GRAND FORKS — As a longtime wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, John Williams has a wealth of knowledge about deer populations and other whitetail trends throughout the agency’s Northwest Region, which basically encompasses the northwest quarter of Minnesota.

But when it comes to making deer season predictions, that’s a whole different story.

“I stopped making predictions about it a few years ago, after finding it just doesn’t work very well, but I am looking forward to a good season,” said Williams, Northwest Region wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, Minn. “I think our hunters should be pleased with the number of deer they’re seeing.”

Minnesota’s regular firearms deer season opens Saturday, Nov. 7.

The DNR manages Minnesota’s deer herd by dividing the state into permit areas, adjusting bag limits for each area based on deer numbers and how they relate to population goals. As in recent years, permit areas this year are classified as “intensive,” with a limit of up to three deer; “managed,” with a two-deer limit; “hunters choice,” a one-deer limit that allows shooting either a buck or a doe; and “lottery,” which limits hunters to bucks-only unless they apply for and receive an antlerless permit.

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With the exception of a few “lottery” permit areas in the southwest part of the region, most of the DNR’s Northwest Region is classified as intensive, managed or hunter’s choice.

In far northwest Minnesota, especially, hunters in many permit areas will be able to take as many as three deer, providing they purchase two half-price bonus tags good for antlerless deer only in addition to their regular firearms tag.

That suggests strong deer numbers.

John Williams, Northwest Region wildlife supervisor, Bemidji. (Minnesota DNR photo)
John Williams, Northwest Region wildlife supervisor, Bemidji. (Minnesota DNR photo)

“We only had three (permit) areas in the whole region that actually went to a more conservative harvest structure,” Williams said. “And I think five or six actually went up in terms of being more liberal.

“We still have some of the lottery areas in the far south and southwest parts of our region,” he added. “I think we’re going into the season with fairly strong populations, and I do think it will be a good season. … I can’t tell you how good.”

Minnesota hunters last year registered 150,743 whitetails during the regular firearms deer season for a success rate of 31.2%, DNR statistics show, down from 155,975 in 2018, when the success rate was 31.7%. Total harvest last year when adding in the archery and muzzleloader seasons was 183,687, down from 188,706 in 2018.

The high in the past decade was 207,313 in 2010, a year when hunters registered 174,104 deer during the regular firearms season.

If fishing and small game license sales during the Covid-19 pandemic are any indication, more deer hunters will be in the field than last fall, when the DNR sold 517,517 firearms deer licenses, a number that includes resident, nonresident, bonus permits and youth tags.

License sales during the mid-October youth deer season were up about 11% from last year, Williams said.

Then and now

Weather and landscape conditions may have hampered hunter success last year in northwest Minnesota, thanks to heavy rains in September and October that delayed crop harvests and created difficult access in many areas.

Single-digit temperatures created additional challenges.

“Think about some of the things we faced,” Williams said. “Consider the standing crops that were there — notably corn — and consider how that first weekend was doggone cold. We had a little bit of a tough opener last year from that standpoint.”

Different story this year. More than 70% of Minnesota’s corn crop had been harvested as of Monday, Oct. 26, compared with about 15% at the same time last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in its weekly crop update.

If extended forecasts are any indication, hunters opening weekend of deer season could see highs in the high 30s to low 40s, with low temperatures in the high teens to low 20s and chances for precipitation both days.

Not exactly the shirtsleeve weather, but not the frigid arctic conditions of last year, either.

“I do remember the years when it’s been so bitter cold that people could hardly stay out very long to deer hunt, and I remember the times when we were hunting in blaze orange T-shirts,” Williams said. “We really have had a variety of openers, I would say.

“You look at the forecast, at least (the coming week’s) forecast, and it seems to be a good 10 degrees warmer than what it is this week so pretty classic weather, I would say. … Good for hanging deer.”

Minnesota whitetail notebook

  • The DNR is offering a virtual “First Day of Deer Camp” conversation from noon to 1 p.m. Monday, Nov. 2. During the webinar, a variety of DNR staff who specialize in education, wildlife and enforcement will answer questions to help hunters prepare for firearms deer season. Registration for the webinar is required and available online. Check out the DNR website at mndnr.gov or call the DNR Information Center at (888) MINNDNR or email info.dnr@state.mn.us for more information.

  • This year more than ever, the DNR recommends hunters have a deer hunting plan in place well before opening day — not only to buy licenses, but also to figure out where to hunt, whether they’ll be providing a sample for chronic wasting disease testing and how they’ll process their deer.

  • As always, hunters should follow the basic rules of safe firearms handling: Treat every firearm as if it is loaded by keeping your finger off the trigger, always control the muzzle of the firearm and be sure of the target and what is beyond it.

  • Tree stand accidents are the leading cause of injury to hunters, so hunters always should wear a safety harness and follow other safety guidelines when using a stand.

  • The DNR has created additional surveillance areas for chronic wasting disease, which was detected in new areas last year in both wild and captive deer. As part of the DNR's COVID-19 response, CWD testing will be voluntary for all disease zones and surveillance areas, but hunters who shoot a deer in a disease zone are strongly encouraged to submit a sample. More details are available on the CWD webpage of the DNR website at mndnr.gov.

  • Hunters can contact the DNR Information Center to get their deer hunting questions answered from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Visit with a consultant at (888) 646-6367 or by email at info.dnr@state.mn.us. For immediate information, call instead of emailing, or check the DNR deer hunting page for information. Answers to common hunting questions also are available online.

  • To report a game and fish violation in progress, call the Turn In Poachers (TIP) hotline at (800) 652-9093.

  • The DNR is asking hunters to share their deer camp and hunting photos so the agency can share them back on social media and in email updates. Upload photos on the DNR website or go to mndnr.gov for more information.

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  • The DNR is offering an online questionnaire for hunters to report what wildlife they see — including deer, turkeys, bears, fishers and other species – while in the field. Agency staff will compare the observations to DNR population estimates that are a baseline for managing wildlife. Reports are valuable even if hunters don’t see any deer during a hunt. More info: mndnr.gov.