It's that time of year again. We're watching the forests turn into a kaleidoscope of color and wondering the same thing we wonder every year; what's deer season going to be like?
On an overall scope, this year should be pretty much like the last few years. The IDNR has had very liberal limits on antlerless deer in an effort to reduce the deer herd. In some counties it is working and the harvest numbers continue to slide as we see fewer deer to hunt. In other areas the deer continue to have good fawn survival and the population is increasing, despite increased hunting pressure.
As some of you know, head deer biologist Chad Stewart has moved from the state. Falyn Owens has taken over the program, so in April we asked her about the health of the herd.
IGF: How is the herd in Indiana doing?
Owens: The deer harvest in 2014 was down four percent compared to the previous year. It wasn't the drastic drop that I think some hunters were fearing. The decline in the harvest is consistent with our targeted efforts to reduce deer in some areas of the state.
IGF: Do you think there will be any surprises for the 2015-2016 season, compared to what we saw last year?
Owens: I do not anticipate any surprises in the 2015-16 harvest, unless we experience an outbreak of EHD (Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease) in late summer. If that happens, we may see a reduction in the harvest depending on the severity of outbreak. However, based on this year's harvest, I think there will be a reduction in bonus antlerless bag limits in a few counties, which will probably result in a few more counties being removed from the Special Antlerless Firearms season.
IGF: What impact do you think the massive acorn yield we had last fall will have on the deer herd?
Owens: The acorn mast definitely made this winter easier on the deer. I expect in the next couple of months we'll see a lot of healthy fawns on the landscape.
IGF: What areas of Indiana do you think receive little pressure?
Owens: Per square mile of deer habitat, the south-central and southeastern portions of the state receive less pressure compared to elsewhere. Large tracts of forested land with plenty of steep topography provide a lot of habitat for deer that is not easy for hunters to access.
IGF: If you were to pick one area to hunt in, where would that be?
Owens: Any county with a bonus antlerless quota of four or more would be a good choice.
As Owens stated, overall, the deer harvest was down 4 percent over the previous year, which continues an overall downward trend as the IDNR deer reduction program takes effect. Since the peak in 2012, the harvest has dropped almost 12 percent, which leaves many hunters wondering why.
"Several years ago, we modified our management strategy to focus deer herd reduction in a strategically targeted manner to more adequately balance ecological, recreational and economic needs of Indiana citizens," said Mitch Marcus, chief wildlife biologist for the DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife.
As reported by the IDNR, the 2014 season was composed of three statewide segments: archery, firearms and muzzleloader. A late antlerless season was available in 63 counties. Additionally, licensed youth age 17 or younger were eligible to participate in a two-day season in late September, and designated Urban Zones allowed archery or crossbow hunting from Sept. 15 through Jan. 31, 2015.
The firearms season was the most productive, accounting for 67,989 deer, or 57 percent of the total. The archery season accounted for 34,600 deer (29 percent), followed by muzzleloader (10,825; 9 percent), late antlerless (4,171; 3 percent), and youth (2,488; 2 percent). The archery season total included the urban zone harvest.
Despite the overall statewide decline, four southern counties set unofficial records in 2014 — Decatur, Fayette, Floyd, and Hancock.
Deer need four things to prosper: Food, cover, water, and other deer. Take just one of those things away and the population will fall. The good thing is that Indiana has plenty of food and water for deer.
Find the cover, and you'll find the deer. But in many areas of central Indiana the cover is disappearing. As commodity prices rise, farmers push to make their land produce more. Fence lines, woodlots, and buffer zones along waterways are being cleared at an alarming rate.
Before Stewart left his position, he noted that this will drastically alter valuable deer habitat and travel routes, in most cases for the worst.
"It almost assuredly will have an impact, and not just on the deer population, but on other hunted species as well," he said. "The counties with our smallest available permanent deer habitat are Tipton and Benton counties, which also are our counties which have our smallest deer harvests. That's not by coincidence.
Deer love agriculture, but they can't rely on it alone. They need cover, especially during the winter months, and the removal of small woodlots, fence rows, and other valuable cover like CRP, will ultimately reduce how many deer an area can support."
Generally, higher deer densities means higher hunter success. State-wide, hunters harvested an average 3.36 deer per square mile, but varied greatly from county to county. Benton County had the state low of 0.22 deer harvested per square mile, and Tipton County wasn't far behind at 0.47 deer harvested per square mile. And yet, Switzerland County hunters harvested an amazing 12.31 deer per square mile, and Ohio County wasn't far behind at 9.45.
We can more closely identify the higher deer producing counties if we break the state down into districts.
In District One the best producer was Porter County, with 3.23 deer harvested per square mile, followed closely by Lake County at 3.15. Not far away is Benton County, which had the state's lowest average of 0.22. But those numbers can be a little deceiving. Much of Lake and Porter counties are urban areas with no hunting allowed. The deer harvest numbers came from the remaining rural areas and Urban Zones. All of this proves what some hunters try to keep a secret: Urban Zones can have fantastic deer hunting.
In District Two, Starke and Marshall counties were the top producers with an average of 5.16 and 4.60 deer harvested per square mile, respectively. Kosciusko and Pulaski counties were close behind with averages of 4.34 and 3.94. While statistically LaPorte, St. Joseph, and Elkhart counties were lower than average, they also have a great deal of no-hunt urban areas, which drives the remaining rural and Urban Zone areas to a higher average.
District Three is one of the traditional hotspots of the state. Steuben County is one of the top deer producing counties at 8.21 deer harvested per square mile. Noble was also very high, with an average 6.36 deer harvested per square mile. De Kalb and LaGrange were higher than the state average with 4.91 and 4.67.In District Four, Fulton County was the leader with a 4.20, a slight increase over the 2013 average.
In District Five, Allen County is the leader with a 2.54 average, which again highlights the possibilities of Urban Zone hunting. With Ft. Wayne taking up a large portion of the county the average for the rest of the Urban Zones and rural areas will be higher.
There's more to District Six than canoe trips and covered bridge festivals. Parke County produced 5.35 deer per square mile. Vermillion, Putnam, and Fountain counties are all close to or above the state average. While Tippecanoe County results are below average at 2.30, many great opportunities exist in the Urban Zones around Lafayette.
Across District Seven exists the vast Indiana "Corn Desert." Hendricks County, one of the "Donut Counties" that surround Indianapolis, averages a low 1.58. At an average of 1.10, the hunting in Marion County sounds dismal. But those numbers are deceiving. Almost all of Marion County in within the Indianapolis city limits! Many bowhunters get their deer every year within view of the Indy skyline.
Considering the vast areas of the Donut Counties that are off-limits to hunting, the numbers prove that the remaining Urban Zones can be extremely productive for bow hunters. Seek out Urban Zone fringe areas where agriculture blends with suburban sprawl. They see little hunting pressure and can produce huge deer, especially around places like Eagle Creek Park.
In District Eight, Fayette County is the leader with an average of 4.89, which is a nice increase over 2013.
In District Nine the deer hunting can be great. The broken terrain of reclaimed coal mining mixed with agriculture allow deer to grow big and healthy. Owen County is the leader, with an average 3.98, followed closely by Greene County with 3.90 and Sullivan with 3.72.
In District Ten, the 2014 harvest for Brown County was way down, but it is still the leading deer producer with a 4.69 average. Being fit can increase a hunter's chances, as most of the county is rugged hills. This keeps many hunters close to the roads, leaving vast areas with little or no pressure. Jackson and Monroe counties are not far behind with 3.73 and 3.72 averages.
Jackson County hunters may also get a chance at the growing population of wild hogs roaming the wooded hills and valleys. While right outside the Indianapolis city limits, don't pass it up the opportunity to hunt in Morgan or Johnson counties. Both have untapped Urban Zones that produce lots of nice deer.
District 11 is still the number one place in Indiana for deer. Switzerland County hunters harvested an unparalleled 12.31 deer per square mile! Ohio County produced an average of 9.45, while Dearborn County more than doubled the state average with 8.31 deer harvested per square mile. We would be remiss if we didn't mention Franklin County, which wasn't far behind with 6.79 deer per square mile. Why the big numbers? The fields of crops mixed with rugged bluffs and valleys make it easy for deer to have a fawn-producing diet and be able to get away from hunting pressure.
In District 12, Martin, Dubois, and Pike counties are almost ties with above-average results of 4.75, 4.55, and 4.49, respectively.
If hunters are looking for an area to lease for hunting, it would be hard to pass up land in District 13. It is a powerhouse deer district with deer numbers well above average. Crawford County had an average of 7.30, and Harrison County is a close second with an average of 6.30. Like Jackson County next door, Washington and Lawrence counties have small populations of wild hogs. Increased pressure may continue to drive the hogs into new areas. The turkey hunting can be fantastic as well. Vast tracts of public land exist in the Hoosier National Forest. If a hunter is willing to hike away from the roads, great hunting can be found.
District 14 hunting runs from good to really good. The leader is Jefferson County at 6.25, followed closely by Floyd and Jennings with an average 5.55 and 5.54 deer harvested per square mile. Hunters can find great public land opportunities in the new Big Oaks Refuge.
In District 15, Perry County is the top producer at 4.74, followed closely by Vanderburgh and Warrick counties with averages of 4.21 and 3.78 deer harvested per square mile. To make the numbers look even more impressive, consider that all of Vanderburgh County is Urban Zone with much of it being Evansville suburban sprawl. That indicates that remaining hunting areas are fantastic!
Urban Zones are perhaps the best areas to find deer. They see little pressure, have lots of cover, and access to a varied diet from backyard gardens, fruit trees and shrubs.
One last thought before you go into the woods. The majority of game is going to be found in condensed areas. Do the pre-season scouting to find those areas. During season, hunt harder and longer and you'll increase your chances of filling the freezer. So get out there and make your own luck.