Minnesota's muzzleloader deer season surpassed low expectations with a harvest of nearly 6,000 deer through Wednesday, up 11.5 percent from the same period last year.
The specialty hunt, ending Sunday, has provided a turnaround of fortunes compared to an overall down year in the state. With some archery hunting left to go and two special firearms hunts arranged for later this month in southeastern Minnesota to combat chronic wasting disease, the combined 2018 whitetail harvest stood Wednesday at 181,100. That's 5.3 percent lower than the statewide total from the same period in 2017 when more than 191,000 deer were shot.
Erik Thorson, area wildlife supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources in Park Rapids, said the 2018 deer harvest was disappointing, but it improved as time went on. Hunters just couldn't overcome a patently slow start to the traditional firearms season, when most Minnesota deer are killed. Harvest for the opening four days of the nine-day firearms season totaled 84,000 deer, down 10 percent to 25 percent depending on where you were hunting.
"It's hard to recover from something like that,'' Thorson said. "The first four days are very important to the final harvest number.''
DNR's big-game managers were expecting the opposite for the opener based on universal signs of greater deer abundance in the state. Preseason reports showed stable populations and early-season archers bolstered the projections by exceeding 2017 harvest levels by double-digit margins.
The year-over-year harvest improvement posted by muzzleloader hunters was the type of experience that had been projected for all whitetail hunters in the state.
"It's encouraging and more with what we were expecting,'' Thorson said.
Across the board in Minnesota this year, including the youth hunt, 92,239 bucks were taken through Wednesday. The buck harvest was 7 percent less than a year ago for the same period.
Thorson said regional trends have been consistent throughout the 2018 hunt. The worst results have been in northeastern Minnesota, where 12 percent fewer whitetail tags have been filled compared to 2017.
In the bulk of the state known as the central farmland region, deer hunting was down 3 percent. In the southeastern region, the deer harvest through Wednesday was 5.5 percent better than for the same period a year ago.
Thorson said the overall shortfall doesn't appear to be strongly related to weather, but some hunters faced rain during the opening weekend. Large amounts of standing corn in the farm belt also didn't help hunters during the early firearms season.
Certainly, Thorson said, some of the decline is related to a noticeable drop in license sales. Deer licenses for the state's main firearms season, for example, were down 2.4 percent from a year ago.