Our Late-Season Deer Hotspots

Our Late-Season Deer Hotspots

If you use a bow or muzzleloader for December deer hunting, here are some statistics you may want to consider.

Photo by Ken Thommes

The central and western counties of the Upper Peninsula can be among the best places to be during the December muzzleloader season. Lynn Card from Negaunee found that out on opening day, Dec. 7, of the 2001 blackpowder hunt in Marquette County.

She shot her first deer ever at 5:15 p.m. on that day with a .50-caliber in-line rifle that was loaded with 130 grains of powder and a 295-grain copper-jacketed bullet. The deer she shot was a trophy 13-pointer that had a green gross score of 164 7/8 and netted 156.

Lynn's 13-year-old son, Nate, was her guide. He baited the blind his mother shot the buck from, and he urged her to hunt because both he and his father had seen the deer earlier in the year. There were five does at the bait when the buck appeared, and he chased off the does. The whitetail was at least 5 1/2 years old and its dressed weight was estimated at 180 pounds.

Hunter success during the 2001 muzzleloader hunt was highest in the western U.P. on a statewide basis, according to the Department of Natural Resources. An estimated 20.1 percent of the hunters who tried their luck in that region last December filled a tag with a buck or doe. The next highest rate of success was 15.4 percent, for the eastern U.P.

Blackpowder success for the entire U.P. last year was an average of 18.7 percent, compared to 11.2 percent for the northern L.P. and 12.1 percent in southern counties. When you couple that information with the fact that U.P. deer numbers should be higher this year than they were in 2001 due to a mild winter, it should be easy to figure out that our state's northernmost counties will be hotspots for muzzleloader hunters this December.

And the outcome is the same when simply considering the odds of success on antlerless deer or antlered bucks. The average success rate for blackpowder hunters in the U.P. who were after antlerless deer last December was 13.1 percent, according to the DNR. Regions 2 and 3 were 8.8 and 8.1 percent, respectively.

Buck hunting success among muzzleloader hunters in the U.P. during 2001 was 6.4 percent, compared to 2.7 percent in Region 2 and 4.5 percent for Region 3.

Craig Simon from West Branch is certainly glad he ventured to the east U.P. near Newberry for the first days of last year's frontloader season. He bagged an adult buck with a beautiful 8-point rack at 5 p.m. on the evening of Dec. 8. He shot the buck with a .50-caliber rifle loaded with a 240-grain bullet and 100 grains of powder.

That same evening, rural Iron County resident Jim Butler bagged a mature 8-point buck with his .50-caliber muzzleloader. What was unusual about Butler's blackpowder buck is the fact that although the deer appeared to be healthy when the hunter shot it, one of its hindquarters was injured. A good portion of the hindquarter was gone and the deer was partially hamstrung. Butler suspected that a wolf or wolves were responsible for the damage.

On the same evening Butler shot his buck, he saw a forkhorn that had already lost one of its antlers. The next day, Butler saw three more bucks, including an 8-point as big as the one he already had. All of the antlers were still intact on those bucks.

Bucks like those Butler and Simon shot are available in every U.P. county in December, and there is an abundance of does to go around, too. U.P. hunters who are serious about filling an antlerless permit are almost guaranteed success, if normal snowfall totals occur during the blackpowder hunt. U.P. counties with the highest deer numbers and the corresponding best chance of success in the west U.P. are Delta, Menominee, Dickinson, Iron, Marquette, Ontonagon and Gogebic.

Among the best places to bowhunt for deer in the western U.P. are the outskirts of Dickinson County's largest cities - Iron Mountain and Kingsford. The number of urban deer around these cities has become so large during recent years that both communities banded together to hire sharpshooters to thin the population. A total of 441 deer were culled the past two winters, but there should still be plenty left this December for bowhunters. The more deer that archers kill, the more money the cities save on sharpshooters. In fact, if more bowhunters had spent time hunting near these cities in the past, it may not have been necessary to bring in sharpshooters.

Randy Gustafson, who owns Northwoods Wilderness Outfitters in Iron Mountain, said there's some state land near his store that is an excellent place for archers to hunt for deer. He commented that the public property is closed to firearms hunters due to the proximity of homes, but bowhunting is legal there. That's one of the few places in the west U.P. that are restricted to bowhunting only.

"Bowhunters who do their homework and find property owners on the edge of town who are willing to allow them to hunt will find excellent hunting," Gustafson said. "They can take as many does as they want, and there are some dandy bucks around, too. The biggest danger these deer face is being hit by a car."

It isn't necessary to find property owners with large holdings to get in on the good hunting. Gustafson said if archers can get permission to hunt parcels that are 10 to 20 acres in size, that would be adequate. Plat books that are available from county clerks' offices are excellent references for determining who owns specific property. DNR personnel at the DNR office in Norway may have advice about landowners who might be willing to grant permission to bowhunt.

Abundant patches of natural habitat mixed with homes and other development in the limits of these cities make this portion of Dickinson County very attractive to deer. Gustafson said there are additional tracts of wooded habitat where hunting is prohibited that serve as sanctuaries for these urban deer. George Bodin donated 80 acres of undeveloped land on the Menominee River to the DNR, for example, and that parcel is closed to hunting. So are some larger blocks of corporate lands. Hunting near these sanctuaries can be productive.

Hunting near the city limits of Crystal Falls during both muzzleloader and late archery seasons can be exceptionally productive this December, too. A ban on feeding deer in the city limits went into effect on Dec. 12, 2001. The regulation was adopted due to complaints about deer eating plants and shrubs. At a public hearing on the issue, a local resident commented that an end to recreational deer feeding may increase damage to ornamental plants instead of decrease it, but it should also be a boon for hunters in the area.

East U.P. counties with the best prospects of success

are Schoolcraft, Mackinac and the southern half of Chippewa.

The DNR does not compile data about late-season bowhunting success. Harvest and success for both the early and late seasons are lumped together. However, based on the results of the December muzzleloader season, I think it's safe to assume that the U.P. outshines the rest of the state in this category as well.

Consequently, the same counties that will be best for blackpowder hunting will remain good choices for the remainder of the month when bowhunting is legal. If anything, late-season hunting usually gets better toward the end of the month as snow continues to accumulate and the weather turns colder. I arrowed a doe in Delta County on Dec. 28, 2001, after missing another antlerless deer earlier in the day, and I talked to a number of other archers who collected does during the last week of December.

One of the advantages of late-season hunting in the U.P. besides the better chances of success than the rest of the state is that hunting pressure is also lower. The DNR estimates that only 23,492 hunters participated in the 2001 muzzleloader season in the U.P. There were 16,499 in the west, compared to 13,847 in 2000, and 7,145 in the east, compared to 4,448 the year before.

More than twice as many hunters - 60,748 - tried their luck during the blackpowder hunt in the northern Lower Peninsula, and the total of participants in the southern region was 103,366. There's definitely less competition for deer in the U.P., which can add to the quality of a hunt. The abundance of public land in Region 1 is still another plus of hunting that region. Large parcels of state and/or federal land are present in virtually every U.P. county.

Although the number of hunters pursuing whitetails in the U.P. during the 2001 muzzleloader season increased from the year before, the harvest was down in the west and up in the east. Hunter numbers went up by 19.2 percent in the west and the harvest was down 23.3 percent (3,907, compared to 5,096 in 2000). Hunter numbers were up 60.6 percent in the east and the kill was 22.6 percent higher than the year before (1,285, compared to 1,048).

In spite of the lower deer kill in the west U.P. among blackpowder hunters during 2001, hunter success was still the best in the state for that region and I'm betting that will remain the same this year.

Counties in Region 2 that exhibited the highest rate of success in the 2001 blackpowder hunt, according to the DNR, are in the northwest region. The overall success rate was 11.7 percent there. Muzzleloader hunters who took antlerless deer had a 10.3 success rate and buck hunters only experienced a 1.8 percent rate of success.

Counties that make up that region are Leelanau, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Mason, Lake, Osceola, Oceana, Newaygo and Mecosta.

Hunter numbers went up by 36.7 percent in the northwest (27,959 vs. 20,456) in 2001, and the kill declined slightly (2.2 percent). The muzzleloader harvest was 3,474 last December, compared to 3,550 the year before.

Blackpowder hunters who want a better chance of scoring on an antlered buck should consider trying counties in the northeast region. Buck hunting success was 3.8 percent there, slightly higher than the 3.6 percent success rate in the Saginaw Bay region. Counties that make up the northeast region are Emmet, Cheboygan, Presque Isle, Charlevoix, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Crawford, Oscoda, Alcona, Roscommon, Ogemaw and Iosco. Success on antlerless deer was 6.4 percent in northeast counties last December.

Hunter numbers went up by 34 percent (25,157 vs. 18,773) in the northeast, but the kill declined by 20.2 percent. There were 2,651 deer taken by muzzleloader hunters in those counties last December, compared to 3,323 the year before. Had baiting been legal in all of the counties of this region during December like it had been during October and November of 2001, the late-season harvest probably would have been higher.

Antlerless deer hunters using muzzleloaders in the Saginaw Bay area had a 7.7 percent success rate during 2001. The counties in that region are Arenac, Gladwin, Clare, Midland, Bay, Isabella, Saginaw, Tuscola, Sanilac and Huron.

Hunter numbers went up 20.8 percent (to 28,937 from 23,953) in the Saginaw Bay region and the harvest was down 11.1 percent (3,561, compared to 4,006).

The best overall muzzleloader success for Region 3 was achieved by hunters in south-central counties. A total of 13.1 percent of them filled their tags with a buck or doe. Almost 9 percent of them bagged antlerless deer and 5 percent got whitetails wearing antlers. Counties in the south-central region are Hillsdale, Lenawee, Washtenaw, Jackson, Livingston, Ingham, Eaton, Shiawassee, Clinton, Ionia, Montcalm and Gratiot. The number of blackpowder hunters went up by 18.2 percent (to 35,908 from 30,389) and the harvest was almost the same as the year before. There were 5,061 deer shot with muzzleloaders in this region during 2001, compared to 5,069 in 2000.

Blackpowder hunters had similar but slightly lower rates of success for bucks and does during last year's muzzleloader hunt in southwestern counties vs. south-central counties. The counties that make up the southwest region are Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph, Branch, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, Van Buren, Allegan, Barry, Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon. There was an increase of 15 percent in the number of hunters for this region (to 33,820 from 29,418) and the kill was down by 10.6 percent, to 4,628 from 5,177.

Although specific figures are not available for the results of the late-season bowhunt, the counties and subregions in regions 2 and 3 that offer the best muzzleloader prospects should also be good choices for archers planning on hunting during December. Public land is abundant in parts of Region 2, but it is limited in Region 3. Hunters who have access to private land in the L.P. often have better odds than those on public property, but not always.

The opportunity for collecting a quality buck during late seasons may be higher in some areas with special antler restrictions in regions 1 and 2. In Deer Management Unit 118, in southeast Clare County, for example, bucks must have at least 3 points 1 inch in length to be legal. The same restrictions are in effect on DMUs 122, 152, 155 and 252 in the U.P. Unit 122 is between Iron Mountain and Norway in Dickinson County. The other three areas are clumped together in southern Marquette County, southwestern Alger County and northwestern Delta County.

There are two more DMUs on which bucks must have at least 1 forked antler to be legal. Drummond Island, at the east end of the U.P., is one of them and the other is DMU 135, in eastern Iosco County.

A late-season antlerless-only hunt for centerfire firearms will also be held across two-thirds of the L.P. from Dec. 23 through Jan. 1, according to DNR wildlife biologist Steve Chadwick in Lansing. He said all of the DMUs that were open for this late hunt last year will be open again this year. Bay County is the only county that will be open this year for that late hunt that wasn't open

last year. Hunters must possess a valid antlerless permit for the unit they are hunting to participate in the late antlerless season.

Counties in the northwest L.P. produced the best success during the 2001 late firearms hunt, at 30.2 percent. South-central counties generated the highest rate of success in Region 3, at 26.2 percent.

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