Minnesota's 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Our Best Hunting Areas

Minnesota's 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Our Best Hunting Areas

With well more than 1 million whitetails on the landscape, Minnesota's deer hunters are expecting to share the bounty of another great deer season. (November 2007)

Photo by Mike Lambeth.

Despite what some folks would have you believe, the vast majority of Minnesota deer hunters are not in search of an elusive trophy buck. Deer hunting for most of us is more about getting together with friends and family, sharing in the fun of a deer hunt and getting some venison for the freezer.

While the potential for a massive trophy buck in the state has declined over the years, the potential for a deer or two to fill the freezer remains strong indeed. Minnesota's deer herd now stands at an estimated 1.2 million animals, and thanks to a mild winter last year, the herd is healthy and in good condition throughout the state, according to Lou Cornicelli, big-game coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). Cornicelli added, "It should be another good deer season with around 250,000 deer harvested."

The firearms deer-hunting season opens a half-hour before sunrise on Saturday, Nov. 3. By both the calendar and the Minnesota deer-hunting regulations, this is the earliest date the season can open and should help make for a terrific hunt.

"Usually the peak of conception and the rut is around the eighth or ninth of November, so the deer should be doing a lot of moving around the time of opening weekend," said Gary Drotts, a 33-year MDNR veteran who serves as the Brainerd-area wildlife manager.

Population goals for permit areas across the state are also looking good, with most MDNR area wildlife managers reporting populations at or above the desired range.

According to the MDNR, last year's deer season was the second most productive deer hunt in state history. In 2006, Minnesota deer hunters harvested 270,808 whitetails. Cornicelli predicts Minnesota deer hunters in 2007 will take 250,000 animals, a decline from last year's number, but the lower number does not equate to bad news.

"We've gone through a huge goal-setting process to shift populations to where the public has said they want them," he explained.

Some of this year's permit areas that were managed for "intensive harvest" in the past (meaning a hunter could take upward of five deer) will be moved back to "managed harvest" (meaning a hunter can take up to two deer). That change in the deer management regime represents a healthy shift of the herd size to a more manageable number.

"Basically, across the forest portion of the state, our deer populations are above goal; and while they are getting closer to those goals, they are not there yet," said MDNR biologist Mark Lenarz of the Forest Wildlife Populations and Research group. "We are going to attempt to bring the population down to the levels determined during the goal-setting process," he added.

That's where the fun part comes. Deer hunting is about camaraderie and having fun, but it's also about managing Minnesota's deer herd. Part of the reason this year's harvest is expected to be lower than last year is because Minnesota deer hunters did their job last year and took many deer. Who thought biology could be so much fun?

Reports and Locations

Checking in with wildlife managers around the state revealed a deer population in relatively good shape.

"Right now the deer population is doing just fine," said Zone 1 MDNR wildlife manager Bob Kirsch in Two Harbors.

Hunting pressure throughout Zone 1 is lower on average than many other parts of the state, and the vast majority of Kirsch's area is publicly owned land. This means plenty of opportunities for hunters to hunt this zone with an all-season license if they so desire. In addition, Kirsch encourages hunters to take antlerless deer where bonus permits are available.

In the Brainerd area, Drotts manages permit areas in both zones 1 and 2, including the area with the highest harvest rate in the state. Deer hunters here have been very effective over the last few years, he said, so he's changing many of his permit areas back to "managed" status. In fact, all the permit areas under Drotts' domain, he added, are close to their goals except for (area) 242, which will remain under "intensive" harvest regulations.

State forests are excellent locations to deer hunt. Drotts' area includes the Pillsbury State Forest, which is located northwest of Brainerd on the south end of Gull Lake.

. . . Only 15 percent of Minnesota deer hunters rely exclusively on public land for their deer hunting. That means the other 85 percent spend at least part of their time hunting deer on private land.

Farther north in the Bemidji area, the deer density is also high, and the prospects are great for a terrific season.

"I think we'll have another real strong harvest, and I wouldn't doubt if we have another high harvest like we've had five years in a row," predicted Blane Klemek, the MDNR's assistant wildlife manager in Bemidji.

Klemek lives in the Bemidji area, a destination for many deer hunters, but he said he still drives north to hunt.

"I don't care how far north you are, it always seems better if you go someplace to hunt. Half the fun is preparing (for the hunt) and going to the location you hunt," he admitted.

Along the western border of the state, in the heart of Minnesota's farm country, is Lac qui Parle (LQP) Wildlife Management Area. It is a tremendous location to hunt -- a large continuous tract of managed land that carries stands of mixed hardwoods, river valleys, native prairie, croplands and large cattail sloughs.

Dave Trauba serves as the MDNR's wildlife manager for the LQP WMA. He said deer hunters here have been a bit lazy over the years when it comes to hunting the firearms season.

"This is a popular place for muzzleloaders to hunt late in the season, and a lot of people seem to hunt zones 4A and 4B less intensively as they used to," Trauba observed, "because they figure they can fall back on the muzzleloader season if they don't get a deer."

The lands of Zone 4 are largely agricultural and privately owned. Trauba said it's a tremendous area to deer hunt, as is Zone 3 in the southeastern corner of the state, no matter what time of the deer season.

Where to Find Your Deer

Throw a dart at the map of Minnesota and odds are pretty good that you'll stick it in an area with great deer-hunting opportu

nities. That's the easy part: Deer hunting in Minnesota takes place just about anywhere you choose to hunt. The complicated part of deer hunting in Minnesota is having the courage to hunt in places other than where your deer hunting traditionally takes place.

In fact, a 2004 deer hunter's survey revealed that 90 percent of Minnesota deer hunters hunt the same place every year. The survey found that only 1 percent of Minnesota's deer hunters change locations every year. The remaining hunters who admit to changing where they hunt, said they change their hunting locations no more frequently than every few years. Considering the average Minnesota deer hunter holds 25 years of hunting experience, many deer hunters appear to be anchored in place.

Another interesting statistic from that survey showed that only 15 percent of Minnesota deer hunters rely exclusively on public land for their deer hunting. That means the other 85 percent spend at least part of their time hunting deer on private land.

That's all fine and dandy. But that also means plenty of deer on Minnesota's public lands are holding up in areas that have not been hunted much.

And because the odds are also good that those who do hunt in the same area every year actually hunt the exact same spot each season, you can expect to find relatively unpressured deer if you choose to move your hunt this season. And you need not move your hunt far. Some close studying of the area you already hunt might reveal some better locations right there under your nose.

"The best thing you can do when you hunt pressured land is to get in and scout it out prior to hunting it," said wildlife expert and avid deer hunter T.R. Michels, who has researched and written about whitetails for decades and recently published The Complete Whitetail Addict's Manual.

Michels' advice for hunters on pressured land is to locate the escape routes deer use to avoid contact with people.

"If you know from past experience that hunters are hitting, say, Hay Creek, and hammering it for deer, figure out the (deer) escape route from the area and set up on it," he explained.

The way to find a deer escape route is to seek out a low-lying area or places where plenty of cover provides security for the deer.

For example, Michels pointed out, "To a deer, 4 feet high is all (the cover it needs) because he only stands 3 feet (tall). If there's a ditch or irrigation canal, a buck will walk down it because all he sees on either side is dirt."

Most hunters understand that the escape routes deer use are especially easy to find after a fresh snowfall. Michels said hunters who are lucky enough to hunt in that condition need to take full advantage of it.

"Even if you aren't hunting, when you get that snowfall get out there and look around, because those areas are used throughout the season. Knowing where they are is important," he explained.

Entering the woods quietly is another adjustment most hunters can afford to make so they see more deer.

"I have sat out in the field on opening morning watching hunters drive half a mile across a corn field," Michels said. "What they don't realize is, at that time, the deer are up there feeding, and (the deer) leave the area with that sort of pressure."

The deer might escape the area along a low slope that leads into a wood lot half a mile away, Michels said. A friend of his who hunts just such a place at Hay Creek just sits there and waits for the deer to go running by. He then takes his shot.

"It's that predictable," Michels added, "but most hunters only think about where they've seen deer going in the past."

Another critical element to improving your odds for taking a deer this season is to get as far away from the road as you can, or access it from a more remote location.

"Get permission to go through the private land on the other side of the area you hunt, and then walk in as best you can," Michels explained. ATVs are great tools, he added, but they make too much noise at 4 in the morning. Even something as subtle as a human walking is louder than normal noise levels in an otherwise undisturbed deer woods.

Two years ago, many Minnesota deer hunters complained they didn't see many deer. On the other hand, complaints about the weather were few because balmy weather reached across much of the state throughout the deer season. Michels said when the weather is hot, the deer are going to move at night; when it's cool, they'll move during the day.

"Deer are not all that unlike humans, because they will do what they can to adjust to the (weather) conditions. If it's hot out, they are going to sit around during the day waiting for it to cool off before running around," he explained. "If it's cold out, they are going to keep moving, unless it's to sit in a sunny location to warm up."

New Opportunities

The Minnesota deer-hunting regulations are a bit thicker than they were a mere decade ago, but the good news is that for the average hunter very little really has changed among the rules. For hunters looking to mix things up a bit, the number of special hunts and special opportunities for shooting a deer seems to improve every year.

This year is no exception. Cornicelli said the MDNR is greatly expanding the early antlerless firearms season that was first introduced last year.

"We are going from eight to 22 permit areas with the early season. A good chunk of those permit areas (stretch) from the northwestern corner (of the state) down to the metro," he pointed out. "We were given some direction to raise deer populations in the southwest and lower them in the 'transition' (zone) and parts of the southeast."

As has been the case in the past, many special hunts are planned in state parks, where qualifying for those hunts is different from other parts of the state. For example, hunters who take part in special hunts might have to qualify for taking a buck through the "earn a buck" regulations, or they might find the hunt they take part in carries antler-point restrictions. Perhaps, some special hunts may target deer with no antlers at all. In fact, the harvest of antlerless deer in these areas makes for great opportunities for filling the freezer with tasty venison.

Check the Regs

This season, regulation changes to watch for include the details on the state map that displays permit areas and their designations. For example, a few of the permit area boundaries in the northwestern part of Zone 2 have been redrawn. If that's your hunting area, check the map for the details.

To recap the Minnesota hunting regulations, deer-hunting permit areas are placed in one of three categories. The number of antlerless deer a hunter may take is what defines each of the three categories:

'¢ Areas listed as lottery permit areas impose a bag limit of one deer, except when hunters tag deer with both their archery and firearms license.

'¢ Areas listed as managed permit areas impose a bag limit of two deer, one of which can be a buck. Hunters may not tag antlerless deer using a bonus permit in more than one managed permit area per year. Bonus permits are $13 for residents/$67.50 for non-residents and must be purchased before being filled.

'¢ Areas listed as intensive harvest areas allow hunters to use any combination of licenses and permits to tag up to five deer.

Among other rules:

'¢ A bonus permit must be purchased for every additional deer beyond the first one taken, except in lottery permit areas when hunters tag deer with both their archery and firearms license.

'¢ New last year, and continuing again this year, is the metro deer management zone where there is no limit on the number of deer that may be taken.

'¢ A special bowhunting opportunity is in place in the northwestern portion of the state where bovine tuberculosis was found in a portion of the deer herd. Hunters will have no limit on deer in that area, and the bonus permits will cost only $2.50.

'¢ All-season license holders who plan on muzzleloader hunting in a lottery-designated permit area must apply to take antlerless deer. An all-season license enables a hunter to hunt the archery, firearms and muzzleloader seasons.

* * *

Studies show the number of deer hunters in Minnesota is decreasing, so take others hunting this year who hasn't hunted before. They don't have to hunt, but having them along with you might be just what it takes to interest them. At the bare minimum, they'll learn first-hand what it means to go deer hunting in Minnesota.

Good hunting!

Find more about Minnesota fishing and hunting at: MinnesotaSportsmanMag.com

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