An opening in a thick patch of trees reveals a hunter near sunset opening day of the nine-day deer hunting season Nov. 23 along Country Lane in Sister Bay . / Tina M. Gohr/Door County Advocate
For every hunter who zip-ties a deer tag around the antler of a buck or through the ear of a doe, there are about five others who won’t get that chance.
Think about that for a minute.
If hunters were to base the success of their season simply on whether or not they “got their buck,” it’d be a losing battle: close to 85 percent of bow and gun hunters won’t get a racked whitetail this year.
Even in the all-time record state buck harvest seasons, only about one in four gun hunters tagged a buck. That’s still 75 percent eating tag soup.
So why does it seem we’re hearing more complaints on “not enough deer” from so many hunters?
Perhaps the all-time record herds of the past have become the new expectation. Or, maybe it’s as simple as a change in hunting styles, effort and habitat.
It’s hard to miss the big increase in “condo” stands across the landscape, or the lack of large groups walking out forests, marshes, dogwood thickets and cornfields. There’s also far less logging than there could — or should — be.
With summer and early fall deer observations up in many areas, this year’s hunt was expected to be a good one locally. But when the preliminary numbers came in, Door County showed a 30 percent drop in the buck harvest.
So what happened?
There are a lot of theories. One of them is that the deer aren’t there in numbers they were a year ago. I’m not buying that, at least not locally. Instead, I’d argue that what many consider excuses are actually legitimate reasons for the drop:
• 20- to 30-mph winds and below zero wind chills opening day reduced deer movement and sent a lot of cold hunters home earlier than usual.
• This year’s gun deer season opened six days later than last year’s hunt. While the 2012 opener hit the rut in full stride, this year’s missed the peak by a few days.
• A very wet fall limited access to some areas or made entry to iced-over swamps a noisy proposition. Additionally, thousands of acres of corn was still standing, offering refuge aplenty.
On a statewide basis, the antlerless drop was expected: the DNR cut antlerless tags about 27 percent, mostly in the north. It was the fewest doe tags given out since the 1990s.
Regardless, expect DNR big game ecologist Kevin Wallenfang to be in the hot seat in the coming months as the Department analyzes the data from this fall’s hunts.
Some hunters are already calling for more buck-only units and an end to free antlerless tags in herd control units. Others would like to see more drastic measures, like eliminating group hunting during the gun season or — dare we say it — a return to the party permit system, in which a group of four hunters shares one doe tag. Many also would like to see public and private land antlerless tags separated.
As always, baiting is a popular scapegoat, but it’s banned in many counties and the harvests were down there, too.
Excessive hunter harvest in the past decade in some areas has been exacerbated by predation — bears, coyotes and wolves on fawns in spring and wolves and coyotes on adult deer — and last year’s late-to-arrive spring.
This past winter, dozens of deer were found dead in Door County, a sign that there were too many whitetails for the habitat in some areas.
Most of the hunter complaints come during the gun hunt. Meanwhile, archers have been on a roll. Three of the top five state bow buck kills — including last year’s record of 45,988 — have come since 2010.
Compare that to the top five with gun. Outside 2005, the other four were all between 1995 and 2000. The gun record is 171,895 set in ‘95; the combined bow-gun record was set five years later. In the last decade, however, the largest gun buck kill has been 147,622, set in ’05.
No doubt earn-a-buck’s success at getting more units closer to goal pulled the gun buck numbers down in future years. But the increase in the popularity of bow hunting is certainly another factor.
With crossbows coming for anyone who wants them in 2014, it’s something to keep an eye on.
Wallenfang said there’s never one answer for anything, but he insists the habitat across the north is not what it used to be because of a lack of logging.
“It’s a double-whammy,” Wallenfang said. “Young forests provide a lot more food and cover for whitetails.”
Here in Door County, if the 100-plus-day season bow kill is solid as expected, we’ll know more about the real state of the local herd.
There’s still a lot of gun hunt opportunity, left. In addition to the final two days of the regular nine-day firearm season, a 10-day muzzleloader deer hunt begins Monday in most areas, followed by four more days of antlerless-only hunting immediately following. The gun hunts end Dec. 15; archery deer is open until Jan. 5.
Peninsula State Park is archery-only again beginning Monday and running through Dec. 15.
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— Kevin Naze is a freelance outdoors writer. Call him at (920) 883-9792 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.