For most of us, deer season starts this month. And if you’re like my family, you’re anxiously awaiting what lies ahead.
With beef prices escalating, many of us just want meat for the freezer. A nice buck would be great, but a couple of fat does would be even better.
This article is the first in a two-part special. This month, we’ll look at the best places in Indiana to put meat in the freezer. Next month, we’ll look at the best counties to find bucks that sport trophy racks.
Many hunters are debating what effect rainfall, heavy snows, low temperatures, and the summer weather has had on Indiana’s deer herd. Generally, if a county was great for deer hunting in the past, most likely it will be great again this year.
But a problem is looming.
Drive just about anywhere in farm country and you will see woodlots, fence lines, and other marginal ground being cleared as corn and soybean prices escalate. That is drastically altering valuable deer habitat and travel routes, and in most cases, it’s for the worst.
Chad Stewart, IDNR deer research biologist, said it almost assuredly will have an impact, and not just on the deer population, but on other hunted species as well.
“The counties with our smallest available permanent deer habitat are Tipton and Benton counties, which also are our counties which have our smallest deer harvests,” he said. “That’s not by coincidence. Deer love agriculture, but they can’t rely on it alone. They need cover, especially during the winter months, and the removal of small woodlots, fence rows, and other valuable cover like CRP, will ultimately reduce how many deer an area can support.”
If you haunt the Internet hunting forums or read the local hunting news you already know 2013 was ranked sixth in total deer harvested. The latest IDNR report states that a total of 125,635 deer were reported harvested in Indiana during the 2013 season. This harvest was 8 percent lower than the 136,248 deer harvested during the 2012 season. The reported antlered deer harvest of 46,240 was nearly identical to the 45,936 reported harvested in 2012. The antlerless harvest of 79,395 was 12 percent lower than the 90,312 harvested in 2012.
In 2013, the reported harvest for total deer ranks sixth all-time, while the total antlerless deer harvest ranks as the fifth highest all-time in Indiana history. The antlered harvest ranks sixteenth all-time, according to the report.
So why the drop? There may be two reasons.
“During the opening weekend of firearms season, only 32 percent of the total firearm season harvest occurred, down from 50 percent in 2012. This was likely primarily due to a severe storm that came through the entire state on Sunday afternoon.”
Second, the IDNR is succeeding in reducing the deer herd in some areas of the state. In most places the harvest was down, by 20 percent or more in some counties. Fewer deer means less hunter success.
“It’s no secret we have created a bunch of changes to our deer hunting season over the past couple of years to reduce the deer herd where we feel it is needed.” Stewart said. “The late antlerless season, the bundle license, and the inclusion of crossbows are all part of the package to increase the deer harvest.”
In other places the harvest was up.
“The deer herd in south-central Indiana seems to be thriving,” Stewart said. “They have largely escaped any major impacts from EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) over the past couple of years, they have tremendous habitat, including plenty of forested cover, and they are subjected to relatively mild winters. Counties like Harrison, Lawrence, and Washington have very healthy and abundant deer populations.”
To make a forecast, historical numbers, and all the above factors that have affected the deer herd, have to be analyzed.
Some areas experienced low rainfall in midsummer, which led to a lack of moving water in some creeks. That in turn led to a rise in a tiny midge that transmits (EHD). After the heavy localized impact it had in 2012, I asked Stewart what continued effect that had on the herd.
“For the most part, EHD in 2013 wasn’t too bad, though it was fairly widespread. The areas most impacted seem to be in the Ohio/Switzerland areas, though I was also notified of a fairly large outbreak in Daviess County. There seems to be some lasting impact from EHD in the northern part of the state, where I think EHD, hunter density, and (lessening) cover are playing a part to keep the deer herd down. Since most of the northern part of the state is so intensively agriculture, remaining cover in the late fall and winter is relegated to small woodlots. With many hunters remaining in these areas, the hunter density in these woods is much greater than what you see in the southern part of the state.”
“The deer in the south have a stronger capacity to recover and rebound faster than herds in the north,” Stewart said. “Look at the antler harvests from 2011-13. In the south, where we had EHD in Union, Pike, Putnam, Dubois, and Morgan counties, antlered harvest dropped between 8.5-27.5 percent in 2012, but rebounded anywhere from 3.4-26.4 percent in 2013.
In several “control” counties in the south where EHD was not reported (but likely occurred minimally), the antlered harvest grew. These areas in the south are generally classified as low-intensity gun efforts per deer range (because there is so much habitat-forest in the south). My theory is that deer have an opportunity to get away from hunters.”
Many are asking, after the heavy snow and record cold temperatures, how is the health of the deer herd?
“I think the winter had minimal effect, if any. I did hear either first hand or second hand of a few over-winter kills, but nothing major. Deer are incredibly adaptable and able to withstand very cold temperatures. They require very little food as their metabolism is slowed greatly over these months, and Indiana deer are fortunate to enter winter with ample fat stores. The problem a deer herd has is when you get a very late and severe snowfall or freezing temperatures in late March or early April. By that time, the deer’s metabolism has begun to ramp up, and they have virtually depleted their fat stores.”
So what counties and areas of the state hold your best chances of putting venison in the freezer?
Generally greater deer densities mean better hunter success. State-wide, hunters harvested an average 3.51 deer per square mile. But, like Indiana’s terrain, the harvest varied greatly from county to county. Benton County had a dismal low of 0.28 deer harvested per square mile and Tipton County wasn’t far behind at 0.35 deer harvested per square mile.
Why so low?
If you drive through northern Indiana in winter you’ll see the vast moonscape of harvested fields that runs through the middle of the state.
At the other end of the state is Indiana’s hill country and some of the highest deer densities. Even with reports of EHD, Switzerland County hunters harvested an amazing 14 deer per acre and Ohio County wasn’t far behind.
Going by districts we can more closely identify the higher deer-producing counties.
In District One the best producer was Porter County with 3.62 deer harvested per square mile. Yet not far away is Benton County, which had the state’s lowest average of 0.35. Warren and Lake counties almost tied for second place with 3.43 and 3.39 averages. But those numbers can be a little deceiving. Much of Lake and Porter counties are urban areas with no hunting allowed. That indicates that the deer numbers harvested came from the remaining rural areas and urban zones. Statistics don’t lie. Urban Zones can be deer-hunting hot spots.
In District Two, Starke and Marshall counties were the top producers with an average of 5.31 and 4.95 deer harvested per square mile, respectively. Kosciusko and Pulaski counties were close behind with averages of 4.23 and 4.09. While statistically LaPorte, St. Joseph, and Elkhart counties were lower than average, they also have a great deal of no-hunt urban areas which would put the remaining rural and Urban Zone areas at a higher average.
District Three is one of the traditional hot spots of the state. Steuben County is one of the top deer producing counties at 8.58 deer harvested per square mile. Noble and De Kalb were also very high with an average 6.41 and 5.74 deer harvested per square mile and LaGrange just behind them with an average of 5.21.
In District Four, Fulton County was the leader with a 4.14 average followed by Miami County with an average of 3.12.
In District Five, Allen County is the leader with a 2.54 average, which once again, highlights the possibilities of Urban Zone hunting. With Ft. Wayne taking up a large portion of the county the average for the rest of the Urban Zones and rural areas would be higher.
There’s more to District Six than covered bridges and mushroom festivals. Parke County produced 5.49 deer per square mile. While Tippecanoe County results are below average, many great opportunities exist in the Urban Zones around Lafayette.
Across District Seven exists the vast Indiana “Corn Desert.” Hendricks County is the leader with an average of 1.57. While the numbers for each county are well below average, look for areas that provide good cover with year-round food and you’ll find the deer.
As farmers clear fence lines and wood lots, deer can be pushed into other areas and increase hunting opportunities. Don’t rule out Urban Zone fringe areas where agriculture blends with suburbia. They see little hunting pressure and can produce huge deer.
In District Eight, Fayette County is the leader with an average of 4.27. Hunters in Wayne and Union counties should keep a sharp eye out for some of Indiana’s rare wild hog population. While infrequent, there are documented cases in those counties as well as in adjoining Ohio counties.
In District Nine, Owen County is the leader with an average 4.45 followed closely by Greene County with 4.28.
In District 10, Brown County is still the leading deer producer with a 6.28 average. Much of that is most likely because of the rugged hills keeping all but the fittest hunters close to the roads. Monroe and Jackson counties are not far behind with 4.49 and 4.45 averages. Jackson County hunters may also get a chance to bring home bacon with their venison if they get a chance at the growing population of wild hogs roaming the wooded hills and valleys.
District 11 is still the number one place in Indiana for deer. Switzerland County hunters harvested an unparalleled 13.99 deer per square mile! Ohio County produced an average of 10.41 while Dearborn County more than doubled the state average with 7.30 deer harvested per square mile! I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Franklin County, which wasn’t far behind with 7.10 deer per square mile.
In District 12, Martin and Dubois counties switched positions over 2012 with above-average results of 4.71 and 4.60, respectively.
In reality, District 13 is another powerhouse deer district with deer numbers well above average. In fact, while most of the state’s harvest was down, every county in District 13 was up.
Will this trend continue? Only time will tell. Crawford County had an average of 7.65 and Harrison County is a close second with an average of 7.12. Like Jackson County next door, Washington and Lawrence counties have growing populations of wild hogs. Increased pressure may continue to drive the hogs into new areas. There are no limits or seasons on Indiana’s feral hogs so harvest all you can.
District 14 runs from average- to great-hunting, mostly great. The leader is Jefferson County at 6.68 followed closely by Scott with an average 6.11 deer harvested per square mile.
In District 15, Perry County is the top producer at 4.94, followed closely by Vanderburgh and Warrick counties with averages of 4.07 and 4.01 deer harvested per square mile.
Study the numbers and start knocking on farmer’s doors or head for Indiana’s public lands. A favorite saying is, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
So true. Somehow the hunters that do pre-season scouting, go father, hunt harder, and hunt longer are the luckiest. With just a little bit of work, that could be you.
For a more detailed summary of the 2013-2014 deer harvest visit the DNR’s web site.
<h2>A.J. Downs</h2>Over his years of chasing whitetails, A.J. Downs of Conroe, Texas, has taken a number of big bucks with his bow. But none of the other mounts in his trophy room can match the size, or the meaning, of the freak whitetail that fell to his arrow shortly after daylight on opening day of the 2012 archery season.