There's good news for deer hunters over much of the state's Lower Peninsula that will potentially increase their chances of success this fall. Deer hunting with limited quantities of bait is now legal again throughout the entire L.P., with the exception of six counties in the northeast. If you've hunted over bait in the past, you should be happy. The change will benefit bowhunters the most because their rate of success is usually lower when and where baiting is prohibited.
The words "bait pile" are obsolete when referring to deer bait. Hunters can use up to two gallons of bait per day that is spread out as much as possible. Recommendations call for spreading bait over a minimum of 100 square feet, which is an area measuring 10 feet by 10 feet.
Research done using varying quantities of bait has determined that hunters using limited amounts have a much better chance of seeing deer, including bucks, during legal shooting hours because there is competition for the small amount of quality food. When large quantities of bait are used, deer — especially bucks — tend to visit bait sites more after dark.
Recreational feeding of deer with up to two gallons of food per day is also legal again, with the exception of the counties in the northeast where TB persists in some deer. Counties where baiting and feeding deer remain illegal are Alcona, Alpena, Iosco, Montmorency, Oscoda and Presque Isle.
Basically, baiting regulations are the same as they were in 2008 when the L.P. baiting ban went into effect. A captive doe diagnosed with chronic wasting disease in Kent County during August of 2008 is what triggered the ban. After three years of testing free-ranging whitetails for the disease, no new cases have surfaced.
About two-thirds of the comments the Natural Resources Commission received from the public, including non-hunters, about baiting and feeding at hearings held over a three month period supported reinstating the use of bait and feed for deer. To the NRC's credit, they listened to the public. Now L.P. hunters who choose to use bait have a better chance of filling tags, especially those hunters who hunt on public property where food plots are not available.
Counties in the southern one third of the state — Region 3 — are where hunters have their best chance of collecting venison for the freezer. Even without the use of bait in 2010, 47.1 percent of the hunters who tried their luck in that region bagged at least one deer, according to estimates by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment. Mild winters and excellent habitat with lots of openings, agriculture and young forests is why Region 3 has the most deer and some of the best deer hunting in the state. Due to the excellent nutrition available to the whitetails in that region, they are also more productive than those in the rest of the state, with many doe fawns getting pregnant and having fawns of their own when 1 1/2 years old. And adult does having triplets isn't unusual.
Now that baiting is legal again, closer to 50 percent of the hunters who hunt in Region 3 should fill a tag. Due to the abundance of quality natural foods in this region, however, it is one portion of the state where hunters are less likely to have to rely on the use of bait to see deer. The U.P. or Region 1, where baiting has remained legal, was next in line for success in 2010, according to the DNRE. The percentage of hunters who shot at least one deer in the U.P. last fall was 35.6.
The second mild winter in a row will increase deer sightings and hunting success in the U.P. this year, especially across the southern half of the region where winter was mildest and snow depths were lowest. In spite of increased deer numbers, however, two factors will prevent hunters from taking as many deer as they could and should in Region 1. The DNRE remains stingy on the issuance of antlerless permits, reducing the chances of hunters who are willing to take a doe to be able to do so. And unnecessary antler restrictions remain in effect U.P.-wide for hunters who buy combo deer licenses. They are limited to shooting bucks with at least 3 points on one antler.
U.P. hunters who don't like the antler restrictions can buy a single bow or gun deer license, allowing them to shoot a buck with at least 3-inch spikes. But once that tag is filled, they are done hunting, which reduces recreational opportunity, unless they happen to hunt in one of the few areas where antlerless permits are available and are lucky enough to get one. This fall will be the fourth year for these restrictive regulations with no obvious benefits to hunters or the herd. The rules were supposed to increase the number of adult bucks in the herd and there's no evidence that the desired result has materialized.
Only 32.6 percent of the hunters who spent time in the northern L.P. — or Region 2 — during 2010 managed to shoot a deer. Now that baiting is legal again for most of the region, success should improve there, but the antler restrictions that went into effect in Deer Management Unit 487 in the northeast will hamper hunters from filling tags. In fact, those regulations, which are the same as those in effect across the U.P., likely have set the stage for an increase in the prevalence rate of TB among deer in that DMU by significantly reducing the buck harvest. The harvest of antlered bucks during archery season in the Northeast District was down by 24.2 percent in 2010 from 2009, and the buck kill during firearms season in that district was down 21.7 percent between those same years.
By reducing the harvest of yearling bucks, more of them will get a year older and grow bigger antlers, but the prevalence rate of TB is also highest among adult bucks that are at least 2 1/2 years old. So by protecting more bucks from hunters, there's the potential for more of them to contract TB. The unpopular rules actually reduced hunting pressure in that DMU, which ended up also reducing the antlerless harvest for 2010. Lower deer harvests of both sexes translate into increasing deer numbers and more TB.
For all seasons in 2010, the buck harvest for the Northeast District was down to 21,509 from 27,310 the year before, a decline of 21.2 percent. The antlerless harvest only declined by 1 percent to 20,360 from 20,551, but that's significant because regulations were liberalized to try to increase the antlerless harvest. For the first time, firearms hunters hunting in DMU 487 were allowed to fill regular gun tags with antlerless deer, in addition to having unlimited antlerless permits. That change apparently didn't have the desired impact.
Due to antler restrictions in DMU 487 and the continued ban on baiting in six counties that are part of that unit, counties outside 487 in the Northeast District and those that make up the Northwest District will be the best places to fill a tag in Region 2 this fall. According to a DNRE report on deer hunting success during 2010 seasons, 33.3 percent of hunters in the Northwest bagged at least one deer compared to 28.6 percent in the Northeast. Counties that are part of the Northwest District are Newaygo, Mecosta, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Osceola, Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Benzie, Leelanau, Grand Traverse and Kalkaska. The southernmost counties in that district, which are the first six listed, tend to have higher deer densities than those counties to the north.
No antlerless permits are available for Kalkaska County, which is an indication of low deer numbers. In Leelanau County, bucks must have at least 3 points on one antler to be legal, but plenty of antlerless permits should be available. Antler point restrictions will be in effect on Beaver Island this year for the first time due to requests from island residents. So bucks must have a minimum of 3 points on one antler that are at least an inch long to be legal. According to the DNRE, this antler point restriction will protect 80 percent of the yearling bucks and 25 percent of the 2 1/2-year-olds. Hunters who will be hunting the island this fall will increase their chances of getting venison if they have an antlerless permit.
Counties in the Northeast District that offer the best chances of bagging a deer this fall where baiting is legal and restrictive antler restrictions are not in effect are Roscommon, Ogemaw, Crawford, Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego. Cheboygan County also falls in this category, but there will be no antlerless permits issued for this county, reducing the chances of filling a tag.
In spite of the restrictive antler requirements in place for the entire U.P. for combo license holders, the West U.P. District is the best place in the state, by a slight margin, for hunters interested in tagging an antlered buck. In fact, that district in Region 1 was always the best in the state for buck hunting success by a much wider margin prior to establishment of antler restrictions, and it could be returned to that status with their elimination. For all seasons, 31.5 percent of the hunters in that district bagged a buck last fall. The record mild winter of 2009-2010 played a major role in contributing to the best buck hunting in the state last fall for the West U.P. Winter deer survival was excellent, as was fawn production.
Although the most recent winter wasn't as easy on deer in the northern U.P. as the previous one, it was easier than normal. And whitetails in the southern U.P. had another easy winter, so easy that many of them did not even have to enter winter yards like they usually do. That means even more bucks will be available to hunters in the west U.P. this fall.
The best counties in the west U.P. to fill a tag are Menominee, Delta, Dickinson and Iron. Southern Marquette County can be added to the list. Besides having plenty of bucks, these are the only areas in the U.P. where antlerless permits are available this fall. Other west U.P. counties that offer good buck hunting are Gogebic, Ontonagon and Houghton.
The second best district in the state for buck hunting success based on results of the 2010 season from the DNRE, is Region 3's Southcentral. An estimated 31.1 percent of the hunters who tried their luck in that district connected on bucks. The same district was tops in the state for deer of either sex for all seasons. Success was 34.5 percent in that category.
Counties in the Southcentral District are Hillsdale, Lenawee, Washtenaw, Jackson, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Shiawassee, Clinton, Ionia, Montcalm and Gratiot. These counties currently offer some of the best deer hunting in the state. Public lands are limited in many of these counties, but the DNRE is expanding their Hunter Access Program for hunting on private lands in Region 3 this year. Look for details about lands available for hunting under HAP on the DNRE Web site at www.michgian.gov/hunting. Mike Parker, the DNRE coordinator of the program, can be reached via email at email@example.com or by calling (517) 641-4903, extension 228.
Two more districts in Region 3 that offer terrific odds of filling at least one tag this fall are Saginaw Bay and Southwest. The overall rate of success for deer of either sex during all seasons in 2010 was 32.1 percent for Saginaw Bay and 31.7 percent for the Southwest District. The counties in the Saginaw Bay District are Saginaw, Tuscola, Sanilac, Huron, Bay, Midland, Isabella, Clare, Gladwin and Arenac. Those that make up the Southwest District are Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph, Branch, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, Van Buren, Allegan, Barry, Ottawa, Kent and Muskegon.
There are other benefits of deer hunting, of course, besides collecting venison for the freezer. One of those benefits is therapeutic such as helping cope with the loss of a loved one as well as many other types of stress we face in everyday life. That's what 85-year-old Bill Brown did last fall after losing his wife; he bagged his best buck ever on his first hunt with a crossbow.
Here's how Bob Brown, one of Bill's sons, explained it: "My mom, Fran Brown, was happily married to my dad for more than 63 years when she passed away October 5, 2010. An avid hunter, my 85-year-old dad was so sad that he had decided to skip deer hunting season. My brothers and I helped him change his mind. We told him that it might be good for him and that our mom would have wanted him to do something he liked so much."
Part of the persuasion Brown's sons used to get him into the woods is they gave him a crossbow as a gift. On his first day of hunting with the crossbow, which was Oct. 23, a big buck approached a food plot in Eaton County that one of his friends allowed him to hunt. Bill made a perfect 20-yard shot on the 11-pointer. And on opening day of firearms season, Bill missed an even bigger buck with a shotgun. He's now looking forward to the 2011 season.