If timing is everything, then the opening date of the 2019 firearms deer season should work out well for hunters — both casual and hardcore — as it lands right around what is traditionally the peak of the annual whitetail rut in Minnesota.
What that means is that when the figurative bell rings at one half hour before sunrise next Saturday, the deer should be moving.
The firearms deer opener date in Minnesota is set by state statute and according to Tom Rusch, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Manager for the Tower area, Nov. 9 is the latest it can begin.
Normally, that’s just about the time of the month when the rut — the breeding cycle of the whitetail deer — hits what is called in most circles, the chasing phase.
It’s the peak of deer movement in November and sometimes provides hunters with an advantage because bucks, particularly the mature versions, don’t normally move around all that much during daylight hours but once they get interested in mating with does in heat, they tend to do silly things, like throw caution to the wind and chase females with reckless abandonment.
Sort of like a teenage boy.
Once stuck on a doe’s scent, a buck will be less weary of its surroundings and more concerned about hooking up, which causes them to move when and where they shouldn’t.
As Rusch points out, “Peak rutting activity means deer are on their feet and moving. That is a recipe for success.”
Success for hunters and the DNR.
The hunt isn’t conveniently situated during the rut so you and I can shoot trophy deer, it is done that way for management purposes.
Does are the key to the whitetail population and since one buck can mate with several of them, wildlife managers control the overall population by controlling female harvest numbers.
How many does that can be shot in any given area is based on information they gather about particular Deer Permit Areas (DPA) in the state using observations and through science and each DPA has a population goal.
So it makes sense that the majority of the deer harvest should be male deer and since it’s hard to harvest a buck during the day most of the year, the hunt is located during mating season.
In general, wildlife experts know that this will lead to more hunter success and help them with their population goals (the part they can control since severe winter weather and predators can throw a wrench into things).
But here’s the fine print: Just because there is the potential that bucks will be moving opening weekend doesn’t mean they will or that anyone is guaranteed a shot at one — at least not a mature buck. Young ones tend to move around too much regardless of time of year and history has shown much of the early harvest each year is made up of yearlings to one-and-half or two-year-old deer.
Still, some years it is even hard to see one of those as other factors also influence harvest numbers including weather, moon phase, hunting pressure, and time spent in the woods.
That last one is key: If you want to succeed as a deer hunter, you need to put the time in.
A lot of hunters forget about that part and then when the going gets tough and there’s wind or rain or adverse conditions involved (or hunters are located in an area where population numbers are down) you hear people complaining that either the DNR doesn’t know what they are doing and that’s why they aren’t seeing any deer or the rut has.
My experience tells me differently. I’d say most of the time when people struggle to harvest a deer it has to do with a number of other factors like not enough time in the field and a lack of preseason planning.
I hate to admit this because it shows my age, but I’ve been hunting deer in northern Minnesota for more than three decades. That’s over 30 years for those who dislike math and for most of those years — particularly the last 20 or so — I’ve been pretty serious about it and fairly successful.
Not overly serious though. I don’t use calls or worry about which way the wind is blowing and I stopped washing my clothing in special non-scented cleaners years ago.
But I do a lot of pre-season scouting and I’ve come to understand where deer travel and what makes a good spot to put a stand that will give me the best opportunity to see a buck once the season begins regardless of weather or rut or any other factor.
You have to give yourself the best chance to succeed.
Most years I find success. Some years it takes longer than others to see a mature buck, so I’ve been known to put many, many hours in a stand or two.
Some hunters don’t buy into that way of approaching the season. They check their stand the weekend before the season starts, hit it hard the first weekend and then either never return or just make an appearance or two the second weekend before calling it a season.
Mostly only the hardcore hunters make it through the third weekend. Sometimes I don’t even last that long. I’ve been known to spend the last Sunday of the season (this year it will be Nov. 24) at home watching football.
The point is that while hunting the peak of the rut can, in theory, offer a hunter an advantage and usually produces a lot of activity, it doesn’t guarantee success or a shot at a nice quality buck — in my mind, something a little older than a spike or 4-pointer.
Nothing wrong with those deer — they taste good — I just like to wait it out sometimes. And while I start every season with dreams of a big old eight or 10-pointer walking out at sunrise on day one, if I look back over my career, that has only happened a handful of times.
In reality, most of the best bucks I’ve ever harvested, and the three or four biggest trophies, have all come later in the season, after what should have been peak rut.