Can archers match Wisconsin's record ’12 buck kill?

Madison — Wisconsin archery deer hunters had a great season last year and only two things stand in the way of bowhunters recording a similar season this year: fewer antlerless tags available, and the unknown impact the extended winter had on the deer herd.

Bowhunters didn’t set an overall harvest record in 2012, but they did shoot the most bucks ever – 45,988 bucks registered, including a new state record buck.

The 2012 bow harvest came in at 94,267 animals. State archers have exceeded 100,000 animals three times, with 116,010 deer in 2007 the highest total ever.

The 2013 archery deer season will open Saturday, Sept. 14, and run through Nov. 21. The late season will open Nov. 23 and run through Jan. 5, 2014.

Here’s one thing to keep in mind: The archery harvests in all units Dec. 12-15 during the statewide antlerless rifle season will be antlerless-only. Also, deer hunting in the four buck-only units will not be allowed during those four days.

“The season structure for the 2013 deer season will be almost identical to 2012, with a few changes in individual deer management units designated as herd-control or as regular units,” said Kevin Wallenfang, DNR deer and elk ecologist, in the DNR’s fall hunting forecast.

“Most units in the northern and central forest regions will have limited or no antlerless harvest in an effort to increase deer populations. The farmland regions will remain as either herd-control or CWD units. In these areas, deer are generally abundant in relation to their local habitat and are controlled though the harvest of antlerless deer,” Wallenfang said.

One question that’s mildly on the minds of some archers is whether the long winter will limit, to some extent, antler development in parts of central and northern Wisconsin. Snow covered the ground and ice covered lakes well into May this year. Much of northern Wisconsin had more than a foot of snow on the ground into late April and early May. The DNR’s Mike Zeckmeister, of Spooner, is the Northern Region wildlife biologist. He’s been watching deer all summer in an attempt to gauge winter’s impact.

“We did have reports of direct winter mortality,” Zeckmeister said. “Now, that does happen every year, but this year we seemed to have more weak-looking deer because of the long winter and delayed spring. Usually with antlers, that’s where deer put their surplus energy. Will we see less antler development this year because deer were stressed in April and May? I don’t know, but I don’t think it would be that significant.”

He’s also been watching moisture patterns around the state, and in the Northern Region in particular. He said that any areas facing dry conditions on top of the long winter would be more likely to show less-than-average antler development than areas receiving decent moisture.

“Crops look hit and miss on the western side of the state. I was over near Grantsburg recently and the corn looked pretty bad – low moisture,” Zeckmeister said.

The question of antler development is always a bit speculative, though, since there is no way that a hunter can tell how much more bone a buck could have had on its head had the winter been shorter and the summer more wet.

Even if the long winter and low rainfall in some areas do impact antler development to some extent, archers in the dry areas could benefit in other ways from a lack of rain.

“I’m starting to see some guys chopping corn already, so that will make a difference for archers,” Zeckmeister said. “The farmers are going to say (the dry, stunted corn) isn’t going to bring a hill of beans, so they’re going to chop. That could help archers because they will see more deer – deer that moved into the woods or cover surrounding the cut fields.”

Looking a little further ahead, Zeckmeister said that also means there is a good chance most of the state’s corn will be cut before the nine-day gun deer opener, set for Saturday, Nov. 23. That late opener, too, will give farmers more time than normal to get their corn in.

“Where there is good moisture, though, there is no shortage of forage for deer,” he said.

Most areas of central and southern Wisconsin received plenty of rain this summer.

Acorn production always plays some kind of a role in deer hunting. Last year there was a bumper crop of well-developed acorns. This year?

“The number of acorns looks OK, but I’m hearing from different areas of the state that nut development is not much to talk about,” Zeckmeister said. “If that’s true, that could have a negative impact on archers who hunt the oaks. That won’t necessarily hurt the harvest, but it may change how they’re going to hunt them.”

And as for seeing deer, archers shouldn’t have much of a problem. Most areas of the state are at or above population goals, especially in the lower Northest Region, lower West-Central Region, Southern Region, and Southeastern Region. Fawn production appears to be at least average, if not slightly above, in those areas.

Things may be a little different in the northern counties.

“We started our summer deer observations and I think I can confirm what I said earlier: The winter did have an impact on fawn production in the north,” Zeckmeister said. “We had a long winter and a late spring. Granted we didn’t have the normal snow depths associated with a bad winter, but we had a long winter and a lot of snow. I think we’re seeing the impacts of that now. Personally, I’m not seeing as many twins or triplets as I might otherwise, so production will be down. That will impact what people see out there for deer because fawns are a big part of the population.

“It will also impact harvest, because a good portion of our antlerless harvest are fawns,” he said. “Now, some of our units have a zero antlerless quota, but most of north does have at least some quota. As for bucks, I don’t think we’ll see so much of a reduced buck harvest from the long winter – at least during the bow season. The gun opener is really late this year, so that’s going to affect our gun harvest, no question about that. Gun hunters will see fewer deer, not necessarily because there are less deer on the landscape, but because they won’t be moving around as much.

“But it’s not going to effect our archery hunting. Bow season will have the post-rut, too, so archery hunters have a lot to look forward to,” he said.

Zeckmeister suggested that archers take a look at remaining antlerless tags if they’re thinking about shooting a deer for the freezer.

“We were pretty conservative with quotas this year. We put some discretion on those quotas and didn’t just go by the numbers on paper,” he said. “Now I’m starting to hear complaints from some hunters because some units have sold out of antlerless tags that have never sold out before. Unit 10 is sold out already; we had 800 tags in there. Units 30, 31, 32 – they’re going to sell out. So are a quite a few others. My message to archers is if you’d like to shoot an antlerless deer or two, buy your tags now, or they will likely be sold out.”

There are four buck-only units this year: units 7, 29B, 34, and 39.

No changes are expected to be made to the state’s crossbow law until the 2014 season, so, for this year yet, at least, only those with disability permits and those 65 and older may use crossbows.

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