Don't throw the towel in just yet.
Your hunting in Indiana is not doomed.
Don't start pointing the sole "proverbial finger" at the DNR, localized hunters on or around your hunting grounds...think deeper.
With the onslaught of attacks the DNR is getting from some hunters inside the State it goes without saying not all hunters are excited or happy with the current herd in their specific areas. However, how much of that is the State's fault really? None, little, a lot or all? That is a question NONE of us can drum up an answer to based solely on facts...however I would without hesitation say it isn't none, but nor is it all. Let's examine some things which cannot be argued, and how they impact localized deer herds.
However first a touch about me and my personal perspective. I am a rather young hunter in comparison to many, growing up in the 90's made me think there were deer behind every tree in the woods...and honestly at times that wasn't too far off. Back when I started hunting it was unheard of to go a day without seeing deer of some kind, even me a boy who knew nothing...no scent control, wind direction worry, access/entrance trail care...nothing, would see deer every sit practically. Does that mean the deer herd was healthy? I think you could easily say in my area it wasn't unhealthy, however I would say it seemed almost like there were too many deer if even an non-woodsman boy like me was seeing deer EVERY sit. It was seeing the onslaught of deer that made me truly not see a reason to harvest just any deer and I quickly became of the mindset only mature deer were getting an arrow. Not because of some trophy mentality (as I shoot does too), but out of the sheer lack of a challenge presented shooting yearlings or year and a half bucks/does...the dumbest deer in the woods.
So as I set and watched more than harvested I've observed many a shift in the woods I hunt over the years. 2015 looks a lot different then 2001 did...but there are reasons for that and in my opinion they are as follows (IN NO SPECIFIC ORDER):
When I first started hunting all you ever heard in our area was humans are the only real predator of the deer...and it was true. Outside of car crashes, diseases and old age deer simply didn't die unless at the hand of a hunter. The same cannot be said nowadays. Where trail cam images of a coyote 12 years ago in many of my areas would have been shocking, now I rarely go a cam pull without a coyote coming by and sometimes numerous times in numerous numbers. To say predators don't play a factor in the localized deer herds is naive at best. So why the surge of them? I think habitat changing has done some of it...the fact trapping isn't something many are doing these days is some of it as well. No matter how you slice it predators are having an impact...want to protect fawns in the spring? To an extent it is less about how many does are killed in the Fall and more about the predators killed before Spring fawning starts.
Let's face it, if you hunt deer long enough you should develop an awareness of a deer's daily habits. Much of which consists of browsing for food. This comes in the way of a TON of things. They'll eat bark, fungi, twigs, leaves, nuts and about any form of grass/legume or crop. Their digestive system is built this way to help keep them alive. However, as a forest matures woods no longer offer any substantial amount of food for the whitetail deer. I have lost track of the amount of guys that tell me they just don't get it, their woods are loaded with HUGE & MATURE oaks...yet the deer are no where to be found in November.
Think about it, in November what is the forest putting forth if it is as described above? A fully mature canopy covered forest nearly removes any chance of understory growth of anything which would provide food or cover for the deer. If you can see through a block of timber, it is giving the deer very little they desire and you should expect to not see many deer unless special circumstances push them to it (pressure/human intrusion or similar).
Another habitat factor playing a role in what hunters are seeing is the loss of timber stands in general. Developments are popping up everywhere and farmers in a hopes of making the farming life work are taking down timber and replacing it with tillable ground. While the latter sounds good, answer me this; what good does a harvested field of beans or corn do for the deer? Sure some residual missed crops will be scavenged for a while and can yield some awesome hunting chances...but once gone what does that field provide?
Nothing, and in all honesty that is exactly what you should expect to see...but again I hear so many people wondering why they aren't seeing any deer set up on a tree line over looking hundreds of acres of picked fields.
Finally, the last habitat factor is one that may surprise some people coming from me...hunters have become TOO OBSESSED WITH FOOD PLOTS. The sad fact is many guys are ripping out and cutting down thick cover to put in food plots...removing the security cover that actually holds deer to put in an open food plot. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense if having deer during daytime hours. Yes, set up right you can have daytime activity in your plots...however EVEN then ask anyone with plots, at least 50% or more of the activity that plot receives will be at night. This is due to the fact deer if they don't feel safe simply will wait for the security blanket of night to feed in open sources of food. Hence why creating thick cover, lush under-stories and brows rich habitat is what will make deer feed/brows during daylight hours more. However, just like sex sales in advertising...food plots sell in the hunting world.
Just remember not all habitat should have deer in them...and if they do, it is tell tale sign that there is a reason; pressure or population surge are the two most likely factors.
This is yet another thing which I feel if you hunt long enough you will experience a breakout of some degree in your area. So far I personally have dodged it on my properties that I know of...but it will not shock me should it happen some year. EHD or any other natural killer of deer can strike a localized herd at any moment...and while it sucks no doubt, there is very little we can do about it. What we can do though is react when it does occur. Often times EHD reports come well after the year's quotas are released and honestly for some after licenses are purchased in preparation for the year's hunting. No matter what the case, HUNTERS MUST REACT and act appropriate. I know if I ever have a property go through EHD, I will target a mature buck and that is it for a year or two before even thinking of taking a doe merely because that is the responsible thing to do as a hunter.
In the end, there is very little if anything (yes some beg to differ, I acknowledge this) the common hunter can do to stop or fight EHD in your localized herd. It is God's way (or nature if you prefer) of hitting the reset button in a very harsh way. We either react accordingly or not, that is our decision.
-Leases, Lightly Pressured & Not Pressured Properties-
First, leases get a bad rap sometimes, and I will say my reluctance to have to pay to hunt ground causes me to not hold the best opinion of them. However, that said they serve a purpose and that is to allow folks without land the ability to hunt private (not public) land, in many minds creates a much easier or rewarding hunting experience; at the very least it should yield a more controlled hunting environment over hunting public.
Leases however can also be why you are not seeing that many deer. Some leases are managed in such a low impact & low harvest fashion (some are ONLY mature bucks) that the property nearly becomes entirely a sanctuary for the deer despite the hunting which occurs on them.
Same with smartly hunted properties....or properties which no hunting is allowed. All of these properties can dominate daytime movement compared to yours possibly. I will use a personal example to illustrate this. This year in archery season we were covered up in deer, sometimes I had to wait hour after legal time before I could climb down and nearly crawl out of spots each hunt. Only a couple times when I was hunting a specific morning retreat route of a buck did I go without seeing at least one deer. Just days prior to firearm season I had of all places a recently picked vacant 30 acre spot of corn and alfalfa covered in deer. Come firearm season we lose rights to hunt the place to the landowner if he is able (health) and some guy who he's friends with that brings his kids out...no biggy. Except their style of hunting is more like the kid I described I was, but also can't sit in one spot long and are usually seen just walking the property on the numerous cameras spread across the 70 acres. (let me make it clear they can do as they may, I am merely pointing out the impact) They swear they see little if any deer...and it is this way every year. As hot of a property as this place is, it dies and it dies down quickly. This type impact may be playing a part in what you are seeing as well....perhaps from you or others on your property, or from immediately bordering neighbors.
The pressure and hunting styles or lack of hunting on your property or adjacent properties in the area will most definitely play a factor in what you see.
I will be the first to admit, if I expected deer to be as populated on my hunting grounds as they were when I was younger and really starting to latch on to hunting I'd be disappointed too in the current numbers I am seeing. I mean I kid you not there were times I would go hunt and it just seemed a disappointment if I didn't see 7 or more deer. Was that a healthy number? Not entirely sure. Was it a realistic number? Not for now and I'm okay with that personally. I think far too often my generation especially hates to have to work for anything and expect immediate gratification or else we will move on to the next thing. Anyone who has hunted the last 20 years has seen our herd at a level many would describe as flourishing or even over populated to now where many are screaming "decimated"...when in fact it probably has more to do with what we are comparing the current herd we see to what we used to see.
Also hunting is a sport of patience and being patient isn't something many of us have ESPECIALLY THE YOUNGER ONES IN OUR RANKS (my generation and younger). This is the generation(s) that grew up with the explosion of social media, internet and handheld devices doing what HOUSE sized computers did just 10/20 years prior. The attitude that sometimes things require work, or shockingly sometimes things will be tough and failure will be more present than success is a foreign concept many refuse to accept as fact.
That is what for years my father loved about hunting for me. I was always skilled in sports, and academics for the most part came easy for me, and while not rich by any means life in general came easy. Minimal food was always present, heat on (wood stove) and I walked into a grocery store job without an interview at 15.....hunting was the one thing where he knew I'd meet failure far far more than success. AND THAT IS/WAS A GOOD THING.
The whole thing reminds me of a metaphor I used to the youth at our church about faith one time, but I think it can be also used when describing the man molded out of hunting and facing failure (adversity) more than success.
A sword that never sees battle remains sharp and untested...and for all the wearer of blade knows is weak and liable to break in battle. But a sword whose edge has been blunted and hilt stained has been tested, time and time again proving its strength to endure.
That however is/was a foreign concept to many....today hunters want a shiny glistening sword....and that my friends in some ways is sad.
In closing this bullet I will concede without a doubt it is true some places are simply not populated with deer like they used to be, and it could be any combination of all the factors outlined here...but that doesn't mean the herd is necessarily in ruin or on the verge of not being here for future generations as a whole.
Antlerless & Total Harvest Numbers
Now for the hot topic...one which I know no matter how I write the following some are going to agree, some will hate me for and others not even care. So with all that in mind remember this is my thoughts, from my perspective...no two hunters share the same complete perspective unless they only ever have hunted together, in the same tree for the same hunts....and even then two can have differing opinions.
I will start with sharing some facts which no personal experiences can sway or harvest totals dispute:
- On a statewide harvest of the statewide herd, Indiana hunters have harvested on average over the last 28 years (not including this year as still not official) of 109,000 (rounded figure).
- In those 28 years, we have harvested over 100K a total of 21 times. Over 90K a total of 25 times. Over 75K all but 2 times (1987 & 1988).
- Since 2005 we have averaged over 120K.
- Over that time frame harvest totals have rose and fallen from year to year.
- We have never went more than 4 years with a decreased harvest total from the previous year. (1997 - 2000)
- We have never went more than 5 years with an increased harvest total from the previous year. (2001 - 2005)
All of those things are facts, backed up by the numbers of harvests. It is true those do not factor in vehicle collision fatalities, predator or EHD/disease fatalities. None of those are tracked and cannot be used factually in an argument for or against harvest totals (that doesn't mean that shouldn't be thought about).
In my personal opinion if we've been averaging over 109,000 deer for 28 years now in the modern deer hunting era (1987 till now) AND the down to up to down to up flow of harvests has been consistently occurring since 1987 why are so many saying the doomsday for the Hoosier herd is coming or is upon us now?
I think it undoubtedly is due to all the factors I stated earlier (of varying degrees obviously) in how the herd appears to be doing in their area...however NO ONE can deny harvest numbers and quotas do play a factor as well.
As I mentioned in the EHD section hunters have to start owning their localized herd management more..because what is being harvested in your area may in fact be happening at a faster pace than the localized doe population can replace. This doesn't even have to be due to the bonus quota being 3 or 4 or 8...some areas even within 8 quota counties shouldn't have a doe taken due to any of the factors like EHD hit, poaching, predator numbers or over-harvesting in the past. Just because you have a tag doesn't mean it is the wise thing to use it.
I do not remember the figure off hand, but the reason why I downplay the impact of the bonus numbers is due to the overall number of deer harvested using them is rather minimal in the grand scheme of things...however I do like the concept of it being a "spigot" the DNR can utilize to turn on or off and to what degree as they feel the numbers indicate. Is it the perfect system, no, but it has proven to be working for years now or so the numbers would describe.
So is it time to throw in the towel and pick up a fishing pole instead of a bow or gun?
No, in my opinion it is not by a long shot.
However, if your hunting ground(s) seem bare of whitetails start figuring out the factors or the reasons.
I would strongly suggest no one factor is the reason, but some factors are most definitely controllable and can be impacted if you wish to do something. You can always harvest/trap coyotes, learn to hunt smarter not harder, hold off on doe harvests, encourage or change the habitat to be better suited for whitetail and possibly start looking for other hunting grounds (easier said than done I know).
However, no matter how you feel reach out to the DNR. Express your concerns for your specific area (that is all you can speak for). Let them know if numbers are down, steady or also if they seem healthy in your opinion. Far too often that is not done, and all they hear is from those complaining, and rightfully so as they will be far more motivated to be heard than those doing just fine deer wise. Also keep in mind every hunter’s voice is of equal importance, their observations yes can be based on a wide range of time spent in the field and to what degree of skill they may have…but their voice is still no less or no more important than yours.
The one thing I am sure of is the DNR doesn't want the resource to go away. Push aside every other valid reason but money and money alone is justification that proves they don't want the resource gone. Deer hunting is far too valuable to the state's economy to have it be decimated as some claim it is or is being done. Hence why we’ve seen the DNR control harvest totals as they have, resulting in the pendulum swinging from higher harvests then to lower harvests and then higher and then lower. Neither extreme is good for the overall deer herd of Indiana…but no matter how the overall statewide herd is doing all you can control (within reason) and report on is your immediate localized deer herd, and that is where the change is really going to occur.
Hang on to your towel…as a matter of fact put it away, it isn’t time to throw it in just yet. It may be time to make a change or changes depending on how many of these factors fit your situation.
Small Acre Hunting
God Bless and Merry Christmas!