Where to hunt deer? Comparing hunters and deer per square mile might help locate new spot

Maybe grandpa bought the farm, so your family sold it, and now you can't hunt there any more. Maybe deer camp got too big, too many people on too little ground, and it's time to move on. Maybe the paper company sold the land where your family has...

Minnesota's 16-day firearms deer season across Northeastern Minnesota kicks off Saturday one-half hour before sunrise. The DNR expects the highest deer harvest in nearly a decade. (file / News Tribune)
Minnesota's 16-day firearms deer season across Northeastern Minnesota kicks off Saturday one-half hour before sunrise. The DNR expects the highest deer harvest in nearly a decade. (file / News Tribune)

Maybe grandpa bought the farm, so your family sold it, and now you can't hunt there any more.

Maybe deer camp got too big, too many people on too little ground, and it's time to move on.

Maybe the paper company sold the land where your family has been hunting on since 1932 and the new owners don't want you around.

Maybe you're new to deer hunting and are looking for a place to start a tradition.

And maybe you don't have the money to buy your own land.


There are myriad reasons why - with Northeastern Minnesota's traditional 16-day firearms deer season set to open Saturday - there are some Northlanders still searching for a new place to hunt. While northern Minnesota is blessed with millions of acres of public land, it can still seem at times that every good spot has been taken by someone else in blaze orange.

Of course every hunter's dream is buck Nirvana, a place where no one else is hurting and the bucks are huge and plentiful, with thick necks and giant racks.

Not going to happen.

But lower those expectations a little - either how many deer you need to see or how many people you don't mind seeing - and use some available resources, do a little scouting, and there are opportunities.

"There is no perfect place with no hunters and lots of deer,'' said Tom Rusch, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife manager in the Tower area. "But there are pockets of places where there are fewer hunters and maybe decent numbers of deer. You have to scout around to find them."

Rusch said there are areas in his region where more hunters could be accommodated without stepping on toes of people already in the area. Of course, that includes the 1.1 million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness where you might have to work a little harder but are unlikely to see many, if any other hunters.

In some busy areas of the state there are more than 15 hunters per square mile. In the BWCAW, there are only 0.2 hunters every square mile. But those 0.2 hunters in Permit Area 117 bagged only 0.1 deer per square mile in 2017. (There aren't enough deer shot up there for the DNR to accurately estimate the number of live deer per square mile.)

But there are still other areas of the Superior National Forest with relatively few hunters. Permit Area 130, for example, southeast of the Iron Range and North of Two Harbors, has only 2.9 hunters per square mile and a deer harvest last year of nearly 1 deer per square mile and a 2017 pre-fawn deer density of 5 deer per square mile. Enough to keep it interesting.


By contrast, near Grand Rapids, in Permit Area 179, hunters bagged 5.1 deer per square mile. The pre-fawn 2017 population estimate was 14 deer per square mile. But there were the 10.5 hunters per square mile - on the high end for our part of the state.

The DNR makes considerable information available on deer harvest and estimated deer populations, along with lots more information, at

Mark Spoden, DNR wildlife manager in Grand Rapids, suggested spending time not hunting during this upcoming hunting season to find a better place to hunt next year.

"Sacrifice opening day, or opening weekend, and drive around some potential areas and see what's' going on. If you see it's crowded, move on. If you find some areas where there's fewer hunters or maybe nobody hunting, mark that spot on your map," Spoden said. "There are areas that are hunted hard all over. But, in between, there are gaps, You just have to work to find them."

Spoden also suggested, if your schedule allows, to hunt on weekdays instead of weekends. "By the Tuesday after opener, a lot of people already going home.... It gets a lot less crowded after the first few days, especially on weekdays."

While it might seem like every other deer hunter has their own 80-acres of heaven and a shack in the woods, that's not the case. Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said a large number of the group's 20,000 members hunt public land. Engwall lives in the Chippewa National Forest, northwest of Grand Rapids and said there are still areas with few hunters.

"It's more than 600,000 acres of public land and, especially if you get farther in off the highways, you can find spots where you won't be imposing on other hunters,'' Engwall said. "If anything, we're seeing fewer people way back in the woods up there than we used to."

The DNR numbers seem to back that up. Permit Area 197 in the core of the Chippewa National Forest had a high pre-fawn deer population of 15 deer per square mile in 2017 along with 5.4 hunters per square mile and 1.6 deer harvested per square mile.


Engwall suggested scouting in late October and looking not just for hunters in the woods but signs of ATV use, trail cameras, deer stands or cleared campsites with piles of fresh-cut firewood where you can bet there will be a deer camp come Saturday morning.

"Most hunters will have been up there before the deer season to check things out so you should be able to tell where people are going to hunt," he said. "And if you show up on the Friday before season and someone else is there first, just move down the road. Be polite. There's plenty of room in Minnesota."

In addition to the Chippewa and Superior National forests are hundreds of thousands of acres of state forest, wildlife management areas and even state parks open to hunting. On top of that several northern counties have vast tracts of county forest land open to hunting, including St. Louis County with some 900,000 acres of public land.

"It's not like we're stumbling all over each other in Minnesota. We have plenty of public land,'' Engwall said. "And if you really want to get away from people, go hunt in the Boundary Waters."

Deer harvest will likely top DNR's new goal

Minnesota's 2017 deer harvest hit 197,000 total and the DNR expects to surpass that by many thousands this autumn with deer numbers continuing to rebound after tough winters in 2013 and 2014.

That's just about where DNR says the harvest should be with a 200,000-deer harvest now the formal goal, set this year, that the agency will work towards while managing the deer herd.

And that means hunters, deer and the DNR are pretty close to the sweet spot for a "normal'' season going forward: More deer than 2014 when fewer than 150,000 deer were killed by hunters, but not as many as 2003 when nearly 300,000 deer were killed, an all-time record.


If the DNR thinks the population is getting higher in a specific permit area, it will issue more bonus tags. If the agency thinks the population is too low, it will scale-back antlerless tags and move to more lottery-only zones for doe permits, or even bucks-only seasons in some areas to bring deer numbers back up.

The Deer Hunter's Association's Engwall said his group is still pushing for a harvest goal of 220,000, meaning more deer on some parts of the landscape than there are now.

"We agree it was too high (at nearly 300,000) But we also think it should be higher than it is now,'' Engwall said.

Whether you agree with the DNR's assessment onr not, permit areas that are bucks only or lottery for antlerless tags means the DNR wants to see more deer there. Hunters choice means the population is at or near goal. Managed or intensive listings means the DNR thinks there are too many deer, especially with intensive where the DNR is trying to reduce deer numbers.

What to expect in the field: Rut will be on, woods will be wet

Hunters can expect to see lots of young deer after four normal-to-mild winters. Spikes and forkhorn bucks will be very common on the game pole, DNR wildlife managers say. These are 18 month old bucks.

Rutting activity and buck movement should be steadily ramping up early in the 16-day firearms season. The "chasing phase" of the rut should peak during the first week, Rusch said. Breeding activity should peak during the second week of deer season as rutting transitions into the reproductive phase and deer movement typically slows down.

Hunters should plan for very wet field conditions across the area. Fall has been extremely wet. Standing water is common in low areas. Normally accessible spots in low terrain will be difficult to access in 2018. Logging road and trail access is difficult in lower areas this year. Swamps, low areas and crossings are inaccessible for wheeled vehicles in many areas. Use discretion.


Water levels (lakes, rivers and streams) are high for this time of year. Scout ahead of time for local conditions in your hunting area.

Online registration requires log-in to DNR website

New this year: Hunters who harvest deer (or bear or turkey) must sign into the Minnesota DNR's electronic license system when registering a harvest online.

The extra step is intended to add security to hunter information listed online, said Steve Michaels, DNR licensing program director.

"We recognize that online game registration will be a little less convenient and we appreciate hunters' patience as they adapt to the new process,'' Michaels said.

In 2017, half of all deer harvest were registered using the online system, so this new security measure is important.

Deer can also be registered by phone at (888) 706-6367 or in person at designated registration stations.

To register a harvest online go to The harvest registration system is available after hunters enter their information in the customer identification page, similar to when purchasing a DNR license or permit. Once signed in, click on the harvest tab. Harvest registration is the same as in past years, and requires hunters to enter a nine-digit harvest registration number that is printed on the license.


"We also recommend adding your email address to your electronic record," Michaels said. "The DNR is increasingly using email to conduct surveys and communicate with license holders on a variety of wildlife issues."

For more information go to

More deer season stuff to know

A legal buck is a deer having at least one antler 3" long. Buck fawns, sometimes called button bucks or nubbin' bucks, are not legal bucks.

Resident Firearms Deer Licenses are $34 in 2018.

Resident hunters 84 years old and older can shoot a deer of either sex in any permit area.

A deer license purchased after the opening day of the season is valid the next day after it is issued.

United Northern Sportsmen rifle range open

The United Northern Sportsmen's Club rifle range is open on weekends and other dates for deer-season sight-ins. The club's range at Island Lake north of Duluth (along County Highway 3) is open to the public for a $5 charge per gun. The club will be open to the public starting at 8 a.m. and running to a half-hour before sunset each day this week through Friday.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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