Michigan's 2006 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Our Best Hunting Areas

Our deer kill was down slightly last year, but if the weather cooperates this season, it could be better than it has been in a long time! (Nov 2006)

If you thought the 2005 deer seasons weren't as bad as you've been hearing, you're right. According to a Michigan Department of Natural Resources report prepared by statistician Brian Frawley -- based on a survey of many thousands of our state's deer hunters -- an estimated 42 percent of the hunters who spent time afield statewide during 2005 killed at least one whitetail. About 22 percent of those hunters tagged an antlerless deer and 29 percent downed an antlered buck.

It's true there were fewer deer taken during the 2005 firearms season in every region of our state than the year before, but the reductions were not as high as expected. Also, the declines were reasonable in view of the fact that the weather was lousy for deer hunting during the first days of the season statewide and hunter numbers were down for at least the third year in a row. Add the fact that deer numbers should be slightly better this year because of a mild winter in the northern part of the state, a bumper acorn crop across the Lower Peninsula and good fawn production statewide, and the outlook for this fall's deer seasons is very good. Simply put, the deer kill should be better during 2006 than a year ago, as long as the weather cooperates.

It can also help if hunters go afield with a positive mindset. Mental attitude plays an important role in deer hunting. Hunters who think few deer are present and don't think their chances of connecting are very good, often don't see many whitetails and don't shoot one because they don't hunt as long and hard as the optimist does. The pessimist isn't usually as alert and ready to take advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself either, or is the first to decide not to hunt when the weather is the least bit trying, which contributes to his or her lack of success.

Hunters with a positive mental attitude -- even those who know they are hunting in an area with few deer -- are confident they will see deer and will eventually shoot one as long as they are persistent and do their part to be in the right place at the right time. The optimistic deer hunter is normally the most knowledgeable, too, being familiar with as many hunting methods as possible and being flexible enough to vary his or her approach depending upon the circumstances. These hunters are the ones who frequently see the most deer and fill their tags. Even if they don't shoot a buck or doe, they usually end up having a satisfying experience.

That was the case for me during the 2005 firearms season. For the second year in a row, I hunted out of a tent camp in Keweenaw County in the northern Upper Peninsula. There were four of us in camp, and two bucks were hanging by the end of opening day.

Although weather conditions were miserable in parts of the L.P. on Nov. 15, 2005, they were ideal in the northern U.P. In fact, I don't know that I've ever experienced an opening day with better prospects for success than last year. Temperatures were cool but comfortable, and there was no snow on the ground. The rut was at its peak and a strong storm front was approaching, which maximized whitetail activity levels.

All four of us went to our stands on the morning of Nov. 15 with high expectations. Bill Westerbrink from Grand Rapids shot a 2 1/2-year-old 7-pointer at about 10 a.m. I left my stand overlooking a number of scrapes about 10:30 to photograph Bill with his buck, and when I returned at 12:30 p.m., there were fresh buck tracks in two of those scrapes. Then at 2:30 p.m., Dave Menominee from Lac La Belle filled his tag with a yearling buck that had long spikes after missing the same deer 2 1/2 hours earlier.

It started snowing soon after it became dark, and by daylight on Nov. 16, more than a foot of fresh snow was on the ground. The snowstorm reduced hunting pressure dramatically across the U.P. and also curtailed deer activity, but some of the hunters who hunted that day saw action. Dave saw another yearling buck on the morning of Nov. 16, but this one had antlers that were barely visible.

By Nov. 17, the snow had stopped, the temperature dropped and deer responded by becoming extremely active again. I switched to snow-tracking deer from stand-hunting for them by the third day of the season, and I began following the prints of a buck and doe that were together. In about an hour, I jumped the pair and got a running shot at the 8- or 10-pointer, but missed.

Even though I continued after the pair for several more hours, I never saw them again. I got back to my vehicle in time to spend the last hour of the day stand-hunting over bait. Before dark, a yearling 3-pointer showed up that I could have shot, but I passed on him. That was one of the most satisfying days of deer hunting I've ever spent. If I would have shot that 3-pointer or I hadn't missed the bigger buck I tracked, three out of four members of our camp would have gotten bucks, which is excellent anywhere in Michigan, and much less in Keweenaw County.

I spoke to a lot of hunters who were successful in the U.P. during the 2005 season, yet media reports indicated the kill was expected to be down significantly from 2004. Now that final estimates are in, it's clear that there wasn't much difference in the deer harvest in the U.P. during gun season between 2004 and 2005. Just over 1,000 fewer whitetails were taken last fall (33,243) compared with the year before (34,352), a decline of only 3.2 percent.

The buck kill in Region 1 was actually slightly higher in 2005 (24,134) than 2004 (24,108), increasing by 26 animals. Hunters in western U.P. counties took slightly fewer bucks than the year before (19,147 versus 19,287), but that was offset by an increase in eastern counties (4,987 compared to 4,821). A reduction in the number of antlerless deer tagged was responsible for the lower harvest. There were an estimated 10,244 does and fawns bagged in the U.P. during 2004 compared with 9,109 last fall.

The U.P. experienced the lowest reduction in gun season harvest than the rest of the state, according to final DNR estimates. The harvest was down an estimated 8.8 percent in Region 3's southern counties and 12.2 percent in Region 2. Almost 13,000 fewer bucks and does were tagged in Region 3 (132,935 versus 145,720), and the drop was just over 10,000 in Region 2 (74,419 compared with 84,749).

In Region 3, both buck kills and doe kills were down by similar percentages during the 2005 firearms season (9.4 percent for bucks and 8.1 percent for antlerless). There were an estimated 67,389 antlered bucks bagged in the region during last fall's gun hunt compared with 74,365 in 2004. Almost as many antlerless deer were taken as antlered -- 65,546 versus a tally of 71,355 the year before.

In the northern L.P., the buck harvest was only down 5.6 percent last fall compared with

the year before, but the antlerless harvest was off by 21 percent. With fewer deer present, I think there's a greater tendency for hunters to not fill antlerless permits in the hope that more deer will be present in the future. An estimated 45,635 antlered bucks were taken during the 2005 gun season in Region 2 compared with 48,320 the year before. The tally for does and fawns last fall was 28,784 versus 36,429 in 2004.

The antlerless kill declined the most (32.6 percent) in the Northwest District as a means of allowing that herd to rebuild. The DNR issued fewer permits for this district. The antlerless kill dropped to 11,345 in the northwest last fall compared with the 16,832 that were tagged during 2004.

Hunters in Region 2 did very well during the 2005 firearms season in spite of the lousy weather conditions the first two days of the season. It was windy both days and rain started on the afternoon of Nov. 15 that continued the next day. Seventy-two-year-old Nate Boss from Charlevoix was able to tough out the bad conditions on the morning of Nov. 16 by hunting from an enclosed ground blind in southwestern Charlevoix County, and his efforts were rewarded with a 130-inch 10-pointer at 7:30 a.m. The blind overlooked a food plot on the edge of a cedar swamp.

Reduced hunting pressure was a factor in how many deer were taken during last fall's firearms hunt as well as the weather. Many years, the ranks of our state's gun deer hunters numbered 750,000. That number has been steadily dwindling during recent years. Only 610,663 hunters took part in the annual tradition in 2005, according to DNR estimates. That's a decline of 42,135, or 6.5 percent, from the 652,798 who went afield during 2004.

The number of deer hunters who participated in the 2005 firearms season went down by 9.6 percent (254,180 from 281,152) in Region 2, 8.8 percent (95,993 from 105,292) in Region 1 and 4.2 percent (299,711 from 313,003) in Region 3. If 650,000 or 700,000 deer hunters had hunted during gun season instead of 611,000, I'm sure the deer kill would have been noticeably higher. However, the days with that many hunters in the field could be gone forever. Fewer hunters simply increase the chances for success for the hunters who remain afield.

So where are your chances the best of filling a tag during the 2006 firearms hunt? It depends on what you are willing to shoot. If you are interested in antlered bucks, hunters who tried their luck in the U.P. during 2005 did the best, and the same should be true this year.

U.P. hunters had an average success rate of 24.2 percent on bucks last fall, according to the DNR. In Region 3 where there are more deer but also far more hunting pressure, the average success rate on bucks during 2005 was 21.3 percent. The rate of success on bucks in Region 2 was 17.3 last year.

Western U.P. counties are better for buck hunting than those in the east. Buck hunting success was 26 percent in the Western District versus 18.8 percent in the Eastern District. Counties in the west U.P. with the best chances of taking a buck are Menominee, Dickinson, Delta, Iron, Houghton and Keweenaw. The best counties in the eastern U.P. for buck hunting are Schoolcraft and Chippewa.

The fall of 2005 was the fifth and last year for restrictive antler restrictions in deer management units (DMUs) 152, 252 and 155 in parts of Delta, Marquette, Alger and Dickinson counties. Until last fall, bucks had to have at least 3 points on one side to be legal. Starting this year, bucks only have to have 3-inch spikes to be legal. However, many hunters in these DMUs are still expected to voluntarily pass up spikes and forkhorns. The only place in the U.P. with the 3-points-on-one-antler rule still in effect is DMU 122 in southern Dickinson County. The support for continuation of that restriction there remains high. On Drummond Island in the eastern U.P., bucks have to have at least one forked antler to be legal.

The best odds of connecting on a buck in Region 3, based on last year's success, can be found in the South-Central District and the Southwestern District. Buck hunting success was 22.2 and 21.6 percent, respectively, in those districts during 2005.

The best counties in the South-Central District are Montcalm, Gratiot, Clinton, Ionia, Shiawassee, Livingston, Ingham, Eaton, Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale and Lenawee. The counties in the Saginaw Bay District include Isabella, Midland, Bay, Saginaw, Tuscola, Huron and Sanilac. The Southwestern District includes Muskegon, Kent, Ottawa, Allegan, Barry, Van Buren, Kalamazoo, Calhoun, Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties. Some of the biggest bucks bagged in our state each year come from this district, as well as south-central counties.

With the exception of the three counties from Region 2 that are part of the Saginaw Bay District, buck hunting success was close to the same throughout the northern L.P. last year. Hunters did slightly better on bucks in the Northeast District (16.8 percent) than the Northwest District (16.6), but the difference isn't enough to be significant.

There is one DMU in Region 2 where bucks must have at least 3 points on one side to be legal. That's DMU 045, or Leelanau County. In Iosco County's DMU 135, bucks are required to have at least one forked antler to be legal. The same rule is in effect on Lake Michigan's South Fox Island.

If you are interested in taking a deer of either sex, Region 3 jumps to the top of the list for your best chance of success. A total of 35.8 percent of the hunters who tried their luck there during the 2005 gun season filled a tag compared with 30.2 percent in the U.P. and 25.3 percent in Region 2. The South-Central (38 percent), Saginaw Bay (35 percent) and Southwest (34.6 percent) districts were again the best picks for either-sex hunters. The Western U.P. District and Northeast District in Region 2 are good choices for hunters interested in killing any deer, too.

Find more about Michigan fishing and hunting at: MichiganSportsmanMag.com

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