A mild winter in 2006, reduced hunting pressure in the northern zone and improved growth combines to bring Wolverine State hunters the best deer hunting in years! (November 2007)
Photo by Mike Lambeth.
In a nutshell, the outlook for 2007 Michigan deer seasons, on a statewide basis is the best it has been in years.
More specifically, hunting for white-tailed deer in the southern third of Michigan -- Region 3 -- has been the hotspot for quality and quantity during recent times, easily overshadowing prospects of success in the northern two-thirds of the state. Two mild winters in a row, with the most recent one ranking as extremely easy on northern deer, is changing that picture.
Mild winters increase deer numbers in two ways: 1) Overwinter survival of whitetails that escaped hunters is maximized; and 2) more does not only survive, they are in better health, giving birth to as many healthy fawns as possible.
Reduced hunting pressure during recent years in regions 1 and 2 is another factor responsible for improving this fall's outlook in those areas. Because of the excellent deer hunting in Region 3, many hunters who used to travel north to chase whitetails have hunted closer to home. High gas prices have contributed to the decline of hunting pressure up north.
Improved Growth Region-Wide
Less hunting pressure means more deer survive. The bucks among that carryover will be in older age-classes and carry larger racks. Extremely mild conditions last winter reduced nutritional stress on the deer, too, allowing more of them to grow bigger antlers this year. And an early spring and accompanying green-up in the northern regions of the state provided a boost in antler development, too.
The harvest of whitetails during Michigan's 2006 firearms season was up from the year before in every region of our state. The preceding mild winter contributed to that increase, but poor hunting success because of lousy weather during the first days of the 2005 gun hunt was another factor. Many of the deer that weren't taken by hunters in 2005 were tagged during 2006.
Some of that carryover from 2005 remains in the herd along with deer added to the population since then (two years worth of fawn production). That means there will be an excellent crop of yearlings and fawns this year.
One of the biggest variables in how Michigan's gun season actually turns out is the weather. As already mentioned, the 2005 firearms tally was reduced statewide as a result of heavy rain and snow, coupled with high winds, during the first days of the season. Last fall, the weather was generally mild and snow-less during the entire two-week season. Although there was some snow in parts of the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) on a few days during late November, there was much less snow than normal.
Most hunters agree the 2006 firearms harvest would have been higher if there had been more cold weather and snow. Snow cover makes it possible for hunters to better determine where the best and most recent deer activity is, which increases their chances of scoring. Deer are more visible against the light background, too. Snow also contributes to the recovery of wounded deer.
2006 By the Numbers
On a statewide basis, the 2006 firearms tally for all deer was up 8.7 percent from 2005 (261,533 in 2006 compared with 240,597 in 2005), according to preliminary estimates by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, but those numbers don't tell the whole story. The harvest of antlered bucks was actually up by 23.3 percent, and the antlerless kill dropped by 10.6 percent. Michigan gun hunters tagged an estimated 169,050 bucks last fall compared with 137,158 bucks in 2005, an increase of more than 30,000 animals. The tally for antlerless deer across 2005 and 2006 was 92,483 versus 103,439, respectively.
For the first time in a number of years, the tally of firearms deer hunters increased in 2006. The change in the minimum firearms-hunting age from 14 to 12 years old is probably largely responsible for the increase. Gun deer hunters numbered 630,379 in the field last fall, compared with 610,663 for 2005.
And the MDNR intentionally cut back on the number of antlerless permits issued during 2006 to allow deer numbers to rebound in some areas. Plans call for the same action this year. Fewer does tagged by hunters means more of them are present to produce fawns, and hunters should see the benefits of that this year.
On a regional basis, the biggest jump in the 2006 firearms harvest was in the northern Lower Peninsula (L.P.), or Region 2. The total kill of bucks and does was up 11.5 percent from 2005 (82,962 in 2006 versus 74,436 in 2005). Here again, those numbers don't give a true picture of what happened there. The buck kill was up a whopping 34.6 percent in that region, and the antlerless harvest dropped by 25.2 percent.
Gun hunters bagged 61,427 antlered bucks in Region 2 last fall compared with 45,635 bucks the year before, an increase of more than 15,000 animals. The tally of antlerless deer decreased by fewer than 7,000 animals (21,523 in 2006 and 28,784 in 2005).
The deer kill was up significantly in both districts of Region 2 but was highest in the northeast. Total gun season harvest went up by 18.5 percent in the northeast compared with 12.3 percent in the northwest. There were 36,068 whitetails shot in the northeast's gun hunt during 2006 versus 30,433 animals in the 2005 season. The buck kill was up by 39.5 percent in that district (26,082 in 2006 versus 18,700 in 2005), and the antlerless harvest was down by 14.9 percent (9,981 in 2006 compared with 11,726 in 2005).
The tally of bucks and does taken last fall in Region 2's northwest district was 35,765 animals, compared with 31,835 deer during the 2005 season. The buck harvest climbed by 36.9 percent (28,028 in 2006 and 20,478 in 2005) and the antlerless kill fell by 31.9 percent (7,729 in 2006 and 11,345 in 2005).
By looking at the number of hunters who tried their luck in the northern L.P. across the last two deer-hunting seasons, it's abundantly clear that hunting success was much better in 2006. A slight decline was seen in hunter numbers in the northwest, and hunter numbers increased by 3.7 percent (4,000) in the northeast. According to MDNR estimates, 28.8 percent of the hunters who hunted in the northeast took at least one deer and 27.5 percent of those who went afield in the northwest were successful in tagging a whitetail. The success rate on bucks was just slightly better in the northwest (23 percent) than the northeast (22.5 percent), and these numbers were darn close to buck-hunting success in Region 3 districts.
Hunters who used to hunt in Region 2
but haven't for a number of years may want to consider returning. Besides the presence of more bucks, the antlered whitetails occupying this part of the state have been exhibiting better antler development. More record-book bucks have been taken in this region than in the past.
For instance, in Osceola County on opening day of gun season, Mark Coselman from Fowlerville bagged a 23-point non-typical buck that gross-scored 189 7/8 inches before netting 171 2/8 inches, which is the highest scoring non-typical on record for the county. Brad McClure of Custer connected on the best-ever recorded typical buck for Mason County with any weapon. With bow and arrow, he collected the 10-pointer that netted 161 5/8 inches.
Counties in the northeast district include Emmet, Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Crawford, Oscoda, Alcona, Iosco, Ogemaw and Roscommon. The northwest district counties include Leelanau, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Missaukee, Wexford, Manistee, Mason, Lake, Osceola, Mecosta, Newaygo and Oceana.
Michigan's single district with the largest increase in deer harvest during the 2006 firearms season was the southeast district of Region 3. There, the grand tally of bucks and does went up by 23.1 percent (13,799 in 2006 and 11,210 in 2005). The numbers broke down to reveal a jump of 42.2 percent in that district's buck kill, and only a 2.4 percent increase in the number of does and fawns taken. The tally of bucks was 8,282 in 2006 compared with 5,825 in 2005, a difference of more than 2,000 animals.
In spite of the jump in harvest, hunting success wasn't that great in Region 3's southeast district. Hunter numbers last gun season only increased by 4.1 percent -- fewer than 2,000 sportsmen. However, buck-hunting success in that district was only 18.8 percent, one of the lowest in the state, according to the MDNR. Hunting success for either-sex deer was better at 29.1 percent but still not as high as other districts in Region 3.
Region 3's best overall hunting successes during firearms season were the south-central (40.1 percent), southwest (37.4) and Saginaw Bay (36.6) districts. Buck-hunting success ranged between 23 and 25 percent for each of those districts. The south-central and southwest districts on a fairly consistent basis produce some of the biggest antlered bucks bagged in Michigan.
Counties that make up the south-central district of Region 3 include Lenawee, Hillsdale, Jackson, Washtenaw, Livingston, Ingham, Eaton, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot and Montcalm. Counties in the southwest district include Branch, St. Joseph, Cass, Berrien, Van Buren, Kalamazoo, Calhoun, Allegan, Barry, Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon.
Most of the counties in the Saginaw Bay district lie in Region 3. These include Saginaw, Bay, Tuscola, Sanilac, Huron, Midland and Isabella. The district's remaining three counties -- Clare, Gladwin and Arenac -- are part of Region 2.
The U.P., or Region 1, has consistently produced the best deer hunts for gun hunters interested in antlered bucks, and the 2006 season was no different.
The hunter success rate for buck hunting last fall in the U.P. was 27.1 percent, compared with 24.4 percent in Region 3 and 23 percent in Region 2. The west U.P. district tops the region last season for hunting either bucks or does, where hunter success in that category was 34.5 percent, compared with 23.3 percent success in the east district.
Buck-hunting success last year in the west U.P. was 29.1 percent -- by far the best district success numbers in the state during the 2006 gun hunt. Next down that list was the Saginaw Bay district, with 25.2 percent success on bucks. Deer hunters who tried their luck in the east U.P. with firearms last fall only produced a 20.4 percent rate of success on bucks.
Keweenaw County is in the west U.P. district. Last season's buck-hunting success was among the best ever seen in that area. For example, three out of five hunters in my camp got bucks by the second morning of the season, and a number of yearling bucks were passed up. One of the bucks that were bagged was 3 1/2 years old, one was 2 1/2 years old, and the third was a yearling. There aren't many deer in Keweenaw County, but the buck-to-doe ratio is excellent, and deer numbers seem to be increasing.
Although deer hunters in the northern part of the district did well last fall, some of those in the district's southern reach, where deer numbers are higher, didn't fare as well. The mild weather tended to limit daytime activity of bucks to some extent.
In the west U.P., the overall deer harvest during the 2006 firearms season was up by 5.2 percent (28,378 in 2006 and 26,965 in 2005). Like the other regions, the buck kill was up significantly (15.5 percent), while the antlerless deer harvest was down (19.7 percent). The reduced harvest of does last year will generate dividends in the form of more deer this year.
In the west U.P., the buck harvest last fall was 22,110 animals, compared with 19,147 in 2005. The west district's tally of does and fawns was 6,263 in 2006 versus 7,799 in 2005.
Counties that lie in the west U.P. include Menominee, Delta, Dickinson, Iron, Marquette, Alger, Baraga, Houghton, Keweenaw, Ontonagon and Gogebic. Many bucks die of old age in this region due to declining hunter numbers and plenty of cover to avoid the hunters who are afield. The MDNR reported a trophy whitetail that was at least 9 years old ended up as a road kill in Marquette County last November toward the end of gun season.
Bag Yourself a Bonus This Season
Region 3 deer hunters could get a bonus this year if they see an exotic deer or feral hogs. The MDNR encourages hunters to shoot fallow deer, which have spotted coats, in the southwest part of the state that have either been released from enclosures or escaped. The same applies statewide to feral hogs. The MDNR would like to be notified about any free-roaming exotics that are taken by hunters, so they can be tested for disease.
Keep in mind that wild populations of elk in the northern L.P. are protected, and moose roam the wilds of the U.P., so be sure of your target before pulling the trigger. Coyotes and bobcats in the U.P. are off-limits to hunters during firearms deer season, too. Wolves are protected year 'round.
Hunters also need to heed special antler restrictions in place for whitetails in Deer Management Unit 122 in the southern U.P. and Leelanau County in Region 2. Legal bucks in these areas must carry at least 3 points 1 inch long on one antler. In three more locations -- Drummond and South Fox islands and DMU 135 (Iosco County) -- legal bucks must carry at least one forked antler.
In all other locations, legal bucks only have to carry 3-inch spikes.
Find more about Michigan fishing and hunting at: MichiganSportsmanMag.com