Getting a bead on the Season

What to expect…From all indications the 2008 deer harvest may well be one to remember! Why? First and foremost, too many whitetails exist to the south and that herd must be appreciably thinned; second, northern lower Michigan held a 10 percent increase in their deer population and that certainly equates to good news for ‘Tip-of-the Mitt’ hunters; and third, it will prove most interesting to learn how the controversial new buck law works out across the Upper Peninsula.

Historical notes…Before presenting the 2008 firearms deer season forecast, let’s take a minute for a few flashbacks to a far different hunting era:

85 Years Ago: Merlin Cook of 604 Elizabeth Street, Sault Ste. Marie, was awarded the $10 gold piece offered by Pete Vigeant of 221 W. Portage Ave. to the person who killed the largest deer during hunting season. The deer killed by Cook weighed 233 pounds dressed. It was shot on Drummond Island near the Scott Camp, where Cook was a member of a Sault hunting party.

(The Evening News)

Ninety years ago, 1918: The deer hunters in the state totaled 27,370 during the 1917 season, an increase of about 20 percent over 1916. Just 5,394 persons more.

(St. Ignace News)

Roughing it…these three hunters pose in front of their tent during a 1914 deer hunting expedition in the Oscoda area. Although the hunters are unidentified, a notation on back of the photo indicates that the deer weighed 140 pounds.

(Oscoda Press)

The Forecast

To achieve a better handle on the upcoming rifle deer season, Woods-N-Water News interviews were conducted from wildlife specialists across the state. These professionals live and breathe and talk whitetails year-around.

Upper Peninsula Western Half

The extreme western reaches of the U.P. provide a wide assortment of choices. The far west and northwest counties experienced an above average winter severity index (WSI). Storms appeared to have shifted from their usual patterns, dumping snow further to the south-central counties which was most unusual. Robert Doepker, wildlife unit manager for the western half of the Upper Peninsula (Marquette DNR Office) claimed that most of the adverse deer losses occurred in northern Menominee, east-central Dickinson and southwest Delta counties.

Deer hunting should prove to be somewhat better further to the west. Check out Gogebic, Ontonagon, Baraga or Houghton. The Keweenaw Peninsula rarely attracts many deer, or for that matter, many deer hunters.

Public land is everywhere. Take advantage of our national forests. Ontonagon holds the highest whitetail count; Gogebic ranks second.

One thing to remember! The high price of gas appears to have moved some bear hunters into hunting zone applications for the Newberry District rather than putting in for Baraga or Gwinn Districts. Why? Probably to save on gas, settling for hunting prospects just over the bridge rather than traveling the additional miles. (From Drummond Island to the east to Ironwood to the west, the Upper Peninsula stretches out some 384 miles.) Gas prices may hold a similar effect for 2008 whitetail hunters who formerly preferred to hunt U.P.-West.

DNR’s Robert Doepker reported that the 2008 deer kill should be down across the entire western half of the peninsula. While herds faired somewhat better to the west, deer in the south-central areas were hit hard. The entire U.P. lost some 30,000 deer. Pellet and dead deer counts indicated that the tally number of

deer that did not survive the winter was well above average. The longer a winter hangs on, more yearlings simply won’t make it. Loss of 1-1/2 year old deer will prove devastating down the road and by season, less 2-1/2 year olds will be seen or harvested.

Doepker claims, “In 2007 the buck kill was down by 15 percent. The total harvest was also down and the herd went into winter with fewer yearlings. Over the long winter, we suffered a loss of fawns and this spring does had neonatal losses due to poor nutrition as a direct result of the brutal winter.”

“Our herd peaked in 1995. Since that time the west-end harvest was down by 40-50 percent throughout certain areas; overall, down perhaps 45 percent.”

Note: The horrible deer kill that occurred during the two back-to-back winters of 1996-98 killed some 300,000 whitetails across the entire U.P. Some areas that were hard hit, wiped out entire deer populations. The Iron River area was one of those and today, deer are finally coming back, but ever so slowly.

While I spoke with Bob Doepker, I asked him about the seriousness of escaping wild hogs in his unit. His reply…”Wild hogs have presented some problems in the Gwinn area and formerly in Baraga and Marquette counties as well. All you need to take a hog is a valid hunting license plus a check to see if hunting hogs is legal where you plan to hunt. More folks are seeing results of hog activity (destruction of habitat through severe digging) than actual feral pigs. Yes, indeed, this could become an extremely serious problem somewhere down the road.

Upper Peninsula Eastern Half

Terry Minzey holds the position of wildlife unit manager at the DNR’s Newberry headquarters. I asked him, “How will the new laws governing U.P. deer hunting (new buck rule) effect herd population figures?”

He replied, “First we must realize that answers to such questions are basically speculation. For example: What we cannot know is how many hunters will opt to purchase a combo license or how many hunters will merely buy a regular deer license.

“Furthermore, poaching may occur when a hunter takes down an illegal buck due to a situation where points could not be correctly verified.

“I am assuming that most hunters will probably buy a combo license.

“The new buck law could high-grade the EUP deer herd. But that could backfire as well. Say that a yearling buck has a 3-point legal antler on one side. Instead of being classed as a spike…that buck becomes legal and probably would be harvested during the 2008 hunt. Furthermore, if this particular buck displayed excellent antler development at that age, that kill would remove a buck from the herd that showed promise for antler development and gene pool excellence during breeding.

“My opinion of the DNR’s new U.P. only buck rules…is wait and see!”

Next I asked Minzey how hunters are accepting the new buck ruling? He commented as follows:

“About 50/50 right now. We will have to wait and see how the hunt goes this fall as well as future hunts before any determination can be assessed.”

Next we spoke about the upcoming hunt. “As mentioned during the archery forecast, here in the EUP our southern counties were hard hit by deer mortality figures. Our southern unit suffered the greatest loss from Naubinway west to Escanaba. The northern boundaries, that usually take to traditional deeryards early, had an average winter; especially true in the Shingleton and Newberry districts. Figures covering the effects of a harsher than normal winter to the far east have not as yet been compiled.

“Those areas where a brutal winter was experienced will not hold good hunting prospect for 2008…furthermore, those specific sections will result in lower deer harvests during 2009 as well.

“Over the past six years, 20 percent of hunters harvested deer and buck sightings were up during 2007; figures were actually close to 2001. This season, I fear they will be down.”

I might also add that for the past several years, many EUP hunters have headed south instead, seeking out private hunting lands along the Ohio and Indiana borders, because their chance of bagging a bragging buck are far better.

Below the Bridge Northeastern L.P.

(Gaylord): Northern lower Michigan provides more than 20,000 square miles of public hunting land, most of which is open to antlerless hunting. Wildlife biologist Brian Mastenbrook commented, “With the taking of more antlerless deer, odds increased toward a better doe/buck ration. In some of our management units we figure that ratio at 4/1.

“The firearms season should prove worthy as we are seeing more 2-1/2 year old bucks taken (2007) meaning that younger deer are afforded that extra chance to mature and grow older.”

Hunters should consider tracking bruiser bucks where populations are lower, such as Cheboygan, Crawford, Roscommon and Presque Isle counties. Hunt seriously along fringe areas of marsh and wetlands. Don’t overlook the hard-to-reach swamps where the “big guys” may hang out.

Leon Hank, president of the Michigan Quality Deer Management Association, advises, “In northeast lower Michigan, near the “club country” and the TB zone, despite years of heavy antlerless harvest, there are reports of good numbers of deer and some nice bucks in areas where the habitat is managed for deer. There are also large co-ops of hunters and landowners who voluntarily practice QDM in this area and the age structure of their bucks is improving a little more each year. They should take some nice bucks this year too in an area where historically they haven’t killed many bucks.”

Northwestern Lower Peninsula

(Cadillac): Wildlife Unit Manager, Larry Visser explains, “Firearms deer season 2008 should prove well above average. We have met our long term goals throughout the district with exception of Benzie, Grand

Traverse and Kalkaska counties. Basically, results of the harvest should pretty much equal last year’s tally.

“Looking to hunt public lands? Our Unit contains lots to choose from. Look to Wexford, Lake, Manistee, Mason, Osceola and Missaukee for good public hunting grounds.

“People are seeing a lot of deer. We have some high deer/vehicle accident reports throughout the district, such as Osceola with 642 such reports; but when you figure how many busy highways and expressways cross our Unit, those totals are not true indicators of ‘too many deer.’ Counties such as Leelanau had 250 deer/vehicle accidents and Benzie experienced 259.

“Will high gas prices keep hunters away from the Cadillac Unit? I doubt it. We survey a lot of camps during firearms seasons and many of those folks are diehard firearms hunters who for the most part, will drive north for a week’s stay at camp or find available lodging.”

Leon Hanks, president of MQDM advises, “In northwest lower Michigan, hunters in Leelanau County have had several outstanding seasons in a row because of their five-year antler restriction program. Hunters lucky enough to hunt this county in 2008 just might learn that the quality of the hunting here is now almost as good as some of the best hunting in Illinois, Iowa or other ‘big buck’ states. We are really excited that hunters in other area counties around Leelanau are also interested in starting an antler restriction program based on Leelanau’s.”

Saginaw Bay

(Bay City): Wildlife biologists and unit managers agree that the Saginaw Bay/Thumb areas have experienced deer population increases similar to other counties further southward. This Unit holds 10 counties and includes the northern part of the ‘Thumb.’ Here deer/vehicle accidents are on the rise; Sanilac Co. shows the highest tally with 1,107 such accidents reported; Isabella had 1,092. High numbers indeed. The experts claim; More deer than ever before…more vehicles on the roads. They fully believe that there between high deer numbers and vehicle/deer accident ratios.

Here in this district, farmers have been in the Ag Business for generations and hunters have little chance of hunting farm acreage. Local farmers tend to keep hunting privileges ‘in the family.’

Hunting public lands…look for natural deer foods…attractions…soft and hard mast. I like to find off the beaten path wild apple or other fruit trees as they draw deer like a magnet.

Best opportunities for bagging a bragging buck would be hunting Huron, Tuscola, or Sanilac counties. Check your DNR Hunting Guide for 2008 to locate QDM Units as there are quite a few listings in this district.

Southeastern Lower Peninsula

(Southfield): Looking to southeastern management unit we find Lapeer, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair and Wayne counties where deer populations have more or less been stabilizing over the years. For highest deer population numbers, check out northern St. Clair, Lapeer and Genesee.

Last year well across the southern counties, it appeared as though less hunters checked their harvest at DNR check stations; perhaps due to weather or apathy.

Checking the deer/vehicle accident statistics which often prove to be an indicator of heavy whitetail concentrations, we find the top three counties as being Oakland (1,866), Lapeer (1,373), and Genesee (1,244).

Southwestern Lower Peninsula

(Plainwell): Deer numbers are steadily increasing across semi-urban and residential areas. The herd holds approximately 65 percent, l-1/2-year-old deer. If hunters took advantage of the liberal antlerless deer permits, perhaps they would be seeing more older resident bucks.

Look for high deer numbers in Barry, Calhoun, Cass, and Branch counties. Seek hunting spots near fruit orchards and/or truck gardens. Ask politely for permission to hunt private lands.

VanBuren, Allegan, and Muskegon counties show promise. Least pressure will focus on public lands such as the Allegan State Game Area. Another public hunting possibility…state parks on the Lake Michigan shoreline such as Warren Dunes, VanBuren, and Grand Mere. Check ahead of time with park rangers to learn where and if hunting is permitted.

Note: Harvest numbers equate to 80 percent on private lands; 20 percent for public hunting grounds.

South Central Lower Peninsula

(East Lansing)Whitetail population figures run high in Montcalm, Ionia, Gratiot, Jackson and Hillsdale. That mid-north/south corridor of Livingston and Shiawassee could prove especially profitable.

Bad feature of hunting this unit? The area is 90 percent private land. Twelve counties hold just 34 parcels of public hunting lands. Least hunting pressure can be found in Gratiot or Saginaw counties, but there still might be more pressure than you wish to put up with. But with gas prices high this year, many hunters may opt to hunt closer to home.

Usually hunting pressure runs high at Gratiot/Saginaw State Game Area, but it might well be worth the effort to give that area a try. This area proves popular for several reasons; spike horns are rarely seen; most bucks taken are moderate to super-rack quality.

With the possibility of more hunters hunting southern Michigan hotspots due to the economy, the 2008 season down south should prove even better than the 2007 harvest.


Each and every Michigan zone is capable of producing well-racked, heavy-bodied bucks. Success? Well, you never really know, do you? You have to be in the right place at the right time. Luck plays a dramatic role over and above patterning, rattling, decoying, calling, or any other hunting tactic you wish to employ.

Have a safe hunt!