The anticipation of deer season is not unlike the anticipation of Christmas morning when we were kids. Now, instead of wanting to see what Santa left us under the tree, we find ourselves waiting to see what deer will walk under our tree. I guess deer hunters are just big kids at heart.
What walks under your stand this year depends a lot on where you are hunting. Hunting hotspots can vary from region to region, county to county and farm to farm. For the bigger picture, we’ve done the homework for you, but it will be up to you to pinpoint what acreage you decide to hunt.
STATEWIDE DEER POPULATION
According to Barbara Keller, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) resource scientist that oversees our state’s deer herd, the estimated statewide deer population is between 1 and 1.2 million whitetail deer.
“That is a very rough estimate based on our population reconstruction model,” Keller said.
As an outdoor writer I’ve been penning articles on Missouri’s deer herd for decades, and our state wildlife biologists used to always tell me that the estimated deer population in Missouri was 1.5 million deer, so I asked Keller why that number is different now.
“Our deer numbers are definitely down from what they were in the early 2000s,” Keller said. “Two major factors reduced our deer numbers — Hemorrhagic Disease and liberal antlerless deer harvest regulations.”
Hemorrhagic Disease (HD) is one of two viruses: Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) or Bluetongue Virus (BTV). These viruses are spread through the bite of midge flies. In the end stages of this disease, which can be deadly, deer get fevers and seek out water and are often found in or near water sources. Deer that contract the disease often die within five to 10 days. The good news about HD is that deer can survive it and build up antibodies to fight off future bouts with the disease.
“In 2012 Missouri experienced a severe HD outbreak throughout most of the state,” Keller said. “Fortunately, deer numbers are gradually recovering from that outbreak.”
The other factor that Keller mentioned was the extremely liberal antlerless deer permits that were available on an almost limitless basis prior to 2014. Doe numbers were reduced dramatically, and you don’t have to be a biologist to know that if you shoot a doe you are going to reduce the population.
“I do believe that we are on the upswing now in our deer numbers in almost all parts of Missouri,” said Keller.
The 2017 combined deer harvest in Missouri was 284,477 deer. This total is up roughly 7 percent from the 2016 deer harvest.
“We actually had harvest increases in all portions of the deer seasons with the exception of the Alternative Methods Portion of firearms deer season last year,” Keller noted. “Our statewide harvest total was the ninth best recorded since 1986, so I would say we had a good season last year.”
There are two factors that really cannot be managed by man that have a tremendous impact on deer harvest every year: weather and mast production.
Last year the weather was relatively mild with not much precipitation, which kept hunters out in the field longer, thus increasing their chances of harvesting a deer.
Acorns are the major food source for whitetails across the state, and when mast production is high, it keeps the deer in the timber. They don’t have to venture out into open areas to find food; they can stay hunkered down in the woods and fill their bellies all day long. In times of high mast production, deer harvest numbers usually are down. Last year, acorn production wasn’t overly abundant, and the good deer harvest reflected that.
REGIONAL DEER REPORT
All but one region of the state is experiencing deer numbers that are growing. Some are growing more slowly than others, but the trend is upward, which is a good thing.
The Northwest Region is the only exception to the upwardly trending deer numbers. Unfortunately, this part of Missouri has experienced the most dramatic decreases in herd totals from the severe HD outbreak in 2012.
“The Northwest Region is really struggling in its deer population recovery,” Keller said. “Much of this struggle is related to habitat loss in this region, which is dominated mainly by cropland without much cover.”
As a result of this slow recovery, the MDC is recommending the removal of four counties in this region from the Antlerless Portion of Firearms Deer Season. The four counties that are proposed to be removed from the three-day season are Atchison, Andrew, Holt and Nodaway.
The Northeast Region is still down in deer numbers from where it was in 2012, but the population is at least stabilizing here. “Deer harvest in the Northeast Region was slightly down in 2017, but I still believe that this region is one of the best chances where hunters can take quality bucks, especially in counties where the Antler Point Restrictions are still in place.”
The Central Region is very similar to the northeast region in its road to recovery. It has stabilized, but there is still room for growth.
The Kansas City Region has not been as quick to recover in deer numbers. This region’s slow comeback is probably influenced by habitat similar to the Northwest Region in the northern counties of this area. Deer and harvest numbers are still well below where they once were.
The St. Louis Region has remained pretty stable through all of this population turmoil. This region, like the others, suffered mortality from the 2012 HD outbreak but recovered quickly. The area is now considered stable.
The Ozark Region has had a slowly growing deer population for a while and is still trending in that direction. Since HD outbreaks occur more frequently in the southern portions of Missouri, the deer here are more likely to build antibodies to fight the disease.
The Southwest Region is very similar to the Ozarks but has a slightly higher deer population because of more of a diversity of habitat in open pastures that occur here.
THE CROSSBOW CONNECTION
In 2016, the Missouri Department of Conservation allowed crossbows as a legal method for anyone to use to harvest deer during the archery deer season. Prior to 2016, hunters could use crossbows only if they had their doctor fill out a medical exemption form. There were concerns from some hunters, especially archers, that the use of crossbows would increase archery harvest too much.
“Hunters who use archery methods to hunt deer typically average around 50,000 deer annually in Missouri,” said MDC Resource Scientist Barbara Keller. “In 2016, the first year we allowed crossbows for everyone as a legal method to take deer during archery season, hunters bagged 47,551 deer during the archery season, which was slightly down. In 2017 archery harvest was 51,991 which is right on point to our average archery harvest.”
Archers in Missouri are typically responsible for about 18 percent of total deer harvest statewide, and the 51,991 deer they bagged last year was right on target with that percentage. Of all the successful archers last year, 38 percent of them used crossbows; in 2016 that percentage was 30 percent.
“I expect the percentage of crossbow hunters to continue to increase in Missouri because many of our hunters are aging and will be turning to crossbows as a means to continue archery hunting,” Keller said.
So, while it seems that our archery deer harvest has remained about the same, it is highly likely that the number of crossbow users will increase.