009 Bowhunting Forecast

From the fields of western Minnesota to the remote northwoods and southeastern bluffs, Minnesota is full of whitetail bowhunting promise. Will you seize the opportunity this fall? (September 2009)

Bowhunting for whitetail deer is a challenging prospect, but it's growing in popularity throughout Minnesota. The number of archers in our state continues to climb, and last year a record number of bowhunters -- just missing the 100,000 mark -- took to the woods for the opportunity to arrow a whitetail.

Hunter Gabe Adair shows off a first-quality Minnesota bow kill.

Photo by Ron Hustvedt.

As far as hunting opportunities go in the state of Minnesota, there's no bigger bargain than an archery deer license. The season runs almost 16 weeks from mid-September to the end of December, and there is no other method of hunting with as many acres of huntable land.

"A bowhunter can hunt the edges of the suburbs and exurbs of the Twin Cities, the fields of western Minnesota, the bluffs of the southeast, all the way out to the most remote locations in the north," said Lou Cornicelli, Big Game Program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"Archers benefit from a very long season, and they aren't stuck as bad when there's goofy weather like what happens to firearms and muzzleloader hunters during their relatively short seasons," he added.

Because of discharge laws in many cities and small towns throughout the state, firearms hunters and muzzleloaders don't have as much hunting acreage available as do bowhunters. With the exception of the urban core, bowhunters have almost free rein to hunt every public acre of the state and any private land on which they have permission to hunt.

"It's an exciting prospect but also a daunting one," said Pete Alfano of Whitetail Trophy Properties. "Just because you can hunt a piece of land doesn't mean you should. Bow­hunters have more opportunities to hunt, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't carefully select their hunting location and do the scouting work it takes to create a successful hunt."

As the deer population continues to move closer to the MDNR's management goals, the number of deer-hunting opportunities remains strong despite potential declines in harvest limits. "There's been significant harvest issues in the southwest part of the state, and there might be bucks-only for hunters in some permit areas except for a few youth hunts," Cornicelli said. "Otherwise, things should look the same for bowhunters around the state."

When asked about what parts of the state receive more hunting pressure from archers than others, Cornicelli said there's not any solid data, but all indications are that the closer to the Twin Cities metro area you get, the higher the proportion of bowhunters.

"Permit areas like 601 and 236 are pretty much archery-only areas because there really aren't many firearms hunting locations," he said. "In those areas, archers take a higher percentage."

Minnesota's deer population appears to have fared well following a winter that was a bit more severe than the norm for the last decade, according to Mark Lenarz, MDNR wildlife biologist with the Forest Wildlife Populations and Research Group out of Grand Rapids. "In most places, this past winter was a moderate one, though we've seen a real severe winter in northeastern Minnesota in Cook, Lake and northern St. Louis counties," he said.

Lenarz said that other than populations in that extreme northeastern corner of the state, which is already a lower density area and a nontraditional part of the deer range, the state's whitetail population is in good shape.

"The harvest we've seen the last few years has brought deer populations down and closer to our population goals," Lenarz explained. "So ultimately we're going to see the (regulations and limits) that we offer being a bit less liberal than in past years." A deer herd that is closer to MDNR targets translates into fewer permit areas where hunters will be allowed to take five deer and more managed areas and lottery hunts. Permit areas that are "managed" in the regulations allow a hunter up to two deer, and those marked "lottery" allow a hunter one buck, unless he or she draws a doe tag.

HEALTH OF THE HERD

Minnesota has experienced an interesting several years of deer management, and some hunters are griping over changes in regulations, permit areas and availability of permits. One of the most common complaints revolves around the number of deer available for hunters, but the MDNR has been aggressively working to reduce the size of the deer herd over the last several years.

The reason for the reduction is for the health and benefit of the forest, as well as the state's deer herd. Another commonly argued point that can be heard at cafés and bars around the state is how to manage bucks.

Some hunters target only bucks with large, mature racks, while others say if it has horns, they should be able to shoot it. Some want to see antler point restrictions, while others want to limit hunters to only harvesting mature bucks. Cornicelli said there are numerous studies ongoing to determine if any of those multi-faceted ideas would be effective. The major sticking point hasn't been the data collected but rather that most Minnesotans don't want to have limitations on the bucks they are eligible to harvest.

The woods, marshes and fields around the Aitkin area are very popular with firearms hunters. Ask hunters where they are going for rifle season, and a whole lot of them will be within 20 miles of Aitkin. "We have a lot of deer around here and a lot of hunters both on public and private land, so there's a lot of orange out there once the firearms and muzzleloader seasons get going," said Dave Kanz, the MDNR's assistant wildlife manager out of Aitkin.

Kanz said the mixture of public and private land in the Aitkin area makes it conducive to plenty of archery hunting possibilities. "There's a lot of public land close to town that hunters might want to try in addition to some larger public areas in the area."

The public land near the city of Aitkin gets a fair amount of firearms hunting, but it might make for some good pre-firearms bowhunting because many deer take advantage of the food sources available in areas with higher human densities. Deer have plenty of food and browse available in the woods and fields, but there is a veritable buffet in a city like Aitkin with all the gardens, shrubs and flowers planted by unsuspecting homeowners.

"We have some good archery hunting in the area, and it's been on the increase around here the last few years, so we're s

eeing more bow­hunters in the woods," Kanz said, "but I think a lot of them hunt on private land." Public hunting areas are under-utilized by archers and he encouraged bowhunters to consider the Aitkin area this fall.

Southeastern Minnesota is home to a unique blend of fields, forests and river valleys. It is geographically very conducive to producing trophy white­tails and the counties of the southeastern corner of the state produce multiple trophies every year.

"We are still well above our population goals and would still like to get the herd down in several permit areas down here," said Don Nelson, the MDNR's Rochester area wildlife manager.

There are many archers who take plenty of deer with a bow down here, but there's a lot of land and numerous opportunities, he added. That includes several large stands of state forest and the large Whitewater Wildlife Management Area, as well as plenty of private land.

There is also a refuge around the city of Rochester that is open to archers, but the city limits were restricted a few years ago by the Rochester city council. Rochester has three WMAs immediately adjacent to the city including the Gordon W. Yeager WMA's Southeast Unit, a 159-acre area within the Rochester Game Refuge and home of the Rochester-area DNR offices. The Eastside WMA is open to hunting, but the Haverhill WMA is closed from Sept. 1 to March 1, making it off-limits to bowhunters.

At the opposite end of the state, in northwestern Minnesota, there are issues of a different variety. The MDNR has been trying to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis in a small portion of the northwestern corner and eradicating deer in a select area. While the overall health of the herd is at stake, there are some who don't support the actions as the best practice.

With the exception of that small portion of northwestern Minnesota, the deer herd is healthy and in good shape. That's even after a rough winter that had a severity index twice as high as it was the winter before last.

Many of the permit areas remained in the "intensive harvest" category last year, but a few changes have been made for the 2009 season. "The intensive harvest seems to be having an effect because the harvest was down a little bit last year and driving us to the goals we wanted in those heavily populated areas," said Ted Dick, assistant wildlife manager in the MDNR's Baudette office. "But there are still plenty of deer and the deer hunting has been good."

"Permit Area 161 is the biggest permit area around here. It butts up against the TB area, and that has an influence on how we manage," Dick said. "We are still trying to keep the opportunities open to keep the TB in check and eliminate that which is another factor in how we can issue permits in the region."

HUNTING LOCATIONS

Certainly the Baudette, Aitkin, Rochester and Twin Cities metro areas are all good places to hunt, as we just outlined, but most hunters have a region of the state they favor either close to home or close to their traditional hunting grounds.

Private landowners have the opportunity to hunt and manage their own land, giving them more opportunities to bring deer onto their land and providing them with a reason to stick around.

The downside to being a private landowner is that you are stuck with that same piece of land all the time, and if the herd in your area is down, so are your hunting opportunities. The great thing about public hunting land is that it is found throughout the state with every variety of terrain, meaning archers can vary the hunt throughout the season because they have open access to a broad spectrum of habitats.

Are trophy deer taken from public land? Definitely. Some trophies are taken by luck, but most are killed by hunters who work smarter and harder than most other hunters in the same area. Given the large number and variety of public lands around the state, an archer must narrow down the choices a bit.

The best way to do this is to acquire a map of the broader area to identify potential hunting locations. Maps can be found in a variety of locations, but it is tough to beat the free map resources found on the MDNR Web site under the "Recreation Compass" heading.

You can click on a map of the state and zoom in to whatever area you want. Once you've zoomed in far enough, public lands are labeled and you can click the map for detailed information. These maps often include specifics about the type of cover on individual sections of public land. Those who have Google Earth can match the boundaries of WMAs with information from detailed aerial photography, meaning a hunter can do a lot of scouting from the comforts of home.

For those who like paper maps, there are a number of atlases available at sporting goods retailers. The MDNR also publishes Public Recreation Information Maps that can be purchased directly from the MDNR or at sporting goods stores. These maps label county, state and federal lands, as well as the recreational opportunities available on those plots of land.

Real estate professionals can also be good resources because the plat maps they use for determining who owns a piece of property also include listings of publicly held lands. Plat maps can be purchased from county offices and are a valuable resource for figuring out the owner of that piece of private land you want to hunt.

Don't forget that state forests, game refuges, scientific and natural areas and many federal lands are also open to archery hunters. The 2009 hunting regulations booklet is a good place to consult to find out about the wide variety of opportunities available to archers.

HUNTING PRE-RUT BUCKS

Early-season bucks are some of the most challenging and frustrating animals to hunt, but September and early October are great times to get into the woods because the population is still at its pre-firearms season high and the woods are still relatively devoid of hunters.

With waterfowlers focusing on the fields and marshes, anglers hitting the hot fall bite and wingshooters of all types going after pheasants and grouse, archers usually have the woods to themselves. "All signs point to a great hunt for a healthy buck with a healthy rack, provided some basic concepts are kept in mind," Alfano said.

"Right now is still the early season for bowhunting, in my opinion, and this is the time to hunt food sources. Cut corn fields, alfalfa and biologic food plots are great places that attract big bucks trying to bulk up," he added.

Even though these areas can produce huge bucks, seeing them during hunting hours and getting one to close the distance before dark is a chore unto itself. The key is not to get frustrated. There are few things more frustrating than sitting over a food plot all day and seeing that buck of your dreams minutes before or after legal shooting hours.

This is where some basic whitetail knowledge, combined with today's new technology, can put the pieces of the puzzle toge

ther. "The first thing to do is buy or download high-quality aerial photos of the farms or fields you'll be hunting. Once you have the photographs, walk the outside perimeter of your food source and find the one with the most sign around. If you did your homework last year and know where the deer like to bed, you'll be in even better shape," Alfano said.

Once you've located new rubs and scrapes around the food source, mark those on the aerial photo. Now get a hold of two trail cameras and place them on either side of the scrape line or along the best sign around the field.

Should that field edge not have a lot of sign, look for big tracks entering and leaving the field, especially if you find numerous big tracks on the same sort of line. Either way, pay careful attention to those cameras and monitor them on a regular basis.

Study the photos and times and use the information to sleuth together a plan, much like a detective would pattern the behavior of a suspect. More than likely, that big boy will be coming into the field at last light or cruising through in the early morning.

"This is where you make your move," Alfano said. "Nine times out of 10 that buck will be bedded within 200 yards of his main food source. This is where it gets a little scary because you want to get in the middle of his home and his food but not too close that you scare him into the next neighborhood," Alfano said.

They key to moving in undetected is to play the wind right. The wind is how a buck tells what's in his area, and if he smells you, there's no way he's going to stick around. Follow all the advice about making yourself as scent-free as possible, and then make sure you place yourself in the best location for your plan.

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