Our expert bowhunter gives you the lowdown on the best places in the state for arrowing a deer. (September 2008)
Nearly 79,000 Minnesota bowhunters took to the woods last year, harvesting 24,161 deer.
Photo by Windigo Images.
There's something about archery hunting that just gets into your blood. Oh sure, hunting with firearms and muzzleloaders is enjoyable, but nothing is quite like archery.
Almost a half million hunters pursue deer every fall and about 40 percent successfully take a buck or doe. Break down those numbers by types of hunting and archers are at the bottom of the list. Last year, only 24 percent of all archers -- one in four -- successfully harvested a deer. Why then is archery a growing sport?
Perhaps it's something primeval. Archers must wait for a deer to get close. Archers must be stealthier as they draw to shoot and even though the arrow is flying at 300 feet per second, a simple flinch by a whitetail can turn a sure kill into a miss. Once an archer's arrow finds its mark, the art of tracking must be undertaken to find the fallen deer.
While hunters using firearms and muzzleloaders have more success, ask any hunter who has tried archery which hunting method they prefer and archery is the answer nearly every time. Most archers also use firearms and muzzleloaders, but they hunt with the mindset of an archer.
Having spent the first 18 years of my deer hunting experience as a firearms hunter, I didn't get it until I tried bowhunting myself. I purchased a high-quality compound bow several years ago, put in plenty of practice until I was a proficient shot and took to the woods. It didn't feel any different until a deer came into range.
I told myself that since it was my first bowhunting experience, I'd take the first deer that I had a clean shot at. When that first deer came into range, it still felt similar to firearms hunting but I began to realize that I wasn't just going to put the gun to my shoulder and squeeze gently. I had to raise my bow, draw back, make sure my path was clear, and then carefully release the arrow.
As the deer came into range, I drew my arrow and realized how loud carbon rubbing on metal can be in a quiet woods. It's not a noise you notice in the back yard, but when a whitetail is 18 yards away and staring into your eyes because of the racket you made, you take notice and your heart suddenly quickens in your throat.
I made sure of my target and released the arrow. When you fire a gun, you're often so focused that you don't notice the muzzle blast, but when you release an arrow, it's just the opposite because you're watching the arrow fly, and then connect with the deer.
That was the moment when I fully understood the allure of archery hunting.
BY THE NUMBERS
The 2007 deer archery season was the second best on record -- the record was set in 2006. Nearly 79,000 archers took to the woods last year harvesting 24,161 deer, 7,500 of them bucks. The fact that archers arrowed twice as many does as bucks reflects the fact that many archers consider themselves meat hunters and tend to be particular about the bucks they shoot.
"Bowhunters have had some pretty fantastic results the last five years," said Lou Cornicelli, Minnesota DNR big game program director. "Prior to 2003, the largest bow harvest was just shy of 16,000. In 2003, it jumped to 21,000 and the last five years has been the best archery harvest in history," he added.
Cornicelli said a large deer population, combined with liberal harvest strategies, has benefited archers. "Archery success has gone up 10 percent and a lot of that is how we manage deer. Archers can get two deer almost anywhere around the state," he said.
In the not-so-distant past, archers could only take one deer, so most ended up passing on does and waiting for bucks. Cornicelli said the registration numbers from the last several seasons have shown an intensive doe harvest early in the season by archers. That means bowhunters looking to arrow a deer this fall should start scouting now.
Another reason that archers have experienced such increased success is the obvious improvements in technology. Today's compound bows and high-tech arrows are a huge departure from the long bows and wooden arrows of the not-so-distant past. Now an archer, new to the sport, can pick up a bow, shoot consistently for several weeks to develop proficiency and venture into the woods for a successful outing.
"I think technology has helped, but I don't think it's done as much as some people would have you believe," Cornicelli said. "I think maybe wounding loss has gone down and bowhunters are now taking that 25-yard shot they used to pass on, but the 10 percent increase in harvest is more likely because bowhunters can now kill two deer throughout the state," he said.
Speaking of numbers, one of the reasons the deer herd has been so healthy in recent years is due to the lack of serious winters. Last year's winter that never seemed to end was the harshest in a long time, and there were actually some winter severity index numbers in parts of the northeast that were much higher than they've been in recent years.
"Most Minnesota deer came through in pretty good shape," said Mark Lenarz, a DNR wildlife biologist in Grand Rapids. "The northeast region known as the Arrowhead was the only place where the winter was more severe."
The majority of bowhunters tend to hunt the forested portions of the state. Even in the agricultural zones of southwestern and western Minnesota, archers tend to hunt the trees of windbreaks, river valleys and old homesteads. There are some who take advantage of high grass in CRP plots or who walk through cornrows before harvest time, but the best place to find a bowhunter is by a tree, either crouched near it or halfway up.
AROUND THE STATE
Drive around Minnesota and you'll find a deer herd in very good condition. Population numbers are still high and some permit areas are undergoing adjustments to reduce the harvest, while others are still under intensive harvest regulations.
In most permit areas where harvest is strictly regulated, it's more of a reflection that deer numbers in the area are at or near goals established by the DNR and its citizen deer advisory group. Those areas where intensive harvest is still in place are because the population is still higher than the goals established by this group, and the area wildlife manager in conjunction with Cornicelli are trying to encourage hunters to take more deer.
Uniform commonality areas surrounding urban cores tend to be a good choice for archers looking to take multiple deer. The exurban region surrounding the Twin Cities is a great example, but it also holds true around Duluth, Brainerd, Rochester, Mankato, Alexandria and several other regional hubs.
Archers should cruise the real estate listings and locate the hottest areas for new housing and properties with large lots. These areas are great for archery hunting because deer are still adjusting to urbanization. Find an open piece of property with plenty of cover and you'll have a good place to scout and work to gain permission.
Joel Anderson is area wildlife manager for the area around Nicollet in south-central Minnesota. His area is predominantly agricultural, although there are some wooded areas around the Minnesota River and near farms.
"Bowhunters down here generally go to wooded areas, and so that means any wildlife management area with woods will see hunters as will the river valleys. Blue Earth County is a popular place for archers," he said. Farther north in central Minnesota around Aitkin is the area managed by Dave Dickey, a DNR area wildlife manager. He said it's hard to determine if there are more archers in his area today than in the past, but he's certain that the success ratio for hunters has increased.
There is a nice mixture of public and private land in the area with large blocks of each located throughout the area. Dickey said he thinks hunters would have a tough time getting on to private land because much of it seems to be locked up by friends and relatives of the landowner.
Normally, having big blocks of contiguous habitat is a good thing, but because there are large blocks of both public and private, some problems are being examined.
"We do have some concern that it's possible in some situations where we are overhunting on public land and not taking enough on private land," Dickey said.
This issue is undergoing research and should any decisions or adjustments have to be made, Dickey will make those for next season. It's a situation going on in numerous areas around the state where the same dynamic occurs. Because bowhunters are such a small proportion of the overall deer harvest, they are usually not part of the equation, but in areas where there are no firearms seasons, as is the case near many larger cities and towns, bowhunters can play a major role.
Check the numbers for how many deer per square mile were harvested by archers and they are very low. In nearly every permit area in the state, the harvest is less than one deer per square mile.
By far, the highest number of archers may be found in old permit area No. 182 that includes the region around Duluth. That coincides with an earlier statement that bowhunters tend be successful in urban centers where deer populations are high but the deer are protected by ordinances forbidding the discharge of firearms.
Another permit area to consider is No. 223 encompassing all of Sherburne County except the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. The harvest rate for bowhunters in this area is one deer per square mile. Archers took a total of 385 deer last year -- 138 were bucks.
Permit area No. 227, in northern Anoka County and southern Isanti County, boasts an archery harvest of 1.6 deer per square mile. A total of 739 deer were arrowed last year -- 220 were bucks.
Farther east in northern Washington County is permit area No. 236 where archers harvested 2.1 deer per square mile. A total of 767 deer were taken last year, of which 252 were bucks. The Carlos Avery Wildlife Area is jammed between areas 226 and 236 and shows similar harvest numbers.
Data from the southern metropolitan area differs from the north creating as many theories as there are deer in both areas combined. One explanation says the south metro area is more agricultural and less wooded than the north making it more difficult for archers to find the deer.
Permit area No. 601 -- the Twin Cities' urban core -- allows hunters to take as many deer as they wish to purchase bonus permits. Last year, 1,887 deer from this area were harvested -- 603 were bucks.
Urban deer are very well-fed critters. Their diet is varied, balanced and usually consists of high-protein sources that contribute to magnificent antler growth. Some of the largest bucks taken in Minnesota every year come from these areas. For bowhunters seeking a trophy whitetail, this area shouldn't be overlooked.
Permit area No. 343 in southeastern Minnesota includes the section around Rochester. Bowhunters harvested 852 deer last year -- 1.3 deer per acre -- 247 were bucks. Similar trends were found in areas 346, 348 and 349.
In permit areas 104, 111, 115, 116, 127, 201, 203, 208, 263, 266, 287, 297, 421, 422, 423, 424, 425, 447 and 448, the per-square-mile archery harvest rate was zero, mainly because those areas are traditionally considered firearms hunting locations.
A little bit of scouting is all it takes to find the major deer concentration in these areas. Fall scouting may help determine if an area holds a trophy buck, as can walking trails in the spring looking for sheds. Chances are if you stumble upon the territory of a trophy buck, he feels pretty confident in his area and is not used to having to dodge hunters as the wily bucks of more heavily hunted portions of the state.
There are plenty of changes in the 2008 hunting regulations and hunters are encouraged to thoroughly read the regulations handbook and check an updated map before purchasing their license.
Cornicelli said bowhunters are the least affected of all deer hunters. He gave a lot of credit to bowhunters for their work as part of the equation that balances the deer population.
"Bowhunters have the longest season of anybody in the state and the most opportunities for hunting throughout the state. It's a great time to be a bowhunter in Minnesota," he said.