Minnesota's Late-Season Whitetails

Minnesota's Late-Season Whitetails

It's still not too late to put some venison in the freezer. Try taking advantage of these opportunities with a bow or muzzleloader this December. (December 2005)

Photo by Mark Werner

On the day after Thanksgiving, over one million Minnesotans rush out to the shops and malls to do some holiday shopping. Only the heartiest of individuals escape the crowds. Even fewer opt for the outdoors to chase late-season whitetails and take advantage of one of the best -- and most overlooked -- hunting opportunities in our state.

Among those hunters will be Mark Cook, who has been a blackpowder enthusiast since 1977. Cooks owns Bluewater Bait & Sports in Bemidji, a premier fishing, hunting and blackpowder shop that stays busy throughout the year and keeps him occupied. For this reason, Cook enjoys the solitude of the woods during the muzzleloader season. He has hunted all over Minnesota, and said it is not unusual for him to move hundreds of miles from day to day depending on the conditions.

Another hunter in the December woods is Jim Luttrell, a bowhunter from Woodbury who likes the late-season hunt because the deer are easier to locate, track and stalk.

"I also like the fact that when you are out there, it feels like crunch time," said Luttrell. "With only so many days or weeks left of the season, I hunt harder and more intensely than the leisurely days of autumn."


With the firearms season long since passed, the month of December is reserved for hunters who like the more traditional methods of hunting with a bow and arrow or muzzleloader. Some hunters are pure traditionalists, using either long bows or smoothbore muskets, respectively. A few even don traditional clothing and jump back a century or two with their equipment and deer camp setup.

Most muzzleloader and archery hunters take full advantage of modern technology and opt for all the latest gear and gadgets, especially in December when the conditions are rougher than any other time of the year. A traditional bow is great unless you have to hold it bare-fingered for more than five minutes in below-zero weather. Likewise, keeping your powder dry is very difficult without modern materials during a cold December rain.

Either way, the great thing about hunting in December is that you can cater the hunt to your needs and desires without having to worry about running into a lot of other people in the woods. Ask anybody who spends a lot of time in the woods during the late season and usually one of the first words out of their mouth is "solitude."

The 2005 muzzleloader season begins Nov. 26 and continues through for two and a half weeks covering three weekends. Last year, 10,512 hunters purchased muzzleloader licenses, though there were many more smokepole hunters in the woods thanks to the All-Season License.

The All-Season License has really caught on with deer hunters looking to begin their hunt in mid-September and continue on until the end of December using a bow, firearm and muzzleloader. In 2003, the first year they were available, a little over 22,000 hunters bought an All-Season License. That number jumped to 46,008 in 2004 and this year could see another increase.

With the extended period of time to hunt, it also makes sense that All-Season License hunters have been very successful over the years. A total of 26,340 deer were killed by these folks in 2004 for a whopping 57.3 percent success rate!

The success rate for muzzleloaders in 2004 was 39.4 percent, which is typical compared to years past though it is significantly lower than the total success rate of all hunters last year, which came in at 49.5 percent. Bowhunters, firearms hunters in Zone 3A, Multi-Zone Buck hunters and free landowner hunters were the only license-type groups that had lower harvest rates than muzzleloaders.

A quick check of the 2005 regulations reveals a number of special hunts around the state for bowhunters and firearms hunters. Muzzleloader hunters are not left out of this category and can take advantage of several unique hunts.

In 2004, there were eight state parks opened up to muzzleloaders, and in each case there were more applications than permits available. Most of these special muzzleloader hunts featured harvest rates similar to the rest of the state, though a few were extremely high. At Lake Louise State Park in Mower County near the Iowa border, 25 hunters managed to kill 31 antlerless deer thanks in part to bonus permits. The 15 muzzleloaders who hunted in Rice Lake State Park in Steele County near Owatonna smoked 15 antlerless deer.

By the time the calendar flips to December, bowhunters have had almost 11 weeks of hunting time, though some of it was shared with firearms hunters.

Lou Cornicelli is the big-game specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the one in charge of keeping track of Minnesota's deer hunting numbers. He checked some data from the Electronic Licensing System and said Minnesota's late-season archery harvest is very low.

"The harvest rates by bowhunters really fall off the table after the firearms season," he said.

Cornicelli highlighted the 2004 data from Permit Area 236, a favorite of archers located just northeast of the Twin Cities, roughly from Stillwater to Taylors Falls.

"In this permit area, only 15 percent of the total harvest came in December, and that's one of the highest rates in the state," he said.

To prove that point, Cornicelli checked the combined data for permit areas 248 and 414 in Todd and Morrison counties. These two permit areas have high concentrations of whitetails and high numbers of hunters, but the December archery harvest rate was less than 5 percent. Cornicelli said these permit areas are more reflective of the rest of the state.

One of the primary reasons for this is the fact that the weather in late November and all of December is generally cold and not as conducive to bowhunting. Another reason is that the population of the deer herd is significantly less due to the large kill by firearms hunters.

"By that time, most bowhunters already have a deer or two, and it's pretty darn cold, and most bowhunters aren't equipped to bowhunt in minus-20 degree weather," Cornicelli said.

Cornicelli said there has not been any demand for an extended archery season past Dec. 31 in Minnesota. There is a season extending into January in Wisconsin, but the harvest numbers are very low, Cornicelli said.

Some bowhunters still like to hunt in these cold conditions and take advantage of the unique opportunities that exist during the deep winter. Others have turned in their bow for a chance to use their muzzleloader. There are no solid numbers showing how many hunters use all three methods available to them, but the popularity of the All-Season License -- and anecdotal evidence -- shows that a lot of hunters like starting with archery gear, transitioning to firearms hunting, and ending with muzzleloaders.


Cook has hunted the late season throughout our state, from the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area in Minnesota's southeast corner to the area around Hallock in the northwest, and everything between.

"I'm fortunate that I have a lot of good spots to hunt around the state, about half private and half public," Cook said.

Finding a good area, Cook said, is the same no matter where you are in the state. Find the food and you'll find the deer. In December and the rest of the winter, deer are more food-based than any other time of the year. Because food sources are often covered by snow or simply don't grow during the cold weather, deer will go to wherever they have a consistent food supply.

"Anything they can paw at, they'll go after, whether it's wheat, clover, acorns or whatever is still green," he said.

Finding standing crops can be a great way to begin your search for an area, said Luttrell. A lot of our WMAs have stands of corn and other food sources that are left in the field throughout the winter. Deer will relate to these areas, and hunters would be wise to locate some of these locations. Deer tend to congregate in larger groups during the wintertime, but they don't herd up into really big groups unless it gets downright brutal.

"With some snow they migrate to their winter ranges, but only in really severe winters like we had in the mid-1990s will you find them in 'deer yards,' as they are often called," said Mark Lenarz, DNR wildlife research biologist at the Grand Rapids-based Forest Research Group.

To put it into perspective, the winter of 2003-04 was mild over most of the state except for the Arrowhead Region. Lenarz said the portion of our state northeast of a line from Duluth to International Falls experienced a moderately severe to severe winter, and the deer responded accordingly.

The best thing to remember is that deer have a spring/summer/fall range and a winter range, Lenarz said. In most years, they stay in their spring/summer/fall range throughout the year, even the winter. Chances are if you saw deer around zones 2, 3 and 4 last winter, they were in the same range as seen during the rest of the year, possibly in greater numbers.

Cook said a good blast of snow in early November as well as another one in late November tends to be all you need to drive the deer to their wintering grounds. "If there's a lot of snow on the ground, the deer will move across miles of territory for their wintering grounds," he said.

In most of the forested areas of Minnesota, a typical range will include at least one stand of coniferous trees, otherwise known as evergreens -- pines, spruces and firs. Deer spend time in these areas throughout the year, but are more likely to be found there during the winter due to the unique benefits of coniferous trees. Because conifers retain their needles throughout the year, snowfall is reduced and more thermal power is stored, making the area warmer than the rest of the forest, thus enabling deer to hold up there and not burn as much energy.

Cornicelli checked the combined data for permit areas 248 and 414 in Todd and Morrison counties. These two permit areas have high concentrations of whitetails and high numbers of hunters, but the December archery harvest rate was less than 5 percent. Cornicelli said these permit areas are more reflective of the rest of the state.

A lack of hunting pressure is something late-season deer hunters really enjoy, but it also means they need to work harder and more quietly than other parts of the season.

"There is nobody else in the woods to move the deer around your way, so you have to find them rather than sit and wait for them to show up," Cook said.

Snowfall is one of the distinct advantages provided in winter, and if there are no deer tracks in the area, the odds are quite good that there are no deer in the area. It seems obvious, but Cook said a common mistake of late-season hunters is to sit in a spot they've seen deer before, or looks good for deer but is lacking fresh deer tracks.

The reason to stay quieter during the late season is because the deer are more sensitive to human pressure. Throughout October and November, the deer are used to a lot of humans in the woods making noise and are able to move around them. This changes in December, however, and Cook said just two or three guys in the woods can pressure the deer into another area.

Muzzleloaders and bowhunters are able to roam throughout the state, and Cook said it's something they should take full advantage of.

"If you push the deer out of your area, you might have to move a mile or two to relocate them, but depending on which way the wind blows, I might go 200 miles from one day to the next if I'm not happy with an area or feel good about another area," he said.

Watching the weather can also help you determine a good place to hunt because there are few things better than hunting during a snowstorm. It sounds crazy, but both Cook and Luttrell said the deer are very easy to stalk when the winds are howling and the snow is blowing. During a storm, deer tend to bed down and are very unwilling to move unless forced out.

"I was hunting in the Paul Bunyan State Forest last year and I walked up on seven of them bedded down, and they didn't get up until I was 35 yards away," Cook said.


The rut is on during Minnesota's firearms hunt, generally speaking, and that creates some unique opportunities for hunters. Bucks and does are on the move because of their rutting patterns, as well as being pushed around by all the people in the woods. By the time the woods have quieted down after the firearms season, most of the breeding for the year has been completed.

This does not mean, however, that the rut is over. Cornicelli said in the Southern Farmland Region, young does will come into estrus during December and January, and about a third to half of them are bred.

"Every once in awhile you'll see a fawn with its spots into September or October, and it's usually from a doe that was bred late the season before and didn't give birth until July or August," Cornicelli said.

Bucks are not actively searching as much as they are when the rut is going full bore, but a buck will not

pass up a doe in heat even into December and January, Cornicelli noted. This tends to make big bucks tough to pattern during December, especially since they tend to stay on their own rather than with a larger group.

"I don't know of anybody who does well for big bucks in December," Cook said.

The scene is different in the northern two-thirds of Minnesota, however, where most of the bucks and does tend to group up once the rut is through.

"The bucks tend to stop bugging the does in the middle of November, and they can be grouped up throughout most of the muzzleloader season," Cornicelli said. He should know because last year he shot two deer on the same day with his muzzleloader, and one of the whitetails was in a group of five and the other was in a herd of seven.

"I was hunting in the Paul Bunyan State Forest last year and I walked up on seven of them bedded down, and they didn't get up until I was 35 yards away," Cook said.


Dressing in layers is fairly common knowledge, but a lot of late-season hunting rookies tend to forget this when heading out into the cold of December.

If you are walking to an area or still-hunting/stalking, you are going to get warmer than if you are just sitting in one spot for a few hours. Luttrell said having several layers of clothing that you can easily remove or put on -- depending on the conditions and what type of hunting you are doing -- is the best way to stay dry and reduce scent.

Having additional clothing on also means your muzzleloader or bow will sit differently and, most likely, shoot differently. Both Cook and Luttrell said they practice shooting with the added bulk of winter clothing. Making sure to keep your hands warm but easily accessible is another challenge, especially for bowhunters.

With so much ground cover gone and almost all the leaves off the trees, seeing a long distance in the woods provides and advantage to both the deer and the hunter. The contrast and tracking ability provided by the snow tends to favor the hunter, however. With increased visibility, some hunters may be tempted to take shots of a greater distance than they would normally attempt, but the same rules apply.

Luttrell said bowhunters should realize that the same distance they've sighted in at applies but only if they are accurate at those distances with bulkier clothing. "I know some guys who can split a hair at long distances but can't hit the side of a barn 12 feet away with their winter clothing on."

Muzzleloaders present a different challenge, Cook said, because a lot of hunters treat a muzzleloader like they do a rifle.

"A muzzleloader is lethal up to 200 yards, but no matter what the companies say and advertise, a muzzleloader without a scope is a 100-yard gun for most hunters, even with magnum charges," he said.

Virtually the entire state of Minnesota is open to deer hunting during December, so take advantage of that fact and get out there. The odds of running into another hunter are low but the odds of finding large groups of deer are pretty darn good. Get away from the hustle and bustle of the holiday season for some relaxing late-season deer hunting. Besides that, everyone loves a little venison sausage around the holidays!

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