Deer hunting season means big bucks for the economy

Joe St. Henry; Special to The Detroit News

Michigan’s deer hunters are not the only ones chasing elusive bucks during the state’s most popular hunting season, which opens Saturday and runs through Nov. 30.

The Department of Natural Resources, outdoor retailers and other businesses that cater to hunters are counting on them to spend a lot of money this month.

According to the DNR, the state attracts more than 750,000 hunters each year, who contribute more than $2.3 billion to Michigan’s economy.

Through Nov. 6, more than 950,000 deer tags had been sold for the 2014 season, generating more than $15.1 million for the state. This figure is down 6.9 percent from last year, but DNR officials attribute this to the reduced number of antlerless deer licenses available. With the average hunter also spending $885 on equipment and travel each year, the DNR says expenditures by firearms deer hunters could contribute another $513 million to the state’s economy.

“About 90 percent of Michigan’s hunters hunt deer, and firearms season is the biggest,” said DNR spokesman Ed Golder. “This is our Super Bowl.”

Cooler weather in recent weeks has sparked retail sales of guns, ammunition, winter clothing, deer blinds and tree stands, processing equipment and other hunting necessities.

Outdoor outfitter Cabela’s operates three stores in Michigan, including a 220,000 square-foot superstore in Dundee. It has seen a steady increase in customers preparing for the upcoming firearms deer season.

Retail Sales Manager Chad Andrus says most hunters wait until a week or two before the opening of firearms season and then realize they need to update their gear. So far this fall, he said, sales have been a little higher than last year. The Dundee store draws customers from around southern Michigan.

“Sales have been good, especially since it has started to cool off,” Andrus said. “Our stock has been better this season and people seem to be buying more.”

With Michigan’s largest bucks found in the southern part of the state, Andrus said most of his customers hunt locally, although there are plenty of traditionalists who travel to deer camps up north.

Commerce Township resident Kevin McCarthy, 54, is one of them. He has hunted deer throughout Michigan over the past 40 years. This year, he spent $600 on a new rifle and scope for his 24-year-old son Danny, who will be joining him at the family’s deer camp in Coleman. McCarthy said they will spend at least $200 in food and another $100 in gas to get there.

“I typically spend at least a couple of hundred dollars each year, sometimes more,” McCarthy said. “It’s my hobby. Some people golf in Michigan, I enjoy hunting.”

Those preparing to tramp around the woods aren’t the only ones fanning the economy during deer season. Some retailers, such as the Premium Outlets in Birch Run near Flint, encourage “deer widows” to come for special bargains, extended shopping hours and prizes. This is Birch Run’s 19th such deer non-hunters weekend.

Michelle Grinnell, spokeswoman for Pure Michigan, the tourism arm of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., said Michigan’s hunting heritage plays a vital role in the state’s economy. The firearms deer season is particularly important to the small northern towns that hunters cross through to their camps.

“They’ll stop and eat at restaurants, buy gas — stops in towns along the way that help support local economies,” she said.

Not everyone will head to northern Michigan to hunt. Joe Woityra, 51, of Lake Orion, and his daughter Megan, 25, are returning home Friday after a successful mule deer hunt in Montana and plans to be at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area in Orion Township on opening day of firearms season.

He did not buy a new gun this year, but spent money on cold weather gear for his trip out west. In addition, Woityra said he has already spent a couple hundred dollars on bait piles of corn, carrots and sugar beets to attract deer near his property.

“There’s a lot of hunting pressure on state land up north and it’s hard to find private land to hunt on, so I’ll be hunting close to home this year,” he said.

Deer hunters also are patronizing businesses like Williams Gun Sight Co. Located in Davison, the family business specializes in gunsmith services, which account for about 40 percent of the store’s receipts, according to Sales and Marketing Manager Brian Wright. Williams Gun Sight also has a large collection of hunting rifles and slug (shot) guns for sale. Most of its customers live in the Flint area and northern Oakland County.

“It’s been a good year for us and business has really picked up as firearms season has approached,” Wright said. “We have 85 parking spaces in our lot and last Saturday it was full all day long. There were at least 200 customers.”

Some of the economic impact of the active deer season is seen by auto repair shops.

AAA Michigan says 1 in 5 crashes in Michigan involve deer and November is among the top months for such crashes. Last year, the auto club says 12 motorists were killed and 1,200 injured in crashes involving deer.

In 2013, there were more than 49,000 such crashes. Oakland County had the most: 1,800.

The cost of fixing car damage can easily run into the thousands of dollars. A report last year by State Farm Insurance said the average property-damage cost of deer-car incidents involving its policyholders during the last half of 2012 and the first six months of 2013 was $3,414.

Joe St. Henry is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

The Associated Press contributed.