Our Late-Season Deer Hotspots

Our Late-Season Deer Hotspots

More and more Minnesotans are taking advantage of our December deer hunting opportunities. All you need is a bow or a muzzleloader!

Photo by Scott Steindorf

By Tim Lesmeister

When Mark Corrigan squeezed the trigger on his .50-caliber muzzleloader, the big doe was firmly in the sights. She had been standing right on the edge of the tree line, just a few feet from where the timber began to narrow down. The end of the timber cut 90 degrees into a fenceline that led down a pasture to another big grove of trees. Both does and bucks used this trail, and Corrigan had seen a few others that day, but this deer provided the perfect broadside shot at 40 yards - the one he was waiting for.

The cloud of smoke obscured his vision as the round lead ball, trailed by the burning blackpowder, was sent rocketing to its point of impact. When the smoke cleared, there was no sight of the deer.

Leaving the blind that he had strategically positioned, Corrigan reloaded the Hawkins replica and walked the distance to where the doe had been standing only moments before. There on the ground were the telltale signs that a deer had felt the impact of a well-placed bullet. Scanning the area, Corrigan spotted the doe laying only 20 yards from the point of impact. She had already taken her last breath.

December is the month for late-season bowhunters and blackpowder hunters. Centerfire rifle and shotgun hunters are waiting patiently for the lakes to freeze up for ice-fishing, while the hard-core deer hunters are once again reclaiming the woods and waiting for the perfect shot with their bow or smokepole.

Of course there will be fewer opportunities because many of the deer that were roaming the countryside in early November are now nestled in freezer paper and waiting to take their rightful spots on a hot grill or in a sizzling frying pan. For the veteran late-season hunters, this is not going to compromise their hunt. They know that there were plenty of big bucks and smart does that discovered the perfect sanctuary when the big guns were barking just a few weeks earlier.

Those animals may still be cautious, but when a hunter blends into the surroundings and negates the deer's keen sense of smell by incorporating scent control, even the most wary whitetail becomes a potential target.

Looking at the 2002 statistics we can see there are some areas where late-season bowhunters and muzzleloaders tend to achieve success. Permit Area 343 in southeastern Minnesota was one of these locations. With Rochester right in the heart of this area you can surmise that the proximity to such a high population base would be driving the number of hunter success stories. The fact remains that the numbers also prove that big lead balls and arrows can co-exist in the same region with success.

If you look at Permit Area 157's numbers, you see that this extremely popular hunting spot near Milaca not only ranks in the top five for muzzleloader and archery hunting, it also made the top 10 overall.

One late-season I took my .50-caliber muzzleloader and headed out to Permit Area 412. This section northwest of Alexandria may not look so good on paper when it comes to overall late-season harvest, but I'm familiar with a big swamp out there and thought it would be a good spot to ambush a doe.

I've hunted this area off and on for the past eight years with a slug gun, and since it is a highly productive public hunting area, hunters push deer on and off this swamp the entire period during the regular season.

During the shotgun period, bucks and does move along the edge of the tree lines and funnel right into the swamp. After getting shot at a few times many take to open country, and you shoot them as they try to burrow into the swamp along the edge. Without the hunting pressure they acted quite differently. The deer I spotted in the three days of hunting there were using prominent lanes, and while sitting near the water on the second day, a big doe actually took a swim.

I decided that 60 yards was going to be the longest shot I would take on this hunt and no deer came into my circle of comfort, but I saw plenty of deer. The next time I get out there with my blackpowder rifle I will do things differently. Hunting when there are few other hunters in a region really is a different experience. If you do decide to try some late-season hunting and you want to go where the most deer are being harvested, here are the places to be.

The No. 1 area for bowhunters in 2002 was Permit Area 236. This section is north of the St. Croix River and near the metro area, so it is a magnet for archers. Of course you must consider that the statistics provided here cover the entire season, but in the words of an individual who I consider an addicted whitetail hunter, "For a bowhunter, the late season is when we pull out the stops."

These words from Pete Erickson reflect what typically happens to a bowhunter each season.

"I start out looking for a trophy," Erickson says. "Sometimes you might even see one before the rifle hunters can get out, but you don't get a shot. Then you just hope and pray that he'll still be there after all the big guns are gone and we can get back into the woods with our bows."

Last season in Permit Area 236 there were over 700 deer harvested by bowhunters. There wasn't another area even close. Of that 700, there were 260 that were bucks. That's a tremendous number of deer coming from that prolific river-bottom region.

Erickson hunts near the metro area. He has some spots west of Minneapolis where he can jump in his truck right after work and be there within minutes to take advantage of the evening deer movement.

"It's amazing how many big bucks make it through the regular season," said Erickson. "The big hunt can change their behavior some, but they don't go far from where you saw them before the shotguns and rifles came out."

Another place to look for some big bucks that slide by the gun hunters and are fair game in the late season is Permit Area 337. There were 567 deer harvested from this area in 2002, and 206 were bucks. It's No. 2 on the archery list and it's where a lot of Minneapolis hunters go because it's the western section of the metro area.

"In most cases a bowhunter wants a trophy," said Erickson, "but when a doe provides a perfect shot late into the last week of hunting, there's a good chance she'll get an arrow sent her way. That's why a lot of us shoot does. Since a trophy didn't provide us an opportunity, we might as well put some meat on the table."

The area that drops into third is Permit Area 228, located right on the edge of St. Paul. Sure, there are a lot of bowhunters in the metro area, but there are also a lot of deer. Over 550 archers scored in this section of the state, and that's a lot.

In fourth place is Permit Area 343 near Rochester. Not only are there a lot of bowhunters in this city but the area around Rochester also has some prime habitat for big deer - a lot of rolling hills covered with ribbons of trees. Deer move from food plot to sanctuary right down the middle of these shelterbelts, and a well-positioned bowhunter can set up a pretty effective ambush.

"Murphy's Law plays a big part when it comes to late-season bowhunting," said Erickson. "You've set up your stand on a well-used lane, and the entire afternoon you're hunting the deer are using the edge of the trees. You move to the edge and the next day they're using the lane. You know they must sense you, but you've done everything right. Two days later, nothing different, the big one steps out and gives you the shot. There's a lot to be said about skill, there's a ton to be said about luck."

There are a lot of lucky hunters in Permit Area 157. On the southeastern tip of Mille Lacs this is one of the most popular places in our state when it comes to bowhunters chasing deer. There's a tremendous amount of lowland swamp in this region with just enough trees to allow the bowhunter access to elevated hunting. There are a lot of north-metro hunters who make the longer trek there and start out the season with their bows, hunt with their guns when the regular season is in swing, and then return there for the late-season bowhunt. There is obviously something addicting about hunting this section of the state.

"When you get familiar with a spot, you discover patterns that will give you an edge," said Erickson. "You begin to see certain traits in the deer that are unique to that location. You notice certain does hanging out with certain bucks. If she comes past you while you're in your stand, you can bet some odds that that buck will be the one following. There are lots of little things like that and it gives you a little more of an edge."

The No. 1 destination when it comes to overall muzzleloader hunter success in 2002 was Permit Area 417.

Note that this location is not butted up against any major population base. In fact, there are only two areas in the top five that might have that distinction, and those two are near Brainerd. This could be an indication that muzzleloader hunters choose to forego the quick two-hour after-work hunt that a bowhunter takes advantage of. Instead they might take a few days off work and travel to the same spots where they hunted just a few weeks earlier with their rifle or shotgun. There's a different mindset between the bowhunter and the muzzleloader hunter.

"You only get one shot so you better make it count," says Corrigan. "I don't waste a bullet on a marginal shot." And he won't. Some hunters rely on luck and won't hunt with bow or muzzleloader because having only one shot is just too restrictive. Corrigan loves the challenge.

"When I was a kid our rifles and shotguns were all single shots," he said. "It didn't matter if we were hunting rabbits, squirrels or pheasants. You only had one chance and if you missed, you missed. When I'm hunting with my Hawkins it's no different. If I miss, I don't get a second chance. You better make sure you have a good shot at the deer."

In the second spot for muzzleloaders is Permit Area 157. This is that hotspot on the southeastern corner of Mille Lacs that is so productive. Fortunately Permit Area 157 is a large area so there is plenty of room for both the blackpowder rifles and the bows and arrows.

In third is Permit Area 467. This region is right on the southern border of Minnesota, firmly entrenched in farm country. I've been told that many of the landowners in the farmlands prefer late-season deer hunting. They open their property up to acquaintances from the city during the regular season. There will be parties of hunters that will drive cover and shoot bucks, does, whatever it takes to fill the tags. When the regular season ends, the landowner can pattern the remaining deer over the next couple of weeks and then when the muzzleloader season opens, that's when it's time for them to take to the spots where the deer are. It's a great way to share with friends and still get that quality hunt where it's just you and your muzzleloader waiting for that perfect shot.

"They may be more accurate than a smooth-bore shotgun," said Corrigan as he compared a muzzleloader to a slug gun, "but you have certain variables that make one much different than the other."

Corrigan relates the story of a big buck that was a mere 25 yards from his stand. He had the trophy in his sights, squeezed the trigger, and both he and the deer heard it at the same time: Click. The gun didn't fire. "I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach," said Corrigan.

He slipped another firing cap onto the nipple of the gun and fired at an old dead log on the ground. The gun fired perfectly. "Oh well," he smiles as he remembers. "It gave me a chance to chase him the next year."

In fourth and fifth place in the regular harvest report for muzzleloaders are two areas that are side-by-side just north and northwest of Brainerd. Not only is there a tremendous amount of public hunting ground in this region of the state, there is a wealth of deer habitat that is second to none.

Permit Areas 246 and Permit Area 242 are in the Brainerd Lakes region where lowland swamps are surrounded by resort communities. Hunting pressure is high in the region, but there is a high population of whitetails and plenty of opportunities well into the late season. This, with the abundance of available hunting grounds in the form of state forestlands makes it a hotspot for late-season hunters.

"I hunt private property, but that's not always the best option with blackpowder," Corrigan says. "You see, in a lot of ways the habitat is almost always much better on the land that is managed by the state. Since there aren't as many hunters out when the muzzleloader season is on, the deer tend to go back where the browse is best and there's plenty of cover. But it still comes down to being in the right place at the right time."

Like Corrigan and Erickson espouse, the best place to be to score on that late-season deer is wherever a deer walks out in front of you. This could be a fenceline next to a plowed field or it could be in the dense timber of a Federal forest on the Canadian border. In most cases the bowhunter will opt to stay close to home so they can get as much time in during the week as possible. For the muzzleloader some long days in the habitat fit the bill much better.

Wherever you go, lock Murphy in the trunk, make sure you keep your powder dry or always pick the right pin on the bow sights, and enjoy the hunt. There are a bunch of regular-season hunters who are waiting for safe ice, and they wish they could be deer hunting in December, too.

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