It is one of the most anticipated days of the year, no matter the firearm you choose to carry afield. Opening day of the Indiana deer-hunting season — whether you’re outfitted with a bow, crossbow, shotgun, muzzleloader or handgun — is filled with your hope of taking your deer, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
If you have done your homework and planned your deer hunt, chances are you will be having fresh tenderloins for supper. If you hunt like some folks play the lottery — hoping a quick score will fund his or her retirement — you’ll likely find the odds of success just about the same, and “tag soup” might be on your menu at the end of deer season. Successful deer hunters invest in scouting, studying and planning. Let’s face it. The success rate of Indiana deer hunters is about 35 percent, and, for many, success hinges on hoping a deer walks by. Other hunters go into the woods knowing deer will walk by, and many of those folks are fairly certain the right deer will walk by. The difference between the two hunters is one tilts the odds in their favor through research and scouting.
The 2017-2018 season continued the downward trend on total deer harvest since the peak in 2012. Last year’s harvest was 5 percent (5,800 deer) lower than the 2016-2017 season and 17 percent lower than the peak just five years ago in 2012. Some of the decline is by design; some of it was due to the weather.
“The trend in the deer herd appears to be stable. We do not measure population size directly, but rather, use a variety of indices that allow us to monitor general trends in the deer herd,” says state deer biologist Joe N. Caudell of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. “Over the past five years, the goal was to reduce the overall population size to address a rising number of deer vehicle collisions reported by the Indiana Department of Transportation and to reduce the number of damage complaints related to deer. This goal has been achieved. The current goal is to focus deer-herd management in a strategically targeted manner to more adequately balance ecological, recreational and economic needs of the citizens of Indiana.”
So why the drop in the deer harvest compared to the 2016-2017 season?
“Indiana experienced severe storms over much of the state during opening weekend of gun season, which lead to a low harvest on the first day of that weekend (just 25 to 30 percent of a usual opening day of gun season),” Caudell says. “However, much of that harvest deficiency was made up later in the season.”
HABITAT AND DISEASE
Changing habitat also plays into changes in deer numbers. According to the Quality Deer Management Association, habitat loss is the No. 1 cause of dropping deer numbers in the Midwest. As commercial growers buy out smaller farms, fence lines are bulldozed, woodlots are cleared, and marginal areas are drained and put into crop production. Previous safe places and travel corridors for deer are stripped away. Add to that the growing trend of expansive mowing and vegetation control. While much of the state rural areas look park-like with crisp clean ditches and backyards, it leaves no cover for wildlife — deer, especially. The changes are generally small and localized, but over time, they have huge impacts.
HABITAT AND DISEASE
With the storm clouds of Chronic Wasting disease — chronic weight loss in deer that leads to death — hovering just outside our borders, how does CWD and other diseases impact the Indiana deer population?
“We have not had any significant disease outbreaks in the Indiana deer herd recently,” Caudell reminds us. “The last significant epizootic hemorrhagic event (Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, a viral disease that’s usually fatal and stands as the most common disease among white-tailed deer) was in 2012-2013. We are currently testing for both CWD and bovine tuberculosis. Neither has been found in the deer herd. We had one case of bovine TB in a white-tailed deer that was shot off a farm where bovine TB was in cattle; but genetic testing of the bovine TB showed that the deer was most likely infected from the cattle, and we have since tested about 1,500 deer in that immediate area and have not detected bovine TB in any of the hunter harvested deer.”
Caudell says he believes the condition of the overall deer herd in Indiana is good. While habitat conditions vary from county to county, and even township to township, all of Indiana has great genetics and the ability to produce quality deer where they have access to the right blend of food and habitat.
A nearly balanced doe-to-buck ratio in the Indiana deer herd means the rutting period is condensed, which allows almost all does to become bred quickly and drop their fawns at the optimal time of the year, and bucks can get back to foraging to improve body condition for the winter. An overall smaller herd size means the available forage on the landscape can allow deer to achieve their greatest potential and not be limited by a lack of food resources that occurs in large deer populations.
NEW RIFLE REGULATIONS
Without taking up too much space on the public-relations nightmare for the IDNR, be aware that the wording, regarding firearms, in HB 1292 has been corrected after last seasons’ deer hunting rifle regulations roller coaster debacle . Any pistol-cartridge rifle that was legal for deer hunting before the fiasco is now legal again; and any rifle that was legal for the five-year private-land testing term is still legal for hunting on private land. For more information, search “deer hunting questions and answers, equipment” on the IDNR website — in.gov/dnr.
GETTING DOWN TO IT
The best hunting opportunities commonly take place in the counties that hold late-winter hunts, which indicates a local over-abundance of deer. The IDNR produces a map that highlights those counties, but you can start your research using Google Earth to scout the landscape with high-resolution satellite imagery.
The simple truth is that deer need year-round food and a place of sanctuary away from predators. Corn provides great food and cover during the summer, but once it’s harvested, the field might as well be a parking lot. Small tracts of woods hold limited food and cover. The best areas are a patchwork of crops, lowlands and forest.
Statistics show the average age of a deer hunter in the Midwest is 41 years. At that age, most deer hunters avoid steep, rough or swampy terrain and prefer to focus on stand sites that can be easily walked or driven to. That means, if a hunter is willing and able to walk a little farther, he/she might find themselves with little or no hunting pressure on opening morning.
While prime habitat can be found all over the state, the hilly southern section of the state is perfect for deer and turkey. The rugged hills of Switzerland, Dearborn, and Ohio counties out-produce many nationally-lauded locations when deer per square mile statistics are compared. The northeastern natural-lake country of Nobel and Steuben counties are also power-house deer producers.
Indiana’s urban areas can be overlooked deer-hunting Meccas. As urban sprawl moves into croplands and other traditional deer habitat, the deer easily transition to eating exotic plants and fruit trees that suburbia plants and grows. With a wide variety of food available, urban deer are healthy and often grow massive antlers. While firearms are prohibited in much of the urban areas, exciting possibilities await those who find the hotspots where using archery equipment is permitted.
The No. 1 factor that determines hunting success is you. The most successful deer hunters in
Indiana are those who do the homework before the season begins.
Think You’ve Got A Record-Book Buck?
You’ve shot your buck, and now you wonder if it might be record-book worthy. What do you do?The Boone and Crockett Club and the Pope and Young Club are the two most prominent record-keeping authorities. B&C maintains big game records for animals taken by all hunting methods. P&Y is the archery-specific counterpart to B&C.
Each club has detailed procedures for record-book whitetail entries — found on their respective websites. Both require that the skull plate be completely intact and unaltered, and that antlers be unrepaired and unmodified. So, ensure neither are damaged while caring for your trophy.
Both also require a “drying” period of at least 60 days at room temperature after harvest. Before this, clean the skull plate — again, ensuring no damage is done.
You can “green score” your buck before drying to see if it meets record-book status, but your next step after drying is contacting an official scorer. Both clubs have an online tool for locating scorers.Each club has different minimum score requirements. B&C requires typical whitetails to have a final score of 160 inches for its Award book. For non-typical, it’s 185. P&Y minimums are 125 and 155 inches for typical and non-typical, respectively.
After official scoring, you’ll do additional entry paperwork and documentation according to the organization. These must be followed to the letter.
If you’re looking to add your name to one of these books, check out the upcoming December/January issue, which has an article with tips on where to hunt some of the most productive big buck areas in the state.