A choice hunt?
It won’t change the number of deer a hunter can take. But it should mean an increase in the number of deer taken in local permit areas.
The new “hunter’s choice” designation is one of the few new wrinkles for area hunters in this year’s firearms deer hunting season, which opens Saturday.
Of the seven greater Brainerd lakes permit areas, five switched from lottery to hunter’s choice. In lottery areas, hunters who are drawn are allowed to shoot a buck or a doe and those who don’t get picked may only shoot a buck. With hunter’s choice, all hunters in those permit areas may harvest a buck or a doe (no bonus permits are available for lottery or hunter’s choice).
And, according to the DNR, with more doe in these areas, hunter’s choice should mean at least a slight increase in harvest numbers in the area this year.
“Hunter’s choice will make that extra difference,” Gary Drotts, DNR wildlife manager in Brainerd, said of his forecast for an increased harvest. “All these (permit areas that switched from lottery to hunter’s choice) should increase. It (area harvest numbers) is going to go up.
“Whenever you give hunters a chance to harvest antlerless deer, they’ll harvest them. So if we’re not off in our population models ...”
Overall, Drotts predicted an area deer harvest of 19,000-20,000 — “19,000-22,000 would be what I would hope is a realistic goal range for the near future.” With 50,000-plus hunters expected in the area this season — about 10 percent of all deer hunters in the state — that’s a success rate of about 37 percent. Last year, area hunters took 18,649 deer — 7,356 bucks and 11,293 does.
And while Drotts said hunter’s choice should help attain those numbers, he sees the harvest increasing across the board.
“All the population models show an increase from last year,” he said. “If we have decent weather we should see as good or better (harvest numbers) than last year. It might not be a huge increase. But it shouldn’t be a huge decrease either.”
Greater Brainerd lakes permit areas that went from lottery to hunter’s choice are 171 (north-central Aitkin County), 172 (northern Crow Wing and Cass counties), 155 (southern Aitkin County), 246 (southern Cass County) and 247 (eastern Crow Wing County and a small section of Aitkin County), Drotts said.
“I’ve only gotten one call over it (hunter’s choice) and it wasn’t even really a complaint. A hunter wanted information ... So they (hunters) must support it,” Drotts said. “It’s something that’s been requested for a long time and something I was a big advocate of.
“It will be interesting to see what happens in 172. It’s a big permit area and they harvest a lot of deer there. It will be interesting. There’s a lot of hunters and public land.”
Permit areas 242 (the core Brainerd area, from Gull Lake to the Whitefish Chain) and 249 (southern Crow Wing and northeast Morrison counties) remain managed areas, where the bag limit is two deer and hunters may use any combination of licenses and bonus permits to tag both deer.
“The harvest should be somewhat the same. That’s our intent. There are issues there with car kills and of deer eating people’s landscape (vegetation),” Drotts said of 242. “Area 242 should always be managed ... And 249. But 246 could go back to managed. We’ll have to see.”
“It (no lottery permit areas locally) is a good thing. We’re where we should be now,” he added of the deer population.
That’s the word across the state this year.
“Throughout most of Minnesota, deer populations are now at goal levels,” said Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife programs manager. “Bag limits have been reduced in some areas, but the deer population remains strong.”
Minnesota’s whitetail deer population is about 1 million. The DNR, which manages the herd based on population goals, expects this year’s harvest to be similar to last year’s, when about 207,000 deer were taken.
During the late 1990s, deer populations were at high levels in many areas due to a succession of mild winters. The DNR enacted liberal hunting regulations to reduce the population, resulting in Minnesota’s peak deer harvest of 290,000 in 2003, including 33,830 in those seven greater Brainerd lakes permit areas. Most corn, which provides ample standing cover and can significantly impact deer harvest, likely will have been harvested by Saturday’s opener and last winter wasn’t so severe that deer populations were significantly affected.
Weather will be a key factor again this year, and the forecast for Saturday’s opener in the lakes area — partly cloudy and highs in the mid- to high 50s — is somewhat promising.
“You still have the weather and we’ll be hunting on the dark side of the moon,” Drotts said. “It just depends on if the first few days will be warm or cold. We usually shoot more deer when it’s warm and brown. And then if it snows toward the end of the first week.”
The firearms deer season concludes in northern Minnesota on Nov. 20 and Nov. 13 in all other parts of the state. A late season in southeastern Minnesota opens Nov. 19 and closes Nov. 27.
As always, Drotts stressed safety in the opener and through the season, particularly with tree stands.
“There’s no 16-foot limit on permanent stands anymore. From a safety perspective, the higher you get you’re shooting into the ground more. But it is getting to be the No. 1 issue for hunter safety. It’s the No. 1 reason for accidents. The higher you go up ... You just fall further and hurt yourself.”