2009 Michigan Deer Outlook — Part 2: Our Best Hunting Areas

2009 Michigan Deer Outlook  —  Part 2: Our Best Hunting Areas

Combine our analysis with a little bit of sweat equity through scouting, and 2009 could offer your best deer season in years! (November 2009)

Even though deer hunting with bait remains illegal across the entire Lower Peninsula, most of the counties in the southern third of our state (Region 3) will be the best places for deer hunters to fill tags this fall, based on 2008 hunting success estimates by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Last year was the first time that deer baiting was illegal peninsula-wide because of a captive whitetail in Kent County that was diagnosed with chronic wasting disease (CWD). Baiting was banned because of concerns the disease might have also infected free-ranging deer and, if that were the case, it is suspected that baiting would speed up the spread of the disease.

The good news is that testing of thousands of wild deer bagged by hunters in both regions of the Lower Peninsula last fall failed to turn up any cases of CWD.

Before the 2008 deer seasons, some hunters claimed they wouldn't be able to see many deer, much less shoot one, without bait, and others claimed that they simply were going to quit deer hunting. Reduced hunting success was predicted, both because of elimination of a popular hunting method and lower hunter numbers. Preliminary MDNR figures from last fall indicate that was not the case.

The number of deer bagged by hunters last year actually increased from 2007 in the northern LP (Region 2) and remained almost the same in Region 3. Success rates for deer of either sex ranged from "fairly constant" to "slightly increasing" for all seasons during 2008 over the year before in all L.P. districts. And the total number of deer hunters actually increased last fall in spite of a decline in the number of bowhunters by about 15,000. The number of hunters who participated in firearms seasons increased by more than that, according to MDNR figures.

Deer numbers are simply so high in most of Region 3 that baiting is not necessary for hunters to connect on whitetails. Forty-nine percent of the deer hunters who hunted in Region 3 during 2008 bagged at least one animal, according to MDNR statistics. That compares with success rates of 38.7 percent for the Upper Peninsula (Region 1) and 37.7 percent for Region 2.

The highest deer hunting success rate in Region 3 last fall for all seasons — 50.2 percent — was experienced in the South-Central District. The Southwestern and Saginaw Bay districts weren't far behind, with success rates of 47.5 and 45.9 percent, respectively.

The district with the lowest success rate in Region 3 — 38 percent — is the Southeastern District because it includes the metropolitan Detroit area. Because of development in this district, deer hunting in some townships is limited to bow and arrow. Areas with archery-only restrictions are listed in MDNR hunting regulation booklets and on the MDNR Web site.

A significant increase in the number of antlerless permits available for Region 3 because of the emergence of CWD and an effort to reduce deer numbers played a key role in the resulting elevated deer harvest and hunting success. Hunters bagged 282,456 bucks and does in Region 3 during 2008, compared with 282,362 in 2007, an insignificant increase of almost 100 animals. The kill of antlerless animals went up by 8.9 percent (to 153,522 from 140,922), and the harvest of antlered bucks declined by 8.7 percent (129,056 versus 141,393).

Although the deer kill in Region 3 was close to the same for all seasons during the last two years, the figures for archery and firearms hunts show that the ban on baiting negatively affected bowhunting success, but that was offset by higher success in the gun season. Hunting success by archers declined by 16.1 percent in both regions 3 and 2 between 2007 and 2008. During firearms season, success in Region 3 only went up by 4.7 percent, but it jumped 20.5 percent for Region 2, according to MDNR figures.

The antlerless harvest increased and the buck kill decreased during the November gun hunt in all Region 3 districts last fall, with the notable exception of the South-Central District. Both the buck and doe harvests increased in that district, which is why the district posted the highest overall success rate. The buck kill increased by 5.7 percent (to 30,321 from 28,689), and the antlerless take went up by 11.7 percent (to 30,341 from 27,159).

The number of deer hunters who tried their luck in the L.P. last fall increased for both regions, according to MDNR estimates. The tally was 367,763 hunters versus 365,993 for Region 3, an increase of .5 percent. Hunter numbers went up by 4.3 percent (301,978 compared with 289,596) in Region 2. The tally for firearms hunters increased by 2.4 percent (314,499 and 307,224) in Region 3 and 6.8 percent (271,218 and 253,842) in Region 2. The number of bow deer hunters declined by 5.4 percent (172,465 versus 182,346) in Region 3 and 4 percent (111,588 versus 116,274) for Region 2.

The elimination of baiting may have contributed to the reduction of bowhunters in the L.P., but that factor alone is not responsible for all of the decline. Participation in archery hunting has been on a downward trend for a number of years statewide, and that trend continued in 2008 in the U.P., where baiting is still legal. The number of archers hunting deer in the U.P. last fall declined 2.4 percent (to 26,336 from 26,993).

Reduced participation in archery deer season may be halted and even reversed starting this year with new regulations allowing the use of crossbows statewide during the early bow seasons for hunters who are at least 50 years old. In Region 3, anyone who is at least 12 can hunt deer with a crossbow during the entire archery season, including December.

The total number of deer hunters who tried their luck in Region 1 during 2008 increased slightly, according to the MDNR. The tally was 107,412 hunters compared with 106,231 during 2007, an increase of 1.1 percent. The number of firearms hunters for the region increased by 2.2 percent (96,732 compared with 94,696), according to the MDNR, despite numerous reports during the season that hunting pressure was down.

Although the overall chances of filling a deer tag with a whitetail of either sex are highest in Region 3 during both archery and firearms deer seasons, if you are interested in shooting an antlered buck during the gun hunt, your odds are best in the U.P. — and, more specifically, in the western U.P. And bowhunting success for deer of either sex is close to the same in Region 1 as Region 3. If you are interested in taking an antlerless deer with bow and arrow, the success rate is actually higher in Region 1 than 3.

The reason bowhunting success for does is so high in the U.P. is that far fewer antlerless permits are issued for the region than for the L.P. In fact, no antlerless per

mits are issued for northern U.P. counties, but antlerless deer are legal statewide for bow­hunters. The quota of antlerless permits for southern U.P. counties was also lowered last year, which means there's a higher proportion of does in the herd. Bowhunter pressure is also much lighter in the U.P. than in the rest of the state.

That's why U.P. bowhunters had an 18.9 percent success rate on does during 2008 compared with 13.5 percent in Region 3 and 11.8 percent for Region 2. Bowhunting success for deer of either sex in Region 1 was 30 percent last fall, according to the MDNR, versus 31.3 percent for Region 3 and 24 percent in Region 2. If you bowhunt in the western U.P. instead of the east, the success rate on does is 20.1 percent, far better than anywhere else in the state, and 31.8 percent for deer of either sex, putting that district in second place for the state by three-tenths of a percent behind South-Central District.

Because baiting remains legal in the U.P. is an important reason why bowhunting success during 2008 was as good as or better than Region 3.

The Western U.P. district excels at producing the best buck hunting success in the state during gun season.

U.P. firearms hunters had a 28.7 percent rate of success on bucks during 2008 compared with 23.9 percent in Region 3 and 22.9 percent for Region 2. Hunters who tried their luck with rifles, shotguns and handguns in the West U.P. District last fall experienced a 30.4 percent rate of success on bucks, more than 5 percentage points better than any other district in the state. Light hunting pressure and an abundance of older age bucks are what make these statistics possible.

Buck hunting success would have been even higher during the 2008 gun hunt in the U.P. if it weren't for new more stringent antler restrictions than anywhere else in the state. As predicted, the rules reduced deer-hunting success and harvest across the region. Under the new rules, U.P. hunters who purchased individual gun or bow licenses could shoot a buck with 3-inch spikes or better, but could only shoot one buck per year. U.P. hunters with combo deer licenses valid for two bucks that were purchased after June 12, 2008, were restricted to shooting one buck with at least 3 points on an antler and one buck with at least 4 points on one antler.

Everywhere else in the state, one of the two tags of combo licenses was unrestricted, meaning a buck with at least 3-inch spikes was legal with that tag. Hunters in the L.P. who filled one of their combo tags with a buck that had less than 3 points on an antler could continue hunting for a second buck with their remaining restricted tag. Regional buck regulations are expected to remain the same this year.

The percentage of U.P. hunters who bagged a buck during all seasons in 2007, when spikes or better were legal to all hunters, was 35.3 percent, which was the best in the state. Last fall, that percentage dropped to 30.1 percent and came in second behind Region 3 (31.2 percent). During the 2007 firearms deer season, the U.P. success rate on bucks was 33.8 percent and tops for the state. That success rate dropped to 28.7 percent last fall but remained the best in the state for that season.

Part of the reason that buck hunting success dropped as much as it did during the firearms hunt in the U.P. during 2008 versus 2007 is that the new regulations protected a significant number of older bucks besides yearlings. MDNR wildlife biologist Craig Albright from the Gladstone office did a check of the computer records from bucks brought to MDNR check stations in the western U.P. during 2008 and discovered that a whopping 17 percent of the 2 1/2-year-olds had less than 3 points on one antler. Six percent of 3 1/2-year-old bucks failed to have 3 points on one antler. And there were even some 4 1/2-year-old bucks (3 percent) that would not have been legal on the least restrictive of the restricted tags on U.P. combo licenses.

After checking his records for Marquette County in 2008, Marquette DNR wildlife biologist Terry McFadden found that 23 percent of the 2 1/2-year-old bucks he examined had 4 points or less. That compares with 10 percent in that category for 2007. He reported that a higher percentage of yearling bucks in the county had spike antlers and smaller beam diameters than the year before.

He said 51 percent of yearling bucks had spikes during 2008, compared with 46 percent in 2007. Beam diameters of yearling bucks were 16.7 millimeters last fall, compared with 17.9 mm during 2007, which indicates antler development was poorer in 2008 because of the previous winter being a rough one.

One obvious, negative impact of the new antler restrictions in the U.P. is the MDNR lost $252,000 in revenue for deer license sales.

Although total deer license sales were up slightly last fall from 2007, the sale of combination licenses declined by about 18,000. The sale of gun licenses increased by a similar amount. So about 18,000 deer hunters bought one deer license instead of two.

Overall deer hunting success rates for all seasons in Region 2 are close to the same as Region 1. When it comes to antlerless deer harvest during all seasons combined, Region 2 hunters had a higher rate of success than Region 1. The success rate on antlerless deer for all seasons in Region 2 was 17.6 percent during 2008 compared with 13.5 percent in the U.P. and 29.8 percent in Region 3.

Even without bait, bowhunters in Region 2 had a slightly better success rate on bucks during 2008 than U.P. bowhunters did (14.2 percent versus 13.2 percent). And success on bucks during firearms season wasn't much different in regions 2 and 3. Success on bucks during the gun hunt last fall in Region 2 was 22.9 percent compared with 23.9 percent in Region 3.

For all seasons combined, the total deer harvest increased by 7.5 percent last fall in Region 2 when compared with the year before. Hunters bagged 146,413 bucks and does in the northern L.P. during 2008 versus 136,245 in 2007. The harvest of antlerless deer increased by 21.1 percent (61,451 compared with 50,763) and the buck kill dropped by .7 percent (84,896 and 85,507), according to DNR estimates.

The highest hunting success for all seasons in Region 2 was in the Northwest District.

As mentioned previously, the 2008 gun season harvest in Region 2 increased by 20.5 percent, but went down by 16.1 percent during archery season. The total firearms harvest of bucks and does in the region was 102,123 compared with 84,770 the previous year. The doe kill jumped by 48.2 percent (38,090 and 25,706) and the tally of bucks increased by 8.3 percent (63,999 and 59,088).

Archers claimed 30,503 bucks and does in Region 2 last fall compared with 36,355 during 2007. The archery buck kill dropped by 21.3 percent (16,292 versus 20,711) and the antlerless total only dropped by 9.1 percent (14,214 compared with 15,643).

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