St. Cloud, Minn. — Nearly 500,000 hunters will take to the woods this Saturday for the start of the firearms deer season.
After several seasons in the early to mid-2000s that allowed hunters to shoot multiple deer in many parts of the state due to high deer numbers, the majority of permit areas this year have gone back to lottery or hunter choice designation, which means one deer can be taken per person.
But that doesn’t mean hunters won’t see deer. In fact, they should see plenty of them, probably more than last year, although in most areas of the state only one deer can be harvested.
“I think we’ve gone through that period of reducing deer numbers and that was by design,” said Lou Cornicelli, wildlife research manager with the DNR. “Now we’re in that period of maintaining and building deer numbers and we have a healthy bunch of animals.”
Deer numbers should be stronger than the 2011 season due to last year’s mild winter, which also resulted in an amazingly robust number of fawns that were born this spring. Unless they got hit by a vehicle, Cornicelli said deer came through the winter unscathed with virtually no mortality worth noting.
Cornicelli has talked with numerous hunters and wildlife managers from across the state that have seen does with multiple fawns this past summer and fall. He recently encountered a doe that had three fawns on her side and that’s something you typically don’t see in Minnesota.
“Everything survived last winter so deer numbers are definitely up,” he said. “That easy winter meant more fawns and a higher deer density this fall.”
Despite the increase in deer numbers, which should result in hunters seeing more deer, that doesn’t mean the harvest will necessarily go up. With more lottery and hunter choice permit areas, the number of antlerless deer shot should definitely drop.
Hunters shot about 192,000 deer in the state last year. Cornicelli thought the total harvest would exceed 200,000 deer and likely would have if not for some poor hunting conditions on last year’s opening weekend of the firearms season.
It was extremely windy during the first two days of the gun season and that resulted in an unexpected poor start to the season. In all, Cornicelli figures that around 15,000 deer didn’t get shot on opening weekend because of the weather conditions.
“My prediction last year was that we’d shoot 207,000 deer and I use the first six weeks of the archery season as an indicator,” he said. “The bow season was going strong so it looked like we were set up to hit that target, but that wind on the opener killed us.”
Cornicelli is hesitant to make any predictions on the upcoming gun season. Although he says the designed conservative approach to shooting fewer antlerless deer should mean this year’s harvest will be less than last season.
Hunters in about half the state had to apply for a limited number of antlerless permits. In addition, there are simply fewer places where hunters can take two or more deer.
Deer hunters will have other factors tipped in their favor when they hit the woods this weekend. Several circumstances could allow hunters to maximize their opportunity.
Most noteworthy is the fact that crop harvest is mainly completed in agricultural regions across the state. As of this week, 97 percent of the corn had been removed compared to 50 percent at the same time last year.
“In areas where corn comprises a huge percentage of the landscape, it’s a big deal,” Cornicelli said. “Deer use it as habitat and when it’s gone they are more vulnerable – central Minnesota is a prime example.”
Cornicelli believes hunters in the agricultural-rich central Minnesota area should have a good deer season. Although there’s plenty of wooded and grassland habitat locally, taking corn out of the equation means deer have fewer places to hide.
The gun season also is opening a week earlier than most years. Since 1975, the state has opened the firearms deer season on the Saturday closest to Nov. 6 and this year that falls on Nov. 3.
Cornicelli says it’s the earliest the deer season can begin and the rut should be in full swing. Bucks should be actively chasing does, working scrapes, and establishing rubs on trees.
“It’s that time of year,” Cornicelli said referring to the rut. “Bucks should be on the move.”
It will be interesting to see how many big bucks are shot in the southeast part of the state. This will be the third consecutive season that hunters need to adhere to antler-point restrictions, which means they can’t shoot bucks unless they have at least four points on one side.
Cornicelli thinks this region has the best deer habitat in the state with a lot of private land already managed for trophy-caliber bucks. With two year classes of those bucks already protected and the fact that harvest was down in the area last season, he expects many big deer to be taken.
“There are more two-plus-year-old deer in this region than ever before so it should be pretty interesting,” he said. “Anecdotal reports that I’ve been hearing indicate that there’s some big deer running around that area.”
In the northwest, deer populations are at or near goal densities. Most permit area designations have dropped one level from 2011. Hunter choice areas became lottery and managed areas became hunter choice designated.
As a result, Cornicelli expects the overall deer harvest to be lower than last year, although the buck harvest likely will be higher. The mild winter last year resulted in good deer survival and production in the northwest as well.
Hunters in northeastern Minnesota also enter the firearms season with more conservative regulations than recent years.