You really don’t have to have a lot of gray in your hair to remember when deer hunting was largely a northern Michigan endeavor. There was a long tradition of going to deer camp somewhere north of Clare, and reports of traffic jams on northbound I-75 a couple of days prior to Nov. 15 were commonplace.
That trend changed through the 1990s, and somewhere around the turn of the century, the pattern reversed itself. More hunters spent more time – and killed more deer – in the southern third of the state than in the northern Lower and Upper peninsulas.
In 2002, for instance, Michigan hunters killed an estimated 35,000 bucks in the Upper Peninsula and 79,000 in the northern Lower Peninsula, while southern Michigan hunters killed 127,000 bucks – more than half the bucks taken in the state. That trend has continued.
But due to a combination of factors – including new license regulations and three mild winters in a row – northern Michigan deer hunting appears to be poised for a comeback.
“We haven’t necessarily seen increased license sales or more hunter numbers in northern Michigan, but what we are seeing is the hunters who are out there are more successful and that’s always a good thing,” said Department of Natural Resources deer program biologist Ashley Autenrieth.
Autenrieth, who works out of Gaylord, said more hunters have been calling, looking to buy property adjacent to public land to establish deer camps in the northern Lower Peninsula.
“The last three mild winters we’ve had have really helped,” Autenrieth said. “People are seeing more game. Our deer herd has been on a nice, steady increase for the last three years, which is what we want – a slow progression of deer numbers.
“Where we have good habitat we’re seeing more deer and even in areas with medium-quality habitat we’re seeing more deer,” she said. “In general, numbers are up and the deer seem to be very fit. They look healthy. We’re getting reports of good trail camera pictures and people say they’re seeing some very nice quality bucks.”
The change in buck regulations in the Upper Peninsula – where hunters who opt for a combination license are limited to a buck with at least three antler points on one side and four on one side (statewide) with the second tag – may have helped pass some bucks into an older age-class. (A similar change was adopted in 2010 in DMU 487 – the area in the northeastern Lower Peninsula where bovine tuberculosis has been an issue with the deer herd.)
“The last three winters have been pretty good to deer in the Upper Peninsula, with this past winter being one of the mildest on record,” Autenrieth said. “This has given the deer a great chance to rebound from the harsh winter of 2008. I would expect both the population numbers and the harvest to increase this year.
“I think we’ll see an increase in hunter success throughout much of northern Michigan again this year.”
Autenrieth said that this year more antlerless permits are available in new areas in northern Michigan.
“A number of areas in both the U.P. and northern Lower have been opened for the first time in a number of years,” she said. “Otsego, Cheboygan and Roscommon counties were all opened this year on both public and private land after being closed for the last three years.
“Kalkaska is still closed on public land, but is open for private-land antlerless licenses, and we also opened Mason, Wexford and Missaukee to public land this year, too. That’s a reaction to our indicators telling us the population numbers are up and healthy.
“In the U.P., we did open a few areas previously closed including DMU 117 (Drummond Island) and 121 (Bay De Noc Unit) and we did increase the number of licenses in some areas.”
Antlerless licenses have been reduced in the northeastern Lower Peninsula, where bovine tuberculosis is a major concern, but that represents more of change in strategy than a change in deer populations, Autenrieth said.
“We’re really looking forward to another great hunting season in northern Michigan,” she said. “Things are looking good. We’ve heard very good things from archery hunters, and we hope that continues right into gun season.”
The DNR believes southern Michigan will continue to produce the bulk of hunting effort as well as the bulk of the harvest this year – and probably for the foreseeable future. But northern Michigan deer hunting, which has been in decline in recent years, seems ready for a bounce. Though no one is predicting traffic jams heading north anytime soon, the tradition of hunting deer in northern Michigan appears to be on an upswing.
Learn more about deer-hunting opportunities in all parts of the state on the DNR website at www.michigan.gov/deer.
Image courtesy Michigan DNR