Saturday will mark the latest possible date for Minnesota deer opener under current regulations. That could mean hunters will be in the woods right at the peak of the whitetail deer’s rutting activity.
Minnesota’s deer seasons early in the 1900s were often held during Thanksgiving week. But since 1959, with just a few exceptions, the state has set its firearms deer season to start in early November — now officially on the Saturday closest to Nov. 6. It’s not clear exactly why that date was picked, but state wildlife officials say that’s about when the animals are at peak mating activity.
That does two things: It gives hunters a better chance at bagging a buck and it protects does by keeping bucks a higher portion of the overall harvest.
Some states have their season later, like Wisconsin and Iowa, so deer can get most of their mating done before hunting begins. But it appears some northern Minnesota lawmakers wanted to see more deer when they hit the woods each fall and they successfully pushed for the earlier opener 60 years ago.
The Saturday closest to Nov. 6 means the open can happen anytime between Nov. 3 and 9. Barbara Keller, big game program leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said timing firearms deer seasons for the rut is common among most Midwestern states.
“It's timed to occur with the peak of breeding season," Keller said of the Minnesota season.
She explained the effect of timing the firearms season with the peak of the rut is generally that "buck harvest is increased because bucks are vulnerable" when they are paying more attention to does than to possible danger. There are still plenty of bucks to mate because one buck can service many does.
Keller said the DNR has mulled moving the season a week later. But when they took a straw poll among hunters, it was a split decision. Some 42% were in favor of a later season and 42% were against it, she said. With no clear mandate for the hunting public, the DNR isn’t likely to make a change.
Tom Rusch, DNR wildlife manager for the Tower area, said the rut is triggered by shortening daylight as we speed toward the winter solstice, so it happens about the same time every year. But it’s also impacted by other factors, such as weather and hunting pressure.
“Nothing negatively impacts rutting behavior like hunting pressure. They don’t stop rutting. It just becomes nocturnal," Rusch said. That means that, after opening day, expect bucks to do more running around at night.
Rusch said rubbing and scraping, the initial phase of the rut, has been increasing over the past 10 days, and the cold weather we’ve seen has helped. Unusually warm weather — days warmer than 50 degrees — will slow the rut, he said.
In typical years, bucks chasing does “typically ramps up about the 5th, 6th and 7th and lasts for a week,’’ until Nov. 12-14, Rusch told the News Tribune. “Breeding activity generally peaks in the second and third weeks of November then the annual rutting season transitions into the reproductive phase and deer movement typically slows down.”
What will hunters see?
While deer may be moving a lot during the 2019 hunting season, how many deer hunters actually see will really depend on where (and of course, how hard) they hunt.
In areas with even a modicum of agricultural crops and hayfields, deer numbers are generally at or above goal across Northeastern Minnesota. But in some heavily forested areas, where some deer apparently have a problem finding adequate nutrition during tough winters, deer numbers are at or below DNR goals.
A couple areas are even bucks-only hunting — the most restricted measure the DNR takes to rebuild deer numbers. Those are in areas where a harsh, deep-snow January and February likely spurred some winter-killed deer, Rusch has noted, and where deer are still rebuilding after tough winters in 2014 and 2015.
Still, thanks to a rapid snowmelt in March, this past winter’s impact, while not eliminated, was muted.
“Field staff are reporting a good fawn crop for the fifth consecutive year in most permit areas," Rusch said, which makes it look like last winter wasn’t as bad as previously believed. He added that hunters can expect to see lots of young deer this season.
“Spikes and forks will be very common on the game pole. These are 18-month-old bucks," Rusch said, noting hunters who are mobile and scout before season can find pockets of more deer.
“With the cooler weather pattern, deer are now feeding heavily in prime food sources such hayfields, recent cutovers, food plots, rural yards and along mowed roadsides and roadkills have increased drastically," he said.
Chris Balzer, Cloquet area wildlife manager for the DNR, said he expects the 2019 season to be very similar to 2018 if the weather cooperates. Mild, dry weather for opening weekend — when most of the deer are shot — is one of the biggest factors in hunter effort and how many deer are short.
While areas to the north may have seen some winter impact on the deer herd, most of Balzer’s area — southern St. Louis, Carlton and northern Pine counties — should have as many or even more deer as last year. The farther south you go, and the more ag land, the more deer you'll find.
“We have been seeing good fawn numbers this summer, so I don’t think the winter had a major impact in the Cloquet area," Balzer said. “Down in Pine County, we have had a notable increase in reports of too many deer, mostly from soybean farmers. I would not be surprised to see an increase in the harvest down there."