Deer season starts this month, and the vast majority of us are wondering what lies ahead. Where are our best chances of putting meat in the freezer and a rack on the wall? That's what this two-part special is about. This month we'll look at the best locations to put meat in the freezer. Next month, we'll look at the best places to hunt to put a trophy rack on the wall.
If you've read the Indiana Department of Natural Resources harvest report you already know 2015 was one of the top ten seasons for total deer harvested. Over the four 2015 seasons 123,664 deer were checked in, and the percentage of bucks increased by 10 percent over the 2014 harvest.
This year many Indiana hunters are debating the effect that the new rifle regulations will have. As far as the harvest numbers are concerned, those figures seem to be more influenced by weather, season length and bag limits than equipment allowed, DNR reports indicate.
Love the new regulations or hate them, they definitely created a buzz and will most likely get some new hunters afield. While the official regulations were not compiled as of our press time, additional information should become available on the DNR website. HEA 1231 is scheduled to expire after the 2020 deer season, at which time the DNR will submit an impact report to the Governor and the General Assembly.
Also unknown at press time is if the IDNR will make a new high- powered rifle season, or if the newly allowed cartridges will be allowed during the regular firearm season. Be sure to pick up the latest copy of the hunting and trapping regulations or check online as information is made available.
To make a forecast, we need to examine the historical data to look for a trend. If you've read the IDNR report, the firearm season harvest and the overall antlered deer harvest, numbers were up nicely.
So why did we have such a great deer season? That may be in part due to one huge factor that kept hunters in the field. The weather was great. It's as simple as that for most hunters. Great weather means more hunters spend more time in the field, which means more deer in the freezer.
So what does the 2016 forecast look like? How is the health of the deer herd?
Indiana's deer herd is incredibly healthy. Last season EHD had a minimal impact on the herd, with only three confirmed counties. Unless the same conditions arise that we experienced in 2012, it should remain minimal.
The real concern for many is Chronic Wasting Disease. CWD has been found in several Illinois counties bordering Indiana. Wildlife officials are doing all they can with CWD surveillance in wild deer and CWD surveillance in captive cervids. Plus, a CWD response plan is in place should CWD show up within 10 miles of the Indiana border.
Currently, the IDNR's overall plan is to reduce and stabilize the deer herd. We can expect to see fewer deer as more hunting pressure and harvesting takes place in the northern part of the state. It doesn't help that more and more farms are clearing marginal ground and fencerows. Deer use these as cover and travel routes. The southern part of the state seems to be countering the IDNR's efforts. The biggest reason is that Indiana's forests and hills provide great sanctuary, food and cover.
So what counties and areas of the state hold your best chances of putting venison in the freezer? Generally, greater deer densities mean better hunter success. Statewide, hunters harvested an average 3.46 deer per square mile, but the range runs from a low of 0.22 deer harvested per square mile in Benton County to an incredible high of 12 deer harvested per square mile in Switzerland County. Why the huge difference? If you look at the map you'll see the vast "corn desert" that runs through the middle of the state. If you drive through the area in the winter you'll see small islands of trees miles apart and the rest is a barren moonscape of harvested corn and soybean fields. It's simple. Limited habitat means less deer and it's easier for hunters to key in on good areas.
State biologists agree. It appears that hunters are having more of an impact in reducing the deer population in the fractured habitat of northern Indiana than the more continuous habitat and larger woods of southern Indiana.
Dividing things up by districts, we can more effectively identify the more prolific deer-producing counties. To increase our hunting odds, we need to look for areas that are better than average.
In District One the best producers were Porter and Lake counties, with a better than average 3.61 and 3.42 deer harvested per square mile. But just next door is Benton County, which had the state's lowest average, at 0.22. The rest of the zone was statistically average or slightly below. But those numbers can be a little deceiving. Much of Lake and Porter counties are urban areas with no hunting allowed. That indicates that the deer numbers harvested came from the remaining rural areas and Urban Zones. Taking that into account, the numbers of deer harvested in those counties was most likely a little better than average.
In District Two, Starke and Marshall counties were the top producers, with an average of 4.93 and 4.41 deer harvested per square mile, respectively. Kosciusko County was close behind, with an average of 4.13. While statistically LaPorte, St. Joseph and Elkhart counties were lower than average, they also have a great deal of urban areas, which would put the remaining rural and Urban Zone areas at a higher average.
District Three is one of the traditional hotspots in the state. Steuben County is one of the top deer producing counties, at 8.17 deer harvested per square mile. Noble and DeKalb were also very high with an average 6.38 and 5.44 deer harvested per square mile, and LaGrange County was just behind them, with an average of 5.07.
In District Four, Fulton County was the leader, with a 4.08 average.
In District Five, Allen and Jay counties tie, with an average 2.56. But the results are skewed. With Fort Wayne taking up a large portion of Allen County, the average for the rest of the rural areas would be higher. Plus there are some great opportunities in the Urban Zones.
There's more to District Six than covered bridges and canoeing. Scenic Parke County produced a respectable 5.37 deer per square mile. Vermillion County was also above average, with 4.25 deer harvested per square mile. While Tippecanoe County results are below average at 1.82, many great opportunities exist in the Urban Zones around Lafayette.
Across District Seven exists the vast Indiana "Corn Desert." While the numbers for each county is below average, there are places in each county that are great. Look for areas that provide year-round food and habitat and you'll find the deer. The Urban Zones, especially those around Indianapolis see little pressure and can produce huge deer.
In general, urban deer hunting provides phenomenal opportunities for hunters if they are fortunate enough to gain access. That being said, most urban hunting is going to be limited to archery or crossbow hunting, since firearm use is often limited or prohibited. IDNR biologists noted that the possibility for larger deer densities exists in urban areas, which bodes well for the success of an urban deer hunter.
In District Eight, Fayette County is the leader, with an average of 5.07, followed by Union County, with 3.83.
In District Nine, Owen County is the leader, with an average of 4.46.
In District Ten, Brown County is a deer producer with a 5.63 average. Monroe County is not far behind, with 4.31. Jackson County hunters may also get a chance to bring home bacon with their venison as a small but growing population of wild hogs roams the wooded hills and valleys. Many feel this negatively impacts deer herds, and nearby states are looking at aggressive methods to eliminate their wild hogs before it is too late.
District 11 is the number one place for deer in Indiana. Switzerland County hunters harvested a phenomenal 12 deer per square mile! Ohio County produced an average of 9.31, while Dearborn County beat the state average with 8.39 deer harvested per square mile! Franklin County doubled the state average with 7.49 deer per square mile.
In District 12, Dubois, Pike and Martin counties were in a three-way heat with above-average results of 4.74, 4.56 and 4.42 respectively.
Trying to pick the best areas to hunt in District 13 is not an easy decision. All of the counties are well above average, with the top producer being Crawford County, with an average of 7.75. Harrison County is a close second, with an average of 6.65. Like Jackson County next door, Washington and Lawrence counties have growing populations of wild hogs. There are no limits or seasons on Indiana's feral hogs.
District 14 runs from average to great hunting. The leader is Jefferson County at 6.44 followed closely by Scott with an average 5.93 deer harvested per square mile. Jennings (5.74), Floyd (5.55) and Clark (5.22) are also great choices.
In District 15, Perry County is the top producer at 5.10, followed by Vanderburgh (3.83) and Warrick (3.66) counties.
As biologists tell us, numbers don't change drastically, so the best areas last year likely will still be top spots this year. Study the numbers, and start knocking on farmers' doors.
Since most of Indiana is private, many hunters need to actively work with farmers to get permission to hunt. But many farmers are closing gates and turning a deaf ear to pleas from hunters. Why? Generally speaking, hunters do not provide enough of a service to outweigh the hassle and destruction many disrespectful hunters inflict. So how do hunters gain hunting privileges? It's called sweat equity. Help them work their farm, and don't abuse their trust.
We can also head for Indiana's public lands. Often they are crowded, but the hunters that put in the time required for pre-season scouting, that hike farther and hunt harder, find deer. With just a little bit of work, that could be you.
So now that we've covered a few of the areas that are worth checking into this season, it's time for you to head afield to one of these locations or to another deer hotspot near you.