2009 Minnesota Whitetail Outlook Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas
September 30, 2010
Regulation adjustments and policy changes aside, when it comes down to hunting, good habitat usually means good deer hunting. Fortunately for you, Minnesota has plenty of it. (October 2009)
After a seemingly endless barrage of regulations changes and adjustments, Minnesota firearms hunters can look forward to no major changes in season structure for 2009. There are a few notable exceptions to that rule, but for the vast majority of Minnesota's hunters, the regulation book review this year will be shorter than in the past.
"This has been our goal with the new regulations," said Lou Cornicelli, big-game program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "It just takes time to get them in place. We hope that hunters can check the book, know the bag limit where they hunt, check any other new regulations and get hunting."
Cornicelli said this would have been the year everything was simple for everybody across the state, but a last-minute adjustment by the Minnesota Legislature changed things drastically for hunters in Zone 3A. The adjustments are outlined in the article but more fully articulated and explained in the regulations.Mixed bag in '08
It was a mixed bag last season as far as hunter success is concerned, and just like any other year, there were some who loved it and some who had nothing but complaints. It might have seemed worse than average last year because more hunters were griping than in many years. That's because 38,000 fewer deer were taken, for a 19 percent drop over 2007.
It might sound like bad news, but it was still the ninth consecutive year the harvest has exceeded 200,000 and the eighth highest of all-time. On the flip side, it was the lowest harvest in six years.
"A lot of it is a reflection of our deer population and the fact that we are getting closer to our statewide population goal," Cornicelli said. Population goals were set by the MDNR several years ago in conjunction with and advice from conservation organizations and public surveys.
The weather was also very difficult on opening weekend with lots of wind and a mixed variety of precipitation, meaning the deer were less likely to move around and hunters were more likely to head back to the hunting shack early. "The majority of our deer harvest comes during the first weekend of firearms season, and when the weather is bad, we never fully make up the difference the first weekend," Cornicelli said.
By season, the breakdown in harvest numbers showed that archers shot 7 percent fewer deer, muzzleloaders show 25 percent fewer, and firearms hunters took 15 percent fewer deer.
Top Spots To Hunt
Firearms hunters had a 35.1 percent success rate last year, meaning that more than a third of the available tags were filled. Hunters in Zone 1 once again had the highest success percentage but also had three weekends to hunt. The lowest success rate came in Zone 2, but each of Minnesota's three zones experienced 33 percent success or higher. Early antlerless season hunters had a 17.7 percent success rate.
The MDNR compiles numerous statistics based on hunter-reported harvest information and has the files available in spreadsheet form downloadable from the Web site or by contacting the big-game coordinator. Harvest numbers are organized by permit area rather than by counties because many permit areas are situated in multiple counties.
Hunters looking to find a good place to hunt can examine the number of hunters in an area, the success rates, deer densities and almost any kind of number they want to get their hands on. "Those statistics are helpful for finding large areas where there's a healthy herd, but they are too broad for pinpointing the exact area you want to hunt," said Dan Perez of Whitetail Properties Television.
The data accompanying this article is based on last year's harvest information and is not necessarily a predictor of this year's top performers. On the flipside, it doesn't mean you should avoid these areas because of the perception that all sorts of hunters are going to flock to the area.
That said, if you look through your back issues of Minnesota Sportsman, you'll find a lot of the same permit areas mentioned year after year. Good deer-hunting habitat will produce deer year after year. There is always some variation, but analyze the last five years of these tables and you'll see some major commonalities.
Numbers should only be part of a pre-hunt game plan, because the best hunting location is that spot you've scouted out ahead of time, Perez said. "Ideally, you've been watching it regularly the last several months and have a good idea of the deer activity and patterns. Don't expect to show up opening morning at a new location and find a great place to hunt."
In every set of numbers for a permit area there are stories. Not just about deer but about hunters. Archers and firearms hunters accessing large tracts of land don't have to worry much about hunting pressure, but firearms hunters on smaller private lands and those on public lands have to adjust any good game plan around hunting pressure.
Perez said deer sign is not the only thing to look for on public land: "Where are the ATV trails? Where are the logging trails people walk in on in the morning? Make sure to study aerial maps of your area and determine the multiple access points to the area you hope to hunt."
Just like you can pattern bucks around their feeding and bedding areas, you can pattern hunters around their stand placements and entry points. Combine the data and you can put yourself into an area where you won't have a ton of hunters messing up your hunt, and you'll be positioned in a place where those other hunters will channel deer your way.
"If you sat down and figured it out now, this close to the hunt, you'd be surprised with how well you figure things out," Perez added. "But this is a long-term approach to deer hunting, and while you hunt this year, you should be already planning for next."
Just like an angler sets waypoints on a GPS where fish have been marked and on locations that "look fishy," hunters should keep track of good deer habitat as well as the location of hunting stands nearby. "You'll be amazed at the patterns you can figure out when you hook the GPS up to your computer and analyze it with maps and aerial photography."
The cool thing about maps and aerial photography today is that you can access these tools of technology without having to pay more than a nominal access fee. Rewind just a decade and purchasing maps and photographs needed for that type of scouting would cost a lot of money.
Just like the majority of hunting seasons, young critters make up a large portion of the harvest. A 1-year-old deer or duck is just not as crafty at avoiding hunters as a 4- or 5-year-old. Examine the deer numbers, however, and it can be difficult to discern many details about the harvest. How many were mature deer? How mature were they?
While it is impossible to know as many details as one might want from the data alone, combining maps and tables can reveal a few trends. An example is lining up the pre-fawn deer density population map with harvest totals. While the harvest total will reveal the number of deer taken per square mile, the deer density map shows how many deer made it through the hunting season.
Both sets of information are available on the MDNR Web site and accessible to the public. Hunters who venture to the same deer stand every year could examine the information to learn more about their area, but hunters who are willing to roam can use it to plan their hunts. "There's a lot of information out there that hunters can use to their advantage if they take the time to access it, study it and determine how it plays into their game plan," Perez said.
For example, while the harvest map reveals 14 different permit areas with the highest rankings of total deer taken per square mile, the deer density map shows only one permit area with the top tier. On the flip side, there are numerous permit areas that fall in the middle range of deer harvest but have a much higher deer density ranking.
While not a scientific analysis of the data, it reveals a lot about hunter patterns and suggests that there are parts of the state where hunting pressure is low, but deer densities are high.
Looking Ahead To 2009
Deer populations in many permit areas are lower than in the past because of the antlerless deer management goals. Hunters need to be sure to study the regulations this year since a lot of permit areas have shifted from "managed" to "lottery," meaning hunters have to apply by the deadline for their shot at taking a doe.
"Generally, you are going to see more lottery permit areas this year and some buck-only areas with a few youth antlerless permits, but it's because we are getting closer to that statewide goal," Cornicelli said.
Part of the reason harvest numbers were so high for the last seven years was the liberalized deer harvest regulations. The intensive harvest zones that once dotted the state have shifted to managed or even lottery, which is what was supposed to happen. "It's important that hunters pay careful attention to the regulations and check the bag limits so they have time to apply for the lottery and plan their hunts accordingly."
Special Hunts Continue
In 2008, there were numerous early antlerless firearms seasons, and that trend will continue this year. Last year, hunters took 26,934 antlerless deer during early-season hunts. Some of these seasons may have already come and gone, but check the regulations to see if there are any still open this season. Early-season hunts are great for rookie hunters because they offer lower pressure situations than the regular firearms opener.
The MDNR is also continuing the special hunts in select state parks around the state with the different regulations including Earn-A-Buck and antler point restrictions. Most application deadlines have passed, but check the regulations for more information and make plans to hunt one of them next year.
This is the second year of the new zone structure with two zones in the state, A and 3B. The A season will have a standard opening date and a closing date based on the permit area number. Permit areas in the 100s will last 16 days, and those in the 200s will be nine days. Details on the 3A season can be found elsewhere in this article or in the regulations.
Hunters will be able to purchase a firearms license to hunt anywhere in the state for the A season but will need to purchase a separate license for the 3B season. Hunters still need to follow the bag limits in the various permit areas across the state. Cornicelli stressed the need for hunters to understand bag limits in the permit areas they hunt.
The regulation map will still feature permit areas shaded blue for lottery areas with a limit of one; red for managed areas with a limit of two; and green for intensive harvest with a limit of five. There will again be no limit in the metro area and the northwestern Bovine Tuberculosis area.
3A southeast season
Here's the exception to that "no major changes in season structure" statement made in the beginning of the article. New in the regulation book this year is a law adding two days to the 3A deer season, meaning the season runs over two weekends from Nov. 7 to 15 (instead of one weekend and the week following only).
During that second weekend, however, a hunter may not take antlered deer unless the deer has a minimum of 4 points on one side or until the hunter has already taken an antlerless deer.
It is similar to earn-a-buck regulations in other states and in special state park hunts in Minnesota, but it has received a mixed reaction from both the hunting public and MDNR officials. "There's going to be Earn-A-Buck in an area where we aren't trying to lower deer densities," Cornicelli said.
The change in the law comes from the legislature, not the MDNR, and is in response to some southeast Minnesota deer hunters who have pushed for quality deer management techniques. Their hope is that it will increase the number of large bucks available for hunters.
Harsh Winter In THE Northeast
The extreme corner of northeastern Minnesota is frequently home to extreme winters that can drastically impact the deer herd.
A sustainable deer population is actually a relatively newer concept for that part of the state (historically speaking), and the deer do great when the winters are tame but suffer when the snow piles up and the temperatures drop.
"Even into late spring there were reports of snow more than 3 feet deep, and it took a few weeks for the melt-off to occur, which was tough on the deer up there," said Dr. Mark Lenarz, Group Leader for the MDNR's Forest Wildlife Populations & Research Group.
Because last winter was the most severe in a decade, the deer herd in the Arrowhead was hit hard and hunters will see reduced harvest limits. "It was a pretty significant winter in the northeast throughout Cook, Lake and St. Louis counties," Cornicelli said. Winter Severity Index readings in the Finland and Ely portions of the Arrowhead crept into the extreme range, though the entire Arrowhead experienced what officials consider a "moderate" winter. The last time WSI readings were that high over such a broad area was in 1995 and 1996, and numerous hunting restrictions were put into place for several seasons as a result.
Baudette is on the edge of the area hit hard last winter and assistant wildlife manager Ted Dick said the deer population came through the w
inter pretty well, although there were some beaten up and scruffy-looking deer in the spring.
"It was a much tougher year than before, and while we've had intensive harvests in a few areas around here, the winter seems to have made an impact," Dick said.
Transporting Bows And Firearms
One of the most significant changes in the hunting regulations comes from the way firearms can be transported. Hunters cannot transport unloaded firearms (not pistols) in vehicles without securing them in gun cases. The point of the law is to make it easier for hunters afield to move from one location to another without having to case their weapon. A similar law exists in both North and South Dakota.
Before hopping into a vehicle with an unloaded, uncased weapon, be sure to read the entire regulation. It is not as simple as it sounds. There are numerous exceptions to the rule and it only applies in certain situations. For example, hunters who move from hunting location A to hunting location B can have their weapons unloaded and uncased as long as they don't drive through a town larger than 2,500 people.
There's also a provision in the new regulation book about transporting uncased bows in the vehicles as long as the bow is not armed with a bolt or arrow.
Be sure to carefully read the weapons transportation sections of the regulations for complete details, or just case your weapon while transporting it. There's no permit required and no law against letting common sense be your guide.