DULUTH — Three mild winters in a row have put northern Minnesota deer hunters in a mildly optimistic mood about this fall's firearms deer hunt. The mild winters, which followed a string of harsh winters, have allowed the deer herd to begin coming back.
"I've had some guys come in with some nice (trail-cam) pictures," said Scott VanValkenburg of Fisherman's Corner in Pike Lake. "Guys are definitely fired up."
Minnesota's firearms deer season opens Saturday and continues through Nov. 19.
Already, hunters are seeing signs of whitetail bucks becoming more active as the rut (mating season) approaches, said John Chalstrom of Chalstrom's Bait and Tackle north of Duluth.
"My sense is it's going to be a very good opener this year," Chalstrom said. "I know from the activity archers have had in the last two weeks, deer are becoming active."
The same is true farther north, too, said Linda Loucks of God's Country Outfitters north of Grand Rapids.
"(About two weeks ago), we registered a buck whose neck was already starting to swell," Loucks said. "And people are seeing a few scrape marks, so it could be a hot opener."
The necks of bucks typically swell as they enter the rutting period.
The perceived increase in deer numbers supports the perceptions of wildlife managers with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
"Where good habitat exists, deer populations are approaching or are at established population goals," said Dave Olfelt, DNR regional wildlife manager for Northeastern Minnesota. "Three consecutive, relatively mild winters have contributed to good fawn production and high numbers of twin births. Snow depth was moderate throughout much of the region and a relatively early green-up of forage has supported deer that appear to be in excellent physical condition."
As a result of an increasing deer population, the DNR has been more liberal in allowing the harvest of antlerless deer in many areas of the state this fall, including Northeastern Minnesota.
DNR officials are predicting a statewide harvest of about 200,000 deer. That's above last year's harvest of 173,213 deer but still well below the record harvest of 290,525 and similar to the 20-year average harvest of 205,959.
Before 2000, deer harvests of more than 200,000 occurred just four times, wildlife officials said.
More young bucks
None of this means that a lot of trophy bucks are strutting around out in the woods. Not yet.
"Last year, with our deer processing, we saw a ton of young bucks," Chalstrom said. "I think there are still a lot of young bucks this year, plus a lot of sixes and eights (six- and eight-point bucks). They're not monsters yet, but they'll be decent deer. It takes four or five years to grow a big buck."
About 10 days ago, Randy and Mary Arras of Hermantown were "plinkin'" with friends at their deer shack on Three Lakes Road north of Duluth. On a sunny afternoon, they were doing some handgun target shooting. Randy Arras has been coming to the hunting shack since he was a young boy. His dad began hunting at the shack in 1952.
Hunting has been tough there in recent years, Randy said.
"Two years ago, there were no deer," he said. "Last year, we got a couple deer, and we had four young kids who hunted hard.
"A lot of it, I think, is the wolves. We see more wolves than deer. As far as tracks, for every deer track, there are five or six sets of wolf tracks. And I'm not one of those guys who thinks we gotta get rid of all the wolves."
Down Three Lakes Road a few miles, Blaine Peterson, 66, of Annandale, Minn., was checking out his shack with Joel Iverson, 37, of Champlin, Minn. They've seen a few more deer this year.
"I think the population is coming back a little bit," Peterson said. "On the trail-cams, we see a little more action."
He and Iverson were up at the shack to get ready for deer season.
"We were putting up a new stand, looking at where the other stands are, making sure everything is secure," Peterson said. "We've seen a couple (buck) rubs."
He has hunted in the same area for more than three decades, he said. For 28 of those years, his party hunted from a 16-foot-by-32-foot Army tent.
"That was fun," Peterson said.
Hunters headed north for the opener or beyond should be aware that the woods are saturated from recent rains.
"It's so wet," VanValkenburg said. "I recommend knee-boots at least. A lot of these areas are flooded out. If guys haven't been out yet, they should get out soon to see if they can get back in there."
Know your hunting permit area
The DNR has reconfigured and renumbered some deer permit areas in Northeastern Minnesota, and that has proved confusing to many hunters when they try to buy their licenses, Chalstrom said.
The permit areas were changed to better reflect areas managed primarily for deer and those managed primarily for moose.
It will be helpful for hunters to look at the deer pull-out map in the 2017 hunting regulations pamphlet before going to buy a license this year, Chalstrom said.