Deer hunting is only as good as what's going on in front of your stand. That rings as true in Minnesota as anywhere.
After an absolutely brutal winter in 2013-14, and with a herd that is trying to rebuild itself in most parts of our state, 2014's deer harvest dropped to levels not seen here for almost three decades.
In bow season, the view from my stand in Carver County was not bad. Nice does were in the area, and several bucks roamed past just out of range in September and early October.
But then a certain little Brittany spaniel named Rascal, with her big, brown and expectant eyes, got the better of me. A shotgun replaced my old Mathews bow for the next few weeks and we spent the rest of October chasing ruffed grouse and then ring necks. There was always gun season, right?
WHITETAIL TIME AGAIN
Bow season is important to many of us, but gun season is when the bulk of Minnesota's deer management takes place. We hunters are the tools for doing that job. For me, last year was lucky as I finally drew an antlerless tag for our Swift County hunt area.
As with most of Minnesota, the herd out along the Dakota border is not what it was few years ago. Yet, with a relatively conservative antlerless quota — like most everywhere in Minnesota — perhaps the whitetails would be coming back.
I felt good about our prospects. My boy Noah had a youth tag good for antlerless deer, and so we had two pretty good chances at some venison.
For the second year in a row, Minnesota saw challenging hunting conditions on opening weekend, which traditionally is when the bulk of our deer harvest takes place. Simply put, the wind blew. And blew.
Of course, weather is no excuse. All a person can do is hunt hard. And that's what we did. A few whitetails crossed the corn stubble far out of shotgun range from my slough-side stand, but neither Noah nor I fired any opening-day shots.
That evening, a few texts sent out to friends hunting different areas of the state revealed similar results. There were deer around, but not in the numbers as in past years, and success was light. Just to the north, in Stevens County, a familiar hunting group was blanked on opening day for the first time in years.
Opening day was in the books, and it was clear that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' predictions were coming true. This was going to be a light year for deer harvest. The DNR did a good job preparing us for that eventuality, and it is doing a good job rebuilding the herd. With a little patience, we are going to see better hunting ahead.
In any event, nobody should expect a deer behind every tree. It was going to take more hard hunting to put a whitetail on the back rack of my old Jeep for the ride home.
2014 RESULTS: OVERALL
Last year, the total Minnesota deer harvest came in at 139,442 whitetails. Compared to the 290,525 all-time record we shot in 2003, that's quite a cut. By design, our deer population has been cut back from the years of 200,000-plus harvests experienced from 2000 through 2008.
Then we had the winter of 2013-14. It killed deer. And fawn birth rates dropped. It surely contributed to the drop in antlerless tags last year.
This season should be better. After our relatively mild 2014-15 winter, there are more deer on the ground, according to our DNR. We should see a few more antlerless tags in our hands, but not too many, as the herd still is coming back. Given good hunting conditions this fall, we should bring home more venison.
2014 RESULTS: ARCHERY
We arrowed 17,119 whitetails last fall, with an overall success rate of 15.4 percent. How does that harvest break down?
Turns out, hunters are doing a little bit of their own deer management, and more bucks (7,998) were arrowed than does (7,005); that's a rarity, and indicates selective harvest toward bucks. Buck fawns (1,190) and doe fawns (926) — also very low antlerless archery numbers — rounded out the archery harvest.
Looking for the most productive units for archery whitetails? Many of the 200-series units are leaders, with 213 (482 whitetails), 227 (422 deer) and 241 (408 deer) topping the list. Units 215, 223, 225, 236, and 277 all topped 300 animals. For the 100-series units in the north and central regions, units 182 (459 deer) and 184 (235 deer) led the way.
The Metro Area (Unit 601) leads by far with 2,734 archery whitetails harvested in suburbia and exurbia. That's an increase of more than 25 percent over 2014. Clearly, deer are doing well in the Metro. A lot of bowhunters are plying their trade on small plots a short drive from home.
2014 RESULTS: FIREARM
We shot 116,657 whitetails last fall with rifles and shotguns. That compares to 145,449 in 2013. Zone 2 pounded all the other zones, with 70,103 deer shot for a solid 29.2 percent hunter success. By its sheer size, Zone 1 came in second with 29,358 whitetails and a low 18 percent success rate.
Those figures are to be expected considering the rough winter; the kill was down 40 percent there. Zone 3 in the southeast tallied 13,834 whitetails (actually up from 12,503 in 2013) and a 31 percent success rate.
Round out the firearms harvest with 865 deer in the Metro Zone and various free landowner permits (1,522) plus 275 depredation tags filled, to tally the 116,657.
It's nice to know the totals. But harvest figures per square mile give you a better idea of the true productivity of Minnesota's deer hunting units. When you use those numbers, several units rise to the top when evaluated in deer shot per square mile of deer habitat.
In Zone 1, units 157, 182, 184 and 172 led the way, with 157 the very top at 4.09 dpsm and 182 3.28 dpsm, with the other two at 2.59 and 2.45 dpsm respectively. Units 155, 179 and 159 round out the list of top units.
The Zone 2 units produce more deer. Consider the 5.85 dpsm harvest in Unit 241 (tops in the state) as well as the 5.43 dpsm in Unit 214. Plenty of units brought in more than 3.0 dpsm as well, and that list incudes units 215, 221, 222 and 225, with 240 and 287 over 4.0 dpsm harvested.
Zone 3 has plenty of deer, but the hunting is challenging in that rough country. Still, Unit 346 produced 4.95 dpsm, with 344 (3.44) and 349 (3.74) topping 3.0 dpsm.
Moving into Metro Unit 601, we drop down to 1.98 dpsm in gun season, which is about average there where restrictions on firearm hunting (municipally or by landowners) extend across our suburban and exurban areas.
2014 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. Last year 5,814 muzzleloader whitetails were registered in our state.
HUNTING FOR SECLUSION
As we've said, deer hunting is only as good as what walks — or ultimately doesn't walk — in front of your stand. Certainly, some hunters in the top units go home empty-handed. But some of us are looking for seclusion. And I mean real seclusion. Most of these units are places where deer populations are sparse but the chance to hunt without seeing another human being is great.
Look to the north for those places. Units 117 (.2 hunters per square mile or hpsm) is tops. That equates to 1 hunter for every 5 square miles! Unit 127 (.8 hpsm) is next. Anybody hunting in 127 or even 114 or 111 also will have a true wilderness whitetail experience.
2015 SEASON STRUCTURE
It's time to start planning your 2015 hunt. If you haven't been in the woods yet bowhunting, it's time. Archery season opened Sept. 19, 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 the bucks get active.
Gun season opens on what could be the peak of the rut this year, Nov. 7. The 1A firearms season extends through Nov. 22, the 2A and 3A seasons through Nov. 15. There's always the 3B firearms season, from Nov. 21-29 this year. And muzzleloading kicks in Nov. 28 for a 16-day run through Dec. 13.
PLANNING YOUR 2015 HUNT
You can't use lack of access as an excuse for not getting out deer hunting this fall. Here are a few prime hunting options.
Wildlife Management Areas: With 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. Check out our WMAs at dnr.state.mn.us/wmas/index.html.
National Forests: If you're ready for a Northwoods experience, get up to the 4.5 million acres of the Chippewa and Superior National Forests. The country can be big and wild, but with some scouting and persistence, you can bring home a nice up-north buck. Check out usda.fs.usda.gov/chippewa and 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. And check out our state forests at dnr.state.mn.us/state_forests/index.html.
County Forests: Many of our northern counties offer state tax-forfeited lands. Mainly forested, these lands provide excellent deer hunting opportunities. Consider Itasca, Crow Wing, Becker, Koochiching and St. Louis counties.
Walk-In Areas: Concentrated in our southern and western counties, Minnesota's Walk In Access program provides thousands of acres of private lands open to public hunting. These places are not just for pheasants! Check out our WIAs at dnr.state.mn.us/walkin/index.html.
Waterfowl Production Areas: Yes they can be wet, but the cattails and other tangles of cover in our WPAs present havens for whitetails and hunters. Check out WPAs at fws.gov/refuges/whm/wpa.html.
As many of us so well remember, a blizzard brewing to the west colored our opening weekend hunt last year. Deer should have been active ahead of the front, but the wind held movement down.
Midmorning on the second day, I looked over toward Noah's stand about a quarter-mile away and saw he wasn't in it. He must have seen a deer enter one of the sloughs he was watching, and gotten down to try to do a sneak.
I knew he might kick something my way, so I sat up straighter and got set. Then, a movement behind distracted me. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw a hunter crossing the field behind me. You guessed it! When I turned back, two whitetails were galloping past me through the prairie grass, right there.
By the time I swung the slug gun around and got on them for a shot, the does were well past my stand in the slough willows and paused at the edge of the cut corn. The tree swayed in the wind and my shot flew wide.
Such is whitetail hunting: Hours of waiting, and then one fleeting chance. As it was, that was it. We saw several deer moving that evening after shooting hours, ahead of the storm, and planned to hunt again the third day. But a foot of blowing snow covered the landscape, and the roads out to the hunting grounds were shut down.
Given the numbers from last year's kill, it seems many of us experienced similar hunting. Still, we killed more than 139,000 deer. Think back to what we used to kill in the 1970s, and you won't think that number is too bad. And it's going to grow.
Have faith and hunt hard. And when your kid gets down from his stand, pay attention!