To those who measure a successful hunt by the ability to take a deer, any kind of deer, then we are truly in the midst of the best deer hunting ever known in state history. (November 2008)
It may sound like a cliche, but these truly are the good ol' days of Minnesota deer hunting with regard to the opportunities available to hunters and the success rate hunters are enjoying with firearms, archery and muzzleloaders.
The 2007 deer season was the fourth best in Minnesota history with a total registered harvest of 260,434. It missed the mark of third best by only 170 deer, the slimmest of margin by any calculations when dealing with numbers that large.
There are many arguments out there about the quality of bucks available to hunters today compared with years past, but surveys show that most of us are out there for meat and a good time with friends and family. If we see a trophy, that's great, but we still have a good time harvesting does and small to medium-sized bucks.
To those who measure a successful hunt by the ability to take a deer, any kind of deer, then we are truly in the midst of the best deer hunting ever known in state history. To prove that point, hunters have taken more than 200,000 deer each of the last eight years, and the last five years constitute the top five all-time seasons.
A healthy herd and mild winters is the predominant reason why the numbers have been so good for the last decade plus. The harsh winter of 1996 is a thing of the past and even though the winter of 2007-08 was a bit harsher than we've had in a while, snow depths and low temperatures never reached the same extremes. The exception to that are a few areas in the Arrowhead region, but reports indicate that any effect on the herd was minimal.
TOP SPOTS TO HUNT
Hunters enjoyed a 41.6 percent success rate last year, meaning that almost half of all tags purchased were filled. Hunters in the old Zone 1 had the highest success percentage but also had three weekends to hunt. The lowest success rate came in season 4A. Firearms hunters had a 37.1 percent overall success rate.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources compiles tons of statistics based on hunter-reported harvest information and has the files available in spreadsheet form. Harvest numbers are organized by permit areas and not counties, because many permit areas are situated in multiple counties.
Statistics can be part of a solid deer-hunting game plan, but they should definitely not drive where you are going to go hunting. The accompanying tables showing the top areas to hunt are based on last year's harvest information. It doesn't mean these areas are going to repeat as top performers nor does it mean you should avoid them because of the perception that all sorts of hunters are going to flock to the areas.
One table shows the total harvest rate per square mile by permit area, meaning those are the parts of the state where more deer were taken than anywhere else. It's a good statistic, but it is derived by dividing the number of deer taken by the size of the permit area. Is it useful? Perhaps. Just bear in mind that those are not necessarily the top five places to hunt. Still, it is interesting to analyze.
Another table shows estimated firearms hunter density by permit area. This list shows the top five permit areas by hunters found per square mile for purposes of helping you figure out where the woods are likely to be covered in orange. The misleading part of this table is that permit areas with large amounts of public land might have inflated numbers. It is no coincidence, however, that the permit areas with the most hunters per square mile have some of the highest harvest numbers per square mile.
The reason the numbers should only be part of your pre-hunt game plan is because the best place to hunt is someplace you've taken a little bit of time to scout out ahead of time. It could be a location you've been watching regularly the last several months or a location you head to right after reading this article; but don't expect to show up opening morning to a new location and find a great place to hunt.
John House is an experienced whitetail hunter who has exclusively hunted public land the last two decades, and he is a strong believer in scouting. He hunts with his family on state forestland near Aitkin and always has to compete with other hunters in the area for the prime locations. Only two hours north of the Twin Cities, his area is popular with hunters and it's made him crafty at finding the best spots to hunt.
"You are scouting for deer but also for people. How they enter the woods and where they end up sitting is critical information to know so you can either come in from the backside of the area or show up early and let those hunters push the deer to you," House said.
When he goes on a scouting expedition, House uses a global positioning system to mark all the stands he comes across. He also marks the edges of private property, and then uses a computer to upload the points to mapping software. What it usually leads to is a detailed map of the hunting pressure on the area he's hoping to hunt.
"I can see where all the hunters are and then pinpoint locations where the deer are going to funnel that is good habitat but not full of hunters," he said.
On public land, the biggest obstacle for hunters is people. Finding the best spots to hunt is a fine balance of maintaining sanity and finding a place to hunt.
"Setting up a hunting area with all those points takes some time and a few trips, but it's worth all the work because you'll find yourself using the information to take some pretty nice deer," he added.
The biggest change hunters are going to have to familiarize themselves with this year are adjusted regulations that actually make it easier to figure out where and how to hunt and will save some hunters a few bucks.
A committee of citizens along with DNR officials created the simplified deer regulations.
"We went through a fairly long six-month process with public input, and it's had pretty broad support," said Lou Cornicelli, DNR big-game program coordinator.
While a few growing pains are expected, hunters should find the new regulations to be much more hunter-friendly.
"I'm very pleased the DNR took the step to simplification and they should be praised for that. Regardless if you like the changes or not, you have to be pleased they took the avenue of asking hunters what changes they wanted," said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minn
esota Deer Hunters Association.
Before their release, Cornicelli toured the state sharing the regulations with hunters and he figured there'd be some outcry, but the majority of hunters who attended the meetings liked the changes, he said.
Perhaps the first thing hunters may notice is the reduction from six zones across the state to only two, including the elimination of Zone 4. The DNR is also doing away with all-season and multi-zone buck licenses and letting hunters purchase stand-alone archery, firearms and muzzleloader licenses.
The all-season and multi-zone buck licenses have been popular, but cost is one of the biggest gripes. Deer hunters were paying for more hunting opportunities, but they had to pay for all possible opportunities given to them rather than pick and choose. For example, if a deer hunter wanted to hunt the muzzleloader and firearms season, it made more sense to purchase an all-season license at the price of three licenses. Now, hunters can purchase each license separately and save money because they aren't purchasing an archery tag.
"It's going to cost the DNR money to do this, but it's going to make things a lot easier," Cornicelli said. "Hunters and deer management is the winner in this case."
Estimates are that it will reduce revenue to the Game and Fish Fund by $2 million a year, but increased sales of muzzleloader licenses and bonus permits could offset that cost.
"We are constantly accused of doing things to make more money and the public should understand that if we are willing to lose money over it, maybe it's not a bad deal," Cornicelli added.
The new zone structure features two zones, A and 3B. The A season has a standard opening and closing date based on the permit area number. Permit areas in the 100s are open 16 days; those in the 200s are open nine days and the 300s are open seven days. The 3B permit area season, in the southeastern corner of the state, as usual, is open nine days.
Hunters may purchase a firearms license to hunt anywhere in the state for the A season but must purchase a separate license for the 3B season. Hunters still must follow the bag limits in the various permit areas.
"It's very important that hunters understand the bag limits in the permit areas they are hunting," Cornicelli said. "We are limiting bag limits on purpose -- if you want to hunt multiple seasons and permit areas, you have to know your bag limit."
Basically, it's no different than the way it was in the past using the regulations map -- permit areas shaded blue are lottery areas and have a limit of one; permit areas shaded red are managed areas and have a limit of two; and permit areas shaded green are intensive harvest and have a limit of five. There is no limit in the metro area and the northwestern bovine tuberculosis area.
In the end, the regulation changes aren't much different than those in the past and shouldn't pose any additional headaches for conservation officers, although hunters have more mobility to hunt multiple permit areas.
Law enforcement is pretty happy with this because there's no overlap with the all-season licenses in lottery permit areas," Cornicelli said.
In order to hunt during the firearms and muzzleloader seasons, hunters must apply for antlerless permits in lottery areas. The exception is those hunters who only plan to hunt the muzzleloader season. In that case, muzzleloader-only hunters may take either-sex deer statewide.
Another minor change in the regulations concerns the minimum cartridge requirement that allows centerfire .22 or larger diameter. While the change technically allows the use of inadequate cartridge sizes, hunters should use common sense when selecting a cartridge. The regulation change means Minnesota is more in line with cartridge regulations in Wisconsin and the Dakotas.
ELIMINATION OF ZONE 4
Stretching along the western fields and woods, Zone 4 has been shrinking over the years as some permit areas become part of Zone 2. Like Zone 3, the Zone 4 season was initially split into an A and B season, but it was decided to eliminate the zone altogether and combine it with the rest of the state.
This created some displeasure among hunters who became accustomed to the split season structure. Some hunters are concerned that the move would put more pressure on the deer or create access issues to hunting land because it is heavily agricultural and privately owned.
DNR officials disagree that more pressure will be put on the deer with the nine-day season in the old Zone 4 area. That's because the additional days are weekdays and not weekends, which are significantly more pressured.
"The all-season and multi-zone licenses let people shoot both seasons, and that shouldn't change the hunter numbers from the six-day to the nine-day season structure," Cornicelli said.
The possibility of a nine-day continuous season reducing access to hunting land is a possibility but has not occurred when the DNR has changed permit areas in the past, Cornicelli said. It is something he plans to monitor along with area wildlife managers. If it turns out that hunters have less access, then the DNR could revisit the decision at a later time.
"We really need to keep an eye on the access issue because it forces landowners to decide which weekend to hunt rather than the state. It's a valid concern that I don't think will play out," he added.
SPECIAL HUNTS CONTINUE
In 2007, there was a total of 22 early antlerless firearms seasons and more are scheduled for this year. Last year, hunters took a total of 7,165 antlerless deer during early-season hunts.
"Going out for an early antlerless hunt is a great opportunity to take rookie hunters out for their first hunt in a lower pressure situation than exists on the firearms opener," said Pete Alfano of Whitetail Properties Television.
The DNR is also continuing special hunts in select state parks around the state with the different regulations including Earn-A-Buck and antler point restrictions. Someday the state may add the regulations to select permit areas to create additional trophy-hunting opportunities, depending on the data collected during the special hunts.
"We're looking at two more years with the research, but we should starting seeing some of the data this year if there is a response," Cornicelli said.
Early data doesn't show trophy opportunities are increasing as a result of the restrictions, he said, but a few more years of data is necessary before any changes can be considered.