Good weather and a Veteran's Day holiday that fell on a Friday likely enticed more Minnesota deer hunters to the woods, boosting harvest.

The firearms deer harvest, which had been down 20 percent after opening weekend, now is down just 7 percent from last year. As of last week, firearms hunters had killed 143,000 deer, compared with 153,000 at the same time last year.

"It's shaping up to be close to last year,'' said Lou Cornicelli, Department of Natural Resources wildlife research manager. Since opening weekend, the daily deer registration has nearly always exceeded last year's, Cornicelli said. But he doesn't anticipate this year's harvest will equal last year's because of the poor opening weekend, when hunters were hampered by winds up to 40 miles per hour.

"The bottom line is we had a crappy opening weekend, but we've picked up deer every day since,'' Cornicelli said.

He said he won't have a breakdown of the harvest by region until the season concludes. But harvest in Zone 2, which stretches from southern Minnesota to the northwest and includes all of the southwestern region, was down 11 percent from last year. But some of that decline could be caused by management changes, he said.

Meanwhile, hunter numbers are nearly identical to last year. The DNR has sold 442,666 deer licenses, down less than 1 percent from 2010.

Missing hunters

Pheasant stamp sales continue to trend down from last year, because of the poor pheasant forecast. The DNR has sold 80,351 stamps, down almost 17,000 -- or 17 percent - from this time last year.

"It's not a great surprise,'' said Bill Penning, DNR farmland wildlife program leader. "More hunt pheasants when counts are high than when they are low.'' And pheasant counts were down 64 percent from last year.

If the trend holds this season -- and it likely will -- the DNR will lose about $126,000 in money from the $7.50 stamps -- funds that mostly pay for pheasant habitat improvement on state wildlife lands.

Penning expects hunter numbers to rebound, if bird numbers do.

Finding ringnecks

I noticed the lack of hunters last weekend while pheasant hunting in southwestern Minnesota.

Over the years, 90 percent of my pheasant hunting has been on public lands. But last weekend I hunted with friends who had access to private lands. While pheasant numbers clearly were down, we still found birds.

Hunting hard all day Saturday with four others, we bagged five roosters but missed several other easy shots. We found pheasants in pockets. Some lands with ideal cover held no birds; while others did.

On Sunday, I hunted with one friend. For 21/2 hours, we hiked ideal pheasant habitat, including thick prairie grass and cattails -- a parcel that last year produced dozens of roosters.

We flushed just two hens.

But after lunch, we hunted a different spot a few miles away and shot four birds in about an hour.

Duck hunters

Minnesota's duck season closes Tuesday in the North Zone; it closes Nov. 27 in the South Zone. Meanwhile, state duck stamp sales continue to run slightly ahead of last year. The DNR has sold 87,849 stamps, compared with 86,669 at this time last year.

More on baiting

Conservation officers continue to seize guns from deer hunters caught hunting over bait, and DNR officials say baiting cases are up this fall.

"It is pretty sad when the rifle that has been handed down for generations is lost forever due to some unethical hunting,'' reported officer Darin Fagerman of Grand Marais. "Grandpa might not be too happy about that, either.''

Fagerman encountered one fellow who has been cited three times over the past six years for hunting over bait -- including the past two years.

Officer Marty Stage of Ely said baiting hasn't declined, despite threats by the DNR to seize guns or other hunting equipment from violators.

"The practice has certainly not gone away or apparently even slowed,'' he said in his weekly report.

Not that bright

Conservation officer Stuart Bensen of Erskine left his residence one morning and saw two deer hunters on his neighbor's property. The hunters were checked and everything was OK. Bensen reminded them that his property was posted and they should stay off. He left the area and returned a short time later to find the two hunters on his land. A neighboring conservation officer cited the hunters for trespass.

Did you know?

• A deer hunter allegedly shot and killed a protected wolf in the Iron Range recently. The hunter's rifle was seized and he faces a possible gross misdemeanor, and $2,000 in restitution.

• Conservation officer Mark Fredin of Aurora received a trail camera picture of a mountain lion from the Skibo area. The location of the animal and camera were authenticated, and an area wildlife manager checked out the site.

• Hunters shot 184 deer this year at a special deer hunt at St. Croix State Park, compared with 143 deer last year. And this year, the DNR issued 400 special permits, 50 fewer than last year.

• Small game license sales are down about 11,000 from last year, or 3.6 percent. The DNR has sold 283,350 small game licenses.

• Conservation officer Mike Martin of St. Cloud encountered two nonresident firearms deer hunters from California who were in full camouflage and using rifles in the shotgun zone.

Doug Smith •