First buck

Austin White, 11 years old, bagged this eight-point deer with a crossbow in Steuben County in 2018. It was his first buck. Steuben County led the state in the number of deer harvested in 2019, according to the DNR.

ANGOLA — The state’s top deer expert gives northeastern Indiana an “A+” when it comes to deer hunting.

And the statistics seem to back that up.

In a report released by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources on the 2019 deer harvest in the state, all four northeastern Indiana counties rank in the top 10.

Steuben County led the way with more deer harvested than any other county at 2,756 deer taken by hunters in 2019.

Franklin County, which its along the Indiana-Ohio line in southeastern Indiana, was second with 2,636 deer harvested.

Noble County ranked third at 2,625. LaGrange County ranked seventh with 2,283. DeKalb County was ninth with 2,121 deer harvested by hunters in 2019.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Benton County ranked last for number of deer harvested with 102 recorded in 2019. Tipton County had the next fewest total at 125.

Moriah Boggess is the State Deer Biologist for Indiana DNR. Boggess has a bachelor’s degree in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology from North Carolina State University and a master’s from the Mississippi State University Deer Lab. He is also a co-founder of Hunt The Land, a website, blog, and podcast focused on habitat management, bowhunting and white-tailed deer.

He said this makeup of the four counties in northeastern Indiana make them prime for deer production and deer harvest. All four counties share a nice mix of cover and agriculture ground which provides food year-round for white-tailed deer.

“It’s pretty homogeneous through all four of those counties,” Boggess said.

While some Indiana counties may have more cover, for example, its the mix of agriculture land providing food that puts northeastern Indiana at or near the top of the deer food chain.

According to the DNR’s 2019 Deer Harvest Report, the state reversed a three-year trend of declining harvests with 114,882 deer taken in 2019.

Since 2015, when 124,668 deer were harvested, the numbers had decreased to 119,342 in 2016, 113,386 in 2017 and 111,252 in ‘18.

Boggess said the harvest can be affected greatly by weather. A rainy opening day weekend for gun season can put a damper on state totals overall.

The number of licenses purchased in the Hoosier state continues to decline, however, moving from a 5-year high of 137,246 in 2015 to 2019’s low of 124,827, an overall drop of 9% from 2019. The numbers of licenses purchased dropped in each of those years. In 2018, the DNR sold 127,233 licenses, and that figure dropped 1.89% in 2019 to 124,827.

In its 2019 Deer Harvest Survey Report, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources also reported a roughly 2-3% annual drop in license sales. In that year, Michigan reported 361,000 deer harvest, nearly the same as the prior year.

COVID Impact?

Boggess said the coronavirus may boost the state’s overall numbers in 2020.

Many states showed a great increase in turkey hunters and harvest last spring, Boggess said. People cooped up inside wanted to get out, and since many businesses were closed or had reduced hours, there was more available time to hunt.

The same may hold true for deer season.

“It will be very interesting to see,” Boggess said. “That could result in a high harvest this year.”

Equipment switch

There are a pair of trends developing in the way Indiana hunters take their deer, according to the state’s data.

In 2015, for example, 35% of the deer taken were bagged with a shotgun. The second most popular method was muzzleloader (19.8%), followed by rifle (18.7% and bow and arrow (16.3 percent).

In 2019, rifle hunters led the way, accounting for 43.9% of the annual kill. The crossbow ranked second, accounting for 14.9% of the overall deer harvest, followed by shotgun (14.2%) and bow and arrow (13.8%).

Hunters who used muzzleloaders accounted for 12.8% of the deer kill in 2019.

Bow and arrow kills fell 21.8% from a high of 20,309 in 2015 to $15,884 in 2019.

Shotgun kills fell even more precipitously at 62.6% from 43,563 in in 2015 to 16,292 in 2019.

The largest increase came in rifle harvests. After 23,296 deer were taken by rifle in 2015.

Boggess pointed out that for the most part, hunters were merely switching weapons of choice.

Though traditional bow and arrow archery dominated in 2015 and became less popular than the crossbow in 2019, the two combined for 32,146 deer taken in 2015 and 33,020 in 2019.

In 2015, the combined rifle and shotgun kill total was 66,859. Those two categories combined for 66,741 in 2019.

“We’re mainly seeing a switch in equipment,” Boggess said.

The numbers don’t just mean fewer people are participating in bow and arrow archery, but only that fewer people had success with the bow and arrow.

The future

Despite the DNR’s concern, there have been no cases of chronic wasting disease in the state, which has impacted deer health in Indiana.

The deer herd in northeastern Indiana remains strong.

“Everything appears good and is actually improving,” Boggess said. “It appears the population is growing in these counties.”

The boon to hunters may have a positive affect on the local economy, according to Steuben County Tourism executive director June Gulien. The county’s gas stations and restaurants all see good business during hunting season, and she said the county’s Ramada Inn gets its share of hunters.

“That’s a good impact,” Gulien said. “Any visitation to the area I consider a good thing.”

The visitor’s bureau has never studied the financial impact of hunting, Gulien said, at least in part because it is difficult to market something that happens — for the most part — on privately owned lands.

State-sponsored hunts at Pokagon State Park, for example, accounting for 44 of the county’s 2,756 deer, or 1.6% of the total.

Hunters took 318 deer from Pigeon River Fish and Wildlife Area in LaGrange County, or 13.9%. The 84 deer killed in special hunts in Chain O’ Lakes State Park in Noble County were 3.4% of that county’s total harvest.

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