Michigan's Late-Season Deer Hotspots

Michigan's Late-Season Deer Hotspots

Just because the regular firearms season is over doesn't mean you still can't put some venison in the freezer. Here's how you can get in on the action.

By Richard P. Smith

Barb Loy's experience during the 2003 muzzleloader deer season illustrates there are still plenty of trophy bucks around during December.

The Schoolcraft resident was hunting in Kalamazoo County on Dec. 18 when she killed the highest-scoring typical antlered buck known taken by a woman in our state with a muzzleloader, according to state record-keeper Commemorative Bucks of Michigan (CBM). Although she was hunting in southern Michigan, similar experiences are possible in any region of our state.

Loy was hunting from a Shadow Hunter ground blind on the edge of a cut bean field that evening. The blind and the .50-caliber Knight muzzleloader Loy had in her hands actually belonged to her father, but she was using both with his blessing. Loy had her young son James with her in the blind.

Around 5:15 p.m., not one but three big bucks entered the field to feed. The one in the middle appeared to have the largest antlers, and that's the one Loy shot at a distance of 75 yards as it stood broadside. The 13-pointer had a gross typical score of 171 1/8 inches and netted 164 6/8. The previous state-record typical blackpowder buck taken by a woman was a 10-pointer shot in Branch County during 1998 by Esther Frantom that netted 163 inches.

Loy's buck has a typical 12-point frame, with a short non-typical point measuring 1 1/8 inches off the left brow tine. The brow tines are the longest points on the rack. The right one is 10 6/8 inches in length and the one on the left is 9 7/8 inches long.

No one had seen this buck previously, so it may have just moved into the area or it had been primarily nocturnal until then. Keep that in mind when hunting during the late season. Even if you haven't seen any trophy bucks earlier in the year, one could show up during December like this one did for Loy.

The deer Loy killed was one of an estimated 2,277 antlered bucks bagged in the Southwest District during last year's blackpowder deer season, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Most of the bucks that were tagged had antlers smaller than Loy's, but in each case, the hunters were probably happy to score. The same is also true for the more-than-twice-as-many hunters (6,083) who killed antlerless deer during the hunt.

Although there are more antlered bucks left by December than most hunters realize, the last month of deer season is a great time to use unfilled antlerless permits, whether you are hunting with a muzzleloader or bow and arrow. In parts of the Lower Peninsula, there are even some counties that are open to hunting antlerless deer with centerfire firearms during the latter part of the month, but more on that later.

Photo by Ken Thommes

The fact that the harvest of does and fawns is consistently higher than the tally for antlered bucks during late seasons reflects how important a component antlerless whitetails are during December hunts. Some hunters simply prefer to hunt for bucks during October and November, saving antlerless tags for December. Does are also easier to kill during December. Intense hunting pressure on bucks during the previous two months has eliminated many of them from the herd. Those bucks that are left are usually extremely wary, making them tougher to get a shot at.

In every district in the state during the 2003 muzzleloader season, for instance, the estimated antlerless harvest was two to four times higher than the number of antlered bucks taken. More importantly, the harvest of both bucks and does was higher last December throughout the state than the year before. In some cases, the kill was up significantly. The presence of cold weather and snow statewide contributed to the increased late-season harvest, but so did high deer numbers in some areas.

The DNR estimated that 42,273 whitetails were bagged in our state during the 2003 muzzleloader season compared to 29,026 in 2002, an increase of 13,247, or 45.6 percent. The greatest increase took place in Region 3, where 25,404 deer of either sex were tagged by blackpowder hunters, according to the DNR, compared to 16,779 the year before, an increase of 51.4 percent. Last December's tally for Region 3 included 19,265 antlerless deer and 6,139 antlered bucks.

The improvement in Region 2's muzzleloader kill was almost as good as southern counties, at 44.8 percent. There were an estimated 11,129 bucks and does bagged in the northern L.P. with frontloaders during 2003, compared to 7,687 for 2002. Last December's total for Region 2 included 8,580 antlerless deer and 2,549 antlered deer.

The 2003 muzzleloader kill in Region 1 went up by 25.9 percent, 5,740 versus 4,560. Last year's total was made up of 3,839 does and fawns, and 1,900 antlered bucks.

I shot one of the does that were taken in the Upper Peninsula on the evening of Dec. 9 in Menominee County with a .50-caliber muzzleloader. I shot the doe from a blind on the edge of an alfalfa field while hunting out of a camp operated by Dean Hulce. If you are interested in a late-season hunt in some of the U.P.'s best deer country, give Hulce a call at (906) 563-9170.

There was no snow on the ground at the time I shot the doe, but a storm front was approaching, so deer were actively feeding. It started raining lightly on the evening of Dec. 9. The rain turned to snow by the next day and over a foot of snow fell in parts of the U.P. That snowstorm improved hunting success during the remainder of muzzleloader season in Region 1.

I bagged two more does with bow and arrow during the latter part of December in Delta County, one while posted on a migration trail and the other in a cutting. The DNR does not have estimates for the number of deer harvested by bowhunters during December in Michigan. The archery season tally the DNR generates includes success during October, November and December combined.

If this December is as cold and snowy as it was last year, late-season hunters can expect to do at least as well as they did during 2003. If weather conditions are mild, hunting success can be expected to decline.

Late-season hunters who tried their luck in the western U.P. enjoyed the best success in our state last year, according to DNR estimates. The percentage of hunters who killed at least one deer during the muzzleloader season in that district was 22.6 percent. Among hunters who took at least one antlered buck, the western U.P. was also the best district in the state during the December hunt at 8.4 percent. When only antlerless deer are considered, the success rate was 14.8 percent, which was the third-highest in the state.

The Western U.P. District is made up of Menominee, Dickinson, Delta, Iron, Gogebic, Ontonagon, Alger, Marquette, Baraga, Houghton and Keweenaw counties. Highest deer numbers are in Menominee, Delta, Dickinson and Iron counties. Moderate deer numbers can be found in Ontonagon, Gogebic, Houghton and Marquette counties.

Even though the late-season success for deer of either sex in the eastern U.P. (15.7 percent) was lower than most other districts, buck hunting success in the east U.P. during the 2003 muzzleloader season was the second-highest in the state at 6.5 percent, according to the DNR. Counties in that district are Schoolcraft, Luce, Chippewa and Mackinac. Luce County has the lowest deer numbers and Schoolcraft has the highest.

If you are looking for a district with light hunting pressure during December, the eastern U.P. fits the bill. That district had the lowest number of hunters, by far, during the 2003 blackpowder season, according to the DNR. An estimated 6,958 muzzleloader hunters tried their luck in eastern U.P. counties last year. The western U.P. had the next-lowest number of hunters at 17,193, followed by 17,988 in the urban Southeastern District.

The Northeast District had the fourth-lowest number of hunters at 24,378. Between 30,000 and 40,000 hunters were afield in the remaining districts during December deer seasons.

The Southwest District, which is where Barb Loy connected, had the second-highest success rate during the 2003 muzzleloader season for deer of either sex at 20.3 percent. Buck hunting success was 6.2 percent in that district compared to 14.6 percent for antlerless deer. This district includes Muskegon, Kent, Ottawa, Allegan, Barry, Van Buren, Kalamazoo, Calhoun, Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

All but four counties in this district have too many deer, according to the DNR. The four counties with the fewest whitetails are Muskegon, Berrien, Cass and Van Buren. Although the chances of success might be best in this district's other counties, there are still plenty of deer in the four counties that were mentioned, especially if you have access to private land.

The Saginaw Bay and South-Central districts had almost identical success rates for deer of either sex during the 2003 blackpowder season at 19.6 and 19.5 percent, respectively. Buck hunting success during that season was 5.2 percent in the Saginaw Bay District and 4.6 percent in south-central counties. Hunters with antlerless permits enjoyed slightly better than a 15 percent rate of success in both districts.

The Saginaw Bay District is composed of Saginaw, Bay, Tuscola, Sanilac, Huron, Midland, Isabella, Clare, Gladwin and Arenac counties. Sanilac, Huron and Tuscola counties have the highest deer densities in this district. Good hunting is also available in Saginaw, Midland and Isabella counties.

Counties in the South-Central District are Lenawee, Hillsdale, Washtenaw, Jackson, Livingston, Ingham, Eaton, Shiawassee, Clinton, Ionia, Montcalm and Gratiot. The southernmost block of four counties - Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale and Lenawee - are among the best in the state for both quantity and quality. Deer are abundant and mature bucks grow some of the biggest antlers in our state. Montcalm and Ionia counties also have high deer populations.

Ryan Mains from Litchfield bagged a huge 18-point non-typical netting 190 7/8 inches in Jackson County during the 2003 muzzleloader season, for example. The story about his hunt for that deer can be found on page 17 of this magazine.

Success rates were similar during the 2003 muzzleloader deer season in the Northeast District and Northwest District of Region 2, according to the DNR. A total of 15.8 percent of blackpowder hunters who tried their luck in the northeast collected at least one deer of either sex compared to 15.5 percent success in the northwest. The odds of taking an antlered buck were 3.9 percent in the northeast compared to 3.3 percent for the northwest. Success rates on antlerless deer were 12.2 and 12.6 percent, respectively.

The Northeast District is made up of Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Alpena, Montmorency, Otsego, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Emmet, Charlevoix and Antrim counties. Most deer infected with TB have been found in Alpena, Oscoda, Otsego, Presque Isle, Montmorency, Crawford and Alcona counties. For that reason, the use of bait for deer hunting is banned in those counties. The best hunting in this district will be found in Iosco, Ogemaw, Antrim and Charlevoix counties, where there's a mix of agriculture and woodlands.

Counties in the Northwest District are Mecosta, Newaygo, Oceana, Osceola, Lake, Mason, Missaukee, Wexford, Manistee, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie and Leelanau. The southernmost counties - Oceana, Newaygo and Mecosta - are the best bets for hunting success. Manistee County is also one of the top counties for deer numbers in this district.

The last day for late-season deer hunting in Michigan on 2004 deer licenses is Jan. 2, 2005. Jan. 1 is normally the last day of the season. Late-season bowhunting begins on Dec. 1 statewide. The muzzleloader deer season begins in the U.P. on Friday, Dec. 3 this year and lasts for 10 days. Blackpowder season begins on Dec. 10 across the L.P.

Bait can be used for deer hunting over most of the state, with the exception of seven counties in the northeast L.P. where the practice is banned. Hunters are limited to two gallons of bait per day, which should be spread over an area of at least 100 square feet. The limit on the quantity of bait should help improve success among hunters who employ this practice by increasing competition for the small quantity of quality food. Studies have shown that when bait is abundant, deer are more likely to eat the food under the cover of darkness.

Legal bucks only have to have spikes that are at least three inches long across most of the state, but there are some exceptions. If you are hunting U.P. deer management units (DMUs) 122, 152, 155 and 252, for instance, bucks must have a minimum of 3 points on one antler that are each at least an inch long to be legal. Refer to a DNR map of Region 1 to determine where these units are.

On Drummond Island at the east end of the U.P., bucks must have at least one forked antler to be legal. The same restrictions are in effect on South Fox Island off of Charlevoix and DMU 135 in a portion of Iosco County.

Mandatory antler restrictions limiting hunters to shooting bucks with at least 3 points on one antler are no longer in effect in a portion of Clare County that used to be DMU 118. A five-year test of those regulations ended last fall. DMU 118 no longer exists. All of Clare County is DMU 18.

A late-season antlerless-only hunt on private land during which centerfire firearms can be used has been proposed for 23 counties in the L.P. Dates for that hunt are Dec. 20 through Jan. 2. Seven of the counties open during this season are in the northeast L.P. where TB-infected deer are a concern. Those counties are Presque Isle, Alpena, Montmorency, Otsego, Alcona, Oscoda and Crawford.

The remaining counties that are open during the late-season antlerless firearm hunt are in Region 3. Two of them are in the Thumb - Tuscola and Lapeer counties. Those on the west side of the state are Allegan, Ottawa, Kent, Barry and Ionia. South-central counties include Kalamazoo, Calhoun, Jackson, Washtenaw, St. Joseph, Branch, Hillsdale and Lenawee.

Hunters must possess an unfilled antlerless permit valid for private land in these counties to participate. Since the DNR wants to lower deer numbers in these counties, plenty of permits should be available. Be sure to check final regulations to confirm the above counties were approved for this hunt.

The top 20 counties for late-season deer hunting in our state would include the 16 in Region 3 where the late-season antlerless hunt has been approved, and the following four southern U.P. counties - Menominee, Delta, Dickinson and Iron.

Now go out there and get some venison for the freezer!

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