With a series of good deer seasons behind us, will that trend continue through this fall's hunts? Here are the answers you've been waiting for.
Counties in the southern third of the state (Region 3) remain the best in Michigan to fill a deer tag with a whitetail of either sex. But if you are looking for a deer with antlers during firearms season, the western U.P. is the best place to be hunting this fall. That's what an analysis of the preliminary harvest data provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment from our 2009 seasons show.
For all seasons, with sexes of deer combined, a whopping 46.9 percent of the deer hunters from Region 3 bagged at least one whitetail during the fall of 2009, according to the DNRE. Only 33.2 percent of the hunters who tried their luck in Region 2 did the same thing versus 29.2 percent of the deer hunters in the U.P.
Region 3 also came out on top when looking at deer hunting success during either archery or firearms seasons. During 2009 archery seasons, 33.9 percent of Region 3 hunters were successful compared to 24.3 percent success in the U.P. and 23.3 percent in the northern Lower Peninsula. For firearms season, Region 3 hunters enjoyed 34.3 percent success compared to 26.6 percent in Region 2 (northern Lower Peninsula) and 23.8 percent for Region 1 or the.Upper Peninsula.
When looking at the regional success rates on bucks for both archery and firearms hunts, Region 3 is the best in the state, too. According to DNRE figures, southern Michigan bowhunters had a 23 percent rate of success on bucks while 20.5 percent of gun hunters bagged an antlered whitetail. Region 2 came in second on bowhunting for bucks, with a success rate of 12.9 percent versus 11 percent success for bowhunters in the U.P. But the U.P. wasn't far behind Region 3 in terms of racking up the bucks during gun season, with 19.6 percent success compared to 17.9 percent success in Region 2.
The breakdown of buck hunting success by district for firearms season is where one U.P. district has a slight edge over any other district in the state. The U.P. only has two DNRE districts: east and west. The west district has far more deer than the east and better hunting success. Averaging the two districts results from the east often pull down the west.
The success rate on bucks in the west U.P. during the November gun hunt in 2009 was 21.8 percent, according to the DNRE. The Southcentral District in Region 3 came in second in that category, with success of 21.2 percent. Third and fourth place also go to Region 3 districts. Gun hunters in the Saginaw Bay District had a 20.6 percent rate of success and 19 percent of those in the Southwest District were successful on bucks.
The Western District in the U.P. usually comes out on top in buck hunting success during firearms season by a much wider margin than was achieved last fall. During 2008, for example, 30.4 percent of the hunters who tried their luck in the west U.P. during gun season bagged bucks, which was about 6 percent better than any other district. In 2007, the buck hunting success for the entire U.P. was 35.3 percent, more than 10 points higher than any other region in the state, and the success rate for the west U.P. was higher still. That year, 53 percent of the bucks brought to DNRE check stations were at least 2 1/2 years old.
A number of factors were responsible for the lower success on bucks throughout the U.P. during 2009, but they had their greatest impact in western counties. The previous winter was a rough one, resulting in the deaths of some deer. Impacts of that winter resulted in the survival of fewer newborn fawns and a reduction in the number of antlerless permits.
Weather was mild during most of the 2-week gun season as well, with no snow. Warm temperatures reduced daytime deer activity and the lack of snow made it harder for hunters to find deer. On top of that, natural foods such as acorns and apples were abundant, reducing the tendency for deer to visit baits placed by hunters. Baiting remains legal in the U.P., but is illegal in the L.P.
More stringent antler restrictions in the U.P. than most of the rest of the state played a role in reducing success on bucks, too. U.P. hunters with combo deer licenses are limited to shooting bucks with at least 3 points on one antler. Those who buy single gun licenses can shoot bucks with at least 3-inch spikes, but they are limited to shooting one buck per year. The fall of 2010 will be the third year for the U.P. antler restrictions.
This will, it is hoped, be the last year for the restrictive antler rules in the U.P. When the regulations were adopted by the Natural Resources Commission, the commission made it clear they wanted to try the regs for at least three years to see if they would increase the number of older bucks in the harvest. Since the regs have been put in place, there has not been an improvement in the number of older age bucks taken by hunters and buck hunting success has plummeted. A higher percentage of hunters than normal were disappointed with the results last fall.
The 3-point on a side rule, not only saves spikes and forks, it saves bucks with legal antlers because in many cases the hunters don't have the time to count points. The position of a buck in relationship to a hunter and low light levels, make counting points difficult, too. The law prevented me from shooting a buck toward the end of the 2009 gun season in the west U.P. that I'm 99 percent sure had 6 points. But I wouldn't risk the shot. And I'm positive I'm not the only hunter that happened to.
Fresh snow had fallen toward the end of gun season and I scouted an oak ridge one afternoon where there was a lot of deer sign. I picked a spot overlooking an area where there were plenty of tracks and feeding activity and decided to wait until dark. During the last minutes of daylight, a buck appeared and walked toward me.
When the buck was facing me, he looked like a classic 6-pointer, with three points per antler. In the minute or two it took for him to close the distance to about 40 yards, the light level had faded further and by then he was broadside to me. I had the crosshairs on his near shoulder and simply needed to verify a third point on one antler to squeeze the trigger. In the low light, with the buck's ears blocking a clear view of the base of the antlers, I could not confirm there was a brow tine on either antler.
Even though I was sure they were there, I couldn't see them, so I let the buck go. I had a combo license and I wasn't going to risk shooting a deer that was not legal under the license in my pocket no matter how slim the odds were of that being the case. If
I had purchased a single gun license instead, thereby paying the DNRE half the price I did for my license, there would have been no question about the legality of that buck.
As a result of what happened to me last fall, I'm considering buying a single deer license this year, as many other U.P. hunters have already been doing. It's hard to understand why the DNRE would choose to adopt a regulation that restricts hunter opportunity and success in addition to reducing the agency's income.
Last winter was a record mild one in the U.P., which will be good for both deer and deer hunters this fall. Whitetail survival was excellent and so was fawn production. As a result, hunters should see more deer this year, but the weather during the firearms hunt will have a major bearing on how successful it will be. Cold temps and snow in moderate amounts optimizes success. Warm weather usually has the opposite effect.
Even though last winter was mild, antlerless permits will be available for only a handful of deer management units in the southern U.P. Deer numbers are highest in those units, so that's where the chances of success are the best. Hunters who try their luck in Menominee, Dickinson, Delta and Iron counties have the best odds of going home with venison.
The Michigan DNRE estimated 56,915 archers used a crossbow during the 2009 archery season, and harvested an estimated 24,882 deer. Photo by Richard P. Smith.
Dean Hulce operates a commercial deer hunting camp in Menominee County and he told me the 2009 firearms season was one of the best in terms of sightings of adult bucks after years of harvesting as many does as possible and passing up young bucks. There were 12 bucks taken out of his camp. One each were 4 1/2 and 5 1/2 years old. The remaining 10 were either 2 1/2 or 3 1/2 years old.
Dean's son Nick bagged a pair of 3 1/2-year-olds and Dean tagged a buck of the same age. His wife, Linda, shot a big-bodied 8-point with a 20-inch spread that was only 2 1/2 years old. And they passed up plenty of bucks, including some 2 1/2-year-olds. Needless to say, the Hulces are looking forward to the 2010 season.
The only significant change that's on the books for this year's firearms season in the U.P. is that coyotes are now legal to shoot from Nov. 15-30. They've been protected for years during those two weeks as a means of preventing accidental shooting of wolves. Wolves are still protected and hunters who shoot them will be prosecuted. If the change in regulations results in an increase in the illegal kill of wolves, protection for coyotes will most likely be reinstated.
The presence of wolves has also been documented in the L.P., where it is also legal to shoot coyotes during gun season. If uncertain about whether an animal seen while deer hunting is a coyote or wolf, simply don't shoot. Hunters who mistakenly shoot a wolf could lose their hunting privileges for up to three years, and that's besides facing a stiff fine.
The district in the state that has the highest deer hunting success rate for all seasons combined as well as during archery and firearms seasons is Region 3's Southcentral District. Almost 50 percent (48.1) of the hunters who went afield in that district during one or more of 2009's deer seasons were successful in taking a whitetail of either sex. The rates of success in that district during the firearms and archery hunts were 36 and 33.8 percent respectively.
The counties in that district are Montcalm, Gratiot, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale and Lenawee. Those are Michigan's premier deer hunting counties at any time during 2010 seasons.Region 3's Southwest and Saginaw Bay districts don't rank far behind the Southcentral in terms of filling a deer tag. The success rates for all seasons and either-sex were 45.1 percent in the Southwest and 44.5 percent for Saginaw Bay. During gun season, hunting success was slightly higher in Saginaw Bay (34.2 percent) than Southwest (32.9), but the odds of scoring in both districts were almost identical during archery seasons.
Counties that make up the Southwest District are Muskegon, Ottawa, Kent, Allegan, Barry, Van Buren, Kalamazoo, Calhoun, Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch. The Saginaw Bay District counties are Clare, Gladwin, Arenac, Isabella, Midland, Bay, Saginaw, Tuscola, Huron and Sanilac.
The main reason deer hunting remains the best in the state in the three districts of Region 3 mentioned is that whitetails are extremely prolific there. The quality of the habitat is so good that many doe fawns are bred and have their first fawns as yearlings. Adult does give birth to twins or triplets, many of which survive. A Washtenaw County doe that was struck and killed along a highway during March of 2010 had four developing fawns inside her.
Last winter's mild weather will also have a positive impact on deer hunting prospects in Region 2 this year. There are two districts in that region: the Northwest and Northeast. The Northeast District includes the TB Zone where liberal antlerless harvests have been under way for years to try to lower deer numbers and the prevalence of the disease.
Those efforts have been somewhat successful, so it should come as no surprise that the success rate for all seasons with sexes combined is higher in the Northwest District (33.4 percent) than the Northeast (30.1 percent). That district maintains its edge during both firearms (26.6 versus 24.6 percent) and archery seasons (23.9 and 20 percent) as well.
Northwest District wildlife biologist Larry Visser at Cadillac said the best hunting will be found in Mecosta, Oceana and Newaygo counties, but good deer numbers exist in Mason, Lake and Osceola counties. Best bets in the Northeast District are the three southernmost counties of Roscommon, Ogemaw and Iosco.
This will be the second year that crossbows will be legal during the entire archery season in Region 3 for hunters who are at least 12 years old and during the early archery season in Regions 1 and 2 for hunters who are at least 50. Some 56,915 hunters used a crossbow during the archery season in 2009, according to the DNRE, and these archers harvested 24,882 whitetails. Due to the legalization of crossbows, the number of bowhunters increased last fall for the first time in more than five years to 305,294 from 285,508 the year before.
The archery season deer harvest also increased to an estimated 117,640 from 106,439 in 2009. In spite of that increase, the archery harvest was down in the U.P. last fall by 19 percent when compared to the year before, and declined by 6.4 percent in the Northwest District.