Minnesota's Late-Season Deer Hotspots

Minnesota's Late-Season Deer Hotspots

When December rolls around, all you get is one shot at a whitetail, whether you are using a muzzleloader or a bow. Here's where to go to make your shot count.

By Tim Lesmeister

Even though you can purchase an in-line muzzleloader with a rifled barrel that uses primer caps that are almost foolproof, you still only get one shot during the muzzleloader season. And look at those bows. You can draw and hold for minutes instead of seconds, and they're very accurate out to 50 yards. But you only get one shot and it does take some practice to maintain the necessary skill level with a bow and arrow.

So what is the motivation to chase white-tailed deer with a bow or a muzzleloader during the late season?

There is the challenge, of course. But more than that, there is the ability to take to the woods long after those shotgunners and rifle-toters are long gone and you have the entire landscape all to yourself. There will definitely be fewer deer now that the regular firearm season is over. The whitetails that are left will be more alert, but getting to spend a couple of weeks in the field, and not being surrounded by hunter orange in every direction, is the motivation many hunters have to take advantage of our late-season hunting.

There is little doubt that hunters are becoming more dedicated to extending their season by utilizing the All-Season Deer License. With this license you can bowhunt during that season, take part in the regular firearm season with rifle or shotgun, and then hunt with a muzzleloader or bow during the late season. Last year, over 22,000 hunters chose this license.

The drawback to the All-Season Deer License is the price. Some hunters might find the $79 price tag a bit high, but when you consider that you can hunt from mid-September until the end of December with a bow, rifle, shotgun or muzzleloader, the price of this license seems pretty reasonable.

According to Lou Cornicelli, the Department of Natural Resources big-game specialist, the amount of hunters purchasing the bow-only or the muzzleloader license is dropping.

"The number of people that are buying straight muzzleloader licenses is going down, although the muzzleloader kill is going up," he said. "And that's a function of more guys going with an All-Season Deer License. Archery hunters are also moving towards the All-Season Deer License, and while it looks like a drop in archery licenses, it's just hunters shifting over to the All-Season Deer License."

Cornicelli is certain that the All-Season Deer License will gain more in popularity this season.

Photo by John R. Ford

"The reason that numbers of All-Season Deer Licenses is going to go up is because this year you can party-hunt with it," he said, "which you couldn't in the past. I've noticed the Multi-Zone (license sales) are going down and the All-Season Deer License is going up, so we're going to see more of that."

The plain and simple beauty of that All-Season Deer License is that it's a multi-opportunity license. You can party-hunt in any season as long as the licenses are all the same weapon type. You can hunt with all three weapons. You can start in the middle of September and hunt through December. It more than justifies the expense.

The reason the All-Season Deer License is just catching on is because when it was put in place in 2000 it was an all-season buck license and you could only take one deer. This is the third year the license lets you take two deer (where applicable), and the popularity of this license has really picked up. I predict the upward trend will continue.

Archers have the benefit of the longest season. Many bowhunters even wear hunter orange and sit in the stands with their bows during the firearm season. But most bowhunters will tell you that the prime times to be in the woods are the weeks before and those after the firearms season.

My brother-in-law is one of those hunters. When I asked him why he had passed up some 8-point bucks that wandered past him, he said, "The next one could be a 12-pointer, and if I shoot the first deer that walks by, I'm done hunting. I like being in the woods. I come to hunt, not just shoot a deer."

There are plenty of hunters with that attitude, and when the regular firearm season is over, they're picking up the bow or the muzzleloader and heading right back into the woods.

While it's legal to use a muzzleloader that sports a scope during the regular firearm season, that option is not available during the muzzleloader season.

"My inclination is that the rule was set up to keep it a more primitive hunt," said Cornicelli. "A scope will definitely increase the range on a muzzleloader, so the intent was to keep the hunt more primitive, even though we allow in-line rifles with sabot bullets. I get enough queries about this rule that we may include some questions on our next round of public-input sessions."

Cornicelli is a seasoned muzzleloader hunter and is the first to admit that the odds of making a long-range shot with a scoped muzzleloader are much higher.

"When I lived in Indiana I shot a lot of muzzleloaders, and off a bench at 200 yards I could shoot a 4-inch group easily with a scope," said Cornicelli. "A scope takes a 100-yard gun and turns it into a 200-yard gun."

The lure of the muzzleloader is so high for Cornicelli that he even prefers it during the firearm season.

"I've been muzzleloader hunting for over 14 years and I prefer a muzzleloader over a shotgun," he said. "It's a personal thing, but I'd rather have one good shot than multiple shots that are more marginal in accuracy. I personally have one muzzleloader with a scope and one with a peep sight. During the firearms season I use a scoped muzzleloader and during the muzzleloader season I just use the one with the peep sight.

"It's all about accuracy," continued Cornicelli. "I've found that the muzzleloader is much more accurate than the slug shotgun. I know that the technology has improved dramatically when it comes to slug shotguns, but I know that with a good muzzleloader I can achieve outstanding accuracy because the barrels are so good and the bullets perform so well. I can outperform the shotgun slugs at long distances. We can argue about primitive hunting with muzzleloaders until we're blue in the face, but the technology of the guns is there and it's only the optics that will keep you from accurately shooting out to 200 yards."

But what about bowhunting?

"You could make the same arg

ument with archery," said Cornicelli. "I shoot a longbow when I'm bowhunting, and there are guys out there that will shoot 50 to 60 yards with laser sights on compound bows. My bow is a heck of a lot more primitive than what's out there, and we certainly allow people to shoot whatever they want for a bow during the bow season."

It wasn't surprising to hear that Cornicelli was partial to a longbow because my impression from discussions with deer hunters at sports shows is that the recurves and longbows are gaining back popularity with them.

"I really like the longbow," said Cornicelli. "My uncle was a field-archery champion back in the 1950s, and he made bows and I have a couple of his recurves. That got me into shooting instinctively when I was about 15 years old. I picked up the compound bow when everyone else did and killed a bunch of deer with that bow, but I always liked the feel of the longbow. They're just so much smoother than anything else out there. The sight plane is a lot better because the arrow runs along the thumb. I find them easy to aim and I just like them better. I like shooting instinctively. I always have. I've killed a lot of deer with compound bows and I killed my first couple of archery deer with a recurve bow, but I just decided I wanted to get into a more instinctive style of hunting with a longbow."

One thing that archery hunters must be cautious about after the regular firearm season ends is that during the muzzleloader season the hunter orange requirements are in place and even bowhunters have to abide by that rule. Occasionally a bowhunter will wrongly believe that once the rifles and shotguns are gone that they can pack the orange and go with full camouflage. Such is not the case during the muzzleloader season.

I know there are a lot of deer hunters out there that would love to extend their season, yet the guns get packed away right after the firearms season is over. Their thoughts are that the limitation of one shot with a muzzleloader is too confining and that there just aren't many deer left after the guns get done blazing. Now you know that muzzleloaders are plenty accurate when it comes to taking a deer that's in range. As far as the potential that still exists, let's look at the numbers.

During the 2003 season, there were 9,142 muzzleloader-only licenses sold. Those hunters had a 54 percent success rate for a harvest of 4,933 deer. Those are pretty good results considering the record harvest the rifle/shotgun hunters had.

On top of that there were 30,998 All-Season Deer Licenses sold, and those that hunted the muzzleloader season with this license killed 4,281 whitetails.

So you can see that even though the blazing guns during those few short weeks before the muzzleloader season thinned the deer population dramatically, there were still plenty of animals left for those who chose a late-season option.

It's a bit tougher to gauge the late-season archery success rate. Bowhunters get almost two months of hunting in before the firearms season begins and can be in the woods from four to six weeks after the shotgun/rifle season ends. In 2003, there were 60,767 archery-only licenses sold and 20,870 deer killed during the season with bow and arrow. The records don't show when those deer were shot.

But this year there will be a number of the All-Season Deer License holders that can do double duty with their license. They can start out the season hunting with a bow, and when their buddies take to the woods with their rifles and shotguns, they too can grab a gun and join in with the party. Once the regular gun season is over, back into the woods with the bow for the late-season hunting. That was not possible until this year. In the past the All-Season Deer License did not allow party hunting. This year it does.

Now that means avid trophy hunters have plenty of options. They can harvest a doe right off the bat and hunt with a party of friends during the firearms season with their guns, and if that big buck doesn't show itself, they can take to the woods and fields in the late season and be picky about it. That's what Cornicelli plans to do.

"You can shoot a doe right away and then wait for that trophy if you want," he said. "My intent this year will be to shoot the first doe that walks by and tag it with my antlerless tag, and then I'll have something in the freezer and I can be more discerning when it comes to that second deer."

Something else that the 2003 numbers show is that when it comes to archery hunting, the highest kills occurred in permit areas near the Twin Cities metro area. There is obviously a large concentration of bowhunters in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and none of them need to travel far to get into productive hunting spots.

The No. 1 area for archery harvest was Permit Area 236, which has its southern border touching Stillwater and extending north to North Branch. This is St. Croix River country on the east, and in the central zone of this area to the western boundary the wooded patches around the Chisago Lakes provide plenty of cover and browse. It's a veritable goldmine for late-season archery hunters who want to stay close to home.

No. 2 is Permit Area 228, which is just south of Permit Area 236 and runs from Hastings on the south to Anoka on the north. The landscape of both of these metro hunting areas is very much alike with the Mississippi River cutting the boundary west of Permit Area 228.

The third-highest harvest came from Permit Area 337, which includes the Mississippi River as its eastern boundary and encompasses all the lands north, south and west of Minneapolis.

No. 4 on the kill list was Permit Area 227, which is just to the north of areas 236 and 228. As you can see, the location of these areas surround the metro area, which is a testament to the dedication bowhunters have to their sport. They search for areas close to home so they can spend as much time in the woods as possible.

This changes with the muzzleloader hunter. Permit Area 245 topped the list in the highest numbers of deer killed by muzzleloader. This area has Park Rapids on the southwest corner and extends to Backus on the east, and north past Walker. It's a big area with a lot of lakes, timber and big bucks.

You have to head to the southern border for the second-highest muzzleloader area, which is Permit Area 467. Permit Area 467 is right on the edge of Minnesota's main agricultural belt. On the east side there are some limestone bluffs and rolling hills resembling the typical southeast Minnesota landscape, but on the western edge of this area, it is cropland.

Permit Area 410 was the third-highest area for muzzleloader harvest. This area has Fergus Falls on the southern border and Detroit Lakes on the northern border. This is another top spot in the state when it comes to big bucks. These monsters have no lack of hiding places during the regular season with all the swamps and wetlands there. With some luck, these big deer will show themselves when the woods quiet down and the muzzleloader hunters have the woodlands all to themselves.


he only two areas that made the top four that adjoin are Permit Areas 467 and 466, which had the fourth-highest harvest total for muzzleloader hunters. Permit Area 466 is a big square section of our state that is covered in corn and beans. It wouldn't surprise me if those landowners down there don't break out the muzzleloaders after the firearms hunters head home to chase some of those big corn-fed bucks that they've been watching all summer when the crops were in. If these big deer dodged the shotgun hunter's slugs, he won't be standing long when those landowners have the benefit of a couple of weeks to pattern them after the crops have been harvested and all the gun hunters are gone.

Every year more hunters are discovering the joy of the late-season hunt. The reason, according to Cornicelli is simple.

"There's a lot of opportunities for those late-season hunters," he said. "You might think that there are a lot fewer deer and they're pretty picked over, but it's a fun challenge and does allow you to stay out there longer."

And sometimes, that's what it's all about.

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