Each year, the Quality Deer Management Association gathers deer numbers from state agencies all over the country to put together an annual whitetail report.
The numbers help us take a deep dive into a lot of harvest data. We are able to get numbers on does taken, bucks taken, and in many states, the age class of those bucks. Minnesota does not track ages of the deer harvested in the registration process, but there are a lot of numbers in the state that I enjoy looking at to get an idea of any trends in both harvest and hunting tendencies.
The most recent QDMA report that came out a few weeks ago looks at final numbers from the 2017-18 season. The breakdown of 2018-19 has not yet been released in Minnesota and many other states, but as of Dec. 9, 2018, hunters in Minnesota shot approximately 185,000 deer through all seasons. That was down about 5.2 percent from the 195,114 taken in 2017. Of the 184,963 deer killed in 2018, 93,531 of those were bucks.
Minnesota hunters frequently kill more bucks than does, and it looks like that will again be the case when the final 2018-19 numbers are released. Of the 197,768 total harvest in 2017, 101,242 of those were bucks. That's despite the Department of Natural Resources handing out multiple anterless tags in many permit areas across the state.
The doe tags are used as a management strategy, but the numbers show that hunters are often reluctant to shoot does over anything with horns.
Here is a quick look at some findings from the most recent QDMA report that I found interesting:
• Yearling buck harvest rates remain at record low numbers across the country, and the percentage of bucks 3.5-years old and older make up a third of the total antlered buck harvest from states that record age class.
• An average of 41 percent of hunters were successful in taking a deer in 2017 and 15 percent of hunters shot more than one deer.
• Antlerless harvest across the country was slightly down from 2016 and 9 percent below the five-year average. The anterless harvest has declined 18 percent in the past decade.
• Nationwide, 66 percent of the total deer shot in 2017 were taken with a firearm. That number is far greater in Minnesota, where 85 percent of the deer taken in 2017 were shot with either a rifle or a shotgun. Harvest with a bow was just 11 percent.
• When I used to firearm hunt on a small parcel of land in southwestern, Minnesota, I remember feeling like I needed to get my deer on opening morning before they went into hiding. Turns out, I wasn't that far off. Hunters in Minnesota shot more than a quarter (27 percent) of the entire deer harvest on opening day of the primary firearm season.
• The whitetail report looks at the number of deer taken before the opening of the primary firearms season, and Minnesota has the lowest percentage of deer taken during that early period than any other state in the country at 8 percent. That number has dropped from 10 percent during the 2007 season.
So what does this all tell us about deer hunting in Minnesota?
There is no doubt that firearm season is still king in the state. The fact that 85 percent of the total harvest is taken by a rifle or shotgun speaks loud and clear on that front.
That indicates archers can spend a lot of time in the woods without running into much pressure from other hunters. I have found that to be the case in my own experiences, too. I rarely run into other bowhunters, even when hunting on public pieces. A buddy of mine and I hunted only public land the entire opening weekend of bow season in 2018 and never saw another vehicle.
Minnesota had 103,852 licensed archers in 2017. That equates to 1.3 per square mile. In comparison, Pennsylvania, which has the most bowhunters in the country at 339,600, has 7.6 archers per square mile. Michigan, at 311,000 total bowhunters, has 5.5 PSM.
Look at some of our border states, and you will find even less bowhunting pressure than Minnesota. North Dakota (28,000 archers in 2017, 0.4 PSM) and South Dakota (23,000, 0.3 PSM) are prime examples. Wisconsin (246,211, 4.5 PSM) to our east is an exception where we see quite a bit more pressure.
I also look at some numbers and have hope that hunting traditions still run strong in Minnesota. It's not uncommon to listen to a podcast or read a story where it is suggested that deer camps are dying across the country.
That might be true to an extent, even in Minnesota. There have been highs and lows in license sales over the last 20 years, with 401,005 resident gun hunters in 2001 to 285,286 resident regular firearms licenses sold in 2007.
The number of regular firearms licenses sold to in-state hunters was 369,190 in 1997. In 2017, it was not far off that same mark at 368,407. The years of 2005 (291,298 resident licenses) and 2007 (285,286) still coincided with firearm deer harvests of more than 214,000 each of those years with plenty of bonus permits to be had.
The numbers back up what I tend to see personally too. I know hunters who casually hunt with a bow but don't want to fill their tag before firearms season because they don't want to miss out on the camaraderie that comes with hunting with a group. Plenty of people still love the feeling of opening morning in Minnesota. That's a good thing.