BARAGA - A convergence of negative factors has driven down success rates in the first week of the 2009 firearm deer season, but some hunters still had deer to check and stories to tell Thursday.
Weather, both over the long and short term, has been a major factor in reports of declining takes throughout the U.P. Two harsh winters in a row have hurt fawn production, so hunters' selection was already weak to begin with in many areas. Also, unusually fair weather for mid-November has cut the herd's motivation to move around.
"If you get all the moons aligned, it's just not advantageous this year," Bill Scullon, a DNR wildlife biologist in the Baraga office, said.
Brett Hillstrom, 19, of Hancock displays his 2009 successful deer hunter’s patch. (DMG photo by Brandon Veale)
He said that in warm conditions like this week, many deer will bed down to avoid predators and because they don't need as much food since they aren't burning as many calories in an effort to stay warm.
Food distribution is always a major influence, and natural production of fruit and acorns has been unusually good, which means many deer need not shop for lunch at hunters' bait piles.
Scullon said the initial wave of deer checked at the Baraga station is winding down. It's impossible to compare this year's number's to last year's, because the DNR slashed the number of check stations as a cost-cutting move. For example, there were at least three stations in Houghton and Keweenaw counties, but this year, there are none.
"We're not seeing anybody come in from too terribly far," Scullon said, noting that the farthest-taken deer he'd remembered was shot near Gay, but that most were from "normal patrons."
"Even if we had the same number of stations up, it would still be slow," he said.
That didn't stop 19-year-old Brett Hillstrom of Hancock. Hunting near the Dickinson-Marquette county line, he watched a group of seven does congregate at his bait pile before they were cleared out by one 10-point buck Wednesday afternoon.
After lining up his shot, the deer took off and Hillstrom prepared to track it.
"I put my jacket on inside-out. I didn't know what to think," he said, noting that he did not notice a blood trail.
But after about 10 minutes of searching, he found his first career buck, and a trophy one at that. Scullon estimated it to be 2 1/2 or 3 1/2 years old.
"It was kind of a far shot. I didn't know how many antlers were on it. After I shot it ... it was an awesome feeling," he said.
His was not the only one in the truck - a pair of other bucks were in the truck as well, taken by Rick and Blake Freeman out of the same camp.
"These are some of the biggest bucks we've had on the pole," Blake Freeman said, though he noted that he didn't hear a lot of shooting in the area.
If there is a silver lining for whom the sightings have been sporadic or non-existent, it's that there's always next year. A low take for the first week of 2009, combined with the gradual impact of antler restrictions instituted in 2008, may mean more and bigger bucks for November 2010, so long as Old Man Winter doesn't strike too hard again. Likewise, the longer all that natural food sticks around, the easier it is for deer to fatten up for next time.
"We've checked very few year-and-a-half-old bucks, both here and at the other stations as well," Scullon said.
Sean Richard of L'Anse took his buck, a 7-pointer, in Baraga County.
"I've been seeing lots of little ones, some fours and spikehorns," he said. "He came in around 4:30, checking his scrapes and he didn't go much further past that."
Richard's sixth career buck weighed in at 133 pounds. He said some buddies haven't had the same luck.
"A couple of my buddies have hardly even seen deer at all," he said. "They sit from dark to dark and nothing comes in."
However, he's hopeful that when conditions turn, so will their luck.
"It's just slow. Once it gets cold, it'll get a lot better," he said.
Brandon Veale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.