Field reports: What Minnesota deer hunters can expect this season
Nearly half a million firearms deer hunters are preparing for the firearms deer season that opens Saturday, Nov. 6, and offers opportunity to spend time outdoors with friends and family, find adventure outdoors and put venison in the freezer.
Hunters help keep deer numbers in line with population goals across the state and deer hunting is the primary tool used to manage deer populations. Managing deer populations contributes to the overall sustainability of Minnesota’s landscapes, natural systems and economy.
Minnesota DNR wildlife managers report favorable weather so far this year and good opportunities to harvest deer in most areas. Hunters always need to prepare for changing weather conditions. Currently, managers report dry conditions that can improve hunter access due low water conditions in wetlands, floodplains and small water bodies. Dry conditions are also resulting in greater fire danger, and deer hunters are advised to be careful with any heat source that can cause a spark.
Hunters need to know the boundaries of the deer permit areas and any chronic wasting disease regulations that apply where they hunt. Detailed information about each permit area and CWD area can be found on the DNR’s interactive deer map. Additional information about CWD areas, carcass movement restrictions and voluntary sampling can be found at mndnr.gov/cwd.
Southern deer report
Weather conditions for deer and other farmland wildlife were favorable in 2020-21. Winter conditions were mild once again with above-average temperatures and lower than typical snow depths. Spring and summer precipitation was below normal and led to widespread drought conditions throughout much of the state beginning in summer but easing by fall. Drought conditions had no measurable impact on the deer herd and fawn production was good.
Despite the drought conditions, overall habitat is in good shape. River floodplains, which offer some of the best deer habitat and deer hunting in the southern region, had two consecutive years to recover from persistent flooding. These floodplain habitats are once again offering excellent cover for deer, which bodes well for deer hunters.
Upland grassland areas and wetland basins are in good shape as well, and hunters may encounter lower water levels or completely dry wetland basins. Conditions will be spotty with recent rains.
Overall deer populations are strong throughout the southern region. All deer permit areas underwent a new round of population goal setting and harvest strategies are aligned to meet new deer density estimates. Hunters are reminded that a number of deer permit boundaries were adjusted to better match available habitat with deer densities. Affected permit areas, specific to the southern region, include 237, 275, 276, 277, 281, 282, 283 and 295. Boundary changes will make population modeling more accurate and were desired by local deer hunters.
As always, the largest wildcard in this landscape in determining overall deer harvest is the amount of standing crop remaining in the field during firearms deer season. The crop harvest is in full swing right now and ahead of the long-term average. Crop harvest usually improves hunter success by increasing harvest opportunities, as greater numbers of deer begin using other habitat as cover instead of standing corn.
Central deer report
Following the summer drought, much of the central region remains dry despite some recent rainfall that has allowed a green-up of vegetation going into fall. Many areas with small bodies of water or wetlands are dry or low, which will improve hunter access. Acorn production has been decent in some areas but marginal to spotty in others, and some of the red oaks are dropping acorns. With the dry conditions, early season hunters are experiencing fewer mosquitos and other bugs compared to previous years.
Deer populations are robust in the central Minnesota and are above to well-above goal levels throughout nearly all central Minnesota deer permit areas. Many permit areas allow a hunter to harvest up to three deer. There are also a few deer permit areas in central Minnesota that are open to the early antlerless-only season from Thursday, Oct. 21, through Sunday, Oct. 24.
The forecast for archery and firearms deer hunting this fall is very good. Wildlife managers in central Minnesota urge deer hunters to take advantage of bonus licenses to harvest antlerless deer to help manage deer populations.
Crop harvest appears to be continuing on track or even a couple weeks ahead of usual in the central region and it’s anticipated that the majority of the crops will be harvested by the start of firearms deer season.
Northeast deer report
Winter 2020-21 weather was generally mild throughout the northeast region, although the winters previous to this one were more severe. Because white-tailed deer are adaptable and highly mobile, this year’s drought is not expected to negatively impact deer populations.
Drought conditions are expected to increase access opportunities in some areas like wetland, stream and lakeshore habitats, but in general, hunter access due to local surface water impacts is expected to be close to normal.
Every deer permit area is unique, with different mixes of deer habitat quality and land ownership. Permit areas also experience different levels of seasonal weather, predator pressures and deer survival especially over winters, affecting local deer numbers and hunter success. In the northeast region, three interrelated factors have the most impact on the deer population: forest habitat quality, winter severity and predation.
Long-term trends in forest management have less impact on the deer herd when conditions are mild or normal because deer are able to move easily to find food and cover. During severe winters, thermal cover and forage availability become more important. Deer have more difficulty moving around and may become more susceptible to predation. Forest cover, food availability and predator numbers, as well as hunting pressure, vary across the landscape and can make a big difference on deer populations at a local level. Deer populations are typically higher on private land as opposed to public land.
Hunters are expected to encounter the most deer in areas of mixed habitat where there is a blend of forest and open fields of private land. Areas farther north with extensive public lands are still struggling to recover from past harsh winters. It’s important to acknowledge that the deer population recovery is typically faster in the south and southwestern part of the region, while their recovery generally takes longer when moving to the north and northeast.
Bag limits will be conservative again this fall in most deer permit areas to give local deer populations the chance to grow more in areas where their numbers are still below the established, publicly vetted population goals. The DNR will be reviewing deer population goals for additional deer permit areas in the northeast region this winter.
Northwest deer report
The 2020-21 winter was mild, and deer survival was good in most of northwestern Minnesota. The region has been abnormally dry most of the year, but recent rains in some areas are helping put some moisture on the landscape. Barring any major rainfall, access to public land should be better than average due to low water in ditches and wetlands.
Deer populations are stable and generally in good shape. Despite this year’s drought, which lowered the quality of available forage, the condition of deer looks to be pretty good entering the fall hunting seasons. There are plenty of deer on the landscape and hunters who do their homework and spend time in the woods and fields should have plenty of opportunities to harvest deer.
Many deer permit areas in the region have two- or three-deer limits, and hunters are reminded to check the regulations for the permit areas they hunt. Some permit areas have lower, more restrictive limits in place to allow the deer herd to grow — some examples include permit areas 203, 297 and 298 that are among others with one-deer limits, as well as permit area 111 in the Baudette area which is “bucks only” because deer populations are well below goal range.
Crop harvest is well ahead of schedule, so hunters should not expect any corn to still be in the ground during firearms season opener.