Our Late-Season Deer Hotspots

Hunting with a bow or muzzleloader isn't for everyone. But if you are one of December's dedicated deer hunters, here are some things you need to know.

by Tim Lesmeister

The Minnesota deer hunters who use rifles and shotguns have been motivated this season to purchase muzzleloaders or bows.

The reason is simple. They can harvest two deer, one with the rifle or shotgun and one with the bow or muzzleloader. The license you purchase to achieve this is called an All-Season Special Deer License. Holders of this license may hunt in any open archery, regular firearms (except Zone 3B), or muzzleloader season and area, using the legal firearm or bow and arrows for the respective season and zone. An All-Season Special Deer License holder may tag one buck by firearm (except in Zone 3B), muzzleloader or archery during any season statewide. In addition, a resident obtaining this license may take and tag one antlerless deer in any of the following ways:

  • By firearms during the regular firearms season, only if the resident first obtains an antlerless deer permit.
  • By archery during the archery season.
  • By muzzleloader during the muzzleloader season.
All-Season Special Deer License holders may not "party hunt." This means that they must shoot and tag their own deer, and may not shoot or tag a deer for another hunter. They may hunt with other hunters with valid deer licenses and may help drive, spot, trail or retrieve deer, but "cross-tagging" is not allowed. Once the All-Season Special Deer License tags have been used, the license holder may no longer legally shoot deer, may no longer hunt deer by themselves that year, and may not carry a firearm legal for taking big game except when using Intensive Harvest Permits in areas open for their use. All-Season Special Deer License holders may not purchase any other deer license, but they can purchase Intensive Harvest Permits. The cost of this All-Season Special Deer License is $76 and an Intensive Harvest Permit for another deer is $13.50.

In the past you could purchase an archery license and a firearms license, but once you tagged a deer you were done. Now a bowhunter can shoot one with the bow and one with the gun. It's a great way to extend the season, since the archery season doesn't end until Dec. 31 in all but two areas (permit areas 116 and 127 end Nov. 24). You can harvest that big buck with the bullet and the tasty doe with the broadhead.

Muzzleloader hunters have the same option. Their season begins Nov. 30 and runs until Dec. 15. With the All-Season Special Deer License, muzzleloader hunters can take advantage of both seasons and extend their time in the field.

This All-Season Special Deer License is especially advantageous to all those hunters who have always felt cheated by the one-deer-per-license restrictions and those two- or three-day hunts when they've seen some nice bucks but didn't want to shoot them because that would put an end to the late muzzleloader season or bow season for them. Now they can harvest that buck during the regular firearms season and get that doe in late November or December.

There's a good possibility that this year will be a record for the number of deer harvested in Minnesota. Anyone predicting that the additional deer will likely be taken by bowhunting and muzzleloading would probably look like a real prophet. It should be very interesting when the final numbers for the year 2002 arrive.

Photo by Ken Thommes

A few years ago hunters were shunning the northwoods of Minnesota like the region had a bad case of leprosy. The hard winters had knocked down the deer population and you couldn't shoot an antlerless deer up north if you wanted to. That has changed dramatically.

Look at Permit Area 172, near Hackensack. This year there were 8,000 antlerless permits issued in this area. Permit Area 175, north of Virginia, and Permit Area 178, south of Hibbing, received 7,000 antlerless permits for each of these areas. The mild winters the past few years have created a comeback that is nothing short of phenomenal.

The beauty of the northwoods is that there are a lot of public hunting areas available. A person will see quite a bit of hunter orange during the regular firearms season, but with some effort one can get away from the crowds.

A couple of other areas that are going to be prime northwoods hotspots are in Zone 2. Permit areas 245 and 246 have been issued 10,000 antlerless tags each and Permit Area 284, near Bemidji, received 11,000 antlerless permits. There must be a lot of deer there.

In the northwest corner of the state the antlerless deer population has gotten a bit of a reprieve. But when you consider that it was "bucks only" there until recently, it is a good sign when Permit Area 210 gets 2,600 antlerless permits issued there and Permit Area 410 gets 7,500.

Some of you are probably saying, "What difference does it make how many antlerless tags are issued in a permit area? I'm going after bucks."

What the proliferation of antlerless permits shows is the availability of deer in that small region. If there are a lot of antlerless tags available to hunters, it means there are a lot of deer there - bucks and does. Your odds go up that you will see at least a few more bucks in those areas that have a lot of antlerless permits available. Consider this when you pick your spot to hunt.

Of course, many hunters pick their hunting spots based on the proximity to their home, the fact that they have private property to hunt, or a familiarity with the public land they've been going back to year after year. During the late season, with quite a few hunters no longer in the woods, and the ability to go just about anywhere to harvest that second animal with the All-Season Special Deer License, the options grow. It may pay off now to scout some of these high-percentage areas with that muzzleloader or bow.

The transition zone is the area of central Minnesota that stretches from east to west and from Brainerd in the north to Hutchinson in the south.

That's where the woods butt up against the croplands and the hunters often combine a two-tiered approach to their hunting program. First thing in the morning, they go out and set up their stand on the edge of a narrow band of woods and wait for the deer to wake up and move around. In the middle of the day, they stalk the swamps and the grassy edges of the plowed fields, looking for those deer that never got up.

The late-season hunters in the transition zone can often have better hunting than the firearms hunters had. This is because the deer are back on their

patterns and are not being pushed by a bunch of slug-slingers who set up drives to push them from field to field. During the regular firearms season these deer are on high alert and many just take to lying down in the middle of plowed fields or heading deep into the thickest cover they can find.

Another advantage the late-season deer hunter will discover when hunting the transition zone is that because there was so much quality cover available for the deer to hide in during the regular season, there are still going to be a lot of deer left to hunt.

Some areas to consider based on the number of antlerless permits that were made available are permit areas 157, 159, 225, 227, 413, 414, 415, 417 and 418.

Permit areas 157 and 159 are easily the winners for most permits issued for 2002. Permit Area 157 received 15,000 antlerless permits and Permit Area 159 received 12,000. There were also Intensive Harvest Permits issued for both of these areas, which shows you how prolific the deer are there.

Obviously, the Department of Natural Resources wants some deer harvested from these two permit areas. The landowners, quite a few of them farmers with croplands, also would like to see some of those grain-eating animals disappear. This is why getting access to private property is so much easier during the late season. With all the crops harvested, a coating of snow on the ground and farmers still seeing "herds" of deer prowling their fencelines, a request from an archer or muzzleloader hunter will often be looked upon as a way to rid the land of one more deer. The only people left to hunt them are those "special" hunters who won't quit until a half-hour after sunset on the final day of their season.

Permit Area 225 received 7,000 antlerless permits for 2002 and there will also be some Intensive Harvest Permits issued there. PA 227 was close behind, with 6,000 permits issued. Both of these zones, just north of the Twin Cities, provide some of the toughest hunting in our state. Huge swaths of swampland covering acres of land hide big bucks and groups of does that make their way into this quagmire when the firearms hunters converge on this land.

During the late season the deer are back to working along the edges of this swampland, where they become easier targets for those single-shot blackpowder guns and the close-range arrows of those bowhunters. It's the perfect time to discover where the best location for a stand would be when there are a few inches of freshly fallen snow and animal tracks showing the migration patterns of the deer using the cover.

Permit areas 413, 414 and 415 each received 6,000 antlerless permits. These three regions, right in the center of the state, provide prime habitat for producing big deer. You have timber mingled in cropland, and you have a lot of lakes and swamps where the deer can flourish. If there is any area in the state where the opportunity to harvest a huge doe or a big buck can be found, this is it. The other is the river-bottom region.

Permit areas 417 and 418 are issuing 3,600 and 3,400 antlerless permits respectively, but both deserve mention because these two regions are prime spots for big bucks. I have some friends who hunt one of these two areas and each year they harvest at least a couple of those corn-fed bucks that are big-beamed true trophies. Obviously, these two areas in Zone 4 have burgeoning deer populations, so hunters may as well take advantage of the good genetics there.

The late season is the best time to chase deer in the farmlands.

Those big drives that sent the deer racing through the shelter belts and into the open fields are over and now the deer that didn't go to the butcher are using what little cover is available to them to keep sheltered. Without the sanctuary of big fields of corn and very little grassy cover, the deer take up shelter anywhere they can find a place to hide. Scouting is easy. You can drive around with a pair of binoculars and spot a lot of deer all day long. Getting permission to hunt can be a bit tricky, and of course getting close to the deer is also a tough job.

The tricky part of getting permission to hunt in the farmlands anymore is finding out who owns the property. It can often take a few stops to get to the landowners.

Getting to the deer can also be a lesson in stealth. Often the deer you spotted will spot you as well unless you sneak in. Even then, getting there can be tough. It's often muzzleloaders that work best in farm country during the late season because they have some extended range that helps when stalking deer.

Permit areas 461 and 462 are good options if you are looking for those higher populations of deer. PA 461 received 1,700 antlerless permits, a substantial amount for the corn-country region. Permit Area 462 was issued 2,300 antlerless tags.

The reason these two permit areas have such high deer numbers is that they are in farm country that has some woods. Bowhunters can take advantage of this shelter when considering where to hunt in the southern region of the state in the late season.

The river-bottom region has a reputation for producing big bucks. This area is also known for creating some tough hunts. Of course, there is plenty of public land along the Mississippi River, but getting to it can be tricky.

Permit areas 341, 342, 343, 346 and 349 are the five top prospects for the southeast section of the state. PA 349 got the highest number of antlerless permits, at 5,500. The rest received between 3,500 and 5,000 antlerless tags.

There is a lot of timber in these regions, but there are also a lot of vertical bluffs and the hiking can be tough. These are regions that typically receive a lot of hunting pressure.

The reason for the added amount of hunters is the impression that there is a huge-antlered beast behind every tree. The river-bottom areas do provide some good cover, there is obviously some good genetics in the deer population there when it comes to antler growth, and the farmland that weaves around through the valleys creates some good forage for the wandering herds of whitetails.

The river-bottom region is a prime option for the serious bowhunter. There are a lot of places for those big bucks to hide in during the regular season, so there will still be some good opportunities for the arrow slingers after the shotguns and rifles are cleaned for the season.

Finally, the DNR has given all of us hard-core hunters a chance to chase deer from Sept. 14 until Dec. 31 and not have to quit right after we harvest that first one with our rifle. If you think about it, with the ability to add to the harvest with an Intensive Harvest Permit, we could be eating venison until spring, when we have to get out the rods and start filling the gaps in the freezer with some sunfish and crappies. Just think about all that venison jerky and sausage. Sounds so good.

Well, this season you might just be in luck, beca

use when it comes right down to it, it still takes a lot of luck to get a deer. Being in the right place at the right time is still the reason we get to pull the trigger, and even with all those deer still running around out there, a little luck always seems to be the catalyst for success when you hear those stories about how that big one ended up on the wall.

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