The best days of the Minnesota whitetail rut are nigh and evidence abounds.
Bucks, with necks swollen and antlers polished, have emerged from thick cover to patrol for does in the open. They’re rubbing trees with their antlers and scraping the ground. The scent of estrus wafting from potential mates is starting to drive them crazy.
Other signs the rut is here? Blaze orange clothing hangs on porches from Winona to Warroad and hundreds of thousands of hunters are tuning up their guns. They know better than anyone that the Minnesota firearms season — opening Saturday statewide — is a can’t-miss harbinger of peak breeding season in the whitetail kingdom.
Since 1959, the Minnesota firearms deer hunting season has opened on the Saturday nearest Nov. 6, inextricably linking it to the short window of time when bucks make themselves most vulnerable to ambush. Transfixed by romance in a physiological change triggered by length of day, they lose awareness of their surroundings.
Steve Merchant, a veteran wildlife expert for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said he agrees with certain hunters who say more Minnesota bucks would live longer — growing bigger racks in the process — if the firearms season was delayed until after the rut. That’s the way it works in Iowa and Wisconsin.
But harvesting deer during the rut is as cherished in Minnesota as fishing for walleyes is in mid-May. Trophy whitetail hunters and others who have fought in the past to delay the firearms season have all but given up on changing the prevailing mind-set.
“People don’t like change,” said Scott Bjornson, a member of Preston-based Bluffland Whitetail Association, a hunting group that advocates for improved deer management. “We’ve pitched it [a later hunting season] many times to the DNR, but in all fairness to them, the public support just isn’t there.’’
According to DNR deer harvest reports, it’s typical for antlered deer to represent 50 percent of Minnesota’s annual kill. If you were to include antlerless male fawns, the percentage of bucks harvested can range much higher. Last year, when female deer received the protection of restrictive permit allocation, 58 percent of the state harvest was antlered bucks.
Pat Morstad, state president of Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) for Minnesota, said the percentage of young bucks harvested in Minnesota probably is one of the highest such percentages in the nation. Delaying the season until the rut expires would allow a healthy number of yearling bucks to slip into maturity and keep more bucks on the landscape, he said.
“People agree we should do better buck management, but they can’t agree on what method,’’ Morstad said.
He said the main reason DNR doesn’t want to advocate for a later firearms season is that it would go against deep-rooted tradition.
Merchant, who is about to retire from the DNR after more than 30 years in wildlife population management, said the origin of the state’s early November firearms season isn’t clear. Others in the agency have said the timing was meant to focus the hunt on rutting bucks and lessen pressure on female deer. The combination increases hunter success without heavy impact to the herd’s overall population. That’s because a single buck can breed a large number of does.
But Merchant suspects the tradition is linked to Minnesota weather. By early November, crops are in and farmers can go hunting. Delaying the hunt until Thanksgiving or later would put northern hunters at a real disadvantage in years of deep snow, he said.
“It’s that simple,” Merchant said. “Northern and northeastern Minnesota is a pretty cold, snowy place.’’
He said Wisconsin and Iowa can afford to delay their gun seasons until after the rut because of their geography. Meanwhile, New York, New Hampshire and Maine — states with whitetail populations in latitudes as far north as northern Minnesota — allow hunters to harvest deer in the days leading up to the rut and during the rut itself.
“A lot of people compare Minnesota to Wisconsin, but all of Wisconsin is below Duluth,” Merchant said.
He said there’s no biological reason to hold the firearms season late or early. In his opinion, hunting pressure during the rut doesn’t disrupt breeding.
Ted Wawrzyniak, who heads the Twin City Whitetails Branch of QDMA, acknowledges that public opinion would have to change dramatically for Minnesota hunters to support a later firearms season.
“We do a pretty poor job of protecting yearling bucks,’’ Wawrzyniak said.