See how each state in the heartland is shaping up for deer season
The 2023 deer season is here, and with it comes our annual Midwest deer season forecast. For most states, the upcoming season looks promising. For a few, it comes with negative points to consider. All said, check out the details for each destination this year.
The Midwest is primed and ready for deer season. Image by Tom Reichner
Illinois might not be what it once was, but it’s still a great deer hunting state. Here, hunters find quality experiences, especially in the right counties.
“General statewide population trends are stable,” said Peter Schlichting, deer project manager for the Illinois DNR. “We manage deer at the county scale, and we are working to reduce the population in some areas and increase it in others. It’s hard to predict at this point, but with good rainfall this spring, we are expecting an average season.”
Things look promising for Indiana. For gun hunters, it’s one of several destinations that allow rifle hunting during the rut. That said, note that this year’s gun season is slightly later than usual.
“The start of firearms season moves a bit each year because it starts the first Saturday after Nov. 11 (Veteran’s Day) each year,” said Joe N. Caudell, state deer project leader for the Indiana DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife. “Because of this, in some years, firearms season is closer to the peak of the rut for much of Indiana. This year, firearms season will start on Nov. 18, which is about a week past the peak of the rut for much of the state. So, anyone who is interested in hunting the peak should be looking to hunt about a week earlier than the start of firearms season.”
Another highly sought-after state, Iowa has really big deer. However, most of those big deer have traditionally been found in the southern third of the state. Is that starting to change? Perhaps.
“While most of the hotspots from previous years remain, we are seeing a steadily increasing deer population in north-central Iowa, which is great because we’ve been working to allow the population to recover in this area of Iowa for several years,” said Tyler Harms, wildlife research biometrician with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “Hunters are reporting increased deer numbers throughout much of north-central Iowa, so I anticipate increased harvest opportunity this year.”
One of the most fabled states in the region is Kansas. The Land of Oz is loaded with big whitetails, and deer hunters from throughout the world come to find them. But, like other Midwest states, there isn’t a lot of public land here.
“Kansas has very little public land available to hunters, but the KDWP managers on those public lands do an outstanding job,” said Levi Jaster, big-game program coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “Typically, our public lands have higher deer numbers than the DMU they occur in, but they also have substantially higher hunting pressure too. The best thing a hunter who wants to hunt public land in Kansas can do is research what properties are available in the DMUs they are hunting in and try to find those overlooked spots. Also, check out the WIHA properties, and look for overlooked pockets of deer habitat on those.”
In the recent past, Michigan got a bad reputation for having too many hunters and not enough bigger deer. But are things are slowly changing here? Maybe so.
“Michigan as a state has a reputation for producing small bucks, but last year, nearly two-thirds of all bucks (more than 172,000) reported harvested had at least one antler with four points to a side,” said Chad Stewart, deer, elk, and moose management specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “Also, the opening of firearms season always begins on Nov. 15, regardless of the day of the week that date falls. Last year, over 45,000 deer were taken on Nov. 15 (a Tuesday), which translates to one deer taken every 0.8 seconds of daylight that day.”
One of the most overlooked states in the region, Minnesota is an underrated sleeper that gets too little press. There are a lot of hunters here, and the pressure is high, but the action can be well worth it.
“We are a unique state with multiple different biomes (prairie grasslands, tallgrass aspen parklands, coniferous forests, and deciduous forests) that present very different hunting styles and challenges, different predator bases from north to south, and very different deer numbers or densities,” said Todd Froberg, big-game program coordinator with the Minnesota Division of Fish and Wildlife. “There are opportunities to hunt metro areas; rural farm areas; the long, stretching transition zone (coniferous to deciduous to prairie habitat); the Driftless Region in southeastern Minnesota, which presents some of the best whitetail habitat in the nation; prairie and farmland regions in the southwestern part; big woods hunts in the northern part of the state, with ample public lands; or complete wilderness-style hunts in the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness.”
Missouri is a consistent producer of great deer hunting. High deer numbers, big bucks, healthy deer — it offers just about everything you want in a hunt. There are some recent changes, though.
“In response to growing deer numbers in most Missouri counties, we have gradually increased the number of firearms antlerless permits that hunters can fill,” said Jason Isabelle, cervid program supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “Also, during the 2021 deer season, the length of the antlerless portion of firearms deer season (which is open in select counties) was increased in length from three days to nine days.
“I expect that hunters in most Missouri counties will enjoy a great deer season. Deer numbers are increasing in most Missouri counties, and the regulation changes occurring this year will provide hunters with more opportunity to hunt and harvest deer.”
Another popular Midwestern state, especially for bowhunters, Nebraska is a challenging destination that keeps bringing people back for more. It isn’t easy to hunt, but when whitetail enthusiasts score, it’s worth the effort. Of course, there is very little public land here. The state is more than 97% private. Even so, if you find public, or some private land to explore, it’s a state well worth hunting.
Interestingly, deer herd numbers still aren’t well known here. Even so, most hunters seem to be pleased with their experience in NoDak. Deer densities are decent, and the trophy potential appears promising, too. Of course, deer tags are issued via a lottery system. Muzzleloader and rifle tags are hard to come by, but archery tags are more easily obtained. Overall, expect a moderate 2023 deer season.
All things considered, Ohio might be the hottest whitetail state in the country right now. That’s especially true for over-the-counter-only destinations. So far, this coming season looks promising, too. “Deer numbers should be as strong or stronger than last season,” said Michael J. Tonkovich, deer program administrator for the Ohio DNR.
South Dakota almost always delivers the goods. It’s a great whitetail hunting state and produces solid numbers year after year. That should continue in 2023. There are some structural changes to the system, though. “One change that hunters should be aware of is that there are now limited nonresident archery licenses available on public lands,” said Andy Lindbloom, senior big-game biologist for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. “Individuals may still purchase private land-only licenses over the counter. Hunters should also be reminded that South Dakota consists mostly of private land, much of which is available for public access through GFP’s access programs. Permission is required to hunt on private land that is not in one of these programs. It is a good idea to obtain.”
Wisconsin is arguably the best whitetail destination in the country. Each year, it seems to produce more and bigger deer than any other state. Expect the same this year.
“Things should be pretty much like 2022, said Jeffrey Pritzl, deer program specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “However, we were fortunate to have snow cover over much of the state during the firearms season last year, which increased the harvest. That only happens about once a decade. So, if we don’t have extensive snow cover during the gun season this year, the harvest will likely be down somewhat for that week, which has a big influence on the totals for the year.”
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