This year’s traditional antlerless-deer season might be more important than most.
Wretched weather during the recently concluded buck firearm season appears to have suppressed not only the buck kill, but also the antlerless kill in counties where concurrent buck-and-doe hunting was allowed.
State wildlife officials didn’t release any hard numbers, but acknowledged that the buck harvest during the first week of the 13-day hunt was running 10,000 to 15,000 below the previous year’s total.
In 2018, hunters bagged roughly 38,000 bucks during the season’s opening week. A fall-off of 10,000 to 15,000 would place this year’s one-week total in the 23,000-to-28,000 range.
If the concurrent antlerless-deer harvest followed the same trend, the antlerless kill as of the end of the buck season was running as little as 26 percent or as much as 40 percent below last year. Division of Natural Resources officials don’t break down the statewide antlerless harvest by each of its four season segments, so it’s unclear just how far the overall antlerless kill might fall short of the 2018 total.
Hunters will have a couple of chances to make up the shortfall. The first comes later this week, during the second segment of the state’s “traditional” antlerless season. The second will come between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Paul Johansen, the DNR’s wildlife chief, called the upcoming antlerless-season segment (scheduled for Dec. 12-15) “a great opportunity for hunters to put meat in the freezer.”
“I can’t read hunters’ minds, but I would speculate that the [December] split of the antlerless season remains pretty popular,” Johansen added. “It opens on a Thursday, so that gives deer hunters a chance to have a few days off to recover from the rigors of the buck season.”
Before 2012, the traditional antlerless season began on the Monday after the buck season ended and ran for six days. After 2012, DNR officials split it into two segments — a three-day hunt in October, and another three-day hunt in December. The segments began on Thursday and ended on Saturday.
After Sunday hunting became legal statewide, the DNR did the logical thing and expanded each segment into Sunday.
“Anytime we can expand an opportunity to harvest females from the [deer] population, we try to do that,” Johansen said. “Not only does it provide additional recreational opportunity for hunters, it also helps us meet our deer-management objectives.”
Years of trial and error have demonstrated that killing antlerless deer is the fastest and most efficient way to control whitetail numbers. Before 1999, when the DNR began allowing hunters to take antlerless deer during the buck season, agency biologists struggled to keep the population under control in most of the state’s 55 counties.
Moving a portion of the antlerless season into the buck season remedied the situation.
“It allowed us to get close to our management objectives in many of those counties,” Johansen said.
Breaking an antlerlesss-deer season into four segments — one in October, one in November and two in December — gives hunters plenty of opportunity, but some hunters believe it’s turned into too much of a good thing. In recent years, the overall trend in antlerless-deer harvest totals has been downward.
Johansen said the jam-packed fall hunting calendar might be contributing to hunter fatigue.
“There’s only so many days in the fall to plug seasons into, and we try to be as responsive to the public as possible,” he added. “We try to strike a balance between our deer-management goals and what deer hunters want.”
Johansen believes hunters’ success during the upcoming December segment will hinge mostly on weather conditions during the four-day hunt.
“Hunter participation usually drives hunter success, and participation often depends on the weather,” he said. “At this time of the year, the weather is really unpredictable. If we have several days of clear and cold weather, the harvest should be good. If it’s snowing sideways, it probably won’t be so good. Anything is possible.”