One of Minnesota's most amazing deer hunting qualities is the sheer variety of whitetail habitat across our state. It's almost impossible to find a state offering so many different hunting experiences.
Do you hunt the remote and open farmland of the far northwest, interspersed with aspen parkland? Perhaps you roam the central transition zone between prairie and forest. Many of us head to the deep woods and open clearcuts of north-central Minnesota. Some hardy souls brave the wilderness of the far northeast.
Farther south, we have the deer-rich central-mix country of farmland and big woods, with some of our state's densest deer populations. Closer to the Metro area, big bucks roam fertile farmland and suburban escapes. To the southeast sits our Hill Country, a maze of bluffs, coulees, and farmed ridges and river bottoms.
Back out on the open prairie of the south and swinging up the western side of the state along the South Dakota border, we find sprawling cropfields, wetlands and woodlots — and whitetails too.
Among all of that, what do you call deer-hunting home? Or maybe you're on the lookout for a new Minnesota deer-hunting experience this fall. Either way, you need to know what's going on with our state's deer herd — where the harvest has been coming from and what prospects are looking like this year — to make some decisions on where to go to put some venison on the ground this fall whether you're carrying a bow, a slug gun or rifle.
Last year, my youngest boy Noah and I ventured out to some new ground. With north woods, central forests and southeastern ridges in my deer-hunting experience, we got the chance to try something new: a western Minnesota hunt, out in Swift County toward the South Dakota border. Big, open country!
We got to do a little scouting during the duck opener, and identified a couple of trees in the swath of prairie grass and slough where we might place a stand. During a follow-up trip in late October we erected a ladder stand.
Do you remember what opening day of gun season was like last year? Wind, wind and more wind. We even got down put of the stand because it was swaying so much. By midmorning, we had not seen a deer. Noah was game for sitting some more though, and I thought I could get something to happen. I made a long stroll through the prairie grass and slough cattails.
2013 RESULTS: OVERALL
Last year, the total Minnesota deer harvest came in at 172,781 whitetails. While that's a healthy number, it is also true that it is smaller than previous years. By design, our deer population has been cut back from the years of 200,000-plus harvests experienced from 2000 through 2008, with a peak of 290,525 deer shot in 2003, and more than 250,000 each in 2004 through 2007.
The harvests started tailing off in 2008, and by 2009 the number of deer shot was down below 200,000, at 194,186. It's been dropping ever since, but we're probably seeing the flat line now, because whitetail population goals are being reached.
The only fly in the ointment may have been our brutal winter last year.
In the end, expect a season about like last year. Remember that 2013's harvest numbers included the real and negative effects of the high winds that roared through the state on opening weekend of gun season, when the lion's share of our deer harvest typically happens. Cross your fingers for good conditions this year.
2013 RESULTS: ARCHERY
We arrowed 19,388 whitetails last fall, with an overall success rate of 14.5 percent. How does that harvest break down? Turns out, it leans a little more toward adult does (8,945) than adult bucks (7,460), indicating we Minnesotans are happy to put venison in the freezer with our bows. Buck fawns (1,632) and doe fawns (1,351) round out the archery harvest.
Looking for the most productive units for archery whitetails? Many of the 200-series units are leaders, with 227 (759 whitetails) and 236 (600 deer) topping the list. Units 215, 218, 221, 225 and 241 all topped 500 animals. For the 100-series units in the north and central regions, units 157 (336 deer) and 182 (a whopping 739) led the way.
Want to know where the most archery deer of all are shot though? This may or may not be a surprise to you, but the Metro area (601) leads by far with 2,120 archery whitetails harvested in suburbia and exurbia. That is due to lots of bowhunters on small plots within a short drive of home, plus dense deer populations.
2013 RESULTS: FIREARM
We shot 145,449 whitetails last fall with rifles and shotguns. Zone 2 pounded all the other zones, with 80,328 deer shot for a healthy 31.6 percent hunter success rate. By its sheer size, Zone 1 came in second with 49,156 whitetails and a slightly lower 26.8 percent success rate, figures to be expected considering the bigger-woods environment being hunted there. Zone 3 in the southeast tallied 12,503 whitetails and a 30 percent success rate.
Round out the firearms harvest with 1,345 deer in the CWD zone and various free landowner permits (1,416), plus 230 depredation tags filled, to tally the 145,449.
It's nice to know the totals, but what is more insightful are the harvests-per-square-mile figures, to give you an idea of the true productivity of Minnesota's deer hunting units. When you use these numbers, several units rise to the top when evaluated in deer shot per square mile (dpsm) of deer habitat.
In Zone 1, it's clear that units 155, 156, 157 and 159 lead the way, with 157 very tops at 5.54 dpsm and 155 at 4.07 dpsm, with the other two units well above 3.5 dpsm.
The Zone 2 units are where it gets interesting. Consider the whopping 6.08 dpsm harvest in unit 241 (tops in the state) as well as the 5.45 dpsm in unit 214. Plenty of units brought in more than 4 dpsm, and that list incudes 222, 225, 240, 247 and 259.
Although Zone 3 has plenty of deer, the hunting is not easy in that rough country. The only units that can muster more than 3 dpsm are 344 (at 3.08) and 346 (at 3.61). Moving into the Metro unit 601 we drop down to 2.01 dpsm in gun season, reflective of the restrictions on firearm hunting (municipally or by landowners) across the Metro. Bottom line? Metro is a bow zone!
2013 RESULTS: MUZZLELOADER
If the weather cooperates, Minnesota has a nice muzzleloader hunt that starts in late November and runs into December. While not huge, the harvest does have an impact, and last year 7,045 muzzleloader whitetails were registered in our state.
With abundant agricultural land that puts whitetails on somewhat of a predictable feeding pattern, the state's Zone 2 and Zone 3 units produce the most muzzleloader harvest, with unit 241 (248 deer), unit 214 (194 deer), unit 218 (181 deer) and unit 349 (168 deer) leading the way.
Of course, zones and units vary by size, and absolute deer harvest numbers are not always accurate measures of whitetail productivity there. A better way is to look at overall harvest (for all seasons) and normalize harvest into the dpsm harvest measure.
When you look at things this way, unit 346 is tops in our state, with more than 7.3 deer harvested per square mile for all seasons. Most of the rest of the Top 5 units are in Zone 2 areas, with good old 241 (6.84 dpsm), 287 (6.43 dpsm) and 214 (6.16 dpsm) coming in before the 100 series' lone unit (157 and 6.03 dpsm) coming in fifth.
Of course, deer hunting is only as good as what walks, or doesn't walk, in front of your stand. Certainly, some hunters in the Top 5 units go home empty-handed. But just where are the toughest units in our state in which to shoot a deer? Based on the dpsm harvest figure for all hunts combined, the answer is interesting.
Look to the north to find our most challenging hunting. Units 114, 177 and 127 come in lowest, with 117 in the far northeast at only .05 dpsm (that's one whitetail for every 20 square miles). Of course, anybody hunting in 117 is getting a true wilderness whitetail experience. Unit 114 (.17 dpsm) and 127 (.25 dpsm) are similarly tough. Interesting, two 200-series units make the "toughest hunts" category — 282 (.26 dpsm) and 261 (.33 dpsm).
2014 SEASON STRUCTURE
It's time to start planning your 2014 hunt. If you haven't been in the woods bowhunting, it's time. Archery season opened Sept. 13 and runs through Dec. 31. With the rut starting in late October, it's time to set those stands along travel funnels and get ready for some rutting action as the weather cools and bucks get active.
Gun season opens on the late side again this year, Nov. 8. The 1A firearms season extends through Nov. 23, the 2A and 3A season through Nov. 16. There's always the 3B firearms season, from Nov. 22-30 this year. And muzzleloading kicks in Nov. 29 for a 16-day run.
PLANNING YOUR 2014 HUNT
In a state such as ours, with exceptional public land availability, you can't use lack of access as an excuse for not getting out and hunting deer. A few options:
Wildlife Management Areas: Featuring 1,440 public wildlife areas with 1.29 million acres of habitat — from prairies and wetlands to forests and brushland — Minnesota's WMAs are great for deer hunting. In some portions of the state, particularly the west, WMAs represent some of the best deer habitat available in the area. Check out our numerous WMAs at www.dnr.state.mn.us/wmas/index.
National Forests: If you're ready for a Northwoods experience, get yourself up to one of our national forests, the Chippewa or Superior. The country can be big and wild, but with some scouting and persistence, you can bring home a nice up-north buck. Check out our 4.5 million acres worth of national forests at www.fs.usda.gov/chippewa and www.fs.usda.gov/superior.
State Forests: The 3 million acres encompassed by Minnesota's 56 state forests are deer-hunting hotbeds if you get out and locate the clearcuts and other young-timber areas that attract deer for feeding. Remember in big woods country, fire and logging trucks are your friends! Check out our state forests.
County Forests: Many of our northern counties offer state tax-forfeited lands. Mainly forested, these lands provide some excellent deer-hunting opportunities. Check with local county land departments for a map of county lands open to hunting. Consider Itasca, Crow Wing, Becker, Koochiching and St. Louis counties.
Walk-In Areas: Concentrated in our southern and western counties, Minnesota's new Walk In Access program is providing thousands of acres of private lands open to public hunting. Many hunters only consider pheasant hunting on these lands, but whitetails are a viable target too, and there's good cover in some of those places. Check out WIAs at www.dnr.state.mn.us/walkin/index.html.
Waterfowl Production Areas: One of the best-kept secrets in Minnesota deer hunting is the Waterfowl Management Area. It can be wet, but the cattails and other tangles of cover also present havens for whitetails. Check them out at www.fws.gov/refuges/whm/wpa.html
Depending on what you're looking for in a deer hunt, here are three recommendations for this fall.
Big Bucks: For big bucks, be sure to see Part 2 of this deer feature next month in Minnesota Sportsman when we will report extensively on the top areas of our state.
Venison on the Ground: If it's venison you're after, two good choices pop up. First, head to Zone 2 units along the I-94 corridor and northward. This prairie-forest-farmland transition zone is home to some of our densest populations.
The other place to go would be smack dab in central Minnesota in units like 155, 157 and 159. These are also high-density whitetail units where volume is the play.
Solitude: Take a November deer-hunting trip up to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and hunt up a buck. Any buck would be a trophy in this heavily forested area, and the wilderness solitude unmatched.
Where will your whitetail adventures take you this fall?
Our new adventure that I started relating at the outset of this article turned out well for us. After getting down, I slowly hunted the prairie grass and marshy edges. Maybe 45 minutes into the circuit, as I stalked through some slough-side cattail and willow tangles, one shot cracked the breeze. It had to be Noah.
After a few minutes I exited the cover and spotted the boy walking up in the prairie grass, looking for something. He saw me, waved nonchalantly, and then suddenly stopped in his tracks with a happy, surprised look on his face, and waved me over with gusto.
Jogging up, I found him standing over a fat doe. Looking back to the little patch of trees where our stand was, more than 100 yards away, I said, "Great shot!"
He laughed and I got the full story. Three antlerless deer had exited the cover behind me, made a big swing out into a mile-square cut cornfield, and then circled back into the cover.
"They walked right under the tree," Noah reported. "All I could see was deer fur when I shot!" The deer ran off, but Noah was confident in a hit.
We admired the sleek whitetail and re-lived the hunt for a few minutes, basking in our success before snapping some pictures and then getting busy on field-dressing chores — good work in new country on a windy autumn day.
Over his years of chasing whitetails, A.J. Downs of Conroe, Texas, has taken a number of big bucks with his bow. But none of the other mounts in his trophy room can match the size, or the meaning, of the freak whitetail that fell to his arrow shortly after daylight on opening day of the 2012 archery season.
Thirty-five years of bowhunting have taught Bill Ullrich a few things about chasing whitetails.
Several seasons ago, Bill had made up his mind to take off work early to spend an afternoon in the woods, and he knew exactly which tree he was headed for that afternoon. He was almost to the tree when something told him he needed to turn around and, instead, opt for a tried and true setup he had long-ago named the 'good luck tree. '
One hour and ten minutes later, he realized that was the best decision he had ever made, as he watched his arrow bury to the nock in the largest whitetail buck he had ever shot at.
Bill Winke has earned himself a spot as one of the best Midwestern whitetail hunters of all time with this massive double G4 Iowa giant.
The huge Iowa non-typical Bo Russell took is testimony to the rewards of smart scouting and hard work. Not to mention being adaptable enough to overcome some outside interference — including a crew of archeologists!
Russell's giant had a gross score of 246 4/8 inches and a net of 231 4/8. That made him the second-largest bow kill entered from the 2012 season.
After many years of chasing the same buck and coming up empty, Brian Hollands' luck finally turned around. On a fateful morning two seasons ago, Hollands not only found a lost little girl wandering the back roads of Missouri, he also found the buck of a lifetime.
Brian Herron fought numerous obstacles and setbacks to eventually bag this 184-inch bruiser.
The 16-point Daigle buck, scored by Boone & Crockett measurer Lonnie Desmarias, grossed a whopping 197 0/8 inches gross and netted 191 0/8 inches as a non-typical, breaking the existing Massachusetts state record by seven inches, according to the Northeast Big Buck Club records.
In 2009, Dean Partridge started having encounters and getting trail camera photos of a small 4Ã—4 whose back tines were a little bladed. There was nothing out of the ordinary at the time, so Partridge and crew carried on filming that fall and finished off the season. The next summer, he was back in the woods, checking to see which bucks had made it through the harsh winter. And much to his surprise, the buck that seemed ordinary had grown into an extraordinary buck with a large droptine that he aptly named "Droppy."
You need only skim the pages of the record books to understand why the majority of hunters pick the November rut as the prime time to hunt giant whitetails. Mature bucks are never a pushover, but they are more vulnerable when their nose is glued to the ground trailing an estrus doe. Fred Swihart proved, however, that you can have success outside the rut — sometimes it's just a matter of persistence.
Whitetail fate played its hand for Arkansas' Shane Frost in the big-timbered, fertile ground of the Black River Bottoms in Clay County. The ancient oaks and sloughs, in all their years, had likely never witnessed a more epic bowhunting scene, which ended with a 216-inch trophy on Frost's wall.
Garry Greenwalt teamed up with North American Whitetail's Gordon Whittington to kill this amazing Washington buck, known to Greenwalt as "The Ghost." Greenwalt spent a good deal of time tracking down the amazing 172-inch Washington giant, but it was all worth it.
It was mid-afternoon on Nov. 13, 2009, and Gary Morris of Winslow, Ark., was heading south out of Iowa. Driven by a haze of internal frustration, he was headed back to Arkansas six days early. The last three years of planning, anticipation and excitement for his Midwestern hunt had been stolen by an encounter with a 170-inch behemoth buck and a blown 12-yard 'chip-shot. ' After his miss, Morris thought about giving up bowhunting altogether. But it's a good thing he didn't.
With the help of her husband, Kevin, Ohio resident Lindsay Groom scouted this buck for two weeks before coming across its path again. Lindsay shot the buck with her crossbow at about 10 yards, but was unable to locate the buck.
After watching the kill shot again on film, the couple decided to track it the next morning, finding the deer just 30 yards away from where they stopped looking the night before.
Jeff Iverson hunted this particular buck for three seasons. In 2010, when the buck was a six-by-six typical, he missed a shot at it with his bow but Iverson's persistence eventually paid off.
On Nov. 14, 2012, the wind was right for hunting, and Jason decided to sit all day. At about 7:30 a.m., he heard chasing over the steep hill in front of him. Then a doe came running up the hill and went past him. Jason could hear grunting from the cedars below. It was the buck he had named "Cyclops."
With the buck at only 70 yards, Jason cranked up his scope and looked at the buck closely. Immediately he saw the glassy eye, and he knew Cyclops was his. It was a chip shot for his accurate .270 Win. After the shot, the huge buck only went about 75 yards before he crashed.
After years of hunting other people's property, Schmeidler finally got his own in 2010, when he purchased a 750-acre property consisting of river bottom cover and cropland. He immediately planted multiple food plots, his favorite being milo, and two seasons later, nine straight days of hard, smart hunting gave Schmeidler his trophy.
Despite one of the worst droughts in history, in July 2012 Jim Cogar's expectations for deer season in central Ohio were as high as ever. Trail cameras were set, mineral sites were established, and other attractants were strategically placed throughout the farm.
After discovering a giant on his trail camera, that he aptly dubbed Conan, Cogar set out on a mission to bag Conan before the end of the season.
It was Super Bowl Sunday before the opportunity presented itself to Cogar. As Conan led two young bucks down a hill, a distraction opened the door for Cogar to bag his buck of a lifetime.
Joshua Earp's Georgia giant scored 187 inches green, weighing in at 235 pounds, and was a great October surprise.
'I've hunted 25 years for this," Earp said. "I give all thanks to God and my father for teaching me and introducing me to this sport I'm addicted to. '
Lucas Cochren killed an amazing 238-inch Kansas trophy, but it all started with a blood trail gone cold. Fortunately, Cochren stuck to it and bagged the trophy of his lifetime.
Mike Moran's Saskatchewan buck was a dream come true for the hunter who'd spent 27 years looking for a deer of that quality. He finally got his wish one Thanksgiving day, an experience he won't forget.
Payton Mireles, age 10, of Indiana, with her first buck: a 154-inch bruiser.
Having two years of history with this particular buck, Rhett Butler was able to track where he had taken pictures of "Hercules." The deer seemed to be ranging over 1-1.5 square miles revolving around a 100-acre alfalfa field.
When the buck stepped out, Rhett put the crosshairs onto the buck's left shoulder and squeezed the trigger of his Winchester .270 bolt action. At the crack of the rifle the buck dropped in his tracks and never even kicked. The hunt for Hercules was over.
Killing the buck that had come to be known to the Taylors as 'Big Daddy ' was Robert's primary focus in the fall of 2012. He arranged his work schedule so he could be in a deer blind most mornings and afternoons during the waning weeks of the season.
After a sleepless night and an unsuccessful afternoon tracking a blood trail, Ryan Dietsch was sure he'd squandered the opportunity of a lifetime. He and friends went back to track the deer he thought he'd hit, but couldn't find so much as a drop of blood. His luck all changed, however, and the rest — along with his 219-inch trophy — is history.
Stanley Suda with his Southern Ohio buck, estimated between 235 and 240 inches.
"The shot was perfect," he said. "I watched my dream buck run across the field and pile-up about 20 yards inside the wood line. This was definitely my finest moment in the treestand. '