Hoosier deer hunters have been waiting for what has seemed like an eternity to once again take up the quest for whitetail deer. With opening day almost on the doorstep, anticipation is peaking. No matter whether just looking to put some meat in the freezer or hoping for a bragging-rights buck for the wall, this season looks to hold great promise.
In this issue, we are going to tap into harvest figures and other data as well as pick the brain of Chad Stewart, who is the deer research biologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). We will analyze the facts and figures and point you toward the most likely places in the state to take a deer this fall. Along with generalized areas of the state, we will also point you toward some public lands with potential for success. Next issue, we will narrow the focus to find out where the trophy bucks might be lurking.
HEALTH OF THE HERD
The Hoosier deer herd is in great shape, according to hunter opinion and the DNR tends to concur. Stewart said, "The herd is very healthy. We have not detected any significant diseases, such as CWD or Bovine TB, in the free-ranging herd as of yet."
Last year, there were reports in ten counties of either dead or dying deer due to Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD). Oftentimes, EHD is referred to as blue tongue although, technically, they are two different diseases. EHD is a naturally occurring condition in deer herds and is cyclic. The last major outbreak of EHD in Indiana was in 2007 and was much worse.
The reported cases of EHD last season were mainly in the northeastern portion of the state. Along the northern border, EHD was reported in Lake, Porter, La Porte, St. Joseph, and Elkhart counties. Pulaski, Cass, and Carroll counties also had reported EHD. The only counties in the southern third of the state to report EHD were Sullivan and Brown.
WHAT THE NUMBERS TELL US
The harvest figures from last season also point toward a very healthy deer population. Stewart said, "The harvest continues to remain at record levels, and I don't expect a great change this year. We did notice a slight increase in the number of antlered yearlings harvested last year, which reversed a declining trend that was running for six years. This tells me we are running about as good as we can run on harvesting mature (2.5 years and older) bucks under our current system."
Indiana hunters harvested a total of 134,004 deer last season, which was one percent higher than the year before. The total for the 2009-2010 season was 132,752 deer. The figures from last season for total deer harvest and antlerless deer harvest were the highest on record. The antlered harvest from last season was the second-highest reported total in history. All these figures point toward a banner year and an excellent deer herd. This year should prove to be more of the same.
DIVERSE HUNTERS, DIVERSE METHODS
Hunter success comes from many methods and by a vast diversity of participants ranging from youths to the elderly. Some 46 percent of the harvest last season was by hunters using shotguns. Muzzleloader enthusiasts took about 25 percent of the harvest and bowhunters chipped in another 20 percent. The remainder of the harvest was comprised of rifle hunters (seven percent), handgun hunters (one percent), and crossbow hunters (one percent).
About 40 percent of the harvest last season was comprised of adult antlered bucks and 37 percent were adult females. Some 13 percent were female fawns and the remaining 10 percent were male fawns or button bucks. These percentages were very similar to the year before.
Breaking down the state by county harvest gives a more detailed view of deer hunter success on local levels. Although statewide the deer harvest is at record numbers, there was a huge difference in success when measured by county. For instance, the county with the most deer harvested was Steuben County, with a total take of 3,948. That sounds really impressive and is great for the hunters there, but comparing that figure to the lower end of the scale brings a stark reality to the numbers. In Tipton County, there were only 125 total deer taken for the entire year.
Fortunately, there were many more bright spots to the harvest than dim ones. A good example is there were 64 counties where the total harvest exceeded 1,000 deer. There were 17 counties with a reported harvest of 2,000 deer and five counties that reported 3,000 or more deer harvested. The antlered buck harvest was 1,000 or better in nine counties. The latter figure was down from ten counties in 2009, but the antlerless harvest over 1,000 deer increased from 31 counties in 2009 to 34 counties last season.
THE ANTLERLESS HARVEST
The antlerless harvest is a very important figure, not only to measure hunter success, but also as a management tool. Keeping the herd within population targets and the buck-to-doe ratio properly managed requires a significant doe harvest. The bonus antlerless tags are one way to offer hunters more opportunity and also meet management goals for the DNR.
An unlimited number of bonus antlerless tags were available on a county-by-county basis. The number of tags available per county ranged from being designated "A" up to 8. Each permit was valid for one antlerless deer. The first bonus tag cost Indiana residents 24 dollars and subsequent tags were 15 dollars each. A hunter could purchase and use as many bonus tags as desired as long as the county bag limits were observed. The permit was good through all deer seasons with the exception of counties designated as A. There, the permit was only good for the last four days of firearms season plus the late archery and muzzleloader seasons.
The county designations are primarily based upon the deer population in the area and what needs to be done in terms of management within those counties. The process used to determine the tag allotment is both simple and complex according to Stewart.
He explained, "Recommendations are gathered for the upcoming year from wildlife biologists and law enforcement for each county, who look at the previous harvest trends associated with that county, and then those recommendations are discussed in a joint panel between Division of Fish and Wildlife and Division of Law Enforcement leadership. The previous 10-year history of each county is analyzed, including harvest numbers and composition, previous permit designations, the number of damage complaints and deer vehicle collisions, as well as landowner and hunter attitudes from the most recent surveys. We also factor in the amount of permanent habitat within the county and the amount of pressure it receives from gun season. We try to avoid making drastic changes in a year or over subsequent years. For example, going from a 2 to an 8, or going from a 3 to an 8 then down to a 3 again. In general, the higher the number, the more we are trying to reduce the deer herd in that county; the lower the number, the more we are trying to grow or keep the herd. There are exceptions though.
"For example, both Tipton County and Clark County are essentially at goal. The difference is Tipton County is designated an A, while Clark County is designated an 8. If we were to increase the quota in Tipton to a 2 or 3, we would likely experience a crash in that deer herd. If we were to reduce Clark County to a 2 or 3, the herd would likely increase. The difference between these two counties is largely habitat. Tipton County has a low population that is being effectively maintained right now. Clark County has over 250 square miles of deer habitat, and a healthy population that can grow quickly if gun efforts are further restricted."
WHERE TO GO
By now, most everyone is probably chomping at the bit trying to decide where to go for the best chance at success. Well, obviously, looking at the state map on the DNR Web site to find out which counties are the highest designated for bonus antlerless tags is one place to start. Another way is to look deeper yet into the harvest data from last season.
The top harvest county mentioned earlier was Steuben County with a total of 3,948 deer. Even more significant is that county also ranked number one for antlerless harvest at 2,559 deer and for antlered harvest at 1,389 deer. Obviously, hunter success runs high.
Kosciusko County was a close second with a total harvest of 3,578 deer. As with Steuben County, its ranking held across the board. It also ranked second for antlerless harvest (2,347) and for buck harvest (1,231). Third place overall went to Switzerland County with an even 3,400 deer taken. It also held the third spot for buck harvest at 1,204 and was fourth for antlerless harvest at 2,196 deer.
Results for the remaining top counties were somewhat more dispersed. The rest of the top ten counties for total harvest were Noble (3,323), Franklin (3,054), Marshall (2,989), Dearborn (2,865), Parke (2,861), Lagrange (2,835) and Washington (2,758). The remaining counties that topped 2,000 antlerless deer harvested were Noble (2,226), Switzerland (2,196) and Franklin (2,010). Other counties that broke the 1,000 harvest mark for bucks included Switzerland (1,204), Parke (1,100), Noble (1,097), Washington (1,049), Franklin (1,044), Marshall (1,027) and Dearborn (1,016).
A look at these counties will give hunters an instant readout on where most of the action is happening. Finding private land in these prime areas may be the most desired, but that is not always possible due to the amount of competition for available spots. However, there are scores of other great opportunities available on public land.
The DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife owns and manages numerous properties throughout the state and most all have deer hunting opportunities. Some of the DNR properties located in or near the top counties for deer harvest often provide the best chances for success. Other great locations include our state and national forests.
We are blessed with a lot of forest land and therefore, a lot of hunting opportunity. Many of these forest properties stretch through areas of the state with the highest deer densities. The trick for success on these forest lands is to get out and do the legwork. There is a lot of area to consider and also plenty of hunting pressure. But, with some effort and proper scouting, these properties can be a goldmine for deer hunters.
One of the spots with the most opportunity is the Hoosier National Forest, which stretches across southern Indiana and totals some 200,000 acres. All of the National Forest lands except for designated recreation areas, Pioneer Mothers Memorial Forest south of Paoli, and a few posted areas are available for hunting under statewide regulations. There are, of course, a few basic site-specific regulations. Call (812) 275-5987 or visit www.fs.fed.us/r9/hoosier.
The Hoosier is not the only good choice, though. Another to consider is the Jackson-Washington State Forest (SF). There is 18,000 acres at this site and plenty of deer. Hunters in Jackson and Washington counties took a combined total of 4,640 deer last year. Washington County ranked in the top ten for harvest. Contact Property Manager Brad Schneck at (812) 358-2160 for more info.
Other good forest properties include the Harrison-Crawford SF with 24,000 acres, Greene-Sullivan SF with 8,900 acres and the Martin SF with 7,863 acres. Contact these three properties at (812) 738-8232, (812) 648-2810 or (812) 247-3491, respectively.
Up in the northeastern deer hotspot of LaGrange, Steuben and Noble counties, hunters may want to consider the Pigeon River Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA). It is located mostly in LaGrange County, but a portion spills over into Steuben. There is a total of over 11,600 acres at the FWA and it is open under statewide regulations for deer. A site permit is required and hunters must check in and out. Camping is also available on-site. More info is available by calling (260) 367-2164.
Kosciusko County, which ranked number two for overall harvest last season, is home to the Tri-County FWA. This property provides over 3,500 acres and spreads across the county line between Kosciusko and Noble counties. A one-day hunting permit must be obtained and kept on the hunter at all times while hunting the property. Checking in and out is required. To learn more, call (574) 834-4461.
Splinter Ridge FWA offers 2,460 acres of opportunity in the deer-rich county of Switzerland. This county ranked third for total harvest last season. Regulations and permit requirements are similar to the previous two FWA properties. Call (812) 346-5596 for additional hunting details.
There are lots of other good spots across the state, both on private and public lands. As mentioned earlier, there were 64 counties where hunters took over 1,000 deer last year. We are fortunate right now to be enjoying a burgeoning deer population and plenty of opportunity.
Information on licenses, regulations, and properties with public access can be obtained from the Indiana Hunting & Trapping Guide 2011-2012 or online at www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild. It is advisable to check directly with any public access property for site-specific regulations prior to going afield.