Deer numbers are strong in the Great Plains. But some areas offer much better hunter success rates than others. (October 2009)
If you're a deer hunter, start getting excited. This is going to be a memorable season in the Great Plains.
No matter which state you prefer, the news is good heading into the 2009 season. Deer herds across the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas are in great shape. Habitat appears to be, too.
In this first part of the 2009 Great Plains Deer Outlook, you'll read about the places to be this deer season if your top priority is filling your tags and putting venison in the freezer. These are the places with relatively high deer numbers, and hunter success rates to match.
Next month, we'll look at the best places for trophy bucks near you.
State biologist Bill Jensen started his look at the state's deer resource by talking about weather's significant impact on hunting last season.
"We had significant areas in some of our best hunting units that were virtually un-huntable last season," Jensen said. "It was so wet in some places that when the deer season opened, as much as 80 percent to 90 percent of the corn was still standing in some areas. Farmers just couldn't get into those fields to harvest because it was so sloppy."
Jensen pointed out that, in North Dakota, it's illegal to hunt over unharvested crops. Think about areas with 90 percent of the corn still in fields, and you begin to understand that deer had large amounts of forage and cover they don't normally have, and success rates were affected significantly in those units.
"The data we gathered during aerial surveys this winter suggest trends that show deer numbers increasing in the slope units southwest of the Missouri River, and also in several of the units northeast of the Missouri," Jensen said. "Deer numbers are relatively high heading into this season."
The chart accompanying this story reflects Jensen's comments. The five units with high hunter success rates from last season -- the issue of crops still in fields notwithstanding -- are southwest of the Missouri River. They combine to produce a significant contiguous chunk of real estate with the easiest-to-remember general boundaries: U.S. 85 Highway on the west and State Route 200 to the north, with South Dakota to the south and the Missouri River to the east.
These units are west of that part of North Dakota where Jensen said deer suffered from all the winter snow.
"For the most part, our deer fared well this winter," he said. "But we did see some losses in the upper central part of the state. The first bands of heavy snow we got moved across the state from southwest to northeast. The second band moved northwest to southeast. In that part of the state where those two crossed, we had real winter all winter, and our deer and other wildlife had some winter mortality."
Although this story is mostly about whitetails, Jensen did note that North Dakota's mule deer population fared well over the winter. "Numbers are about the same as last year," he said.
In addition to the units listed on the chart, hunters also should look at Unit 4F -- the very southwest corner of the state -- and 2C and 2D -- in the very northeast corner. Those three areas, along with 3F1 and 3F2, will be open for an early antlerless season this fall. Jensen said there are no other changes to regulations for 2009.
State biologist Ted Benzon reports that South Dakota deer herds also are in good shape heading into the new season. He is most excited about the progress the state has made in getting the herd in northeastern South Dakota back into a good numbers balance.
"We've been focusing on bringing the herd numbers down in the northeast part of the state," he said, "and our hunters have really taken to the program. As a result, I'm excited to say that our buck-to-doe ratio in the northeast is now at or very close to 1:1, based on our research and surveys."
That, of course, is a deer manager's nirvana -- and it definitely can impact hunting in a very positive way. South Dakota, like other states, uses permit numbers to manage herds. That is, it will -- and has -- issued more antlerless tags and encouraged hunters to buy and fill them. In this state, they have.
"Our hunter success was good statewide last season," Benzon added. "We thought we might have some winter mortality, though. The winter started out really rough everywhere around the state, and everyone was getting pretty nervous. Then, we had a major snowmelt in February, and that helped tremendously."
He said western North Dakota dodged three weather bullets last winter. "We had three major blizzards in a row out there," Benzon said, "and each of them dumped 1-2 feet of snow with some huge drifts. But in every case, we had a warming trend follow them up, which mitigated potential winter mortality."
He said the only health issue state biologists have encountered in the past year involves some minor losses of mule deer fawns in central and western South Dakota.
"The losses are due to a winter tick that apparently has always been here," Benzon said. "The tick has been hitting mule deer fawns in some areas hard enough that it makes them anemic. They just lie down and die.
"By and large, our deer herd is in good shape heading into the new season," he said.
As has been the case in previous seasons, Benzon sees two "pockets" of management units with great potential. In the northeast, hunters should be focusing on Edmunds, Brown and Spink counties. In the northwest, they should be planning to hunt Harding and Perkins counties.
From here, Harding is a good bet because of its location in the northwest corner of the state. That connects it to North Dakota units 4F and 3F1, which both will have the early antlerless season mentioned above. It appears that this chunk of the Dakotas has an outstanding deer population -- Harding's success rate was 54 percent last season -- so hunters likely will have a good chance of filling their tags again in 2009.
The only change Benzon mentioned is really "housekeeping" in nature, but it will definitely have a positive effect on hunters around the state -- in certain years, at least.
"Now," he said, "the West River will open two Saturdays before Thanksgiving, and the East River will open one Saturday before Thanksgiving. That will allow our hunters to always be able to enjoy what has
become a real tradition for many families -- getting together for Thanksgiving and including hunting in their activities."
The West River will open Nov. 14, and East River on Nov. 21 this year.
Benzon said he and other biologists also would look at the possibility of reducing the number of available mule deer tags. As always, it's best to check the state Web site (www.sdgfp.info) to get the most up-do-date information.
When biologist Kit Hams noted the management units with the highest success rates in the Cornhusker State, he was quick to point out a major reason for the numbers. "We have been issuing bonus tags in the units along the Missouri River," he said. "We encourage our hunters to help us manage the herd by harvesting antlerless deer."
When you look at the numbers, you'll see that they've been taking that request to heart. Success rates across the state are the highest in all of the Great Plains.
Nebraska offers a wonderful picture of the state's deer resource in its Big Game Guide, which is available for downloading as a PDF file on the Nebraska Game, Fish and Parks Department Web site (www.ngpc.state. ne.us/hunting/pdfs/). In it, you'll find data that provide information on virtually every element of the deer resource here.
"Our deer hunting has never been better," he said. "But it does keep getting better."
Hams said state biologists have not had to deal with any disease issues of significance in recent years -- although he is seeking hunter input about one potential problem.
"There appears to be a parasitic deer louse that is causing some hair loss on deer in the western part of the state," Hams explained. "We are asking hunters to contact us if they harvest deer out there that are showing signs of hair loss because we want to track that information."
Hams said there is evidence of deer lice in Wyoming deer herds and also in South Dakota, which also has experienced some mule deer losses due to the winter tick that South Dakota biologist Benzon mentioned. These are not significant problems, but biologists are nonetheless interested in learning all they can about these lice and what they're doing to deer in western Nebraska.
Four of the five units that offer the best chance for hunter success this season are in eastern Nebraska and, as noted earlier, along the Missouri River. The region provides an outstanding mix of habitat (bedding cover, escape cover and fawning cover) and the kind of agricultural production that offers deer a smorgasbord of high-quality forage.
As a result, the population is healthy and continues to grow -- thus the need for the bonus tags and additional antlerless harvest to keep numbers in check as much as possible. The other unit, the Sandhills, has been one of the Cornhusker State's best in recent years. It makes the list of "best units" every year.
Its topography is significantly different than that of the other four best units in eastern Nebraska. As a result, it offers not only a good chance for success, but also a hunt amid stunning scenery and great habitat.
It must be noted that permit numbers in the Sandhills have been quite a bit lower than those in Elkhorn and Wahoo, for example. But those hunters who venture to north-central Nebraska for a Sandhills hunt stand a really good chance of bringing venison home. It's a good hunt.
These five units, collectively, offer a decent amount of public hunting land, which generally is in short supply across the Great Plains. One biologist I interviewed for this story called the Great Plains states "private-land central" when it comes to hunting, and he's right.
That's not good or bad; it just is. And it means that hunters will have to work at gaining landowner permission to hunt throughout much of the four states. However, if you look at Nebraska maps and focus on the five units mentioned here, you'd see more than a few chunks of public land.
State biologist Lloyd Fox said the 2008 Kansas deer season was "outstanding in just about every way.
Fox had some fascinating comments about hunter success rates. "If you go back and look, you'll see that hunter success rates haven't changed much in Kansas," he said.
"Hunter success rates move very slowly, in general," he said. "It's one way to look at the best places to hunt, but I believe hunters in Kansas have a good chance to fill their tags no matter where they hunt."
Two of the units Fox mentioned are adjacent to Unit 16 (No. 5 and 15), and they offer very similar terrain and deer numbers. From here, however, units No. 3, 7 and 8 are as close to "deer heaven" as you'll find anywhere in the Great Plains.
There is an incredible mix of traditional agriculture, tall grass prairie, wood lots, thick draws and cover of virtually every type.
About the only public land you'll find in any of these units involve acreage associated with State Fishing Lakes. They are relatively small plots, and some can be tricky to deer hunt. However, they're definitely worth checking out. I learned that lesson many years ago at Douglas State Fishing Lake, south of Lawrence.
There, I found the most intense rut staging area I've ever encountered anywhere. There were so many scrapes within a couple hundred yards that I could smell the area before I ever saw it. It was a pocket of cover amid ag fields and mostly open land.
Anytime you can find spots like that, hunt them. They are deer magnets, and you'll fill your tag.
Another interesting element of Kansas' deer herd is its stability.
"Things are very consistent here," Fox said. "Densities are creeping up, yes. But if we look at survey data, we learn that our annual harvest is 500,000 deer and up. Our deer-vehicle incidents are staying about the same, as the annual harvest is staying about the same. And statewide, our herd health is very good."
That being said, there is a pocket of concern in northwestern Kansas, where 10 whitetails from among a sample of 2,000 animals tested positive for chronic wasting disease.
Fox said there wouldn't be any regulation changes for this season, but he noted a pending change for 2010.
Beginning with the 2010 season, the non-resident application period will be earlier. "I want to get the word out to all of our non-resident hunters now to make sure they understand that the process will start earlier next year for the 2010 season," he said.
The change is in response to non-resident input. "Our non-resident hunters want to know about their tags earlier so they can plan accordingly."